Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Captain Walter Ziegler

Crew Member

Age: 29

Hometown: Hamburg, Germany

Occupation: Watch Officer

Location at time of fire: Control car


Captain Walter Ziegler was a watch officer on the Hindenburg's final flight. A former merchant marine, Ziegler had served aboard the Hamburg-America Line steamers Resolute and New York, rising to the rank of third officer before being hired by the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei on May 1st, 1935. With the DZR looking to train watch officers to command the fleet of airships which was expected to be built over the next several years, Ziegler quickly progressed from his initial station on the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin as one of Chief Knorr's riggers, to stand watch as a helmsman, then as an elevatorman and finally, by the time the Hindenburg made her maiden flight on March 4, 1936, a navigator. By the beginning of the Hindenburg's 1937 season, Walter Ziegler had reached the rank of watch officer, and as such was one of the ship's second officers.

Ziegler was also, according to Klaus Pruss (the son of the Hindenburg's commander Captain Max Pruss) one of three ranking members of the Nazi Party among the Hindenburg's crew, the others being Chief Engineer Rudolf Sauter and rudderman Helmut Lau. According to Pruss, Ziegler and the others were, however, dedicated airshipmen first and foremost.

Walter Ziegler (prior to promotion to navigator, given the lack of insignia stripes on his sleeve) gives a tour of the navigation room in the Hindenburg's control car.

A disciplined man, Ziegler was apparently more than a bit concerned by the comparatively lax security in the Zeppelin hangar at Rhein-Main Flughafen in Frankfurt, as visitors were allowed inside the hangar to look at the Hindenburg in the days before it's first 1937 flight to America, which was scheduled to begin on May 3rd. Ziegler, who was the officer in charge of moving the Hindenburg into and out of her hangar, later recalled that diagrams of the interior of the ship were posted on the walls of the hangar, which could conceivably have made a much easier job of it for a potential stowaway or other troublemaker.

The first North American flight of the season progressed without incident, and Captain Ziegler's last four-hour watch of the flight ended at 4:00 on the afternoon of May 6th, shortly before the Hindenburg passed over the Lakehurst air station for the first time before heading for the New Jersey coast to await better landing conditions. Ziegler returned to the control car at approximately 7:00, just before navigator Eduard Boetius sounded the signal for landing stations. The ship was approaching the Lakehurst air station from the southwest, and the giant airship hangar came into view shortly thereafter.

Captain Ziegler took the off-watch position at the gas board at the rear of the command deck in the front section of the control car. At approximately 7:10 PM, as the ship made a wide circle to the north and west of the landing field, Ziegler cranked the wheel on the gas board, valving gas simultaneously for 15 seconds from gas cells 3 through 11, and cells 13 and 14 on orders from Captain Albert Sammt, the watch officer in charge of the ship's altitude during the landing maneuver. When it was noticed a couple minutes later that the ship was tail-heavy, Sammt ordered Ziegler to pull the individual valving mechanisms for cells 11 through 16 (which filled the forward half of the ship) in an effort to bring the ship into trim. Ziegler valved these six forward cells three times over the next five minutes or so, for 15 seconds at 7:13, an additional 15 seconds at 7:16, and for 5 seconds at 7:19 when the ship was hovering almost stationary just beyond the outer edge ot the mooring circle, preparing to drop its yaw lines.

Sammt then remarked that the ship seemed to be in trim, and Ziegler proceeded to watch the ground crew below. He saw the ship's two yaw lines drop from the bow at 7:21, and watched the ground crew attach the port line to the corresponding mooring car. The wind suddenly changed slightly, and Ziegler saw the portside yaw line tighten as the ship moved to starboard.

Captain Ziegler's location in the control car at the time of the fire.

The ship suddenly gave a shake, and Ziegler heard a dull thud. He looked aft, and saw a yellowish-red glare coming from the area near the stern of the ship, then he held on as the ship itself took a sudden steep inclination aft. Gradually, the front of the ship began to descend at what Ziegler later described as "a moderate speed, and "settled relatively smoothly." As the ship neared the ground, Captain Ernst Lehmann, former Hindenburg commander who was aboard as an observer, ordered everybody out of the car. Ziegler made his way to a window on the starboard side and prepared to jump. The ship touched down on the hydraulic landing wheel beneath the control car, and Ziegler held back as the ship rebounded about 15 or 20 feet back into the air, leaping out the window as the ship settled to earth for the second and final time.

Ziegler's natural escape route at that point was to run towards the starboard side of the ship, but he quickly stopped and thought better of it when he saw the ship's starboard structure collapsing in front of him. He turned around and made his way back toward the control car and, having heard stories of wartime Zeppelin crew members having survived fiery crashes by lying down on the floor of their gondolas until the fire had subsided, Ziegler climbed back into the remains of the control car and lay face-down on the floor of the navigation room.

One of the Hindenburg's watch officers, either Walter Ziegler or Anton Wittemann, (arrow) pauses and begins to backpedal as the ship's hull collapses atop several other members of the command crew in front of him.

Captain Ziegler stayed in the control car for a few seconds, and then quickly realized that it was simply too hot for him to remain there. He briefly hunted around the navigation room for the ship's log book but, unable to locate it, he climbed back out the starboard window of the navigation room and made his way around the front of the control car. He noticed that the fire was less intense to port, and after a few moments the rest of the outer cover had burned away and he saw a clear path to safety there. Chief Sauter was already out there, and when he saw Ziegler emerging from the wreck, he helped him to get clear.

After making a rather slow escape from the wreck, Ziegler somehow walked out virtually unscathed, and then joined with other crew members in climbing up into the portside passenger decks to look for survivors. Once they assisted the last five passengers out of the ruins of the dining salon, Ziegler and a number of others including steward Fritz Deeg, navigators Eduard Boetius and Christian Nielsen, and an Esso Oil official named Emil Hoff began trying to determine who had escaped the fire and who had not. Ziegler stayed on the field doing what he could for the next couple of hours, and finally went over to the DZR office in the heavier-than-air hangar where crew survivors had been gathering, and then proceeded over to the infirmary to see how many survivors had passed through there.

Ziegler remained in the United States for about 3 weeks after the disaster. He stayed by the bedside of engine mechanic Walter Banholzer, critically burned and dying at nearby Paul Kimball Hospital, until Banholzer passed away early in the morning on May 7th, the day after the fire. Ziegler was also required to assist several other surviving crewmen in the sad task of identifying the bodies of the victims, lined up on the floor in a makeshift morgue in one of the side rooms of Hangar #1. One of those identified by Ziegler was Emilie Imhoff, the Hindenburg's first stewardess, who had been hired by the Zeppelin Company the previous September.

As one of the Hindenburg's most senior officers not confined to the hospital (the other two being Captain Heinrich Bauer and Captain Anton Wittemann) Ziegler took an active role in the investigation into the disaster, particularly in the hours and days immediately following the accident. He was onhand as police and federal agents combed through the Hindenburg's wreckage, and at one point was approached by an FBI agent who was holding what he claimed to be part of a bomb he'd discovered in the stern portion of the ship. What at first appeared to be a watch spring, Ziegler told the man, was in fact merely part of one of the tensiometers used to measure the tautness of the bracing wires radiating out like bicycle spokes from the ship's axial girder.

Ziegler, along with Bauer and several others, also conferred with the US Navy's Board of Inquiry before it was shut down due to a jurisdictional conflict the Monday following the disaster. Since the Hindenburg was a civilian aircraft, the investigation fell to the US Department of Commerce, even though the disaster had taken place on a Navy base. Once the Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry convened, Ziegler and the others conferred with the Board members as needed, though they were not actually part of the Board itself.

A week after the disaster, Ziegler was onhand for the Board testimony of 14 year-old cabin boy Werner Franz, the youngest crew member by at least several years. There was some question as to whether Franz should be sworn in or not since, as Ziegler pointed out to the Board, it was customary in Germany that minors not be made to swear oaths. In the end, it was decided that the boy should be allowed to testify without being sworn in.

Captain Walter Ziegler (right) and cabin boy Werner Franz (left) on the day of Franz's testimony to the Board of Inquiry.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Ziegler himself testified before the Board of Inquiry on May 20, and then joined a group of his fellow crewmembers two days later as they returned to Germany onboard the steamship Bremen, which then arrived in Bremerhaven on May 28th. Ziegler later reportedly told of having been met at the ship's port in Germany by a Gestapo agent, literally as he walked down the ship's gangplank to disembark. He was taken to Berlin, where he was interrogated for several hours by a ranking Gestapo officer, who was apparently investigating the possibility that the Hindenburg had been sabotaged. Since this account comes from A.A Hoehling's book, however, and there is as yet no second source upon which to triangulate and attempt to glean some sort of context for the story, it must be taken with a grain of salt.

Walter Ziegler survived the war, and settled down in Hamburg, where he worked for a British petroleum company.


Dan said...

Thanks for another great post!

I have to wonder, however, about the timing of escaping from the control car after the bounce and then entering the passenger decks to look for survivors. In analyzing the four films of the crash, by the time the control car came close to the ground (even before the bounce), the passenger decks seem to have already been mostly destroyed, and even more so after the bounce. In any event, only about 10 seconds elapse from the time of the bounce to the complete collapse of structure. The rear of the control car (at frame 203) was 15 meters from the forward end of the passenger deck (frame 188) and 30 meters from the rear of the passenger deck (frame 173). So even if one could enter the passenger deck, assist survivors, and then exit the dining room within 5-7 seconds, which itself seems impossible, that leaves only 2-3 seconds to cover the 15-30 meters from the control car to the dining room, and even Jesse Owens needed 10.3 seconds to run 100 meters at the 1936 Olympics. Looking at the four films of the crash, the timing just does not seem possible. If I am missing something, though, I always appreciate being corrected!

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Dan,

Excellent question. But for the Board of Inquiry transcripts, that whole thing probably wouldn't have made much sense to me either.

The newsreels are a bit misleading as far as the spread of the fire into the passenger decks. In fact, according to various accounts of survivors, the passenger decks (at least on the port side) remained relatively intact for at least a couple minutes after the hull had settled to the ground.

There was time enough after the hull had grounded for a number of passengers to jump from the observation windows, and for the stewards to catch the Doehners and help them away from the wreck, and then for the last few passengers to be led out of the wreck via the stairs to B Deck before fire consumed the passenger decks once and for all.

One thing you'll notice in the newsreels is the large section of fabric beneath the portside observation windows that remains unburnt after the rest of the structure has collapsed. B Deck (again, at least on the port side) wasn't burning yet, and this allowed rescuers (including Ziegler, Deeg and other crew members) to enter the wreckage and access the stairs up to A Deck.

This allowed them to get the remaining passengers out of the dining room. Near as I can tell, those passengers were Marie Kleemann, Margaret Mather, Otto and Elsa Ernst, and William Leuchtenberg. Erich Knoecher may have also been led from the ship this way as well, because he lived through the crash and lasted until Saturday morning, but I've never found out where he was at the time of the fire so I can't say for sure.

Mr. Leuchtenberg actually gave the best description of those rescue efforts from the passengers' point of view. It seems that the dining room was on fire (as we can see from the newsreels) but not intensely enough yet that the older passengers couldn't make their way to the stairs in the central foyer.

The fire was also being blown to starboard by the same wind that had caused the ship to drift off to starboard just before the fire. This probably kept the dining room from burning as quickly as it otherwise might have.

Leuchtenberg mentioned sliding down an inclined floor to the foyer where he was then dropped by rescuers down to others standing below on B Deck, who then led him outside. The floor was inclined somewhat because the hull had rolled a few degrees to starboard when it settled.

Unfortunately, the sliding door from the foyer to the starboard lounge had slammed shut and jammed during the crash, so rescuers were, to my knowledge, unable to get to any of the passengers on that side of the ship.

So, you had pretty much the following sequence of events:

The hull nears the ground and three of the stewards and a couple passengers leap from the dining room windows, starting just before the hull bounces and continuing on until the hull collapses.

The command crew begin jumping from the control car as the landing wheel compresses. Most of them then jump as the hull rebounds into the air, with the lucky ones running off to port and emerging mostly unharmed.

Just as the hull collapses, Chief Kubis, sitting on the ledge at the center observation window, finally jumps. Steward Nunnenmacher and passenger Peter Belin reportedly follow him out that same window almost immediately.

At this point, with the hull mostly collapsed, the portside observation windows are suspended about 15 feet above the ground due to the ship rolling slightly to starboard as it hit the ground. The wind is blowing the flames to starboard. This gives those in the dining room some time to escape.

Several other passengers jump out the windows once the ship is grounded. One of the Pathe newsreels holds the long shot of the hull hitting the ground long enough to show at least two people jumping from the center observation window about 20-25 seconds after the hull has grounded.

This is also about the time that rescuers can be seen approaching the passenger area.

The Doehners dropped through the aft-most observation window, and since that's not caught on this bit of newsreel (which ends roughly 35 seconds after the hull collapses) I'd estimate that happened close to a minute after the hull hit the ground.

This is also approximately when rescuers began entering the wreck through the windows on B Deck. Navigator Christian Nielsen mentioned in his testimony that just before he entered the wreck along with Ziegler and several others, he saw Irene Doehner (though he didn't mention her by name) jump from an observation window, and helped to put out the fire on her clothes and hair and to get her to safety.

After this, Nielsen entered the wreck and helped to bring out the remaining passengers from the dining room.

So really, it seems as though it was at least two minutes or more before the dining room area was completely destroyed by fire, giving rescuers ample time to get everyone out.

Dan said...

Thanks for taking the time to leave such an informative reply. I guess the films are misleading; the "conventional wisdom" is that the entire destruction of the ship took approximately 34-36 seconds, which does not leave a lot of time for many of the actions described by survivors, especially considering that the ship was at approx 200 feet when the accident began. But the traditional "destroyed-in-30-seconds scenario" does not take into account the information you pointed out, that there was some time after the collapse in which passenger areas were still somewhat accessible. Thanks for the detailed reply; as always, your blog is fantastic.

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Dan,

You're very welcome. Always glad to be able to help out.

You make a very good point about the standard assumption that the ship was completely destroyed within that 34-second timeframe. The books I recall reading as a child, back in the late 1970s, described that 34 seconds as being the elapsed time between the fire bursting forth from the hull and the bow section collapsing to the ground.

Somewhere along the line, however, that morphed into the total time that it took for the ship to be completely consumed by fire. Granted, the ship was indeed mostly gone by the time it was on the ground, but the fire itself burned for hours, and as we've discussed, the passenger section (at least the portside areas) lasted at least a few minutes after the hull was grounded.

I think this is a very good example of the sort of misconceptions that have grown over the years as new books and documentaries on the subject are produced based on previous books and documentaries. Rather than going back to primary sources (such as the raw Board of Inquiry transcripts) it seems more common for information to be "grapevined", so to speak.

That's something I'm trying to balance out with my own research, at least to the extent that it's possible to do so almost a full lifetime after the fact (and with virtually all survivors and eyewitnesses having passed away, except for a very few.)

Ah, if all this had only been done properly 40 or 50 years ago when the opportunity was there.

Unknown said...

I worked for Walter Ziegler, son of the said Walter Ziegler in New Zealand. I have seen a number of photographs and post cards of the Hindenburg interior.

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