Thursday, April 23, 2009

Theodor Ritter

Crew Member

Age: 23

Hometown: Schwäbisch-Hall, Germany

Occupation: Engine mechanic (trainee)

Location at time of fire: Engine gondola #4, portside forward


Theodor Ritter was one of the Hindenburg's engine mechanics. Born on December 23, 1913 in Schwäbisch-Hall, Ritter had previously worked on the Hindenburg's engines at the Daimler-Benz factory in Untertürkheim near Stuttgart. He ran tests on them for three years before they were installed on the ship, and had been hired by the Zeppelin Company as an in-flight engine mechanic in late April of 1937.

Ritter was aboard the Hindenburg on its first North American flight of 1937, assigned to engine gondola #4, portside forward. He had already made two shorter flights within Germany, but this was his first regular transatlantic flight. Technically he was considered a trainee, but he stood a regular watch under the observation of the ship's chief mechanics as well as Chief Sauter and his trio of flight engineers.

As this was his first real voyage on the ship, many of the experiences that had become commonplace for his comrades were quite new to him. He would later write down his impressions of the trip and of his first time standing watch on a flight that lasted more than a few hours. Ritter had the first watch of the flight which, since it was evening, was a three-hour watch as opposed to the engine mechanics' standard two-hour daytime watch. After the ship took off from Frankfurt at approximately 8:15 on the evening of May 3rd, Ritter was on his own in his engine gondola until 11:00. His first surprise of the trip was that, since the ship's clocks would be periodically set back as they flew west, an extra hour would be added to his watch.

Since he was intimately familiar with the Hindenburg's engines from having worked on them at Daimler-Benz, he could quickly tell that his engine was running smoothly, and so most of his first watch was spent watching the sights from the vantage point of his engine gondola. The ship's powerful searchlight illuminated the ground below, and at one point as they flew low over a village, Ritter was fairly sure he saw a couple on a secluded park bench whose evening was rudely interrupted when the searchlight suddenly lit them up, bright as day.

Shortly after this, the Hindenburg approached the city of Cologne. The engine telegraph sounded and Ritter saw that the indicator had changed to "slow ahead". He sent an acknowledgment signal back to the control car, then throttled his engine down to the lowest speed. Looking down toward the ground, Ritter saw the ship's searchlight illuminate a parachute with a mail sack attached. It was mail that was scheduled to have been delivered, complete with a special Hindenburg post mark, during a short propaganda flight the previous Saturday, May 1st. The flight had been canceled due to bad weather, however, and so the mail sack had to be dropped on this flight instead. Once the passengers had been given time to watch the mail bag parachuting to the ground, the order came over the engine telegraph to set the motor back to "full ahead" and the ship continued on.

Ritter's first watch ended at 11:00 PM, shortly after the Hindenburg had reached the English Channel. The #4 engine car's chief mechanic, Eugen Bentele, arrived to relieve Ritter, who then climbed back into the ship, and headed to the crew's mess for dinner. Afterward, as he made his way aft to the crew's quarters, he stopped to chat with a few of his comrades along the way before proceeding to his bunk. He was met by the loud snores of his bunkmate, mechanic Alfred Stöckle. But neither this nor the constant drone of the ship's engines kept Ritter awake. He knew he was back on watch again at 5:00 in the morning and needed to get as much sleep as possible.

And so it went for the rest of the flight. "Work, eat, sleep, work," as Ritter would later write. However, the engine gondolas offered just about the best view on the entire ship, and Ritter quickly discovered how many fascinating things there were to see out over the North Atlantic. Once the weather cleared after the first day out, Ritter marveled at sights like freighters rolling on the waves below, the Northern Lights filling the entire sky, and, as the ship approached the coast of Newfoundland, a massive iceberg surrounded by several smaller ones. The watch officer ordered the engines stopped so that the passengers could get a good look at the icebergs, and Ritter estimated the largest one to be rising about 80 meters over the water.

Finally, on the morning of May 6th, the Hindenburg reached the United States, flying over New York City in the early afternoon when Ritter was on standby watch. Once more, he was astounded at what he saw below. The ocean of skyscrapers and houses easily dwarfed anything he had ever seen in Germany, and the Empire State Building rose almost to the same altitude at which the Hindenburg was flying.

After circling over New York for approximately half an hour, again to give the passengers a chance to enjoy the view, the Hindenburg flew south to its landing field at Lakehurst, NJ. Ritter started his final two-hour watch of the flight at 4:00, as the ship flew over the airfield. However, there was a thunderstorm approaching, and the ship's commander decided to delay the landing until the weather had cleared. Ritter and everyone else aboard were treated to a bird's-eye view of the Jersey shore as the Hindenburg cruised up and down the coastline.

Ritter went off watch at 6:00 that evening, but stayed in the crew's mess rather than going back to his bunk, because he would be called to his landing station in his engine gondola once the weather improved and the ship was able to approach the airfield. He sat in the mess, drinking coffee and talking with fellow mechanic Richard Kollmer, who was also assigned to engine car #4, and who had the watch right before Ritter's.

Finally, shortly after 7:00, the signal for landing stations was sounded. Kollmer headed aft to his landing station in the lower fin, and Ritter took his position in the forward portside engine car along with Bentele and flight engineer Raphael Schädler. Ritter kept an eye on the engine telegraph, and relayed orders from the control car to Bentele, who was operating the engine's throttle. Over the next several minutes, orders came from the command crew to shift the engine to "idle ahead", then "full astern" in order to bring the ship to a halt just beyond the mooring circle, and then finally "idle ahead" again.

Theodor Ritter's location at the time of the fire (diagram is top view of the ship.)

Ritter had just "blocked back" the "idle ahead" message to the control car, so as to confirm that the order had been received and carried out. As he carefully eyed the telegraph, waiting for the next order to come through, he suddenly glanced aft and saw the upper hull of the ship erupt in flames as a heavy shock ran through the ship, shaking the whole engine gondola. The fire raced forward, reaching the forward engine gondolas almost immediately. Most of the aft hydrogen cells already having burned, the ship's tail began to drop to the ground, and the forward part of the ship rose up to practically a 45-degree angle.

Ritter and his comrades clung to anything they could to keep from falling into the propeller, which continued to turn slowly just behind them. As Ritter would later write,

"The ground is coming up at us damned fast, and one of my comrades says something like "Bail out!" But the gondola crashes into the ground and I think to myself, "I'm dead. This is it." Fire swirls around my eyes, and the impact causes me to lose my footing. I fly in an arc over the engine and out into the propeller, which hits me on the head."

Ritter was dazed by the blow to the head, and probably also from being doused with hot water from the engine, and afterward he was unable to recall what happened next. By the time he came back to his senses, he was running full speed, already quite a distance from the ship. He turned around to see the forward part of the ship, now completely ablaze, collapse to the ground amid a chorus of screams from nearby spectators, as well as from those still trapped in the wreck.

Theodor Ritter (arrow) runs from the back of engine car #4 (laying on the ground just to the left of Ritter.)

He suddenly realized that he had blood streaming down his face from the cut on his head where the propeller had hit him. As Ritter wiped his eyes clear, he saw that he was covered in blood clear down to his trousers. His skull didn't feel like it had been fractured, though, so he assumed that his scalp wound probably wasn't as bad as it looked. Somebody then led him to a car, along with chief helmsman Kurt Schönherr, who had injured his chest and was moaning loudly. The injured men were driven to the air station's infirmary, where they were met by a large crowd of people. From the amazed stares the crowd was giving them, Ritter figured that he and Schönherr must have been among the first survivors to arrive at the dispensary.

Once inside, Ritter was given first aid dressing for his head. Parched from the fire and smoke, he drank a couple pitchers of water, then borrowed a cigarette and walks off to see which of his comrades had also made it to the infirmary. He was glad to find fellow mechanics Adolf Fisher, bleeding from a cut under his eye, and Willi Steeb, who didn't seem injured at all.

Just then, Eugen Bentele brought in Raphael Schädler, who seemed to have suffered some internal injuries. Ritter helped to remove Schädler's shoes and socks as Bentele helped the injured flight engineer out of his overalls. Then they laid Schädler down on a nearby bed.

As Ritter stood back up again, he began seeing stars and realized he was on the verge of blacking out. His entire body felt hot, his arm had gone numb, and his back burned terribly. A nurse came up and gave him a shot of morphine, which helped. She then cut off Ritter's shirt and got a good look at Ritter's injuries. Since it had been a warm day, Ritter had just been wearing trousers and a short-sleeve shirt, instead of his heavy mechanic's overall, which would have given him some protection from the flames. His back was burned, as were his arms clear up to the elbows, and he was already beginning to blister. This was in addition to the cut on his head, which continued to bleed profusely.

Nurses covered his burns in salve and bandaged him, and he was taken to Paul Kimball Hospital in nearby Lakewood. By now, Ritter had begun to worry about his family. If word of the disaster hadn't already reached them, it soon would. Unfortunately, Ritter spoke very little English. From his bed he tried to get somebody to send a telegram to his fiancée, Gertrud Moser, who lived in his hometown of Schwäbisch-Hall. However, in the first chaotic hours after the disaster, with so many German-speaking patients and precious few people onhand who spoke the language and could translate, the nurses weren't able to understand much of what Ritter was saying other than "Gertrud." Eventually a translator was found and Ritter was finally able to send a telegram to his parents: "Slightly injured. Don't worry. Everything will be all right. Please notify Gertrud."

Eventually, a doctor stitched up Ritter's scalp, and he was given another shot and put to bed, where he slept until late the following morning. He remained at Paul Kimball until Saturday, when he was transferred to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Lenox Hill not only had better facilities than Paul Kimball, but it had also been known, until about 20 years before, as German Hospital and the majority of its doctors and nurses still spoke German.

When first notified that he was to be transferred, Ritter was rather concerned, as several badly injured survivors had already been transferred to New York, and some had already died. As he was being carried outside to the ambulance, his stretcher was surrounded by news photographers, reporters, and onlookers. The same thing occurred when he arrived in New York and was being taken into Lenox Hill Hospital. He later recalled that as he was being brought upstairs, one group of onlookers (mostly women, Ritter noticed) actually got into the elevator with them.

Theodor Ritter smiles as he's transferred from Paul Kimball Hospital to Lenox Hill Hospital the day after the disaster.

That evening, a couple of doctors and a group of nurses came to Ritter's bedside with a cart laden with instruments and medication. "Here we go…" Ritter gamely thought to himself. A nurse sat him up and held him as the doctors debrided his burns, removing the burned tissue so that he would heal properly. "Wherever I was burned, the doctors skinned me alive in the truest sense of the word. Not exactly a pleasant sensation", Ritter would later say. As the doctors worked on him, however, Ritter joked with them to keep his spirits up. The doctors and the nurses were rather taken aback, because while they expected Ritter to yell and scream during the procedure, what they got was a young man saying things like, "Hey Doc, could you at least save the skin for me so I can make myself a pair of suspenders or some gloves out of it?" But as Ritter later pointed out, humor makes everything easier and yelling and making a fuss wouldn't have changed anything anyway.

Once Ritter's wounds had been cleaned, the doctors sprayed him down with tannic acid, gave him another morphine shot, and put him to bed. The next day he was moved to a private room on a higher floor, where he spent the next few weeks recovering. In addition to his injuries, Ritter was also fighting a fever, and it was some days before the doctors considered him to be out of the woods. He had many visitors, most of whom he didn't know, but some of whom were crewmates of his who had not been injured seriously enough to be hospitalized. He also got mail from friends and family back home, including a long letter from his fiancée Gertrud, which he later said helped him through many difficult hours.

Eventually, however, Ritter was well enough to walk around on his own and visit his comrades Franz Herzog and Josef Leibrecht, who were recovering from their injuries on another floor. Ritter also gave testimony to the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry into the Hindenburg disaster. Since it was impossible for him to make the trip to Lakehurst to testify before the investigation commission, a group of them came to Lenox Hill on May 28th to interview him and several other injured survivors in their hospital rooms.

People began taking Ritter on day trips as he got stronger. A friend named Hugo Scheere took Ritter for a Sunday afternoon at Long Beach on Long Island, and then to Café Hindenburg on 86th Street. Another person took Ritter and an injured passenger who was also at Lenox Hill, Luftwaffe Major Hans-Hugo Witt, to visit West Point. On another day a man named Mr. Peters and his wife invited Ritter to accompany them to the cinema, where they saw a German film called "Drei Mädels um Schubert", of which Ritter later said, "That was a little piece of home."

Finally, on June 13th, Ritter was ready to return to Germany. He and radio operator Herbert Dowe, who had spent the past month at Fitkin Memorial Hospital in Neptune, NJ recovering from his burns, boarded the steamship Hansa (formerly the Albert Ballin, on which a number of the Hindenburg's newer crew members had previously served) for the ten-day sea voyage home. Prior to boarding, Ritter and Dowe had agreed between themselves to make every effort to remain anonymous for as much of the trip as possible. Each had already had to tell and retell the stories of their escape from the Hindenburg wreck so many times to so many people while they were in the hospital, and they didn't want to spend the next ten days doing the same for everyone on the Hansa.

It worked for about three days. The third day out, they had a shipboard passport inspection in the ship's lounge. Dowe was off seeing a doctor, but Ritter was standing in the lounge with other passengers, leisurely having a cigarette, when the door burst open and in strode the Hansa's Captain, followed by the First Officer, the ship's physician, the Chief Steward, and the Chief Engineer. The Captain loudly and none too subtly walked up to Ritter and greeted him in front of everyone, announcing Ritter's identity to one and all. His cover now blown, the peace and quiet of the previous few days now a thing of the past, Ritter gamely began once again to endlessly retell his story to anyone who asked.

Ritter and Dowe were now shipboard celebrities, and as such they were kept in free beer and other gifts from fellow passengers for the remainder of the trip. In addition to having to tell his story over and over, Ritter would also later remember the seemingly endless stream of festivities.

Every day there was something new to do. It was all wonderfully varied. First movies, then a dance, a bock beer fest, and just before the end of the ten-day voyage, a lavish costume party. The two of us had decided to donate a bowl of pineapple punch in return for the many glasses of beer. Shortly after the prizes were awarded, the steward brought out a huge bowl of punch, which we started in on immediately. This quickly ratcheted up the mood of the party, because the stuff went down damned smoothly and really got things going.

The band was missing a drummer, and after being invited by the bandleader I sat in with the band, pounding away on the kettle drum. That was a lot of fun, and and I got a huge round of applause that was obviously more for the jolly young airshipman than it was for my drumming skills. After every number, a glass of champagne was set near me, since the empty punchbowl had been quickly refilled with this kingly libation. I gradually developed Herculean strength and thundered away like a savage. I was drunk for the first time in quite awhile, because apparently the champagne just kept flowing. But then we started getting crazy. Those who were still there got what was coming to them, as once the racket got too appalling, the chief steward gingerly broke things up. But he only sent us from the dining salon into the bar, which we nearly trashed while he led each one of us gently to our door and bid us good night. It was "only" 5:00 in the morning. It goes without saying that the inevitable "tomcat" (hangover) followed the next day, and the pickled herring tasted superb!!

Finally, on June 23rd, the Hansa docked at Cuxhaven and Ritter was met by his friend and comrade Jonny Dörflein, who had been in the Hindenburg's starboard forward engine gondola at the time of the fire and who had escaped almost completely uninjured. Dörflein was from Hamburg, not far from Cuxhaven, and he and Ritter took a train to Hamburg where Dörflein's father hosted them for the evening. The two shipmates then took a sleeper train down to Frankfurt, where they, like the rest of the Hindenburg's crew, had apartments near the Rhein-Main airfield. There they were met by a group of fellow airshipmen, including flight engineer Raphael Schädler, who had recovered from his injuries and returned to Germany shortly before Ritter had.

Ritter's landlords greeted him with tears of joy when he returned to his apartment, but he stayed only long enough to pack a few things. He had a flight to catch down to Böblingen, where his family and his fiancée were waiting for him. He was given a lift to the airfield, but even that wasn't without incident. "On the way, we collided with another car. I can't get a break from accidents, apparently."

But Ritter made his flight and was soon reunited with his family.

I will never forget this moment as I stepped into the hangar. My Trudele comes flying up to me and we are immediately in each other's arms, jubilant, blissful, everything in the past, troubles forgotten. I am back. Then comes my dear, sweet Mom, my beaming father, sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews. How brave they are all acting. The only thing they can't hide is their moist, shimmering eyes.

Two cars are waiting outside to bring the entire happy company to Esslingen and soon we are all sitting together having a leisurely lunch. Two days later I am home, really home, in my beloved Hall, recuperating with my girl and my parents, who need it just as much as I do.

With the Hindenburg gone and the future of Zeppelin travel uncertain, Ritter returned to work at the Daimler-Benz factory in Untertürkheim. He soon took a position at the Porsche factory in nearby Zuffenhausen, which he held until the end of World War II. After the war, Ritter worked for a time as a lumberjack, and then took a job as the foreman at the Hahn auto repair shop in Fellbach, just up the road from his old Daimler job in Untertürkheim, and about 35 miles from his hometown of Schwäbisch-Hall. He worked for the next 31 years at Hahn, and retired in Fellbach.

Throughout the years, Theo Ritter kept in touch with his old Zeppelin comrades, and every year on May 6th he would meet with them either in Frankfurt or in Friedrichshafen to commemorate the loss of the Hindenburg, and to remember their comrades who lost their lives in the disaster. In 1993 while being interviewed for an article in the Waiblinger Kreiszeitung to mark his 80th birthday, Ritter remarked upon the fact that he could now count his remaining Hindenburg comrades on the fingers of one hand, then smiled and said, "I'm 80 years old, and still the rookie among them."

(Many thanks to Helge Juch, who interviewed Theo Ritter for an article for the Waiblinger Kreiszeitung in 1993. Helge was kind enough to provide me not only with a copy of his article, but also with a copy of a nine-page memoir that Ritter wrote about his Hindenburg experience after he returned to Germany. Between the article and Ritter's memoir, I was able to write a far more extensive and informative article on Ritter than had previously been possible.)

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