Sunday, June 28, 2009

Captain Albert Sammt

Crew Member

Age: 48

Hometown: Niederstetten, Germany

Occupation: First Officer

Location at time of fire: Control car


Albert Sammt was born on 24 April 1889 in Niederstetten, in Württemberg. His father, Eduard Sammt, was from Saalburg an der Saale, in Thüringen, and his mother Luise, born Luise Schönemann, was from the Murrhardt Forest. The Sammts had eight other children besides Albert, and the family operated both a rope-making company and a colonial goods business in Niederstetten.

When Albert Sammt was six years old, in 1895, he went to Niederstetten's tiny village school. His teacher, Friedrich Nöer, soon recognized that Sammt was an unusually bright child, and did his best to encourage him. In addition to his regular studies, young Sammt also took violin and art lessons.

As a boy, Sammt was fascinated by the highwire artist Charles Blondin, who became world famous for such stunts as having walked on a tightrope across Niagara Falls, and who had his winter quarters in Niederstetten. Inspired by Blondin's ability to ride a bicycle on the highwire, Sammt joined the local cycling club where he participated in slow-riding competitions. Looking back years later, he believed that the sense of balance he developed through this style of riding had been of significant benefit to him later in life when operating the elevator wheel of an airship.

After he had finished school, Sammt joined the family business and learned to be a rope maker. He later attended the business school in Calw in Württemberg. In 1909, Sammt volunteered for military service, and was assigned to the 122nd Infantry Regiment in Bad Mergentheim. Once his military obligation had been fulfilled, he left the service as a private first class and returned to the family business. His mother, who had been quite popular in Niederstetten, passed away in 1911.

Soon thereafter, in January 1912, Albert Sammt, through his brother Fritz, who at the time worked as a rigging chief at the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in Berlin, went to Frankfurt am Main. There, he trained to be both a rigger and a rudderman on the passenger airship LZ-11 Viktoria Luise. He served in this capacity over the next few years for DELAG (Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft - the Zeppelin Company's new passenger airship service.)

When the First World War broke out, Sammt was joined in Frankfurt by a number of his comrades from the Luftschiffbau in Friedrichshafen, and together they built a new airship for the German Army, the LZ 26 (designated Z XII by the Army.) It would be the only Zeppelin ever built in Frankfurt. Once that ship had been delivered, Sammt returned once again to Friedrichshafen, where he supervised the fabrication, installation, and inflation of gas cells, as well as the outer covering for the airships that the Luftschiffbau was now building for both the Army and the Navy.

Within a month of his return, however, Sammt was approached by Wilhelm Dörr, a former DELAG pilot who was now director of the airship works in Potsdam, which was also building Army airships. Dörr needed Sammt to come to work for him in Potsdam, particularly on test flights of the new ships, as most of the crewmen that Dörr was able to get at that time were on loan from the Navy and the Army, and didn't tend to be experienced airshipmen.

Sammt, therefore, was transferred to the airship works in Potsdam in 1915. As before, he was in charge of the development and installation of the gas cells and the outer covering for the new ships. All told, he worked on the construction of roughly a dozen airships during his time at Potsdam. Then, in early 1917, Sammt was once again transferred, this time to the brand new airship works at Berlin-Staaken. Count von Zeppelin had also ordered a construction facility built at Staaken for fixed-wing airplanes. Over the next year, Sammt worked on the construction and test flights of yet another dozen airships, mostly for the Navy this time, until Staaken ceased airship production in March of 1918, as the war entered its final year.

With no more airships being built at Staaken, Sammt worked on the giant four-engine Zeppelin-Staaken R.VI bombers being produced by the airplane factory. His main project was the R.30/11, an experimental version of the R.VI that added a fifth engine in the main fuselage that was connected up to a Brown-Boveri compressor. This would pump air into the four main engines, with the intention that the plane would then be able to climb to approximately 15,000 feet (5,000 meters) for high-level bombing.

The experimental Zeppelin-Staaken bomber R.30/11, for which Albert Sammt helped to develop the high-altitude compressor engine.

The R.30/11's first test flight took place on August 15th, 1918. Sammt manned the new compressor engine, along with a Staaken engineer named Käfer, and an engineer named Noak from the Luftschiffbau in Friedrichshafen who had also helped to design the compressor system. The engine was so loud that the three men had to converse by writing messages in chalk on small slate boards. "Because of all of the new equipment, the airplane was heavy as a lump of lead," Sammt later wrote. In fact, the main engines couldn't get the airplane off the ground at first. Sammt had to switch on the compressor engine just to rev the main engines up enough to get the plane airborne.

"The motors howled – and finally, halfway to Dallgow, we got off the ground right at the edge of the airfield. Then we pushed that hunk of lead up to 2,000 meters. It hung very heavily in the air, and due to the strong angle of incline, the two spark plugs at the aft end of the engine block were fouled by engine oil – and the engine suddenly stopped. The copilot up front noticed this immediately, but by the time he made his way aft from the cockpit, I'd already removed the spark plugs – and burned my hand in the process, the whole thing was so hot – and screwed in two new ones. With its juice back again, thank God, the motor started back up. We could start climbing again – we had dropped from 2,000 meters to about 200 – saved in the nick of time!"

"The two engineers opened up the compressor a bit more, and how the motors howled! The propellers were adjusted some more, and we went higher and higher still. Now and then we exchanged messages with our chalk and slate boards. So, we climbed to 3,000, 3,500, 4,000 meters, and then we were slowly climbing higher. 'We've got to make it to 5,000 today,' insisted Noak. I said, 'Oh well, hopefully…' We reached 4,500 and kept climbing. The compressor was running like crazy. I noticed that the cooling water for the compressor engine was getting dangerously hot. So, I surreptitiously eased the compressor back a little bit. That didn't do much good, though. Suddenly the coolant water started boiling – and we had a fountain of steam inside the airplane's fuselage! Just then, we made it to 5,000 meters! We'd actually gotten this thing to 5,000 meters! Finally! We turned off the compressor and descended in a glide. I should also note that I only needed to use my oxygen bottle briefly at the apex of our climb. Beyond that, I didn't need it at all."

"After we landed, we congratulated one another. However, we decided that we weren't going to fly this thing again. Fortunately, the war ended not long after that – otherwise we would certainly have ended up as casualties of this project."

The year after the war ended, in August of 1919, the Zeppelin Company (via the resurrected pre-war passenger flight operations company DELAG) launched its first post-war passenger airship, the LZ-120 Bodensee. Albert Sammt was assigned as one of the elevatormen under Captain Hans-Curt Flemming and Flemming's first officer, Peter Ingwardsen. From late August until the first week of December in 1919 the Bodensee made 103 flights, carrying 2,450 passengers on daily flights from Friedrichshafen to Berlin (often by way of Munich.) In his autobiography, Sammt later recalled some of the more humorous moments from his time with the Bodensee.

"These flights in September, October, November, and December of 1919, a year marked by unrest and strikes, were so successful and so necessary because in those days rail, post, and street traffic were often intermittent and chaotically organized. Our passengers were naturally very happy indeed that they – despite the fare of 400 marks for a routine flight – would always give Chief Steward [Heinrich] Kubis a handsome tip. These tips went – at least they were supposed to – into a special ship's cash box. By year's end, at our company inn in Friedrichshafen, we had 'liquidated' this cash box. Our helmsman L. Marx, who was learning to be a photographer, wanted to mark the occasion with a photograph of the whole crew. We gladly cleaned up, posed, and then sat waiting for him to take the picture. He was having difficulty, however, with the magnesium flashbulb that he'd set up and was trying to ignite. The fuse wouldn't burn. Then he got too close to the flash powder with the match, and the thing exploded and singed his whole hand. The picture turned out great, because we were all laughing mightily. It was later captioned, 'What's got the men so happy? Is it the empty cash box, or is it the burned hand?' "

"The food supply was lousy in those days. Everything was rationed, and the black market was strictly forbidden. One day, two customs agents came to me and said that they'd gotten a tip that a pig was going to be smuggled to Berlin aboard our airship. I told them that I hadn't heard anything about it and that I thought the entire thing sounded unlikely, but that they were free to take a look for themselves. I invited them to come with me and search the ship. To be honest, I was rather uneasy about it. But I figured that if the crew had actually planned something like this, they would already have hidden the pig suitably well. The customs men went through the ship, and I explained what everything was, but their search didn't turn up anything. When I was then invited to a butcher's fest in Berlin, however, it became clear to me that they weren't going to be cooking a Berlin pig. After a rather lighthearted inspection of the ship, I found out where the corpus delicti had been stashed. They had sewn one half into the space between the passenger gondola and the gas cells, and stowed the other half in the lower tail fin."

However popular the Bodensee's flights may have been with its passengers and crew, DELAG was, on December 5th, 1919, forced to cease operations under the Treaty of Versailles, which forbade the construction or use by Germany of any but the smallest airships. The Bodensee and her sister ship, the LZ-121 Nordstern, were turned over to the Allies as part of the war reparations stipulated by the Versailles Treaty.

Meanwhile, Albert Sammt had gotten married. When he and his comrades spent time in Baden-Oos, they would stay at the Hotel Schwert, which was owned by the Glasstetter family. It was here that he met Johanna Glasstetter, daughter of the hotel's owners. The two were married in early 1917 in Baden-Baden, where the Glasstetters lived. Albert and Johanna Sammt then moved to Berlin, as Sammt had just been transferred to Berlin-Staaken for the first time. Their daughter Ingeborg was born in 1919, and their son Rolf followed in 1924.

In 1920, with DELAG operations having ended the previous December, Albert Sammt returned to the airship works at Berlin-Staaken where he oversaw the dismantling of one of the facility's two large airship hangars (which was also handed over to the Allies as war reparations.) The other airship hangar at Staaken, and several of the smaller ones, were rented as studios by the German film industry. The Zeppelin Company, now unable to continue building airships, welcomed the income that its Staaken hangars were generating. It also allowed the company to keep many of its people, including airship crewmen, employed as stagehands, special effects technicians, and so forth.

Albert Sammt worked in this capacity on several films, most notably Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," which had a number of scenes shot at Staaken in 1925. The gigantic super-machine featured in the movie was constructed and filmed at Staaken, and Lang assigned Sammt the task of generating the huge blasts of steam emitted by the machine. Sammt solved the problem by using a boiler and a locomotive to shoot steam out of numerous valves and nozzles on the massive machine set. He also oversaw the effects for the scene in which the huge machine overheats and explodes, during which he and a number of his fellow Luftschiffbau comrades cranked out enough steam to fill the entire hangar, and stood up in the rafters out of camera range throwing life-sized dummies down in front of the machine set as actors leapt and stumbled through the steam.

The massive machine set from Fritz Lang's film "Metropolis," with steam effects courtesy of Albert Sammt and his Luftschiffbau Zeppelin comrades.

Sammt's stint in the movie business lasted from 1920 until 1927, except for a year or so between 1924 and early 1925. As part of Germany's war reparations, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin had arranged to construct a new, state-of-the-art airship for the United States Navy. Sammt was asked to resume his previous role overseeing the production and installation of the gas cells and the outer cover for the new ship, designated LZ-126 (which the US Navy would later christen Los Angeles). It was finished in late August of 1924 and, after about a month and a half of test flights, was flown across the North Atlantic to be delivered to the US Navy at Lakehurst, NJ. Albert Sammt stood watch once more as an elevatorman and, along with a number of his fellow crewmembers, remained in the United States for several months in order to train U.S.Navy crews in Lakehurst, after which he returned to Germany and to his work at the film studios at Staaken.

Albert Sammt at the elevator wheel of the LZ-126 as fellow elevatorman Max Pruss looks on.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Sammt and several of his comrades during their stay in the United States to train American airshipmen to fly the LZ-126. From left: Hans-Curt Flemming, Albert Sammt, Max Pruss, Anton Wittemann.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

In 1927, however, Albert Sammt was transferred once more to Friedrichshafen to assist in the construction of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin. The restrictions of the Versailles Treaty had been eased, and Germany was once again able to build and fly Zeppelins. As usual, Sammt was in charge of the gas cells and the outer covering. Construction of the Graf Zeppelin lasted about a year, and the ship made its maiden flight on September 18th, 1928. Once again, Sammt served as an elevatorman. Sammt's skills as a rigger were also occasionally needed, as was the case less than a month after the Graf Zeppelin's first flight.

On October 11th, 1928, the Graf Zeppelin set out on its first transatlantic flight, with Lakehurst, NJ as its destination. On the third day of the flight, October 14th, Sammt was at the elevator wheel, just preparing to go off watch, when a massive cloud bank appeared in the ship's westward path. One of the newer men came to relieve Sammt, who went aft to change clothes and shave. Sammt had no sooner reached his quarters when the ship entered the cloud bank and, with the man at the elevator wheel not yet having the experience to compensate properly, the bow shot steeply upward, and then just as steeply downward seconds later. Sammt thought to himself that, despite the rough entry into the storm front, they should have smooth sailing after that.

He was almost immediately called back to the control car. He found Dr. Eckener at the elevator wheel, having taken over for the trainee who had previously taken over for Sammt. Eckener quickly handed the wheel back over to Sammt. The weather was rougher than Sammt had estimated, but he was able to hold the ship at more or less an even keel despite the turbulence.

Just as they had finished passing through the worst of the storm, and the sky began to lighten, the ship's chief engineer, August Grözinger, came forward into the control car. He reported that a large section of the outer covering on the underside of the portside tail fin had been torn away by the strong gusts the ship that had buffeted the ship as it passed through the storm.

Sammt went aft to inspect the damage, along with Dr. Eckener's son Knut (one of the ship's elevatormen), navigator Hans Ladwig, and ship's rigger Ludwig Knorr. Indeed, fully 2/3 of the fabric on the underside of the fin had carried away, with loose strips 10 to 15 meters long and a meter or two wide flapping beneath the elevator, threatening to foul it. The men would have to climb out into the fin and repair the damage.

Dr. Eckener, meanwhile, had ordered the engines stopped to prevent the men from being blown off the fin by the slipstream. The ship, weighed down by rain picked up in the storm, began to sink slowly down toward the sea, and Eckener was eventually forced to order the engines started up again. The men out inside the fin saw the engines start up and climbed back into the ship, the ship gained altitude again, and the engines were once again stopped so that the repairs could continue. This was repeated for several hours until the remaining fin covering had been secured.

The traditional version of this story has all four men volunteering to climb out into the fin, tied together like mountain climbers, to cut away the loose fabric and reinforce what remained of the fin's lower covering. In his autobiography, however, Sammt tells it a little differently.

"First and foremost, the shreds of fabric had to be cut away so that the elevator could work properly. Easily said, but who was going to climb out there to do it? Nobody volunteered. So I pulled on a coverall and rigger's shoes, held Ballonmeister Knorr's knife between my teeth, and crawled out under the girder that the elevator was attached to. The ocean seethed far below me. I hung clamped to that girder like a sloth on a tree branch. At any time I could have fallen, and that would have been it for me. Meter by meter I crawled, and meter by meter I cut off the loose pieces of fabric, which flew aft and down to the sea. Finally, I'd made it the entire 30 feet across the fin, the tattered fabric had been completely cut away, and the elevator was free. The five of us together then reinforced the remaining tears with adhesive tape and quick-drying Cellon glue. After several minutes the glue dried, and we could then lash the remaining covering to the girders with rope. In this way, with about five hours' work, we were able to save the forward third of the fin's covering."

Whatever the actual sequence of events was, in the end Sammt and the others were able to prevent more serious damage to the ship, and the Graf Zeppelin flew on to Lakehurst. A tumultuous reception awaited its passengers and crew, the American newspaper headlines having been filled with dire news of the Graf Zeppelin "fighting for her life" over the North Atlantic.

A rare photo of the final stages of the in-flight repair to the Graf Zeppelin's damaged fin.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

The damage to the Graf Zeppelin's fin, as seen in the hangar at Lakehurst after landing.

By the following year, when the Graf Zeppelin made its famous 1929 flight around the globe, Albert Sammt was serving as a navigator, and also as gas cell maintenance supervisor, with Ludwig Knorr reporting directly to him. He continued in this capacity as the Graf Zeppelin made flights throughout Germany over the next two years, also making notable trips to Moscow, Egypt, and, in July of 1931, north of the Arctic Circle.

In late August of 1932, the Graf Zeppelin began regular passenger service between Friedrichshafen and Rio de Janeiro, via Recife in Pernambuco. Again the flights were made through DELAG, though in March of 1935 the service would be taken over by the new government Zeppelin transport company, Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei (DZR). Albert Sammt would later fondly remember his flights to South America.

"Approximately halfway between Recife and Rio de Janeiro lay two magnificent islands, 'Dos Ilios', in the South Atlantic. I took a liking to these little islands, because they lay there so picturesque and virtually untouched. There were only seven palm trees, two stone huts, and a couple of goats on these islands. They were lined by wonderful beaches. Because I was always so thrilled by them, our helmsman Schönherr, who was always ready with a suitable name for anything, christened them the 'Sammt Islands.' Once, when Dr. Eckener was aboard once more and we were approaching the islands, Schönherr announced loudly, "Here come the Sammt Islands!" Whereupon Dr. Eckener immediately came up and asked, 'Which islands are yours, Mr. Sammt?' "

Albert Sammt and several crewmates during one of the Graf Zeppelin's layovers in South America. From left (in white shirts with black ties) Albert Sammt, Knut Eckener, Max Pruss, and Hans von Schiller.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Albert Sammt (standing) assists in an in-flight repair to the Graf Zeppelin's outer cover over the South Atlantic, circa 1933.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

In early 1935, following the death of one the Graf Zeppelin's commanders, Captain Hans-Curt Flemming, Albert Sammt was promoted to watch officer. A year later, in March 1936, Captain Sammt was transferred to the Graf Zeppelin's brand new sister ship, the LZ 129 Hindenburg. Thus, he and his family moved once again, this time to Frankfurt, where the Rhein-Main International Airport had constructed two new airship hangars. Sammt made every one of the Hindenburg's flights thereafter, including 10 round trips to the United States by the end of 1936.

Captain Sammt in the Hindenburg's chart room.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Captain Sammt (third from left, laughing) at dinner with several of the Hindenburg's passengers during a 1936 flight to South America.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

On the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937, Sammt was aboard as first officer, command of the ship having shifted over to his old comrade Captain Max Pruss the previous October. The ship took off from Frankfurt on the evening of Monday, May 3rd, bound for the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, NJ. Though the flight was uneventful by most standards, the Hindenburg fought strong headwinds over the North Atlantic for most of her way across. By the final day of the trip, Thursday, May 6th, the ship was roughly 12 hours behind schedule, with a full load of 72 passengers (many of whom were on their way to the Coronation of George VI, which was to take place in England the following week on May 12) booked for the return flight and waiting at hotels in New York.

Captain Sammt took the final watch of the flight at 4:00 PM. Shortly before that, he had made a routine bow-to-stern inspection of the ship, as he usually did prior to going on watch. With notebook in hand, he paid special attention to the ship's supply of water ballast, both the overall amount as well as its distribution throughout the ship. The Hindenburg would almost certainly be landing within the next hour or so, in all likelihood during his watch, and he needed to know first hand that the ship was in trim, with fuel and water distributed evenly along the keel.

He noticed, as he reached the aft end of the keel gangway, that between 8 and 10 tons of water had been shifted to Ring 47. Sammt asked Chief Rigger Knorr, "What's going on? Who ordered this?" Knorr responded, "The command came from forward to pump the water aft." Sammt immediately countermanded that order. "Pump one ton of this water forward of Ring 62, and also make sure that the forward ballast bags are filled." As he later wrote, "I'm positive that this was carried out, because the Chief Rigger was absolutely reliable."

Sammt then made his way forward to the control car, where he stood his command watch for the remainder of the flight. He discovered the reason for the previous order for Knorr to pump so much ballast water aft: because of the amount of fuel the ship had burned throughout the flight, the ship had been noticeably light – that is, she was riding down by the bow, with her tail slightly up. Captain Walter Ziegler, who had been on watch from noon until 4:00, had given the order to pump water aft to counteract this.

The landing, originally to have taken place at 6:00 that morning but now scheduled for approximately 6:00 PM EDT, ended up being delayed even further by strong thunderstorms over much of New Jersey. Shortly after Sammt went on watch at 4:00 PM, the Hindenburg flew over the air field at Lakehurst, although the ground crew wouldn't be summoned for another hour, and would not be fully assembled and in position to land the ship for the better part of an hour after that. With the storm front approaching from the west, the Hindenburg flew south, and then spent the next couple hours cruising up and down along the Jersey shore. When the front got close enough, the ship flew south of Atlantic City, and then circled around behind the storm.

Shortly after this, at approximately 6:10 PM, the Hindenburg received word from Lakehurst that conditions were suitable for the ship to make its landing approach. The storm was just passing over the air station, and it was estimated that by the time the ship made its way back north to Lakehurst the storm would be a safe distance to the east. The Hindenburg headed north along the western edge of the thunderstorm front, occasionally turning west to avoid rain squalls trailing behind the main storm.

By about 7:00, the Hindenburg finally reached Lakehurst. Sammt noted, as the ship flew northeast over the field, that the ground crew was lined up for an eastward landing approach. Captain Pruss, who was overseeing the ship's speed and direction while Sammt oversaw the altitude and trim, ordered the ship to make a long, wide turn north and then to the west to bring the ship around to the ground crew's position. At approximately 7:10, as the signal for landing stations was sounded throughout the ship, Sammt decided that he wanted a more experienced man at the elevator wheel, as the man on watch, Ludwig Felber, had only recently been promoted from helmsman. Sammt therefore called navigator Eduard Boetius over to the elevator wheel and sent Felber forward to the bow to assist in the lowering of the forward landing lines. He then ordered Captain Ziegler, who was manning the gas board, to open the large valve wheel on the gas board for 15 seconds, which released hydrogen from cells 3-11, 13, and 14.

It quickly became obvious in the control car, however, that the ship was now tail heavy, with the ship out of trim aft by several degrees. Sammt ordered Ziegler to valve gas from the forward six cells, 11 through 16, for fifteen seconds at 7:13, and then for fifteen more seconds about two minutes later at 7:15. The Hindenburg then appeared to be in trim.

Meanwhile, the wind had shifted again, and the ground crew were now lining up for a landing approach from the north. Pruss, rather than delaying the landing further by having the ship abort the landing approach and circle the field again to come in from the north, ordered the helmsman to turn hard to starboard. At about this same time, Sammt and Boetius noticed that the ship was tail heavy again. Sammt ordered Captain Heinrich Bauer, who was manning the ballast board, to drop water from the stern of the ship twice in fairly quick succession as the ship passed over the air station's officers' quarters, for a total of approximately 600 kilograms.

As he leaned out one of the control car windows and watched one of the 60-meter long streams of water dropping from the ship's tail, it suddenly occurred to Captain Sammt that, with thunderstorms having just recently passed over the area, the stream of water between the ship and the ground might trigger some sort of electrical discharge. But nothing happened, and he pulled his head back into the control car.

The ship, however, was still not completely in trim. As Pruss was ordering the mechanics to reverse the engines so as to bring the ship to a stop just outside the mooring circle, Sammt ordered Bauer to drop another 500 kilograms of ballast from the stern, now bringing the total to 1100 kilos. He also ordered Ziegler to give one more quick, five-second burst of gas from forward cells 11 through 16.

This still didn't completely bring the ship to an even keel. Finally, with the ship at almost a dead stop in the air and preparing to drop her forward landing ropes, Sammt sent word back to the crew's mess by telephone that six men were to move forward to the bow to help trim the ship using their own body weight. This seemed to do the trick, and Sammt and the others now stood by and watched as the two yaw lines were dropped from the bow, with the ground crew quickly taking them up and hauling them toward the mooring tackle near the mast.

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

Suddenly, Sammt felt the ship lurch. Puzzled, he looked to see if one of the landing ropes had broken, but they were both still hanging down from the bow. Then he noticed a fiery reflection on the windows of the air station's huge Zeppelin hangar, just as somebody else in the control car yelled out that the ship was burning. Sammt and the others hung on as best they could as the stern began to drop and the ship tilted, bow up, to an almost 45-degree angle. Sammt was concerned that the bow might rise even more steeply and the control car would simply end up falling into the glowing wreckage aft. He was relieved when the stern hit the ground and the bow finally began to descend.

As the control car neared the ground, Captain Ernst Lehmann, former Hindenburg commander who was aboard this flight as an observer, called out for everyone to get to a window so that they could jump when they were low enough. It occurred to Sammt that if he jumped too late, the burning hull would collapse over him and he'd be trapped – and if he jumped too soon, he'd break his feet and not be able to run out from underneath the ship, and the framework would still end up falling on top of him.

Sammt and Pruss jumped at just about the same moment, from a height of about 15 feet. Sammt landed on all fours, and as he got up to run he noticed that Pruss had gotten himself all turned around and disoriented and Sammt saw him run backwards and disappear into a wall of flame. Sammt tried to run off to starboard, but suddenly realized, as the ship's burning frame collapsed over him, that he had indeed waited a bit too long to jump.

Captain Sammt, along with Captains Pruss and Lehmann (arrow) stumble away from the front of the control car as the Hindenburg's framework collapses over them.

He hurled himself to the ground and instinctively yanked his hat down as tightly onto his head as he could, while the wreckage burned all around him and above him. However, he could also feel cool air being drawn in from outside the wreck to feed the fire as he waited for an escape route to open up.

Suddenly, the flames began to die down and Sammt could see a tangle of glowing girders and wires in front of him. He thought to himself, "Okay, you've got to get through there without getting stuck." He stood up and pried his way through the wreck with his bare hands, giving no thought to the fact that the metal was still glowing hot and that he was burning his hands and forearms. He managed to get himself to the edge of the wreckage and then ran about fifty feet from the ship before he threw himself to the ground again and put out his blazing uniform by rolling around in the wet grass and sand.

"Once I'd gotten the last of the flames put out, I opened first one eye, and then the other: I could see! Then I reached for my ears: they were still there too. Fortunately, my hat was still sitting on my head, although the insignia on the front had been torn off at some point during my escape. I had pulled my hat down tightly over my ears, which protected my eyes and ears - otherwise I would have been far more badly burned."

"To make a long story short, I looked around me and saw another crew member standing about fifty feet away. He was wearing a coat, but no hat, and his head and hair were completely burned and he was moaning. I called, "Pruss? Is that you?" He groaned, "Yes." Then I said, "Donnerwetter! Look at you!" He answered, "Yeah, you're looking almost as good yourself…" I couldn't see myself, of course, but apparently I was a pretty awful sight too."

Captain Sammt (in uniform) and Erich Knöcher, one of the Hindenburg's passengers (left), are led from the crash site by rescuers.

By then, rescuers had come and were leading Sammt and a passenger named Erich Knöcher away from the wreck. As they walked across the airfield, they encountered Lakehurst base commander Charles E. Rosendahl, who was an old friend of Sammt's. They had met in 1924 when Sammt spent several months at Lakehurst helping to train the American crews to fly the LZ-126, and Rosendahl had since made many flights on German airships, including the Graf Zeppelin's flight around the world in 1929. Rosendahl led Sammt to an ambulance near the mooring mast, and Sammt looked around and noticed that the air station's fire department was already on the scene, doing what they could to put out the fire. The ambulance dropped off Sammt and several others at the base infirmary. He was shown to a bed, from which he watched more survivors being brought in. Commander Rosendahl and DZR representative Willy von Meister came in with Captain Lehmann who seemed, from what Sammt could see, to be completely unaware of how horribly he was burned. He sat on a table near Sammt's bed, and puzzled over what might have caused the disaster.

Sammt and a number of the other injured survivors were taken to Paul Kimball Hospital in nearby Lakewood. Sammt was placed in a bed in the main common ward, separated from everyone else by a large curtain.

"The next morning at about 4:00, Rosendahl came to see me again and said 'Sammtchen,' - he always called me that - 'Sammtchen, you're being moved to a private room.' I then received individual care and was finally given my first bandages. That was rather difficult, since my burns were so extensive."

Several hours later, at about 7:00 AM, Rosendahl came back and told Sammt that he, Pruss, and Captain Lehmann were to be transferred to the Harkness Pavilion at New York's Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, where there was a first-rate burn center.

"I asked, 'Why are we being moved again? We're in good hands here.' Rosendahl responded, 'No, no. William Leeds sent us a telegram that Lehmann, Pruss and you are going to be taken to the Harkness Pavilion at his expense.' I said, 'Fine. If the others are going, naturally I'll go along with them.' "

William Leeds was a wealthy American who was also an old friend of the Zeppelin crew. He had been a passenger on the Graf Zeppelin's round-the-world flight in 1929, as well as several Zeppelin voyages since then. When he heard what had happened at Lakehurst that evening, Leeds had immediately made arrangements for Sammt and the others to receive the best care available, and he paid for all of it himself. Rosendahl would later recommend him for a special citation for his efforts in helping to take care of the injured members of the Hindenburg's command crew.

By the time the men were transported to New York later that day, Captain Lehmann had died from his burns. In his place, Radio Chief Willy Speck was to be taken along. In preparation for the transfer Sammt, whose face was already covered in, as he would later write, "half a centimeter of burn cream," was further bandaged with gauze. "Before we left, they put masks on our heads, with openings for the nose, eyes, and ears. We looked like we were from the Ku Klux Klan!"

Albert Sammt being transferred to Harkness Pavilion at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, May 7th, 1937.

As the men were wheeled out to the waiting ambulances, members of the press were outside waiting for them.

"I saw, to my horror, a man on the roof of a nearby building, cranking away at a newsreel camera. 'For God's sake, get that thing out of here! Our families and friends back home in Germany will see us like this!' Willi von Meister [American representative for the DZR] said, "Consider it taken care of. It will all be confiscated, and nobody will see it.'"

Obviously, if von Meister said this then it must have been primarily to ease Sammt's mind for the ride to New York– there were numerous photographers and newsreel cameramen outside of the hospital taking pictures that day, and it would have been next to impossible to confiscate every camera there even if there had been a legal way to do it – which, of course, there was not.

When Sammt finally arrived at the hospital in New York, his face was so swollen that he could only see out of one eye - barely.

"I was being rolled down a long corridor, when suddenly I heard a lovely female voice say, "You're Captain Sammt, right?" I said, "Yeah, that's how they scold me.” Then we went into a spacious room with a large canopy bed. I could mostly just see a lot of white skirts and coats, so I knew there were nurses and doctors around me. Then they asked me the question that was foremost on my mind: "Would you like something to drink?"

"I said, "Yes, I would love a glass of champagne!" Almost immediately after I said that, there was a bottle of champagne there. They helped me to drink it through a glass tube, since my mouth was completely swollen. Nevertheless, I got a whole glass of it down, then poured and drank another one. Apparently they put a sedative into my third or fourth glass – I didn't notice, though, because I had such a colossal thirst. After that, I didn't even realize that they took a blood sample from me and gave me several injections, whereupon I slept for several hours."

A week or two later Dr. Hugo Eckener, who had sailed over from Germany to take part in the official investigation into the Hindenburg disaster, visited Sammt and Pruss in the hospital. Sammt later recalled that Eckener seemed deeply affected by how badly he and Pruss were injured. "Heal up quickly, Mr. Sammt," Eckener told him. "Tomorrow I'm meeting with the President, and we're going to get helium." Sammt responded, "Herr Doktor, that's great to hear, but I'll believe it when I see it." Several days later, Eckener came to visit Sammt again, and proudly announced, "So, the President has spoken with me personally, wishes you a speedy recovery, and we're going ahead with helium." Sammt, as before, responded doubtfully, "I can't believe it just yet."

On May 28th, three weeks after the disaster, Sammt was visited in the hospital by members of the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry, where he was interviewed at length through an interpreter, Mr. William Ulrich.

In his official testimony, Sammt maintained that the tail heaviness of the Hindenburg during its landing approach was negligible and that it was likely due in a large part to the fact that several crewmen took their landing stations in the aft part of the airship. He also didn't tend to offer much in the way of opinions as to how the fire might have started, which is perhaps somewhat understandable since the investigation was being led by the Americans rather than by the Germans.

In later years, however, he wrote that there was probably a rather large rip in gas cell #4, near the tail of the ship, and that this was what had caused the ship to continue to be tail heavy even after gas was valved and ballast dropped to bring the ship back into trim.

He didn't know, however, how the damage to the gas cell had occurred. Initially, he had thought that perhaps one of the chicken farmers who lived in the woods near the air station at Lakehurst might have gotten angry at the fact that the giant airship was disturbing his chickens, and perhaps taken a shot at the Hindenburg with his rifle. This was, he had been told, a not uncommon occurrence. The US Navy's airships had often been shot at by these same farmers in the past.

Ultimately, however, Sammt dismissed this possibility since a bullet shot into a gas cell wouldn't have made a hole that was large enough for the cell to lose nearly enough hydrogen to account for the tail heaviness that they had spent most of the landing approach attempting to correct.

As for what might have set the leaking hydrogen on fire, Sammt seems not to have settled on a specific theory. In his autobiography, he laid out several of the possibilities cited by the Board of Inquiry (dismissing, as the Board had, the idea that sparks from an engine backfire could have started the fire.) He favored the idea that static discharge may have been the culprit, but didn't feel that the ship would have necessarily been grounded sufficiently to create enough of a potential difference between the framework and the outer cover to generate static sparks. Sammt adamantly opposed the sabotage theories, however, saying that they were far more about sensationalism than they were about an honest examination of the facts.

Albert Sammt spent six weeks in the hospital, in the room across the hall from Captain Pruss. He counted himself fortunate that his burns, while extensive, were largely superficial and, unlike Pruss, he didn't require many skin grafts. The skin on one side of his face healed on its own, but Sammt did need some grafts on the other side. For the rest of his life he would have small scars behind one of his ears which continued around to his forehead. He also wrote in his autobiography that he had a few burn scars on his right arm, although surviving relatives who knew him don't recall this to have been the case. However, for the rest of his life his face always looked sunburned.

Albert Sammt with one of the nurses at Harkness Pavilion during Sammt's convalescence.

Albert Sammt sailed home to Germany on the steamship Europa in mid-June. Slightly more than a year later, in September of 1938, the Zeppelin Company's newest airship, the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin, made its first test flights. As Sammt had suspected, the United States government had not agreed to sell helium to Germany, and the new Graf Zeppelin's gas cells would have to be inflated with hydrogen. Despite his recent injuries Sammt, like the rest of his comrades, readily agreed to fly on the new ship. Serving as before as a watch officer, Captain Sammt made three test flights under the command of Dr. Hugo Eckener and one under Captain Hans von Schiller.

Captain Sammt had gotten his Aviator's License #7 on 15 September 1937, and was therefore qualified to serve as commanding officer of an airship. On September 27th, 1938, he commanded the new Graf Zeppelin for the first time, and continued to do so for the last two test flights, and for the ship's transfer flight from Friedrichshafen to its new base in Frankfurt. On November 5th, he was officially named commander of the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin. He commanded every subsequent flight but one (when Captain Anton Wittemann commanded a round-trip flight to Kassel at the end of July of 1939) before the new ship was grounded due to the outbreak of World War II in September of 1939.

Captain Albert Sammt, commanding officer of the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin.

During the war Albert Sammt worked for the DZR at Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in Friedrichshafen, where he helped build and maintain barrage balloons. Sammt did not approve of the Nazi government in the least, and in fact never joined the NSDAP. Dr. Eckener, who had been vocally critical of the Nazi regime in the past and enjoyed a strong degree of immunity from government persecution due to his considerable national and worldwide popularity, was still in a position of authority at the Zeppelin Company. Eckener saw to it that Sammt continued to have employment at Luftschiffbau Zeppelin throughout the war, and that he wasn't bothered by the Nazis for his political views.

In 1945, following the end of the war, the DZR was dissolved. Albert Sammt began yet another new career – at the age of 56 – with the Kohlenunion, a subsidiary of Raab Karcher. The petroleum company, as with most German companies, was trying to re-establish international business ties following the war. Albert Sammt, always a friendly, charismatic man, had an excellent reputation, both in Germany and abroad. Since he had good friends in the United States, had never supported the Nazi party in even the most nominal sense, and was well known as one of the last Zeppelin captains, the CEO of Raab Karcher created a position especially for Sammt. He acted as a sort of "business ambassador", meeting with key executives of various foreign companies to convince them to do business with Raab Karcher and its subsidiaries, despite the fact that the war had severely eroded trust between Germany and other industrialized nations. Sammt had special business cards printed up, with the familiar Zeppelin company emblem on the front, and then Sammt's name and his business address at Raab Karcher on the inside. Thus, over the next decade, Albert Sammt helped Raab Karcher to rebuild itself as an international purveyor of coal and oil.

On 3 November 1965 Sammt's wife Johanna passed away. In 1966, at the age of 77, he finally retired, and from 1967 through 1982 he lived in Überlingen am Bodensee. He spent his time gardening, strolling along the Bodensee, visiting with old comrades in nearby Friedrichshafen, and working on his memoirs. In 1969, on a hot July day with most of his family down by the seaside, Albert Sammt and his six year old great grand-niece Caroline sat in front of the TV and watched the first moon landing. Forty years later, she would still fondly and vividly remember how thrilled her Uncle Albert had been to see a man walk on the moon for the first time. "He was jumping up and down in front of the TV and was shouting with excitement and laughing with joy for hours!"

Albert Sammt in his later years.

In early 1982, Sammt's daughter moved him to Bad Soden in Taunus, where he celebrated his 93rd birthday. Several months later, on June 21st, 1982, Albert Sammt passed away. He was buried in his hometown of Niederstetten, where he had been an honored citizen since June of 1937. In July of 1982, the Albert Sammt Zeppelin Museum was established there in his memory.

Very special thanks to Dr. Caroline Cornelius, Albert Sammt's great-great grandniece, and to her father Dr. Carl-Detlef Cornelius for reading over this article and suggesting additions and corrections based on their own memories of Captain Sammt. Their assistance has ensured that a number of portions of the article, particularly those covering Sammt's post-Zeppelin life, are far richer and more detailed than they otherwise would have been.

One further note: Much of the information in this article (including the extended quotations) comes from Albert Sammt's excellent (albeit ghost-written) autobiography, "Mein Leben für den Zeppelin". Unfortunately, this book has never been translated into English, so the quotations here are my own translation.


Dan said...

What a great, detailed biography, and very much worth waiting for.

Thanks for another great contribution to zeppelin history.

Patrick Russell said...

Thanks, Dan. This one definitely took some time to put together, and I'm glad it came out okay.

Sammt sure led a fascinating life, and we're really lucky that he (like Bentele and a few other airshipmen) took the time to write his autobiography. That helped quite a lot when it came time for me to write this bio.

Unknown said...

I'm deeply impressed and stunned! My (grand-grand-)Uncle Albert lived at my grandmother's place in Überlingen when I was a child. At the age of 6, I had been so privileged to watch the moon landing with him (with all his enthusiastic comments).
During my childhood, I was just supposed to hear the "version for young readers" of his life stories. I never heard the full and true version of his biography - before I read your arcticle!
Thank you so much, Caroline

Patrick Russell said...

Caroline, I'm very glad that you found my article on your great-great Uncle Albert, and I'm especially glad that you liked it.

I enjoyed researching his biography, especially since I had a copy of the book he wrote several years before he died. There were so many great little stories that he included in his book that I have not seen anywhere else. And even though my German is not perfect, I could still easily see your great-great Uncle's sense of humor in his writing.

I can imagine how fun it must have been to watch the moon landing with him! He must have been very excited to see it happening, and also (I assume) fascinated by the technical developments necessary to have gotten a man on the moon in the first place.

Thanks for taking the time to comment here, and feel free to write me at my e-mail address if you want to talk more about your great-great Uncle Albert. I'll gladly answer any questions you might have about my research on him, and I'd love to hear any memories of him that you might like to share.

Take care,

Jeff Marschmeyer said...

Thanks Patrick for more detail on my Great Uncle. My Grandmother was Johanna's sister. I found out a couple of things while researching my family tree that Albert has a street and museum named after him in Niederstetten.

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Jeff,

Great to hear from you! I'm glad the article looks good to you, and that you learned some new things about your Great Uncle.

I knew about the museum in Niederstetten (and should probably include a link to the museum's web page, now that I think of it) but I didn't know that your he also had a street named after him there. Very cool indeed!

Drop me an e-mail at if you'd like. I'd be glad to talk with you more about your Great Uncle.

Be well,

Natalie said...

wow your its amazing!!!
i life in niederstetten and albert was a member of our old family i dont know how but he was^^ i search for such infos about him in web and ur articel is really the best i found!!
i didn't found anythin in german about him!!
so thank you for writing this!!!

Grates from Niederstetten

Anonymous said...


I stumbled across your article while I was researching my family tree and it brought back a lot of memories growing up in the Sammt Family. Memories and Stories were frequently exchanged and I actually wrote a paper on my great-grand fathers memoirs in High school. Thank you for this brilliantly written article!



Patrick Russell said...

Hi Jessica,

I'm really glad you enjoyed my article. Your great grandfather seems like he was a fascinating man, and it was a real pleasure to translate his story from his autobiography. I sure wish I could have met him!

Take care,

Anonymous said...

Hi - An excellent commentary - THANK YOU!

Len Baumann said...

I came across your biography of Albert Sammt and found it a fascinating and remarkable story. It is good to know that such a detailed record has been established for all time. Congatulations

My name is Len Baumann and I live in Durban, South Africa.
My mother, Sophie Baumann, (nee Sophie Schneider) was born in Niederstetten 19th September 1892, at that time a very small village. She came to South Africa at the age of 16 at the invitation of my Grandfather, Leonhard Baumann, born in Niederstetten 1856. She married my father Leonard Christian Baumann in 1922.
My Mother attended the local village school, also attended by Albert Sammt who was 3 years older. She used to revisit her Family in Germany from time to time and wrote the following comment in her memoirs about her 1930 visit, which might be of interest:

“We went to Friedrichshafen am Backensee where a brother of my school friend was Captain of the Zeppelin. Wilhelm arranged a meeting with Abert Sammt. He took us over the airship – very few people had flown in the Zeppelin. I shall never forget it. ”

As a young lad I noticed Albert Sammt’s contact details in my Mother’s German address book so it is possible that she kept in touch with an old school friend.

With Good Wishes
Len Baumann
March 2015

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing about my Great Grandfather! We still have his autobiography and I believe my mother has a dinner set from one of the zeppelins he flew. This article brought tears to my eyes, especially the photo of him in his later years. I was born 1 year before his passing and heard the stories about him and saw that photo always hanging up in our home. I wish his autobiography was translated to English. Thank you so much for preserving a part of my family history! Sincerely, Jennifer

Unknown said...

Such an interesting story! Did you know Captain Albert Sammt's missing hat insignia is coming up for auction this month? It was found that night by a member of the US Coast Guard. This is where I learned about it:
Thank you for documenting this history!