Friday, May 6, 2016

Recounting the Disaster - A letter from one Hindenburg survivor to another

                Gertrud Adelt                                         Marie Kleemann
Recently, I received an email from Mr. David Hogan. His great-grandmother, Marie Kleemann, was a passenger on the Hindenburg’s final voyage, and survived the disaster with only very minor injuries. (A full account of her escape can be found HERE.)

Mr. Hogan, in going through some family documents, had discovered a letter to his great-grandmother dated late 1937. The letter (or, more specifically, a typed transcript of what had likely been a handwritten letter) was in German, but Mr. Hogan noticed that the Hindenburg was mentioned a number of times throughout it.

I was able to translate the letter into English, and it turned out to be from a fellow Hindenburg survivor, Gertrud Adelt. Frau Adelt and her husband, both professional journalists from Berlin, had also survived the disaster (the Adelts' story can be read HERE.) In her letter, Frau Adelt recounted their narrow escape, and updated Frau Kleemann on the latest news about a few of their fellow survivors.

As today is the 79th anniversary of the disaster, I thought this might be something interesting to share…

Berlin, November 27, 1937
15 Hartmansweiler Way, Zehlendorf

We were very pleased to hear from you in such detail through your husband – please give him our sincerest thanks. I'll never forget how I last saw you at the hospital in Lakehurst. I just wanted to hug you – I was so happy that you'd been saved, and you kept shaking your head and saying sadly, “Isn't that horrible? Isn't that horrible?” Ah, certainly you no longer remember that, which is good.

Your husband described quite vividly the extraordinary manner by which you got out of the ship, and asked how we had saved ourselves. I hope it won't upset you too much to hear about all of this again. We were standing, as the first landing ropes dropped, at a window in the reading room and were waiting for the dropping of the next landing ropes. When the thud of the first explosion followed, I innocently believed that it was just part of the normal procedure. I looked at my husband – he was deathly serious. And at that same moment the ship crashed to the ground. There was a bright red glow outside the window, and we were flung against the room's inner [aft] wall, tables and chairs about us like moving barricades.

Mr. Knöcher stood beside us, praying aloud. My husband, however, shouted, “Out through the windows!” He grabbed me and we charged uphill toward the window. Whether we jumped together or one after the other, I don't know. It must have been, by our current estimation, seven meters high. We felt the sandy ground beneath us, sodden from the rain. We tried to run away, but when we landed we were still inside the glowing framework.

At one point, suddenly tired, I lay down as though dead, my face to the ground. But my husband came back and shoved me up, however in doing so he got a breath of the thick smoke from the now-ruptured fuel oil tanks and also collapsed. But he picked himself up again when he saw me running, and we found ourselves both together about twenty paces away from the ship and saw, to our horror, that it was now only a dark, smouldering skeleton.

Then, as my husband babbled nonsensical things (which a radio reporter caught on his microphone and broadcast the next day to his listeners as an “interview”) a large, heavy man came and shoved us, against my husband's wishes, into a car. In this car sat, among others whom I can't recall, Mrs. Doehner with both of her little boys, who were crying dreadfully.

I can still recall with almost scientific precision what I then saw in the hospital, and I wish to spare you that. Only one: We sat then in the same room as Captain Lehmann. He sat naked on some kind of gurney, rubbing his knee, and greeted us wearily. When my husband asked him, "Lehmann, what was it?" he said with a shrug; "Lightning strike." The strange thing was that I do not remember seeing any injuries on him. Likewise, we ourselves felt as though we only had abrasions, and apart from that were extraordinarily alert.

At midnight, we hadn’t seen my husband's youngest brother. Many other relatives were there. After we had gotten first-aid dressing, they loaded us into an automobile, intending to bring us to my brother-in-law's house in Mays Landing (New Jersey.) Along the way, however, my husband had a choking fit. We stopped into a tavern and asked after the nearest hospital, but the only thing nearby was a children's mental asylum. There, they admitted my husband to the small hospital's only single patient room. The treatment was very diligent, the doctor was excellent, and after two days my husband was out of mortal danger. However, his burns were dreadful. Nobody from the Hindenburg would have recognized him. As he returned to his senses, the atmosphere with the sometimes ghostly apparitions of the insane began to bother him. So after a ten-day stay, we took him to Mays Landing. There, we were devotedly looked after for seven weeks. The doctors were astonished. They had given my husband half a year before he would be ready to travel, but after just two months we were traveling homeward from New York. And our reunion with our small son then blotted out many things.

Since then, we have met with several of the survivors. Chief Steward Kubis was here recently, because his wife was operated on in a Berlin clinic. He had survived the burning of the Schwaben and other disasters; yet now he was crossing the street “Unter den Linden”, got hit by a car, and is now also in hospital.

Yesterday I received a distressing letter from the wife of Colonel Erdmann, who sat to your right at the [dining room] table, in which she asked about her husband's last days.

Currently, Mr. Spah, the artist, who was also aboard the airship with his shepherd dog, is here visiting the Scala [vaudeville theater]. He brought his whole family (three children!) along from Long Island, because since Lakehurst he doesn't like to be alone anymore. His nerves still don't seem to have recovered. However, his escape was as extraordinary as perhaps no other. For years as an eccentric comedian, he has performed the following trick: he comes onstage as a drunkard, and after various other jokes, he looks for a place to lie down. In his confusion, he climbs a lamp post, holds onto the lamp with one arm, and hovers “asleep” in the air while the lamp swings wildly back and forth.

This same trick saved his life. During the landing he stood at the window in the dining room, spotted his wife and children down there and began filming with his camera. Suddenly, there was a noticeable shock and he saw the reflection of fire on the spectators below. His arm with the camera was shoved through the celluloid window pane, so that he could not be thrown to the interior. With a single bound, the agile man swung himself out of the window, clung to the windowsill with one hand, exactly like he always does with his vaudeville lamp, and jumped when the ship had almost reached the ground. Other than a sprained ankle, which broke while he was running away, he sustained no injuries.

And the strangest thing: the camera was later found, the film was intact, and we have a copy of it. There are all sorts of (though not very good) pictures from the trip. The icebergs are there, and at the end of the film, during the crash, the camera recorded the flames. My husband was invited to speak last Sunday in Dresden about “Zeppelin Yesterday and Tomorrow” and showed this film, which has now become a unique document.

Now I have talked so much that you must certainly be very tired from reading. Please forgive me! It would be a great pleasure if we could see you again someday. It is so unbelievably wonderful that you can begin to live a second time, so to speak, where for so many it was an ending. My husband is sending you a little biography of Lehmann that might interest you. He also has written an appendix about the end of the Hindenburg for Lehmann's book “Auf Luftpatrouille und Weltfahrt,” which is in the new edition, in which you are also mentioned.

Would you please give your husband our best? And accept from us both many kind regards.

Signed, Frau A.

Special thanks to David Hogan for sending a scan of his great-grandmother’s letter for me to translate, and for giving me permission to post it here on Project LZ129.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Emil August Conrad Hoff, 1893-1979 (Part I)


Emil Hoff

This article and the one that follows may be a slight departure from Projekt LZ 129’s usual focus, but I felt that it was a story that deserved to be shared nonetheless. While it does indeed connect up with the Hindenburg story later on, it is the story of a German airshipman who, like so many of his comrades, flew with the German Naval Airship Division during the First World War, but was then prevented by circumstances from resuming his lighter-than-air career after the war. Though he managed to come close a few times, the opportunities for him to resume flying the giant Zeppelins never quite took hold. Nonetheless, I feel that his tale is certainly of interest to students of airship history, or anyone who just appreciates the uncanny twists and turns of those “cursed to live in interesting times”, as the old saying goes. And thanks to the generosity of his family and the photos and information that they were kind enough to share with me, I’m proud to be able to present, for the first time, an account of the life of Emil Hoff on this, the 122nd anniversary of his birth.

(In Part I, I examine Emil Hoff’s military career, during which he flew with one of Germany’s top airship commanders throughout much of World War I. I have taken the liberty of expanding the scope of the article to include additional information about German Naval Airship Division activities connected to Hoff’s story.)

Emil August Conrad Hoff was born in Altona-Hamburg on July 22, 1893. After attending public school from 1900 through 1908, he took an apprenticeship with a Hamburg grocer. For three years, during which time he worked strictly for room and board, he learned everything there was to know about running a grocery store. The grocer would teach him the various types of coffee and teas, rice, beans, potatoes and so forth, as well as how they were grown and the various ways they could be prepared.

After three years of apprenticeship, which included annual board exams, Hoff left the grocery store and took a position with a ship’s chandler at the Port of Hamburg. He spent the next year provisioning merchant ships, and when he turned 19 in the summer of 1912 he decided that he would enlist in the Navy as a way of fulfilling his mandatory military service. Hoff reported to Kiel for three months of infantry training, after which he was transferred to a signal company. He spent the next three months stationed in Friedrichsort, where he learned Morse code and the use of signal lights and flares. He also studied the fundamentals of navigation. By the end of the year, he had been promoted to the enlisted rank of Signalgast (the equivalent of the US Navy’s signalman) and was serving aboard the Deutschland-class battleship SMS Pommern.

DVM 10 Bild-23-61-21SMS Pommern

Following three weeks of maneuvers with the I and II Squadrons of the German High Seas Fleet, the Pommern sailed with the rest of II Squadron to Vikö, Norway on its annual summer cruise. However, the ship received a preliminary mobilization order on July 25th, only a few days after they had arrived. II Squadron was ordered to return to Kiel immediately. The crew of the Pommern spent the the rest of that day and night refilling the ship’s coal supply, and the following day they raised anchor and sailed for their home base. Along the way, the Pommern and the rest of II Squadron was shadowed by British warships, however since the two countries were not yet officially at war, the two fleets merely observed one another.

War was declared between the Allies and the Central Powers two days later, on July 28th, 1914. The Pommern, however, did not see major action for nearly five more months. In mid-December of 1914, the High Seas Fleet, under the command of Admiral Friedrich von Ingernohl, provided support for Konteradmiral (Rear Admiral) Franz von Hipper as he took a strike fleet to bombard the northeastern English coast, from Hartlepool to Scarborough. The SMS Pommern and II Squadron were part of von Ingernohl’s forces.

On the evening of December 15th, as the weather on the North Sea began to quickly deteriorate, the signal lights that ran up the Pommern’s mainmast shrouds became entangled and could be neither raised nor lowered. Emil Hoff, who had by this time been promoted to Obersignalgast, had to climb the mast to the short yardarm above the crow’s nest and disentangle the lines. With the wind gusting so badly, Hoff had to keep his feet wrapped tightly around the mast in order to keep from falling. In doing so, he injured his foot.

Immediately following the Hartlepool raid, the Pommern was dispatched to the Baltic Sea to hunt down enemy submarines. The weather was bitterly cold and Hoff’s foot, which had not had time to heal, developed a bone infection which led to blood poisoning. Upon the Pommern’s return to Kiel, Hoff was sent to a hospital in Cuxhaven, where his foot finally received the treatment it needed. Doctors lanced his foot to the bone and inserted rubber tubes to drain off the infection. Emil Hoff remained in hospital for the next six months.

Obersignalgast Hoff took advantage of this long period of recuperation by studying for the examinations for his Signalmaat (signal mate) rating, which would make him a noncommissioned officer roughly equivalent to the US Navy’s petty officer, third class. Another Obersignalgast was also in the hospital with Hoff and this man, who was from the HMS Bremen, was also studying for his Signalmaat rating while he was laid up. In the end, of the ten men who took the examinations, only the two from the hospital, Hoff and the man from the Bremen, passed their exams.

Emil Hoff WWI (cropped)Signalmaat Emil Hoff - 1916

When he was released from the hospital, rather than returning to duty on the SMS Pommern, Emil Hoff was transferred to the 8th Signal Company. This very likely saved his life, as the Pommern would later be blown in half and sunk by a torpedo strike during the Battle of Jutland in the early morning hours of June 1, 1916, with the loss of her entire crew.

Instead, Hoff would be ordered to the Zeppelin base at Nordholz, where he would join the Imperial Navy’s new Marine-Luftschiff Abteiling (Naval Airship Division). Under the overall command of Fregattenkapitän Peter Strasser, the Naval Airship Division was building up its fleet of airships and needed good men to crew them. Hoff trained to be an elevatorman, and was assigned to a training crew under Kapitänleutnant Gerhold Ratz. After two months of classroom instruction, in the late summer of 1915, Hoff and the rest of his crewmates began to make training flights on the L 14.

l 14Naval Airship Division school ship L 14

One of the most demanding of all airship crew duties, the elevatorman’s job was to control the airship’s pitch and altitude through skillful handling of the elevator wheel, which in turn operated the control surfaces on the ship’s horizontal tail fins. The elevatorman would stand at his wheel facing the port side of the control car so that he could feel the angle of the ship with his entire body. The ability to do this well was the mark of a gifted elevatorman, far moreso than the ability to judge the pitch of the ship via instruments. The elevatorman would also coordinate with the rudderman, who would call out prior to changing the airship’s heading so that the elevators could be applied to prevent the ship from rolling or nosing up or down during the turn.

L59 Elevator Control Stand

The sideways-facing elevator control stand on a wartime Zeppelin, L59.
Note the altitude navigation instruments.

During training flights, the L 14 would carry two apprentice elevatormen. One would man the elevator wheel while the ship ascended, and the other would control the wheel while the ship landed. On one of his first flights, Emil Hoff was assigned to takeoff duty, which meant he was to man the elevator wheel during takeoff, climb to approximately 2,000 meters, and then level the ship off. Standing directly behind him was the L 14’s commander, Kapitänleutnant Alois Böcker and Dr. Hugo Eckener, the Naval Airship Division’s director of airship crew training and senior advisor to Fregattenkapitän Strasser.

Eckener von Zeppelin and StrasserHugo Eckener (left) and Peter Strasser (right) with Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, circa 1916.

As one of Germany’s top Zeppelin pilots and a confidant of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin himself, Dr. Eckener was considered one of the foremost authorities on what made a good airshipman. For Emil Hoff, the prospect of having his ship handling scrutinized so closely by Dr. Eckener and Kapitänleutnant Böcker was rather sobering. As he would later recall, “I was really scared to have such big shots breathing down my neck.”

BockerKapitänleutnant Alois Böcker

But evidently Hoff didn’t do too badly, especially given his lack of experience as an elevatorman. His training continued apace and over the next year at Nordholz, Hoff not only gained experience at the elevator wheel, but he was also trained as a rigger. The riggers were another vital part of the crew, as they maintained the airship’s gas cells, the interior bags that held the airship’s lifting gas. Hoff was taught how to gauge the fullness of each cell by feel and by the way they hung in their individual bays. In this way, he could tell how much lift each gas cell would provide, how much additional gas would be needed to top them off and so forth. Prior to every flight, he would make a full inspection of all cells and provide the ship’s commander with a written report.

In addition, he was responsible for filling the cells with hydrogen and of determining the purity of the hydrogen in each cell. This was important, because maintaining a high level of gas purity was vital to the safe operation of a hydrogen airship. The Germans took no chances with this, and maintained purity levels of 95% or higher. Lower purity meant that a higher percentage of oxygen was mixed in with the hydrogen, thus making it more easily combustible and potentially even explosive. Hoff was also charged with valving gas from the gas cells during flight as required and ensuring that the valves were closed and dry when not in use. Wet gas valves could sometimes freeze open at high altitudes, and the ship would lose valuable lift as its hydrogen uncontrollably vented.

The training flights continued throughout 1916, once or often even twice a day. These flights would last between an hour and a half to two hours, generally at altitudes of 2,000 feet or less. Hoff’s proficiency at his flight duties increased, and then in the summer of 1916 he went to Cuxhaven to receive machine gun training along with a group of others – among them Obersignalgast Adolf Fuchs, who would go on to serve as an elevatorman on the L 57 and the L 59 under Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Bockholt. All Zeppelin crew members needed to be able to man the ship’s mounted machine guns to ward off enemy aircraft, which had begun to use incendiary ammunition – deadly to the hydrogen-filled German airships. Hoff and his comrades received standard military instruction in how to fire and maintain the airship’s machine guns.

In March of 1917, Emil Hoff was selected by Kapitänleutnant Martin Dietrich to join the crew of his new command, L 42. In late December of 1916, Dietrich had been in command of the L 38 and was flying from the airship base at Alhorn to the Russian front, where he was to bomb Reval. The ship was forced down near Libau by a winter storm, completely covered with heavy ice and with gas cells pierced by ice chunks being thrown by the propellers.

L 38 wreckThe wreckage of L 38 near Libau, December 1916. The ship is laying on her side,
and the shuttered bomb bays can be seen along her lower keel.

Though the wreck was purely due to the inclement weather, the ship’s elevatorman, Signalmaat Hellbach, blamed himself for the crash to such an extent that he suffered a nervous breakdown. When Dietrich was given command of the L 42 in February of 1917, he needed to find himself a new elevatorman.

M DietrichKapitänleutnant Martin Dietrich

Kapitänleutnant Dietrich contacted the training division and requested the best elevatorman they had. Emil Hoff, having maintained an impeccable training record, was personally recommended by both Kapitänleutnant Ratz and Dr. Eckener himself. Dietrich selected Hoff as his new elevatorman, and he joined the crew of the L 42 on March 16, 1917, with a bombing raid on England scheduled for that night. (Coincidentally, Dietrich, commanding the L 22 at the Battle of Jutland, had witnessed the destruction of Hoff’s old ship, the Pommern.) Hoff, experiencing a true “trial by fire,” would later remember very little about that first flight under Kapitänleutnant Dietrich. Not only was he flying directly into England’s coastal defenses, but Fregattenkapitän Peter Strasser, the Führer der Luftschiffe for the Naval Airship Division, was aboard as an observer. “I did not know what was what,” he would recall. “You have no idea what I was feeling.”

LZ 38 - LinnarzAn artist’s impression (based on crew recollections) of the control car of a wartime Zeppelin – Army airship LZ 38, under the command of Hauptmann Erich Linnarz. At left, holding binoculars, an officer (likely the ship’s executive officer) keeps watch for enemy aircraft. Behind him, also facing to the left, is the elevatorman. The rudderman stands at the forward end of the control car with his back to us. Hauptmann Linnarz stands at center right, holding the ship’s speaking tube, and a mechanic climbs down the ladder from the ship’s hull at right.

But the raid that night was successful, and Hoff soon became a seasoned member of the crew. Friendships naturally developed, and one of the men with whom Hoff became close was Obermaschinistenmaat Karl Nordmann. Nordmann’s main duty was to assist the sailmaker in maintaining the ship’s gas cells and valves, much as Hoff had done during his training and would continue to do during his service aboard the L 42.

L 42L 42

Nordmann was also proficient in the operation and maintenance of the Maybach engines that propelled the ship, and would assist the engine crews in the event of serious breakdowns. Each engine was tended by two mechanics, who had been specially trained on the ship’s high-altitude motors at the Maybach Motorenbau in Stuttgart. Hoff would later remember many of these men: Maschinistenmaate Ernst Weiss and Carl Lauterbach, Obermaschinsten Messer, and Maschinisten Hayn, to whom the engine crews reported.

In addition to manning the elevator wheel, Hoff was also tasked with doling out rations of Cognac to the crew. The L 42 was one of the Naval Airship Division’s “height climbers”, designed to fly above the range of enemy anti-aircraft fire and fighter planes. When the L 42 would climb above 1,500 meters (4,000 feet) the temperature would drop precipitously due to the high altitude, and the commander would order that each man be given a shot of Cognac to ward off the cold – one shot per man, per flight. Since some of the members of the L 42’s crew did not drink, Hoff would sometimes give some of his closer friends an extra shot.

There was the usual scuttlebutt that filtered its way through the ranks. In the summer of 1917, Hoff heard a particularly interesting story. Plans were then underway to send the L 57 to Africa to resupply Generalmajor Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops, who were the last holdouts against the British in German East Africa. The idea was for the Zeppelin to be flown from the Germans’ southern-most airship base, at Jamboli in Bulgaria, to Lettow-Vorbeck’s location in Mahenge in Tanzania. There, the Zeppelin would offload its cargo of arms and supplies and then itself be cannibalized and its parts used to make everything from boots and tents to a radio station. As it was to have been a one-way flight, the crew would then join Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces as infantrymen.

L 57L 57

As the story has always been told, even in Dr. Douglas Robinson’s painstakingly researched and highly regarded reference volume, The Zeppelin In Combat, command of the L 57 and its Africa mission was given to Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Bockholt due to his having been a relatively junior officer. Since the ship’s commander would join the crew as part of Lettow-Vorbeck’s infantry, likely for the remainder of the war, Naval Airship Service command did not want to lose one of their more seasoned airship commanders.

Ludwig BockholtKapitänleutnant Ludwig Bockholt

However, quite a different story was relayed to Emil Hoff by one of the mess stewards at Nordholz. The way it was told to Hoff, Kapitänleutnant Dietrich and Kapitänleutnant Bockholt had been in the base officers’ casino where, in the presence of Fregattenkapitän Strasser, they had gotten into a particularly heated argument over which of them would command the L 57 on its Africa flight. As Hoff would later recall, “They drew matchsticks and Bockholt won. Just think, if Dietrich had won I’d have gone to Africa!”

Wreck of L57 at Jueterbog - October 8, 1917 (cropped) 
Wreckage of L 57 at Jüterbog, October 8, 1917

In the end, the Africa mission fell short of its goal. In September of 1917, L 57 was wrecked in a ground handling accident. Bockholt was assigned the L 59 as a replacement, and the mission was delayed until late November. When L 59 was a little more than halfway to its destination, Bockholt received a recall order from Berlin, based on erroneous intelligence that indicated that Lettow-Vorbeck had been overrun. L 59 returned to her base in Jamboli.

Crew of L 59 after Africa flight 
Crew of L 59 after returning from the Africa flight

Meanwhile, L 42 continued to fly missions, and by this time the Allied fighter planes were becoming an ever greater threat. Emil Hoff’s comrade, Obermaschinistenmaat Nordmann, designed and built a special machine gun platform for the L 42 to be suspended from one of the ship’s main rings just astern of the aft engine gondola. With a sheet metal windscreen to protect the gunner against the engine’s prop blast the platform, which was generally manned by Bootsmannsmaat Martin Bishoff, would serve as additional defense against enemy planes.

The dangers aboard a Zeppelin did not come strictly from enemy attacks, however. During one flight, Emil Hoff was conducting an inspection of the L 42’s gas cells and had to pass Nordmann on the narrow keel gangway. Nordmann was on the telephone to the control car, and Hoff tried to swing himself past. Hoff’s foot slipped and he began to fall toward the ship’s cotton outer covering below. He was caught by some rigging wires and Nordmann grabbed him and pulled him back up onto the gangway.

Hoff was dazed by his near miss. “My heart was spinning. I could picture myself falling through the ship’s envelope.” Nordmann gave Hoff oxygen from the ship’s Dräger oxygen apparatus, and within a few minutes Hoff’s head had cleared and he was able to resume his gas cell inspection.

On another flight, a raid over England on the night of May 23-24, 1917, the L 42 encountered severe weather and Kapitänleutnant Dietrich had no choice but to order the ship to proceed through the storm. Suddenly, the entire ship was lit up by a bright blue flash as a bolt of lightning struck the ship, exiting through the aft portside propeller. The weather continued to buffet the ship, which was struck by two more bolts of lightning before her mission concluded and she arrived back at her base at Nordholz the following morning. The aft port propeller through which the first lightning bolt had left the ship was removed and later cut into small, highly polished pieces which were distributed among the crew as mementos of their having survived a direct lightning strike on their airship.

The bombing raids themselves were a testament to the training and skill of the L 42’s crew. As the Zeppelin neared its target, Kapitänleutnant Dietrich would determine the target area as well as the altitude at which the ship would make its approach. Their position was marked and maintained by Steuermann Guteseit, the ship’s navigator, and Leutnant zur See Eisenbeck, the Executive Officer, would serve as bombardier, watching the approach to target through the ship’s bomb sight and checking the wind direction. He would provide the rudder man, Bootsmannsmaat Jarowchinski, with specific directions to their target, and each time he turned to port or starboard Jarowchinski would call out the direction to Emil Hoff, who would compensate for the turn on the elevator wheel to keep the ship level. Finally, the ship’s bombs having been dropped, Steuermann Guteseit would calculate the optimal course back to base.

Once they had made it back to base, Hoff would bring the ship in for landing. By now he had become quite a steady hand at the elevator wheel. He would later recall:

“One of the little tricks I used when coming in for a landing was to always keep the tail just a little low. I kept two ballast bags full in the back, just enough to keep it a little bit heavy there, so that the tail would hit the ground first, not the gondolas. Kapitänleutnant Dietrich would give the orders for landing and Leutnant zur See Eisenbeck would notice the tail heaviness on the vernier scale. Dietrich didn’t know the tail was heavy and he would chase Eisenbeck away from me – he told him to leave me alone and let me land the ship.”

It turned out, however, that as high profile as the bombing missions were, the L 42 actually spent most of its time serving in a capacity to which Zeppelins were infinitely more suited – aerial reconnaissance.

“Altogether, I made five flights to England. However, we made many scouting flights over the North Sea. On these reconnaissance flights we carried a crew of 24 men, while on the England flights we only had 21 men. This was to save weight and allow us to attain greater height. On one occasion, in late 1917 or early 1918, we were out scouting over the North Sea for six weeks. That is, we had three ships out on watch, three ships sleeping and three ships on the way as relief. We stayed out for about 12 hours every day for six weeks, looking for the British fleet. This was during the time we thought they were coming and we were constantly watching for them.”

One bombing raid that Hoff remembered particularly vividly took place on March 13, 1918. A flight of five Zeppelins, led by Führer der Luftschiffe Strasser, had made a raid on England the night before on March 12, with limited success. Strasser ordered another raid, and the following morning the L 42 took off from her base at Nordholz, joining up over the North Sea with L 52 and L 56 out of Wittmundhaven.

“We got our orders to go to England. We left the shed at Nordholz at about 11:00 in the morning and went right up. The weather was very nice and visibility was good. Late in the afternoon, as we approached the coast down near the London area, we met British cruisers and torpedo boats. We were at about 5,000 feet, fairly low, when all of a sudden we saw them shooting at us. Kapitänleutnant Dietrich yelled, “Hoff! Up!! Up!!” But I couldn’t go up just like that. I had to get away first. So, we slipped away and slowly rose while they continued to shoot at us. We finally got free of them in about 3,000 – 4,000 more feet. Then we came upon the British coast.”

“We soon came upon a lumber ship, Danish or Swedish or something, and we tried to bomb it – but we missed. As it started to get dark, we crossed the coast at Flamborough Head at about 6,000 feet and then proceeded to cross over Middlesex and the Midlands. At this point we were ordered back – all ships to return. But the L 42 was already over England and we had excellent weather conditions, very cloudy but with good moonlight. Dietrich and Eisenbeck decided to attack Hartlepool.”

Kapitänleutnant Dietrich would later be very frank about the fact that he had chosen to disobey what amounted to a direct order when the ship received Strasser’s radio message, “To L 42. Revolving shed. Führer der Luftschiffe.” Dietrich would later explain, “We had seen two convoys and were maneuvering to attack the second one when the recall came in. We thought we could bomb them before Starting back to Nordholz, but then the English coast came into sight. It was too much! It had been a year and a half since we had had a chance to raid England, and now, with the island in plain sight, we were being ordered to go home without attacking. ‘We’ll keep going,’ I said to my executive officer. But I knew it had to be a success. If I failed, I would have to quit the service.”

So, Dietrich kept the L 42 off the coast for the next 40 minutes or so, waiting for darkness to fall. As it did, the crew could see the English coastal towns lit up brightly – clearly, nobody there was expecting a Zeppelin raid. Once Dietrich ordered the L 42 toward Hartlepool, at 10:05 PM, the British anti-aircraft defenses opened up on them. Hoff once again tried to make the L 42 as difficult a target as possible.

A Zeppelin caught in searchlights during a raid over England.

“We were fired on for over an hour by anti-aircraft guns. Their shots went over us, under us, beside us. Jarowchinski kept yelling, “I turn port!” and “I turn starboard!” as we took evasive action to avoid the shells. We finally dropped our bombs on Hartlepool from about 6,000 meters (19,700 feet) and then Jarowchinski followed the course back toward Ahlhorn.”

In the space of about ten minutes, the L 42 had dropped twenty-one bombs on West Hartlepool, destroying a number of buildings and doing £14,280 worth of damage. Eight people on the ground were killed in the raid, and 29 others were injured.

“On the return, we ran into very bad weather. We dropped down to about 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) but the wind made it very rough. We came near to what we thought was Borkum and dropped down very low, to about 300 meters. Borkum has a little railroad which we saw and then we knew for sure exactly where we were. The old man gave the order, “Antenna out!” so that we could listen to what was going on. The radio man, Funkentelegraphist Heinrich Wilkan, soon heard the L 52 reporting in and asking permission to land at Wittmundhaven. Not long after that, he heard the L 56 also asking permission to land, They’d spent the whole night out in the bad weather over the North Sea while we’d flown back from Hartlepool! So, the L 42 also reported in and asked permission to land at Nordholz. We saw the three sheds at about 9:30 in the morning, but the weather was still very bad. We couldn’t enter our own shed due to a cross wind, so we were ordered to the revolving shed.”

Zeppelins returning from a raid 
A trio of Zeppelins returning to base after a bombing raid over England, circa 1917.

“We came into Nordholz, dropped over the fence, and settled down on the field just like a lame duck. Then the ground crew pulled us into the revolving shed. That night, as tired as we were, Bischoff, Wilkan and I quickly finished our duties and then went off to the little town of Lüdingworth together for a little relaxation.”

Dietrich, despite the success of his Hartlepool raid, fully expected to be disciplined for disobeying the order to return to base. “Strasser was a stickler for regulations,” he would later say, “and I wondered what kind of trouble I’d be in. When I saw he was not out on the field [when the L 42 landed] according to his usual custom, I prepared for the worst.”

In the end, Fregattenkapitän Strasser listened coolly to Dietrich’s verbal report on the raid, then slowly smiled and said, “In honor of your successful attack, I name you Graf von Hartlepool (Count of Hartlepool).” Dietrich’s disobeying of orders was not mentioned in Strasser’s report, and in fact the Hartlepool raid was noted in Dietrich’s service record by the Kaiser himself as “Very gratifying!”

By the summer of 1918, however, the war was already as good as lost for Germany. In early June, the L 42 was reassigned as a training ship, and Dietrich and his crew, including Emil Hoff, were temporarily without an airship. It may have been just as well for them.

On August 5, 1918, despite the war being all but over, Führer der Luftschiffe Strasser ordered a group of five Zeppelins on a bombing mission against London. The raid would be conducted by L 53, L 56, L 63, L 65, and the brand new L 70 with Strasser himself aboard. That evening, as the airships approached the English coast, L 70 was met by a trio of British planes and shot down. Strasser and the entire crew died as the L 70 fell in flames off the coast of Norfolk. Six days later, L 53, under the command of Korvettenkapitän Eduard Prölss, was shot down by a ship-based Sopwith Camel off the coast of Terschelling, again with the loss of all hands. This effectively ended the Naval Airship Division’s active role in the war.

strasser1            Prölss
Führer der Luftschiffe Peter Strasser                  Korvettenkapitän Eduard Prölss

The day before Prölss and L 53 were shot down, Kapitänleutnant Dietrich and his crew were assigned to another of the latest airships to come out of the Luftschiffbau at Friedrichshafen – the L 71. However, with the Naval Airship Division having been all but withdrawn from action, the L 71’s service was limited primarily to practice flights. Emil Hoff remembered one of these flights.

“One time we had the L 71 out on a practice flight and were coming in to make a landing. We were over the hangar and very low, about to make a landing, when the wind came up and suddenly slid us sideways. Dietrich tried to grab the controls and raise the ship – which would, of course, force the tail down onto the hangar. I hit his hands away and he didn’t say a word. Then we slid just over the hangar. Dietrich looked around, but said nothing. It was not his business at all. Had he raised the ship, the tail would have surely gone down and crashed into the hangar. I knew he wasn’t mad, as afterward he thanked me for the fine way that I had handled the ship.”

L 71L 71

When the war ended a few months later, Emil Hoff was discharged from the German Navy and returned home to Hamburg. The Navy’s remaining Zeppelins would be awarded to the Allied nations as part of the war reparations for which Germany was liable under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. L 71, now hung up and deflated at Ahlhorn, was given to England along with L 64. Both airships would later be scrapped by the British due to limited hangar space. The old L 42, also scheduled to be handed over to the Allies, never made it. On June 23, 1919, the Zeppelin crews at Nordholz and Wittmundhaven entered the hangars where their airships had been deflated and hung from the rafters awaiting the final division of the spoils of war among the Allies. The crewmen pulled away the supports beneath their ships and loosened the suspension tackles, allowing the fragile structures to fall to the hangar floor. Absent their lifting gas, the fall of but a few feet was enough to break the Zeppelins’ keels and crush their framework beyond repair. L 42 met her fate alongside the L 63 in the Nordholz “Nogat” hangar.

L 42 wrecked in hangarL 42 lies wrecked on the floor of her hangar at Nordholz, June 23, 1919.


L 71  Alarich shed Nordholz, October 1918L 71 in the “Alarich” shed at Ahlhorn, awaiting delivery to England.


Martin Dietrich's war flagKapitänleutnant Martin Dietrich’s battle flag, flown from each of his wartime Zeppelins.



I would like to thank Emil Hoff’s daughter, Louise Robertson, and his grandson, Raymond Robinson, for providing me with the material on which I was able to base my research into Hoff’s life, both as an airshipman in Germany during WWI and as a representative of Tidewater/Veedol Oil here in the United States during the post-war years.

One of the most valuable sources of information for this first part of Emil Hoff’s story was a piece called “The Story of a Zeppelin Elevatorman”, written by Richard Duiven and Ed Folz, and based on interviews that they had conducted with Hoff about his experiences flying for the German Naval Airship Division in the First World War. I could not have gone into nearly the depth of personal details about Hoff’s time as an airshipman that I was able to without the time and effort that Duiven and Folz put into gathering Hoff’s recollections.

Additional information about German Naval Airship Division actions in WWI, as well as many of the  accompanying photos. were drawn largely from THE ZEPPELIN IN COMBAT, by Dr. Douglas Robinson.

Emil August Conrad Hoff, 1893-1979 (Part II)


Emil Hoff 1941

In Part I of my article on Emil Hoff, I presented the story of his wartime experiences as a Zeppelin elevatorman, as well as additional historical context that delved into some of the details surrounding a variety of the persons, airships and military actions connected to Hoff’s lighter-than-air career.

In Part II, we will take a look at Hoff’s life following the war, and the efforts he made to remain close to the ongoing Zeppelin enterprise and the men who flew the vast German passenger airships of the 1920s and 1930s. It was Hoff’s hope that he would one day be able to resume his place at the elevator wheel of a Zeppelin, but as we will see, fate seemed determined to keep that goal just beyond Hoff’s reach.



Emil Hoff, had served with distinction in the German Naval Airship Division in World War I. However now, with the Naval Airship Division disbanded and their airships being divvied up among the Allies as spoils of war, and German passenger airship operations being conducted only on a limited basis (and ultimately halted altogether under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles) Hoff’s career as a Zeppelin elevatorman seemed to have come to an end. The big question was, what next?

In 1917, Emil Hoff had married Hedwig Kunst in Kiel, and on January 23, 1918, they had a son, Gunther Paul Friedrich Hoff. After the war ended, Hoff moved the family back to Hamburg where he and Hedwig would have two more children - Irmgard Louise Mathilda Hoff, who was born on July 5th, 1920, and Gerda Auguste Hoff, who came along the following year on July 25th.

However, the Hoffs’ marriage seems to have ended sometime in late 1922 or early 1923, and Emil Hoff decided to emigrate to the United States. He signed aboard the S.S. Real, a freighter that sailed out of Kiel, serving as a steward. The S.S. Real departed Kiel for New York on February 21, 1923 under the command of Kapitän Johann Elfers and with a crew of 36. She arrived in New York a month later on March 22nd, and made her return trip one crewman short.

Emil Hoff had jumped ship, and within a week he had a job at the Tidewater Oil Company, working in their filling and packing department at the Tidewater refinery in Bayonne, NJ. After three months at the refinery, Hoff transferred to duty aboard one of Tidewater’s tugboats, the S.H. Edwards. He served as a steward and cook aboard the Edwards for the next two years, hoping to be naturalized as an American citizen.

However, in the summer of 1925, Hoff discovered that under the provisions of new immigration laws that had been passed the year before, he could not become a US citizen working as a seaman on a tugboat running in New York Harbor. He could, however, remain in the United States without full citizenship, though he would not be able to vote. Hoff resigned from his position with Tidewater in August of 1925, and found work elsewhere. He also remarried.

Emma Anna Auguste Thumann had been born on May 9, 1903 in Odisheim, Germany. Crossing the Atlantic on the ocean liner America, 18 year-old Emma had emigrated to the United States the year before Hoff arrived, on April 8, 1922. The couple were married in a civil ceremony on February 7, 1926 in Rockland County, New York. A church service followed the next day, Sunday, February 8, 1926 at St. Paul’s Church in Nanuet, New York, where they were married by Pastor Steffans.

The Hoffs lived in Jersey City, NJ, and over the next couple of years they had two children together. Emil Frank William Hoff was born on December 23rd, 1926, and his sister Louise Katherine Bertha Hoff followed a year and a half later on June 6, 1928. At this time, Emil Hoff was working as a motorman on Jersey City’s Montgomery Avenue streetcar line.

Later that summer, word came that the Germans were going to fly their new passenger Zeppelin, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, across the North Atlantic and dock at the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst. Under the command of Hoff’s old mentor, Dr. Hugo Eckener, the Graf Zeppelin was due to sail from Friedrichshafen, Germany on September 11, 1928 and arrive at Lakehurst on September 15th, crossing the ocean in a mere four days – Hoff’s trip to New York aboard the S.S. Real five years earlier had taken a whole month, and even his wife’s steamship voyage aboard the America six years before had taken eleven days.

Hoff could not pass up the opportunity to drive down to Lakehurst to watch the new ship land, and to see some old friends. Not only was Dr. Eckener going to be commanding the Graf Zeppelin, but a number of old friends and acquaintances would be aboard as crew, including Hans von Schiller, who had served during the First World War in the German Naval Airship Division as Executive Officer to Kapitänleutnant zur See Horst von Buttlar-Bradenfels (L 6, L 11, L 30, L 54). Von Schiller would fly aboard the new LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin as a navigator.

Hans von Schiller WWI     Hans von Schiller in the control car of L 30 during WWI


    Hans von Schiller aboard Graf ZeppelinHans von Schiller aboard Graf Zeppelin, circa 1929

It wasn’t merely out of curiosity and a desire to see old friends that compelled Emil Hoff to drive to Lakehurst to see the Graf Zeppelin, however. Since the end of the war, Hoff had wanted to find a way to get back in the air as an airship crew member. Unfortunately, the only Zeppelin-type airships being flown in the United States belonged to the US Navy, which Hoff couldn’t join since he wasn’t a United States citizen. But since the Germans were now flying passenger airships across the ocean, it was reasonable to assume that the Americans might also begin to do the same. Since Lakehurst was where the action was, Zeppelin-wise, Hoff needed to be there when the Graf Zeppelin landed.

Unfortunately, Hoff’s work schedule with the streetcar line conflicted with his plans to visit Lakehurst when the Graf Zeppelin arrived. So, when the time came and he was still unable to work it out with his employers to take the time off, Hoff decided upon the simplest solution to his problem – he quit his job.

Meanwhile, the Graf Zeppelin was out over the North Atlantic fighting squally weather that was bad enough that the outer covering on the lower side of her port tail fin had been ripped loose. As temporary repairs were made, Dr. Eckener reluctantly ordered that a radio message be sent to the US Navy Department to request assistance. Once the repairs had been successfully completed, however, Eckener sent a second message that assistance would not be needed after all. Of course, this did not stop the American press from capitalizing on the drama of moment, and all across the country the newspaper headlines had the Graf Zeppelin “fighting for her life at sea.”

Emil Hoff, having driven down to Lakehurst, now waited with the rest of the large crowd of onlookers. Among them was E.C. Blackman, an automotive engineer with the Tidewater Oil Company, Hoff’s former employer. Tidewater had been contracted to restock the Graf Zeppelin with their Veedol brand of motor oil for her return flight to Germany, and Blackman was there to help with the loading of the oil. But there was a problem – Blackman spoke no German. Since Hoff was a native German speaker and was personally acquainted with Dr. Eckener and a number of the Graf Zeppelin’s crew members, Blackman hired him on the spot to act as the Tidewater provisioning crew’s official interpreter.

After the Graf Zeppelin landed, safe and sound except for large portions of fabric missing from her port tail fin, Hoff was reunited with a number of his old Zeppeliner friends, including Dr. Eckener and his son Knut, who stood watch aboard the Graf Zeppelin as an elevatorman. Hoff continued to maintain contact with his Zeppelin comrades after they returned to Germany. That year, he received Christmas letters from Dr. Eckener and Knut, along with photos of themselves and the Graf Zeppelin.

Dr Eckener and Knut Eckener 1928Dr. Eckener and his son Knut enjoy breakfast at the Warwick Hotel in New York City in October, 1928, following the Graf Zeppelin’s first flight to the United States.

The Graf Zeppelin would not return to Lakehurst for the better part of a year, and Emil Hoff was determined to secure employment that would allow him access when the ship did return. He took a position as a laborer at Tidewater’s Bayonne, NJ refinery on November 8, 1928, and left the position two days later, only to take another position a week later with Tidewater’s sales department. He then moved to Tidewater’s aviation division as an airport attendant servicing and fueling airplanes. Whenever the Graf Zeppelin (and later her sister ship, the LZ 129 Hindenburg) visited the United States, Hoff was assigned to lead the service crew in loading Veedol Oil aboard the ship. This would later become a regular duty when the Hindenburg inaugurated regular passenger service to the United States in 1936, and in between her visits Hoff would drive trucks and serve in various general utility jobs at the Tidewater bulk plant in Passaic.

In August of 1929, the Graf Zeppelin flew to Lakehurst to begin her historic flight around the globe. Hoff, of course, took his refueling crew to Lakehurst to top off the Graf’s motor oil tanks. After the ship landed, Knut Eckener spotted Hoff among the crowd of men servicing the craft and the two spent some time catching up. When young Eckener learned that Hoff had a 14 month old daughter, he insisted upon becoming the little girl’s godfather. Hoff happily accepted his friend’s offer, and the following day Louise Hoff was christened right there in Lakehurst’s vast Zeppelin hangar, beneath the airship that was about to make history with its circumnavigational flight.

Emil Jr. and Louise Hoff - Lakehurst 1929Emil Hoff, Jr. and Louise Hoff at Lakehurst, 1929


Refueling Graf before Weltflug, 1929Emil Hoff assists members of the Graf Zeppelin’s crew in replenishing one of the ship’s Maybach engines with Veedol motor oil just prior to the 1929 flight around the world. From left to right: Albert Sammt (navigator), Emil Hoff (in white overall), Albert Thasler (chief mechanic, standing inside engine car) and Hermann Pfaff (flight engineer.)

Hoff’s role in that historic flight was not quite over, however. After the Graf Zeppelin departed Lakehurst for her eastbound global flight, Hoff was immediately sent west. After her flight over Europe, Russia, China and (after a stopover at Kasumigaura in Japan) the Pacific Ocean, the Graf Zeppelin would be landing at Mines Field in Los Angeles. Hoff was to oversee preparations to replenish the airship’s supply of Veedol motor oil prior to her flight across the United States and back to Lakehurst.


Hoff - LA - Graf ZeppelinEmil Hoff arrives in Los Angeles prior to the Graf Zeppelin’s visit. From left: H.W. Wickstrom (asst. chief engineer, Associated Oil Co.), Alec Harris (chief Pacific Coast engineer, Veedol Oil), Emil Hoff, and Charles Kay, Tidewater Sales Corp. manager)


After the Graf Zeppelin had been refueled and reprovisioned for the next leg of her flight, Hoff was almost witness to a disastrous end for the Graf Zeppelin. Upon her arrival, the airship had encountered a temperature inversion that had made the ship unexpectedly light, and the crew was forced to valve large amounts of hydrogen in order to make the ship heavy enough to land. Unfortunately, the emergency release of so much extra gas had not been anticipated, and as a result there was not enough extra hydrogen at Mines Field to top off the Graf Zeppelin’s gas cells.


LZ 127 reprovisioning at Mines Field - 1929The Graf Zeppelin being reprovisioned at Mines Field on August 26, 1929. Note the stacks of pressurized hydrogen cylinders at the base of the mooring mast, and the inflation sleeve running up along the right side of the mast to a connection in the bow of the ship.

Not wanting to delay the flight. Dr. Eckener decided, therefore, to take off as scheduled. To make up for some of the loss of lift, several crew members were sent ahead to Lakehurst via train, and fuel and water ballast were reduced to the absolute minimum. The Graf Zeppelin took off with only about 400 pounds of lift. Emil Hoff and the rest of the spectators watched as Dr. Eckener tried to gain enough lift to get the ship aloft by running the engines up to full speed – with the Graf Zeppelin flying straight toward a row of power lines at the end of the airfield.

It was only the skill of Dr. Eckener and his crew that averted what must have looked like a certain fiery end for the Graf and all aboard. At the last moment, the elevatorman put the ship’s bow up, just enough to clear the power lines (and to dig a trench in the ground with the lower tail fin.) Then, cutting it just as closely, the elevatorman brought the tail up, and the lower fin slid above the power lines with very few feet to spare. Hoff and the others no doubt breathed a heavy sigh of relief as the Graf Zeppelin flew on toward Lakehurst.

Though he was still a long way from his goal of resuming his career as a Zeppelin crewman, the technical expertise he had developed flying for the German Naval Airship Division during the World War served him well nonetheless. In addition to being in charge of Tidewater’s Veedol motor oil service for the Graf Zeppelin, Hoff had also worked with Blackman and others at Tidewater to develop a gasoline straining system to filter water and sediment out of the 4,000 gallons (12 tons) of fuel as it was being pumped aboard the Graf Zeppelin prior to her round-the-world flight.


Hoff with fuel strainer, August 1929 (cropped)The filtration device that purified the Graf Zeppelin’s fuel. From left, E.C. Blackman, Maurice Prendiville, and Emil Hoff (in white overall.)

However, the Graf Zeppelin would only return to the United States twice more following her round-the-world flight. Her overall volume having been dictated by the dimensions of the Friedrichshafen hanger in which she was built, she was deemed to be far better suited to flights across the South Atlantic than to the more volatile weather conditions along the North Atlantic route.

Graf Zeppelin after Weltflug at LakehurstThe Graf Zeppelin lands at Lakehurst following its flight around the globe.

The success of the Graf Zeppelin’s circumnavigational flight, however, generated enough interest in the United States’ business community that Dr. Eckener and several American businessmen formed a corporation to explore the possibility of establishing a joint German-American transcontinental passenger airship service. The International Zeppelin Transport Company, incorporated in October of 1929 and officially launched in March of 1930, would have been a perfect avenue for Emil Hoff to make his way back into lighter-than-air operations. Unfortunately, between the onset of the Great Depression in October of 1929 and the fiery crash of the hydrogen-filled British airship R-101 a year later in October of 1930 (along with the ensuing public relations nightmare), the International Zeppelin Transport Company was unable to make any real headway and the planned passenger airship line never materialized.

Emil Hoff continued his work with the Tidewater company. The Graf Zeppelin once again visited the United States in May of 1930, it was as part of a “triangle flight” in which it flew from Germany to Lakehurst via Rio De Janeiro and then back again to Germany, in part to test out possible service routes for the planned international airship service. The Graf would not make another flight to the U.S. for another two and a half years, and this time she would stop in Akron, Ohio rather than Lakehurst. Emil Hoff, not wanting to miss a chance to catch up with his German comrades, drove with a friend to Akron. It would be the last time the Graf Zeppelin would ever visit the States.

Graf Zeppelin at Akron, 1933The Graf Zeppelin in the hangar at Akron, Ohio in 1933.

Emil and Emma Hoff’s family, meanwhile, continued to grow. Edward Max Theodore Hoff was born in Hillside, NJ on March 27, 1930 and his brother Fritz August Heinrich arrived several years later, just before Christmas, on December 20, 1934 in Passaic. Two years after that, Emma would give birth to another daughter. Gertrude Anneliese Emilie was born on October 9, 1936.

In 1936, when the Graf Zeppelin’s new sister ship, the LZ 129 Hindenburg entered service, she made 10 round-trip flights to Lakehurst between the months of May and October. Emil Hoff once again headed up the Veedol crew who provided the new ship with its motor oil. And of course, Hoff was able to reconnect with some old friends from the Graf Zeppelin’s crew, who had transferred over to the new ship, including Albert Sammt (former navigator and now watch officer), Chief Rigger Ludwig Knorr, Chief Electrician Philipp Lenz, and engine mechanics such as Richard Halder, Eugen Schäuble, Raphael Schädler and Willy Dimmler.

Hoff and Veedol crew with Hindenburg mechanicsEmil Hoff (far right, in white overall, hat and tie) poses with his Veedol service crew and three of the Hindenburg’s engine mechanics (grey overalls, unidentified except for Hermann Rothfuss at far left) and an unidentified female spectator during one of the Hindenburg’s 1936 vists to Lakehurst. The aluminum platform shown here was lowered from the ship’s keel just near the access catwalks that led to the aft engine cars, one of which can be seen in the background at upper right.

The success of the Hindenburg’s first season of passenger flights not only ensured an expanded round-trip schedule for the following year, but it also rekindled interest in the possibility of a joint German-American passenger airship line, a venture that had lain dormant for more than five years. Over the winter months, a newly formed version of the defunct International Zeppelin Transport Company, now named the American Zeppelin Transport Company, was established to serve as the stateside operations support for its German equivalent, the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei (German Zeppelin Transport Company.) The AZT would handle all passenger bookings, mooring and reprovisioning operations and public relations for the Hindenburg for the 18 round trips to Lakehurst scheduled for the 1937 season. The potential for the AZT to expand to include yet-to-be-built American passenger airships was not lost on Emil Hoff. For the first time in almost 20 years, a very real possibility existed that he might finally be able to resume his career as a Zeppelin pilot.

Hindenburg landing at Lakehurst, 1936The Hindenburg drops water ballast as it lands at Lakehurst in 1936.

The first Hindenburg arrival of the new season was scheduled for 6:00 AM on May 6th, 1937. Hoff and his crew made ready for the drive down to Lakehurst, but by Wednesday it was announced that the airship had been delayed by headwinds out over the North Atlantic, and the landing would instead be rescheduled for 6:00 PM. The New Jersey weather deteriorated throughout the day on May 6th, and electrical storms across the state were severe enough that many of the state’s rubber factories were closed for the day out of concerns that the electrically charged atmosphere might generate static sparks that could ignite the factories’ stocks of carbon black and other rubber compounds.

Hoff and his Veedol crew drove down to Lakehurst and made preparations to load the Hindenburg’s fresh supply of motor oil. The ship was now half a day behind schedule and had a full booking of 72 passengers for its return flight, many of whom were on their way to England for the coronation of King George VI on May 12th. The ship would, therefore, need to be reprovisioned and prepared for its return voyage in record time. The day’s tight schedule became still further complicated when the thunderstorms that had plagued the state moved in over the Lakehurst Naval Air Station just as the ground crew were mustered out onto the field at approximately 5:30 PM. The Hindenburg flew out to the Jersey coast to ride out the inclement weather.

The Veedol service team on this occasion included a member of the sales team named James Pilkington, who had won an opportunity to tour the Hindenburg during her brief stay. However, as civilians were not allowed to board the airship while she was in port, Hoff issued white Veedol coveralls to Pilkington and his friend, Rich Truman, and put them to work on the service crew. As the afternoon passed on into evening, the two men assisted Hoff and the others in preparing the large 55-gallon drums of motor oil to be pumped into the Hindenburg’s onboard storage tanks. They lowered heating rods into each drum and shook the drum back and forth until the thick SAE 50 oil was heated to the viscosity of an SAE 10, so that it would more easily flow through the service pipes and into the ship’s storage tanks.

Finally, at approximately 7:00 PM, the weather began to clear and the Hindenburg appeared over the air station. Hoff and his crew prepared to begin loading the motor oil onto the ship the moment she was on the ground and the service platform was lowered from her belly. They stood on the sandy field and watched as the airship, now almost directly overhead, dropped her ropes and waited for the ground crew to pull her down to the mooring mast.

Hindenburg - final landing approach (lo res)The Hindenburg hovers over the Lakehurst landing field, minutes before the fire.

Suddenly, without warning, flames shot out of the side of the Hindenburg’s hull just forward of her tail fins. Hoff and his men began to run for their lives. James Pilkington, noticing that Rich Truman was paralyzed with fear, grabbed his friend’s arm and urged him to run. The tail of the Hindenburg hit the ground seconds later. The Veedol crew all made it to safety, however, and Emil Hoff watched as the Hindenburg, with so many of his friends aboard, crashed to the ground, afire from stem to stern. The forward section of the hull collapsed on the airfield within about half a minute of the first signs of fire.

Hindenburg fire (lo res)The Hindenburg bursts into flame and falls to the ground.

Once the ship was on the ground, Hoff raced toward it in hopes that he might be able to find somebody to rescue. As he walked alongside the mass of glowing wires and girders, he thought he saw somebody in what had moments before been the ship’s electrical generator room. He ran forward and called out, and a man emerged from the wreckage. It was his friend Philipp Lenz, the Hindenburg’s chief electrician. Hoff helped Lenz clear of the wreck and led him over to a group of sailors, who were beginning to load survivors onto the back of one of the baggage trucks to be driven to the air station’s dispensary.

Lenz in truck following rescuePhilipp Lenz, center, examines injuries to his hand as he and other survivors arrive at the dispensary.

Once he had seen Lenz to safety, Hoff returned to the wreckage and found a group of the Hindenburg’s crew (including steward Fritz Deeg, navigators Eduard Boetius and Christian Nielsen, and watch officer Captain Walter Ziegler) who were, along with members of the Lakehurst ground crew, preparing to enter the remains of the passenger decks to assist survivors. According to the stewards, there were still several passengers still in the dining salon up on A-deck. The Hindenburg’s hull had landed in such a way that the portside observation windows still hung about 15 feet above the ground, and the B-deck windows were right at ground level where they could be used to enter the wreck. Hoff and several others made their way through these windows and climbed up to the dining room which, by some odd whim of the flames, was, for the moment, mostly intact.

Hindenburg wreckThe Hindenburg wreck lies burning on the Lakehurst airfield, shortly after collapsing to the ground. The large dark patch on the wreckage is the fabric beneath the observation windows of the passenger decks. It was here that Emil Hoff and other rescuers climbed into the wreckage at ground level.

The room was choked with smoke, however, and it was hard to see. The first person Hoff spotted was a a teenaged girl sitting at a table, dazed and disoriented. She was 14 year-old Irene Doehner, traveling with her family back to their home in Mexico City. Her mother and two younger brothers had already escaped through one of the dining room’s large observation windows. Irene had refused to jump with them, however, and had gone looking for her father (who, sadly, never made it out of the wreck alive.) Now, she was too stunned to speak and, Hoff quickly noticed, was horribly burned.

He put out the fire on her back and arms as best he could and led her over to the observation windows. After helping her up onto the broad window sill, he tried to get her to jump to safety, but she was either hesitating or else too stunned to understand. A young Hindenburg steward, Eugen Nunnenmacher spotted them from the ground and called up to the girl to jump. Finally, she leapt into Nunnenmacher’s outstretched arms, her clothes having begun to burn again. As Nunnenmacher and several other rescuers doused the flames and dragged the girl to safety, Hoff turned to look for other passengers.

Sitting in one of the couches just next to the observation windows was Marie Kleemann of Bad Homburg, Germany. On her way to visit her sick daughter in Andover, MD, Frau Kleemann had been watching the landing maneuver from the couch at the time of the fire, and had remained seated throughout the crash. Other than a few minor bruises and burns, she was almost completely unharmed. Fritz Deeg led her out to the gangway stairs and walked her down to safety.

Nearby, Otto and Elsa Ernst, an elderly couple from Hamburg who had traveled on the Hindenburg mainly due to their love of flying and of new experiences, lay bruised and bleeding where they had been thrown to the floor when the ship had tilted steeply aft during the crash. Hoff and others helped the Ernsts toward the central gangway area, where Fritz Deeg met them after having led Frau Kleemann to safety. Deeg and another man took the Ernsts downstairs as Hoff and the others returned to look for more survivors.

The fire was now finally beginning to take hold in the dining room. Hoff and the others saw a woman sitting on the floor with her back to the dining room’s aft wall. Margaret Mather, was traveling from Rome to Princeton, NJ to visit her brother and her niece. Much like the Ernsts, she had been thrown halfway across the dining room by the sudden aft-ward tilt of the floor, and she now sat there dazedly watching the flames. One of the rescuers called to her, “Come out, lady!” and after groping for her handbag, she stumbled over to them. Her hands were burned, but the heavy coat she wore had protected her from the fire. She followed the Ernsts downstairs and out of the ship.

There wasn’t much time left now, and the fire had spread too far for Hoff and the others to safely reenter the dining room. As they peered through the vapors looking for any last survivors, they heard somebody moving and saw a man sliding his way down the tilted floor toward the doorway. It was William Leuchtenberg, a German immigrant who now operated a New York company that supplied gas filter systems. One of the crew members called out to Leuchtenberg, asking if he could make his way to one of the windows to jump. When Leuchtenberg answered that he could not, they told him to slide further along the floor toward them. He did, and they were able to grab hold of him and pull him out into the gangway area, where they led him out of the ship, badly burned but alive.

Hoff couldn’t see or hear anyone else in the dining room, and the fire in the passenger area had now intensified to the point where it was time to leave. Beginning to feel the effects of smoke inhalation, Emil Hoff made his way back out of the wreckage.

The people whom Emil Hoff helped lead to safety following the Hindenburg crash:

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  Philipp Lenz               Irene Doehner          Marie Kleemann

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            Otto and Elsa Ernst                       Margaret Mather     William Leuchtenberg

Emil Hoff was hospitalized after the disaster for treatment of smoke inhalation and minor burns suffered while rescuing passengers. In all he had helped to save seven people from the wreck. All but two of them would survive their injuries. Irene Doehner was already too badly burned by the time Hoff found her, and she died in the hospital later that night. Otto Ernst, though quite not as badly injured, passed away ten days later. At age 77, the strain of recovering from his wounds was probably just too much for him.

For his bravery in entering the Hindenburg wreck to rescue survivors, Emil Hoff was awarded the Lebensrettungsmedaille - the German life-saving medal, by the Berlin government. Al Smith, editor of the New Jersey Herald News, also submitted Hoff’s name to the Carnegie Hero Fund in consideration for a medal.

Unfortunately, the Hindenburg crash put a serious (and ultimately permanent) crimp in Hoff’s plans to resume his career as an airshipman. Though the US Commerce Department’s Board of Inquiry concluded that the disaster was most likely an accident – leaking hydrogen ignited by a static electric “brush discharge” – the Graf Zeppelin was grounded on its return to Germany from a flight to South America, and the new LZ-130, scheduled to begin flights in autumn of that year, never carried a paying passenger. The United States government, concerned about Germany’s increasing militarization, refused to sell them helium for their airships, and no insurance company would underwrite another hydrogen-filled passenger airship. The age of the Zeppelin was over.

Hoff continued to work with the Tidewater Company, and later in 1937 he spoke with Congressman George N. Seger about his desire to become a naturalized citizen. Seger suggested that Hoff go to Ellis Island in New York and try to get his citizenship issues resolved once and for all. He did so the following year, meeting with a Mrs. Gardner, who was in charge of the German section of the immigration department. Hoff provided her with all of the papers that she asked him to produce. And yet, nothing came of any of it. It turned out that Ellis Island had lost most of Hoff’s papers, and Hoff met several times with Ellis Island officials to try to get the matter straightened out.

Finally, in March of 1941, immigration officials at Ellis Island returned some of the documents that Hoff had submitted, including the Declarations of Intention (“first papers”) for Hoff and his wife, as well as Hoff’s record of employment with Tidewater. With Germany at war and the United States being drawn toward involvement in the conflict, Ellis Island officials advised Hoff to leave for a neutral country until the war was over. Since Hoff had to sail under a German passport, there was a very real danger that he could be removed from the ship by the British. He was further advised, therefore, to bring his family along with him, since his children were all officially German citizens.

Hoff family passport photo - 1941 (greyscale - lower res)The Hoffs’ family passport photo, 1941. Back row, from left: Emil, Jr., Louise. Center row from left: Emil, Edward, Emma. Front row, from left: Fritz, Gertrude.

Emil Hoff and his family, therefore, booked passage to sail to Spain aboard the Spanish liner Marquis de Carmillos on June 13, 1941. When they reached the pier in Brooklyn, NY, however, Hoff was held back by immigration officials and told that if he were to board the ship he would almost certainly be taken off by the British, due to his being a former WWI Zeppelin pilot. He still needed to get his wife out of the country, however, as she wasn’t a naturalized American citizen either. So Emma and the children sailed to Spain without him as Hoff went to see the British Consul General at his office on Broadway in New York City to see about resolving his problems with British authorities. His efforts there were for naught.

A few weeks later, in July of 1941, Hoff met with a Mr. Bush at the New York Custom House. Bush referred Hoff to the Interventional Committee in Washington, D.C. There, he met with a Mr. Alexander, who advised Hoff that his best bet at this point was to get a job with the German Embassy. Given increasingly deteriorating relations between the two countries, it was presumed that the US and Germany would declare war on one another sooner or later, and that the German diplomats and their staff would be sent home to Germany.

So, on August 1, 1941, Hoff took a job as a night telephone operator and watchman at the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. When the United States entered the war in December of that year, Hoff and other Germans from the Embassy were interned at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

But once again, things did not proceed nearly as smoothly as Hoff had hoped they would. While he was preparing to leave the country with the other Germans in May of 1942, the FBI agent in charge of the interned Germans at Greenbrier, a Mr. Pohl, received a telephone call from Washington, D.C. saying that Emil Hoff would have to stay in the United States. Hoff met with Pohl and the two ranking German diplomats at Greenbrier, Charge d’Affiares ad interim Dr. Hans Thomsen and First Secretary Dr. Wilhelm Tannenberg. In the end, it was decided that Hoff would go back to Germany with the rest of the Embassy staff, but that he would be free return to the USA at any time.

Hoff therefore joined his family in Germany that summer and he and Emma had another daughter, Ilse Auguste Martha, in Hamburg the following May. As the war raged throughout Europe, Hoff’s eldest son from his first marriage, Gunther, flew with the Luftwaffe as a Messerschmitt pilot. He was killed in battle and buried at the military cemetery in his hometown of Kiel

In 1945, after the war was over and Germany was occupied by the Allies, Emil Hoff, worried about the effect that the post-war chaos would have on his children, arranged for them to be evacuated to the United States, where they went to live with family friends in Santa Clara County in California’s Bay Area. Hoff, his wife and their German-born baby daughter had to remain in Germany for the time being.

In November of 1945, Hoff returned once more to Nordholz, the site of his old Zeppelin base in WWI. Now, however, he took a job as an interpreter and store room keeper for the American occupational forces. The US Army Air Force had established an Advance Landing Ground (ALG) at the Nordholz airfield from which the P-47 Thunderbolts of the 86th and 406th Fighter Groups flew air defense missions over the Bremen area. Hoff would remain here for another four years until his immigration issues could be sorted out.

Nordholz - 406th_Fighter_Group_P-47_Thunderbolts_June_1945P-47 Thunderbolts of the US Army Air Force 406th Fighter Group at Advance Landing Ground R-56, Nordholz in June of 1945.

Finally, in early 1951, Hoff received word that everything was in order and that he could return to the United States. March 1, 1951 Hoff, his wife and their daughter Ilse arrived in New York on a Polish ocean liner, the MS Batary, He and Emma were admitted as permanent residents the following day, and they joined the rest of the family in Northern California, settling in San Jose.

Emil Hoff became a full American citizen in 1953. He worked for San Jose’s local school corporation in their maintenance department, and raised homing pigeons in his spare time. His grandson, Raymond Robertson, remembers, “When we visited, we all knew we were close to Grandpa’s when we spotted the birds circling his neighborhood.”

Hoff was also interviewed periodically by local newspapers about his heroic actions in rescuing survivors from the Hindenburg wreck. On the 30th anniversary of the disaster, in 1967, Hoff recalled to a reporter how quietly the fire had begun. “It was just like the old-time matches you strike on your pants—all of a sudden, ‘phht!’—just like a big box of matches, and that’s all the sound there was. And then she burned and laid down almost on me, pretty near like a lame horse.” The journalist also noted that “The Zeppelin is not forgotten by Emil Hoff. The walls of his modest home in San Jose are covered with pictures and clippings from the days of the silver leviathans.”

Emil Hoff passed away on August 31st, 1979, following a prolonged illness. Even all those years later, his connection to the golden age of the airship was not forgotten by his community—the headline of his obituary in the San Jose News read, “Hero of Hindenburg disaster dies at 86.” Hoff’s wife, Emma, had passed over a decade earlier, on December 16, 1966. They are buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in San Jose, CA.


I would like to thank Emil Hoff’s daughter, Louise Robertson, and his grandson, Raymond Robinson, for providing me with the material on which I was able to base my research into Hoff’s life, both as an airshipman in Germany during WWI and as a representative of Tidewater/Veedol Oil here in the United States during the post-war years.