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 in the control car of L 30 during WWI
Hans 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 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 Hoff, Jr. and Louise Hoff at Lakehurst, 1929
Emil 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.
Emil 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.
The 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.
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.
The 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.
The 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.
Emil 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.
The 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.
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.
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.Philipp 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.
The 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:
Philipp Lenz Irene Doehner Marie Kleemann
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.
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.
P-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.