Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Kurt Schönherr

Crew Member

Age: Unknown

Hometown: Frankfurt, Germany

Occupation: Helmsman

Location at time of fire: Control car, rudder wheel


Kurt Schönherr was one of three helmsmen on the Hindenburg's final flight, the other two being Helmut Lau and Alfred Bernhardt. Schönherr had been flying on airships as a helmsman since 1913 when he began his career at the rudder wheel of early DELAG ships Sachsen and Hansa. Schönherr joined the German Naval Airship Division during World War I, and served aboard the L3 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Hans Fritz. The L3 held the honor of having been the first German Zeppelin over England on the evening of January 19th, 1915, when the ship, flying out of Fuhlsbüttel bei Hamburg along with the L4, crossed the British coast at Norfolk, and then turned south to bomb the port of Great Yarmouth.

Less than a month later, on the morning of February 17th, 1915, L3 left Fuhlsbüttel along with the L4 with orders to scout for enemy ships off the Norwegian coast. Four hours later, with one of the L3's three engines having failed shortly after takeoff, Kapitänleutnant Fritz radioed that he was turning back and returning to base. But gale-force winds from the south made it virtually impossible for the L3 to make significant headway. By late afternoon, the ship had managed to cover only 30 miles and was still miles north of the German border when a second engine failed. Fritz was able to use the ship's one remaining engine to turn the ship inland and crash-land it heavily on the Danish island of Fanø. None of the crew were injured, and Kapitänleutnant Fritz was able to destroy the ship's documents and set fire to the ship itself before he and the crew were captured. Thus, Kurt Schönherr and his crewmates spent the next three years as internees.

The crew of the L3 during their internment in the Danish town of Odense. Kurt Schönherr may be the man standing at right. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

After the war, Schönherr eventually returned to airships, joining DELAG again in 1927 as a helmsman and subsequently made every flight of the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin until the LZ 129
Hindenburg was commissioned in 1936. He transferred over to the new ship, still as a helmsman, and made every one of the Hindenburg's flights.

Kurt Schönherr prepares a basket of champagne to be lowered from the Graf Zeppelin to a steamship carrying the President of Brazil.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

His career with the Hindenburg got off to a rather rocky start, however, when on the morning of March 26th, 1936, the Hindenburg was walked out of her shed at Friedrichshafen for her 7th flight, which was to be a three-day propaganda flight over Germany at the behest of Dr. Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry. The Hindenburg's commander, Captain Ernst Lehmann, was concerned that the ship's departure had already been delayed by two hours because of unfavorable winds over the airfield that made it impossible for the ship to take off into the wind, as was standard practice. Rather than further delay the flight, Lehmann chose to attempt a risky downwind takeoff, which involved letting the ship's stern rise into the air so that ship would then be lifted by the tailwind hitting the lower side of her tail fins.

Unfortunately, as the ship began its downwind takeoff, a sudden gust coming over the top of the hangar caught the tail of the ship from above and slammed it down to the ground, smashing the lower rudder against the ground. The force of the impact violently tore the rudder wheel from Schönherr's hands, and he was thrown to the floor of the control car. Once the ship was brought back in for landing, Schönherr was sent to a local hospital to be examined, and while he hadn't broken any bones in the accident, his hands were bruised and swollen. Schönherr seems to have returned to the ship in time to be aboard once it was repaired and ready to fly again some six hours later.

During the Hindenburg's 1936 season, starting with the ship's sixth flight on March 23rd, 1936, when for the first time the Hindenburg carried mail, Kurt Schönherr served as ship's postmaster. He oversaw the loading and unloading of mail at the beginning and end of every flight, and also handled onboard mail sent by passengers and crew during flights. Schönherr performed these duties throughout the 1936 season, until navigator Max Zabel took over postmaster duties at the beginning of the 1937 season.

Kurt Schönherr was senior helmsman on the Hindenburg's first North American flight of the 1937 season. As was the case with most every other member of the crew, Schönherr noticed nothing out of the ordinary during the flight. His rudder wheel and all its connections functioned smoothly the whole time, and by the time the ship reached Lakehurst on the afternoon of May 6th, Schönherr had no reason to believe that this was anything more than the most routine of flights.

He went on his final watch of the flight at 6:00, as the Hindenburg cruised along the Jersey shore waiting for the weather to clear over Lakehurst so that they could land. As the ship finally came in to land at Lakehurst shortly after 7:00, Schönherr was at the rudder wheel. He watched as the two manila yaw lines dropped from the bow at approximately 7:21. He even heard the big coils hit the ground below.

Kurt Schönherr's location in the control car at the time of the fire.

Four minutes later, as the ship hovered just beyond the mooring circle, the occupants of the control car suddenly felt a shove, and like most of the rest of them, Schönherr thought that a rope had broken… until he noticed that it was becoming very bright above them, and he felt the ship take a steep tilt aft. As his comrades ran about the control car, looking for a chance to jump, Schönherr just held on to his rudder wheel and moaned in horror. As the ship came down towards the ground and rebounded on its landing wheel, Schönherr made his way to a small window on the forward port side of the control car, and jumped just as the ship collapsed to the ground. He stumbled as he landed, and the ship's framework fell over him.

Schönherr had noticed the ship lean to starboard as it collapsed, and figured that his best bet was to look for a way out on the port side. He found an opening almost immediately and dove out through the port side of the ship, got up, and stumbled clear of the wreckage. Willy von Meister, vice president of the American Zeppelin Transport Company, rushed up and helped Schönherr a safe distance away from the wreck. A pair of sailors then led Schönherr across the mooring circle and put him in a car that took him to the air station's infirmary.

As members of the ground crew run back toward the ship to begin rescue efforts, Kurt Schönherr (arrow) hurls himself from the Hindenburg's wreckage, arms outstretched.

Schönherr falls to the ground...

...and then picks himself up and stumbles to safety.

Two US Navy sailors lead Kurt Schönherr to an ambulance shortly after his escape. Walking just ahead of them is Alfred Grözinger, one of the ship's cooks.

Schönherr managed to escape the Hindenburg wreck with only minor injuries. He stayed in the United States for a little more than two weeks following the disaster, testifying before the Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry on May 20th, and then returning home to Germany a day or two later aboard the steamship Bremen along with a dozen or so of his fellow crewmen.

After a number of years as the captain of a merchant marine frigate, Kurt Schönherr retired in the small southern German village of Unterreitenau, where he passed away in 1969 in his late 70s.


Kurt Schoenherr said...

Curious if there is a relation there between us. As I know my ancestors lived in Magdeburg on the Elbe.

Patrick Russell said...

I wish I knew more about Schönherr's early background so that I could give you some useful information. Unfortunately, I don't have a birth date on him, nor a place of birth. But if I ever do come across anything like that, I'll be sure to post it here.