91: The Hindenburg

It was an event that was compared to the sinking of the Titanic, except when the Hindenburg crashed it was caught on film…ending the promising industry of commercial airship travel. This week we’re comparing history with the 1975 Oscar-nominated film that shows one of the conspiracy theories about the cause of the disaster.

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About The Hindenburg

Legend has it that the first Olympic Games took place in Olympia during the year 776 BCE. Historians have evidence of the first records from the games—well, game. During that year, the only event at the Olympics was a footrace, won by a cook named Coroebus.

Since then, the Games have taken place every four years…at least, in theory. There have been times we know of when they didn’t take place on their traditional schedule. For example, when Theodosius I stopped them in 393 CE while trying to push Christianity in Rome. But it was in 1896 when the modern Olympics took off with 280 participants from 13 nations around the world competing in 43 events. That’s the one we refer to now as Olympics I.

Even in the modern-day history, the Olympics haven’t taken place on the schedule of once every four years.

In 1916, as the world was plunged into The Great War, competing in the Olympic events took a back seat to the death and destruction.

They resumed for a brief period before, again being canceled in 1940 and 1944 due to World War II.

The first Olympic Games after World War II were hosted in London, taking place from July 29th through August 14th in 1948. After two brutal wars, the Games offered a chance for life to get back to normal—well, as much as can be expected, I suppose.

During the 1948 Olympics, a young American sailor named Michael Mooney was one of six Americans aboard the Llanoria yacht who earned 5,472 total points, after the discard, to edge out the Argentinean team for a Gold Medal in the 6 Metre sailing event.

After the Olympics, Michael would turn to another passion—writing. Throughout his illustrious career as a writer, Michael would write eight books and numerous articles as the editor of Harper’s magazine.

If there’s one book he’s perhaps best known for, though, it’s his book that was the basis for the movie we’ll be covering today. Released in 1972, Michael had already sold the movie rights to The Hindenburg before it was even published.

Then after publishing The Hindenburg, Michael took up sailing again, winning a World Gold Medal in 1973.

Two years later, in 1975, the movie edition of his popular book starring George C. Scott was released as a smash hit, going on to be nominated for three Oscars.

Both the book and, by extension what we see in the movie, tells the story of a conspiracy to blow up the now-famous Hindenburg. But how much of that is true?

Learn the true story of The Hindenburg

The movie opens with some historical footage from Universal Newsreel dated 1937. I tried to find that exact reel, but unfortunately couldn’t—that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist though. Universal Newsreel was a real service that offered clips of news from around the world and offered it up to the public, usually before movies in the theater since TV wasn’t a thing back then.

In this footage, though, we get a lot of details about the history of dirigible balloons—you might know them now as zeppelins, blimps or, as we’ll refer to it throughout this episode, airships. Those are all different terms for essentially the same thing. Yes, there’s technical differences, but let’s not get too sidetracked from the point of this episode.

After a brief history of early pioneers in hot air balloon technology, which is pretty accurate, the newsreel talks about the massive size of the Hindenburg. The narrator continues, saying it’s three football fields long, almost ten miles, or about 16 kilometers, of duralumin girders, and 16 giant cells containing over 7 million cubic feet, or just under 200,000 cubic meters, of hydrogen that they use to lift her 242 tons of luxury into the clouds.

That’s all pretty accurate.

The airship known as Hindenburg was designed and built as the LZ-129, or the Luftschiff Zeppelin registration number 129, by the Zeppelin Company. Not to get too far sidetracked, but since the movie does briefly mention it correctly, that company was named after Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who first began working on rigid airship prototypes in the 1880s.

One of Count von Zeppelin’s earliest associates was a man named Hugo Eckener.
In 1929, the Zeppelin Company began work on what it would call the LZ-128. But then the following year, a British airship called the R-101 crashed, killing 48 people. The Zeppelin Company realized that nearly all of the deaths aboard the R-101 came after the crash itself—it was because the R-101 was filled with extremely flammable hydrogen.

Attempting to avoid this, they scrapped their plans for a hydrogen-filled LZ-128 and began working on an airship that could support helium. Basically that meant she’d have to be even bigger and hold more gas. So work on LZ-129 began in 1931. She’d get her name after the German president, Paul von Hindenburg, who was president from 1925 until passing away in 1934.

Unlike the plans for 5,307,000 cubic feet of hydrogen in the LZ-128, the Hindenburg held, like the movie states, over 7 million cubic feet. Or 7,062,000 to be a little more precise. That’s about 200,000 cubic meters.

Although the movie is correct in showing that the Hindenburg wasn’t filled with helium. That’s because the United States had a global monopoly on helium at the time and they didn’t want to export it to Germany, fearing it’d be used for military purposes. So even though the Hindenburg was planned for use with helium, she ended up being used with the more flammable hydrogen.

And since we’re talking about the Hindenburg’s design, she was 803.8 feet, or 245 meters long and had a diameter of 135.1 feet, or 41.2 meters.

That’s about four times the size of the two active Goodyear Blimps, which are 192 feet, or 58 meters, long. Or if you’ve never seen the Goodyear Blimp, for another comparison it’s about three times longer than the newest variant of the 747 jumbo jet, which is just over 250 feet long, or about 76 meters.

For some historical comparisons, the Titanic was 883 feet long, or 269 meters. So if Titanic was the most luxurious way to travel the oceans, then Hindenburg was the most luxurious way to travel the skies between continents.

She was faster, too. Titanic traveled at a cruising speed of about 21 knots with a max speed of about 24 knots. That’s 24 mph or 39 km/h cruising and 28 mph or 44 km/h max speed. By comparison, the Hindenburg’s cruising speed was 76 mph, or 125 km/h with a max speed of 84 mph or 135 km/h.

As a little side note, there is a point in the movie when one of the passengers getting ready to get on the Hindenburg gets frustrated at the baggage checks beforehand and mentions she should’ve taken the Titanic instead. That’s a reference I don’t really get because, as we all know, Titanic sunk in 1912 before the Hindenburg was ever built. So, yeah, I’m comparing their size, but it’s not like passengers could’ve chosen between one or the other.

Going back to the movie, there’s a bit of text on screen that says it’s April 17th, 1937. During this scene we don’t see much. It’s just someone writing a letter. We see the words “Zeppelin” and “Hindenburg”, but there’s not much more than that.
Then in the next scene we’re on the receiving end of the letter, which we find out is the German Embassy on April 21st. That’s when we also find out the woman who wrote the letter is someone named Kathie Rauch, who’s played by Ruth Schedson in the film. We find out later in the movie that Mrs. Rauch is apparently clairvoyant, but the point of this letter is to alert the authorities of a bomb threat on board the Hindenburg.

That’s made up—at least, I couldn’t find any proof of a Mrs. Rauch or a letter that indicated there might be a bomb on board. But then again, the movie’s credits call her Rauch while the subtitles of the film call her Rausch. So while I realize that’s not conclusive, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess she’s a made up character.
Not only that, but as far as I can tell there’s no evidence that the German officials or anyone, really, was trying to secure the Hindenburg because of a potential bomb on board for this particular flight. At least no more than usual. You see, even though the Hindenburg was used for Nazi propaganda it’s not like the Nazi Party was loved by everyone in Germany. So because of its status as being a sort of face of the party, it got its fair share of bomb threats.

After the introduction to the idea that there might be a plan to blow up the Hindenburg with a bomb, we’re introduced to Franz Ritter, who’s played by George C. Scott.

Franz Ritter was originally written into the movie’s screenplay as Kessler. He’s a fictional character based on someone named Colonel Fritz Erdmann. The real Colonel Erdmann was on board the Hindenburg for her last flight, but there’s no evidence to suggest he was there for security purposes like Ritter is in the movie. He was on board the Hindenburg as a military observer, something both American and German military personnel often did. After all, the Hindenburg was cutting edge technology.
What we do know is that Colonel Erdmann was the commandant of the aviation section of the German Military Signal Communications School, in Halle an der Saale, and he also wasn’t the only member of the German military on board the Hindenburg. Also on board were Major Hans-Hugo Witt and Lieutenant Claus Hinkelbein, both members of the Luftwaffe.

Soon after meeting George C. Scott’s Franz Ritter, he’s assigned to the Hindenburg by David Mauro’s version of Joseph Goebbels. Unlike Ritter, Goebbels really was the Propaganda Minister for Nazi Germany.

And while the movie doesn’t mention it at all, this brings up an interesting point because before her final flight, the Hindenburg was used by Nazi Germany quite a bit for propaganda purposes.

To learn more about that, let’s go back in time a bit.

Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels offered Hugo Eckener of the Zeppelin Company 2 million marks to help with the costs of completing LZ-129. That was in 1934. Then the following year, not to be outdone by Goebbels, another Nazi leader, Hermann Göring, gave them another 9 million marks on the condition that the Zeppelin Company be split up into two separate companies. One would be responsible for creating the airships while the other, half-owned by the national German airline, would be responsible for operating them.

This effectively removed Hugo Eckener from running the airships he was building and instead put the Nazis in charge of their operations. So when she was completed, LZ-129 or the Hindenburg, quickly became known as a symbol for German technological prowess and a tool for Nazi propaganda.

On March 4th, 1936, Hindenburg’s first flight lasted for three hours and six minutes. It was rather uneventful, but was the first of a few test flights—all of which she passed with flying colors. Her first flight with passengers on board took place on March 23rd, 1936 as she took 80 people, mostly reporters, from Friedrichshafen to Lowenthal. That’s only about a mile, or 1.6 kilometers.

After this, Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda used the Hindenburg for a three-day mission to garner support for Hitler’s militarizing of the Rhineland. After a particularly windy first day, March 29th, her ground crew lost control and the Hindenburg’s lower fin was damaged when it hit the ground. It was quickly repaired, though, and for the next few days broadcast German music and propaganda supporting Hitler while dropping leaflets suggesting people vote “Yes” for the referendum to remilitarize the Rhineland.

Of course we don’t know how successful it would’ve been without the Hindenburg’s part, but we know from history that vote ended up passing with 98.8% in favor.
She was also used for propaganda purposes at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, soaring above the stadiums as millions of citizens and visitors attending the games from around the world watched in amazement.

Going back to the movie’s timeline, we learn that the Hindenburg left the Frankfurt Airfield on Monday, May 3rd, 1937. At least, that’s according to the movie. And according to the movie, it’s bound for Lakehurst, New Jersey.

That’s all correct.

We didn’t really talk about it at all, but the 1936 season for the Hindenburg was rather uneventful. There were a total of 17 roundtrips for the Hindenburg from Frankfurt in Germany to Lakehurst in the United States.

Then, on May 3rd, 1937, she took off for what would be her final flight. Of course, no one knew it at the time. In fact, that was her first flight in the 1937 season filled with 18 roundtrip flights planned through November.

Again, something the movie doesn’t really touch on are the costs. But it was $450 one-way from May to August and $400 per passenger each way for flights the rest of the year. You’d get a discount with a roundtrip ticket, though, at $810 for the busy season or $720 normally.

Today, that $450 one-way ticket is about the same as $7,708 today.

According to the movie, during the Hindenburg’s flight there’s a storm she goes through that causes one of the fabric flaps to tear. We see riggers, including one named Boerth, go out on the fin to fix it—nearly sliding off to his death before being pulled back in.

Karl Boerth, who’s played by William Atherton in the movie, is a fictional character, but his role on the Hindenburg was real. The three riggers on board the Hindenburg were named Chief Rigger Ludwig Knorr, Hans Freund and Erich Spehl.

That’s all fictionalized for the film. Or, at least, there’s no evidence I could find to support there being a tear that had to be repaired midflight that almost took the life of one of the crew.

Now I know it seems like the characters we’ve mentioned so far have all been fictional, but that’s not to say everyone in the movie is. It’s just that most of the main characters are—but there’s some real ones.

Like the Chief Engineer, Rudolf Sauter, who’s played by John Pickard, the Chief Radio Officer, Willy Speck, who’s played by Jan Merlin, and there’s more…but perhaps the most notable the commanding officer of the Hindenburg, Captain Max Pruss who was a real person and played by Charles Dunning in the film.

Another real person was Edward Douglas. He was a passenger on board the Hindenburg, a 39-year-old advertising account executive from Newark, New Jersey. He’s the one that George C. Scott’s version of Franz Ritter stumbles across and questions for sending cryptic messages.

According to the movie, Edward is racing one of his buddies on board the Queen Mary, a steamer who’s crossing the Atlantic at the same time.

Although I couldn’t find any proof of this little bet between friends, if the Hindenburg were to race Queen Mary she’d win. The average time it’d take Hindenburg to cross the Atlantic Ocean was about two and a half days, a speed that was virtually unheard of at the time.

On the other hand, the Queen Mary was one of the fastest ships at the time, earning the Blue Riband award in 1936 for making the fasting crossing of the North Atlantic with a time of five days.

Of course that’d mean they’d have to leave at the same time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the schedule for the Queen Mary in 1937 to see if she left on May 3rd like the Hindenburg did. But seeing as they weren’t really intentionally racing and it’d be pure coincidence if they did, I’m guessing they didn’t.

As the Hindenburg nears New Jersey in the movie, the bomb plot comes to light for Franz Ritter. Confronting Karl Boerth, we find out that he does have a bomb on board, but he doesn’t want to blow it while people are on the airship. Instead, as a part of the German resistance he’s only wanting to blow up the symbol for the Nazis.
Karl convinces Franz to help him, by telling him either he’ll blow the bomb up now if Franz tries to arrest him or, if Franz will help him, Karl will make sure there’s no one on board—all he needs to know is what time to set the bomb for?

After some thought, Franz agrees. We hear his rational as he explains the ship lands at 5:00, all the passengers get off at 5:30, another half-hour to get the freight and mail off. The liberty party leaves at 6:30 and the Captain fellow’s dinner party for the officers start at 7:00.

Finally, that the ship won’t be refilled with hydrogen until after 8:00. So Franz tells Boerth to set the bomb for 7:30 PM.

That…is all made up.

Well, at least most historians don’t believe it was actually a bomb that caused the Hindenburg to explode. Admittedly, though, it’s tough to know what’s true when it comes to conspiracy theories, after all—that’s why those theories linger. Since the Hindenburg burned so hot, most of the evidence went up taking any conclusive proof of what happened with her.

So let’s find out what we do know. Even though Franz said the airship was supposed to land at 5:00, the truth is that the Hindenburg was scheduled to land at 6:00—AM, not PM.

What the movie does get accurate, though, is that there really was bad weather that keeps the Hindenburg from making their scheduled landing at the mooring mast. According to the movie, this causes just enough of a delay to panic Franz who manages to get the location of the bomb from Boerth before tampering with it just enough to make it explode.

And again, all of that is made up…probably.

Haha, that’s what we get with stories like this where it’s hard to know the truth.
But as I said, it is true that there was bad weather. Running into strong headwinds as she crossed the North American coast at Newfoundland, the Hindenburg’s planned arrival of 6:00 AM was postponed for 12 hours to 6:00 PM.

There’s actually a photo out there you can find taken from the Hindenburg where you can see the airship in the foreground with the Nazi swastika on the fin with New York City beneath it, or another one of Princeton University taken on May 6th, 1937 with the Hindenburg high above the buildings. You can find them on the great website airships.net or hop into the Based on a True Story Facebook group and I’ll make sure to link to it there.

With poor weather in Lakehurst as she neared, Captain Pruss decided to delay the landing, instead flying just off the coast of New Jersey to avoid the storm.
Finally, at 6:22 PM, the commanding officer at Lakehurst, Charles Rosendahl, determined the conditions were good enough for landing. He sent Captain Pruss a message recommending they land as soon as they can before the weather got any worse.

It took a few minutes, but at 7:00 PM, the Hindenburg slowly circled above Lakehurst as she prepared to land.

That’s when something happened that some think might’ve led to the ship’s demise. Captain Pruss knew the weather suitable for landing might not hold, so rushing the landing pattern a bit, he ordered a tight S-turn in an attempt to change the direction she was facing for landing. When he did that, some have suggested perhaps the tight turn caused something to snap inside. It didn’t have to be much…even just a bracing wire snapping could’ve slashed one of the gas cells, causing it to leak into the air—an explosive combination.

At 7:21 PM, the Hindenburg neared the mooring mast, slowly shifting power from the back to forward engines and back again to keep her steady. At this point she was about 180 feet, or 54 meters, above the ground and the first of the landing ropes were dropped from the front of the ship.

According to a later testimony, one of the men in the ground crew named R.H. Ward claimed to have noticed some sort of a fluttering…almost like a wave rippled across the cover. Another of the ground crew, R.W. Antrim, would later testify during the ensuing investigation that he also saw the covering on the airship fluttering. Experts indicate that fluttering likely took place on the port side near gas cell number five, which is near the rear of the ship.

Four minutes after the landing ropes were dropped, the first flames were visible outside the Hindenburg. There’s been some differing reports from witnesses who were there, but some say the flames burst through the top while others say it first came from the rear, near where the two ground crew members said they saw the fluttering happen.

After seeing the bomb go off in Franz Ritter’s face, the film changes from color to black and white as we see the Hindenburg burst into flame. It’s here that the movie does something interesting…cuts back and forth between fictional footage and the real footage of the Hindenburg. That’s probably why it switched to black and white.
But according to the movie, the crash lasts for about five minutes.

In truth, it took a lot less time for the ship to be consumed in flame. The explosive combination of hydrogen and oxygen only fueled the flames as they took her down in less than 30 seconds.

At the very end of the movie, we see some of the survivors as well as those who weren’t so lucky. And in the end, most experts do boil it down to luck. Because the flames ripped through her so fast, whether or not you survived depended heavily on where you happened to be located when the fire began.

Those closest to the front of the ship all died because as the ship sank to the ground it was the rear that sank first—meaning a column of fire focused flames throughout the front of the ship. Others that were inside the passenger cabins near the center of the ship perished as well.

In the movie, though, we see quite a few people making it out of the burning ship alive. It’s amazing to think about, but if there is a silver lining to the horrors of that day, it’s that not everyone was lost. Of the 36 passengers, 13 died. Of the 61 crew, 22 perished in the flames.

That means of the 97 souls on board, 62 survived. Sadly, that also means 35 died.
The movie suggests the commission report says it was one of three things that caused the Hindenburg to explode. Either it was structural failure, static electricity or sabotage.

For a long time, it’s true that those three things were the prevailing theories. We already learned about the tight S-turn as they were preparing to land that some think might’ve caused structural damage leading to the disaster. Then there’s static electricity. Today, most experts believe this was the cause. The theory here is that the storm built up a charge throughout the metal framework of the Hindenburg. The instant the landing ropes hit the ground, the Hindenburg was effectively grounded, causing the spark that caused the flame.

Then there’s the other theory: Sabotage.

It’s clear from the movie that this is the theory the filmmakers were going with. But that’s not just because it makes for a more suspenseful storyline for Hollywood. That theory comes from the author of the book the film is based on, Michael Mooney, who believed it was sabotage. He went on to say that the saboteur was a man named Eric Spehl. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because we learned about him a bit earlier.

Like the fictional character of Karl Boerth in the film, Erich Spehl was one of the riggers on board the Hindenburg. Like Karl, the real Erich was one of the casualties who never made it out of the flames that day.

And yet, Michael Mooney claimed to have found Erich’s girlfriend.

We haven’t talked about her yet, but at the very beginning of the film we see a woman named Freda Halle as played by Lisa Pera. In the movie, we see Karl and Freda hitting it off at the Frankfurt Airfield before the Hindenburg leaves and on the day of departure, Freda bids her farewell to Karl while wearing a black dress and veil—almost like she’s going to a funeral. Perhaps because she knew what was going to happen.

The author Michael Mooney claimed the real woman Freda was based on, who remained anonymous, admitted in private that it was indeed sabotage, explaining both her own and Erich Spehl’s role in the plot. Michael went on to explain that he found evidence of the U.S. investigators being told to shut down the idea that it could’ve been sabotage because of the tensions. Remember this was 1937—Nazi Germany was on the rise and at the time, the United States wanted no part of war.
So what is the truth?

Well, we don’t know.

Maybe it was structural failure. That sort of thing happens a lot with aircraft of all shapes and sizes.

Or maybe it actually was static electricity. Although it seems odd that after dozens of successful trips across the Atlantic in 1936, this one storm happened to charge up enough static electricity to ground the ship when the landing lines were dropped—something that surely happened every other time it successfully landed before.

Or maybe it was sabotage. Some deep, dark plot to destroy the pride of Nazi Germany by someone who, as Michael Mooney said, hated Hitler.

What we do know is that the Hindenburg disaster effectively put an end to the era of airship travel. Not because it was the most devastating, though. 35 people lost is horrible, but there were deadlier ones—the USS Akron crashing in 1933 taking the lives of 73 of the 76 on board or even the R-101, which crashed in 1930 killing 48.
Interestingly, after the R-101’s crash in 1930, the Zeppelin Company purchased the wreckage and used its metal to fabricate the Hindenburg.

The real reason the Hindenburg caused the end of the airship era was because it was the first major airship disaster to be filmed. People could see the horror of watching the airship go up in flames—watching the people flee for their lives on the ground.
You can find footage of this online, and I’ll make sure to post it up on social but for now our story today will end the same way the movie does…with the broadcast from Herbert Morrison. He was a reporter on location who recorded this heartbreaking audio explaining what he was watching in audio that would later be broadcast around the world:

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