Earning My Wings
Join Date: Dec 2017
Last Hindenburg survivor dead
Iím posting this in one topic due to its own significance. Itís with a heavy heart that I announce that on December 8, 2019, the very last survivor of the most pivotal moment in aviation history, the Hindenburg disaster, Werner Gustav doenher died in the loving embrace of family and friends. Just 8 years old at the time, he was also one of the small group of survivors who suffered from the worst injuries.
Werner boarded the Hindenburg in Germany with his younger brother Walter, older sister Irene and parents Matilda and Werner. Also on the Hindenburg was the 14 year old cabin boy, Werner Franz. After a sluggish trek across the Atlantic owing to strong headwinds from thunderstorms in the shipís path, the Hindenburg finally arrived at Lakehurst in the early evening hours of May 6, 1937. The return flight to Germany the same night was completely sold out with many passengers carrying tickets to the coronation of King George the sixth in London.
After captain Max Pruss got the Hindenburg in position for landing, and ordering the crew to their stations, he ordered the mooring lines dropped to the ground crew below. No sooner had that been done, a massive bang rang out and in sharp contrast to the gray skies, and the silvery gray envelope of the Hindenburg, a flower of dark orange flames bloomed and spread over the leviathan airship.
The air inside the cabin rapidly changed from a comfortable to superheated in a few short seconds as the aft section of the airship sank, pointing the forward section of the Hindenburg skyward. As the excitement of arriving in America rapidly mutated into panic and pandemonium, a jet of flames shot through the axial corridor and out the nose of the airship as the front section finally began to fall to the ground.
Once the cabin got close enough to the ground, the passengers who were at the windows jumped out. Famed acrobat Joseph Spah, who was returning to America to see his family, jumped to the ground and broke his ankle. Matilda Doenher tried to get her daughter to jump but she panicked and ran after her father.
Knowing time was running out, Matilda was finally forced to throw her sons Werner and Walter out the windows one by one. After seeing her sons being carried away by ground crew, Matilda jumped after her sons, snapping her pelvis in the fall. The disaster reached a poignant moment when the ship was just about to crash to the ground, when the shipís name, Hindenburg, in German font, was seen by horrified onlookers for a few seconds before being erased by flames.
34 seconds later, the once proud Hindenburg was on the ground in flames, but even though the hydrogen was gone, the diesel fuel that fed the shipís 1100 horsepower engines burned in large pools, pouring from their ruptured tanks and igniting on contact with the now red hot girders that once made up the Hindenburgís structure.
The Doenher brothers were both severely injured, having suffered severe burns to their faces and both arms and legs, their sister Irene had inhaled a lot of the superheated air and severely scorched her lungs and upper airways. Irene was also rushed to hospital but was given a slim chance of surviving her agonizing injuries. But as the Doenhers were being taken to the hospital, neither Walter or Werner knew it, but their father was already dead.
The next morning, while barely starting to recover, and hers and her sonsí injuries still raw, doctors gave Matilda Doenher the news she had been dreading, her daughter Irene had succumbed to her injuries shortly before dawn and the body of her husband had been found in the wreckage. In just one day, the Doenher family was dealt a severe blow that would take years to recover from and even after recovering from their ordeal, the Doenhers would never be the same again.
Even after the charred wreckage of the Hindenburg was returned to Germany and after his injuries finally healed, Werner would still have the memories of the Hindenburgís destruction for the rest of his life.
Despite being only eight years old, Werner realized that his life almost ended before it could even begin. With the deaths of her husband and daughter, Matilda was forced to raise Werner and Walter alone, she would never remarry.
In the years after that night and literally having the events of Lakehurst burned into his memory, Werner fell silent about the events of the Hindenburg. After leaving Lakehurst for Mexico, the young Doenher would never be able to bring himself to talk about what happened to him, let alone think about it.
But Doenher would have no way of knowing that the destruction of the Hindenburg would be beginning of the end for airship travel. The combination of Germany being on the path to major war owing to the emergence and establishment of the Third Reich with the help of the newly elected German chancellor Adolf Hitler and the US embargo on helium against Germany, implemented after World War I, helped end any hopes of the zeppelin airship competing with the ocean liner for the travelerís dollar and so, in the spring of 1937, the Graff Zeppelin and the Graff Zeppelin II were dismantled and scrapped in their hangars in Frankfurt.
The years after WWII were both quiet and heartbreaking for Werner, his brother had died barely 20 years after surviving the Hindenburg, and the pain of losing his father and sister, especially in such a horrific way, was still as fresh as ever. Werner overcame the heartache and became an electric technician.
His mother would die in 1986, and Franz died in his home in Germany in 2014 and after his death Doenher was the sole survivor of the Hindenburg disaster, but the burns he sustained, having been smoothed over by time, still haunted him. With the coaxing of friends and family, Werner Doenher finally broke his silence for the first time since 1938. Giving several interviews for made for tv documentaries titanic in the skies and seconds from disaster, Werner gave very gripping accounts of what to him that night back in 1937.
Even with doenher and Franzís deaths, one can only imagine how zeppelin travel would have developed were it not for the outbreak of World War II and one fiery crash in 1937, in Lakehurst.
This post is dedicated to Werner Franz Doenher, who was the last living, breathing link to the era of airship travel. Todayís travelers may be able to cross the Atlantic in a few hours, the luxury of airship travel may never be surpassed and maybe, just maybe, one day, luxury airships will make a comeback, only time will tell.
Werner Gustav Doenher