WHEN THE LZ-126 DREW CLOSE
TO NEW YORK
from MY CENTURY (1999)
THE DATE COLUMBUS WEIGHED ANCHOR WAS THE DATE we chose. Columbus set sail from Genoa in 1492, heading for India, though in fact he landed in America; our venture, our more accurate instruments notwithstanding, was every bit as risky. The dirigible was actually ready on the morning of the eleventh: it lay in its open hangar with precisely calculated quantities of fuel for the five Maybach engines and water for ballast on board; the ground crew had ropes in hand. But the LZ-126 refused to float: it was heavy and remained so because a layer of fog and warm air masses had suddenly rolled in and settled over the entire Lake Constance region. Since we could not spare either water or fuel, we had to postpone the takeoff until the following morning. The jeering crowd was hard to bear. We did take off on the twelfth, however.
Twenty-two men strong. For a long time it was touch and go whether I would be allowed to serve as mechanic:
I was one of the ones who by way of national protest had destroyed the last four military airships waiting in Friedrichshafen to be delivered up to the enemy, just as more than seventy ships from our fleet-including a dozen battleships and regular-service ships due to be handed over to the English-were scuttled by our own people in July 1919 at Scapa Flow. The Allies promptly demanded compensation; the Americans alone wanted us to cough up three million gold marks. But then the Zeppelin people proposed that the debt be paid off by our delivering an airship built to the latest standards. And since the American military had shown more than lively interest in our most recent model, which had a capacity of seventy thousand cubic meters of helium, the horse trading worked. LZ-126 was to be flown to Lakehurst, New Jersey, and presented to the Americans upon landing.
Many of us looked upon that as a disgrace. I did. Hadn't we been humiliated enough at Versailles? Hadn't the enforced peace placed a heavy enough burden on the Fatherland? We-that is, several of us-toyed with the thought of undermining the sordid deal. Only after long inner turmoil was I able to discern anything positive in the undertaking, and not until I had expressly promised Dr. Eckener, whom we all respected as our captain and an honest man, that I had given up any idea of sabotage was I allowed to take part.
LZ-126 was so stunning I can picture her even today. Yet at first, while we were still above the European continent, only fifty meters above the saddles of the Côte-d'Or, I was still obsessed with the idea of destroying her. Though designed to provide luxurious accommodation for two dozen, she had no passengers aboard, only a few American military personnel who kept a sharp eye on us round the clock. But when we hit some strong downdrafts over the Spanish coast at Cape Ortegal and the ship started swaying so violently that all hands were occupied keeping her on course and the Americans had to turn to matters of navigation, a takeover would have been possible. All we would have had to do was force an early landing by pitching a few fuel containers overboard. I was tempted again when the Azores lay beneath us. Indeed, day and night I sought opportunities, suffering doubt and temptation. Even when we climbed two thousand meters over the Newfoundland fog or shortly thereafter, when a stay snapped during a storm, I harbored thoughts of averting the imminent ignominy. But thoughts they remained.
What held me back? Certainly not fear. During the war I had been exposed to mortal danger over London whenever the searchlights reached our airship. No, I knew no fear. The only thing that kept me from acting was Dr. Eckener's will. Although I could not share his conviction-namely, that in the face of the victors' despotism it was our duty to give proof of German productivity in the form of our shiny, silver, celestial cigar-in the end I bowed totally to his will, for a piddling, merely symbolic, as it were, breakdown would have made little or no impression, especially as the Americans had sent two cruisers to meet us and we were in constant radio contact with them: they would have come to our aid had we had an emergency, whether a strong headwind or the slightest hint of sabotage.
Only now can I see how right I was to renounce all attempts at an "act of liberation," but even then, when the LZ-126 drew close to New York, when the Statue of Liberty greeted us through the mist of the morning of 15 October, when we headed up the bay and the metropolis with its mountain chain of skyscrapers lay beneath us and the boats in the harbor welcomed us with their sirens, when we flew the entire length of Broadway, back and forth, twice, at middle altitude, then rose up to three thousand meters to give all the inhabitants of New York a chance to admire German productivity sparkling in the morning sun, and when we finally headed for Lakehurst and made ourselves presentable, washing and shaving with the last of our water supply, I felt proud, unrestrainedly proud.
Later, when the sad delivery ceremony was over and our pride and joy was rechristened the Los Angeles, Dr. Eckener thanked me and told me that he had experienced the same turmoil as I. "But one's inner swinish tendencies are easier to resist," he said, "than the inborn commandment to maintain one's dignity and achieve results." I wonder what he felt when thirteen years later the finest expression of the Reich restored, the Hindenburg, powered unfortunately by flammable hydrogen rather than helium, went up in flames upon landing at Lakehurst. Was he as certain as I that it was sabotage? It was the Reds! They didn't hold back. Their dignity hinged on another commandment.
Translated by Michael Henry Heim
© Steidl Verlag Göttingen 1993
English translation copyright © 2004 by William Martin
English translation copyright © 2004 by Philip Boehm
English translation copyright © 2004 by Charles Simic
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and
retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.