From Rio to Akron aboard the Graf Zeppelin, 1933
A flight aboard a dirigible, as seen through the eyes of an eight year old girl
Alicia Momsen Miller
"Hurry! Come see the Zeppelin go by!"
I was five years old, my brother Dick seven, when our mother called us to come quickly to the back porch of our house in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in May, 1930.
We ran upstairs to the open porch and saw the colossal Graf Zeppelin float by above us, sunshine reflecting from its silver sides. Underneath hung a gondola with people looking out the open windows. As the airship circled our city with slow grace, she passed in front of the sun, casting a gigantic shadow on us. The sun returned and the Zeppelin moved out of sight behind the coastal mountains. This was her inaugural voyage between Europe and South America.
Seven years before, in 1923, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, had formed a subsidiary, the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation. In Brazil, the Corporation was represented by my father's law firm.
Three years after we first saw the Graf Zeppelin over Rio, my older brother Dick, our new baby brother Billy, and I became the first children to travel between Brazil and the United States as passengers aboard the Graf Zeppelin. By that time the "Graf" was flying an established route between Europe and South America, but air travel was still in its infancy and considered dangerous by people accustomed to steamships.
My parents were Americans who chose to live and bring up their family in tropical Brazil. My father, Richard Paul Momsen, was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1890, of Danish-German parents. He received his LL.B. from George Washington University, Washington, D.C., where he studied law at night while working for Congressman William J. Carey (Wisconsin) during the day.
After receiving his law degree, my father joined the diplomatic service and was sent to Brazil in 1913. The country he encountered differed greatly from the Brazil of today. In Rio de Janeiro (then the capital) there was no American bank, passenger steamship line, cable, or insurance company, only rare branches of subsidiaries of American commercial interests. London financed the coffee transactions, and much of the exchange was done through London in pounds sterling. The United States was not well known, and French was Brazil's second language.
My father passed the Brazilian Bar examinations in 1917 (wearing a top hat and tails), and received a Brazilian law degree, the first American admitted to the Brazilian Bar. When, on a trip from Brazil to the United States, U.S. Consul-General Gottschalk disappeared along with all hands on the U.S. collier Cyclops, (some believe Cyclops was sunk by a German U-boat), my father became acting Consul-General. However, in 1919 he left the diplomatic service to open the first of his two law offices, one with Brazilian partner Dr. Edmundo de Miranda Jordão and a Patents and Trademark office with Dr. Pedro Americo Werneck.
My father met my mother, Dorothea Harnecker, in Rio, when she was traveling with her father, a vice-president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company in charge of South American operations. My mother was born and grew up in Mexico, where the Singer Company had first sent her parents. When she was 16 the family returned to New York. She enrolled in Vassar College in 1915. Sometimes she joined her parents on company tours around South America. It was on one of these trips that she met my father, before graduation in 1919. My father proposed to her at Vassar, and that was the day he shaved with toothpaste and brushed his teeth with shaving cream! They were married in 1921 at St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City and returned to Rio to live.
My mother enjoyed having her children share her excitement for life. She introduced us to the beauty of thunder and lightning in tropical storms over the city of Rio where I was born. With her youngest child in her arms (Beatrice, the last one of four, born after our Zeppelin trip), she'd take us on our open porch (where we had seen the Zeppelin for the first time) and we'd watch storm clouds roll in from the sea. Lightning traced jagged patterns in the sky and thunder rolled. We counted the seconds between lightning flashes and thundering roars to tell if the storm was moving closer or farther away.
Before I was eight, I had traveled with my parents through the Chilean lakes in an open car, gone over the Andes mountains on muleback, and through the Panama Canal by ship.
In 1933, when I was eight, my parents were planning a vacation by ship to the U.S. I don't know whether it was my father's idea or that of the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corp., but my father and his family were offered a free trip on the Graf Zeppelin from Rio de Janeiro to Chicago. Our trip would be part of a triangular flight, Germany-Brazil-U.S.-Germany. With the Graf Zeppelin we would visit the Chicago World's Fair, "A Century of Progress." But my father had to convince my mother to travel by air. One afternoon he came home from the office and said, "You know, Dear, I heard that the big airship, the Graf Zeppelin, will stop here on its way from Germany to the World's Fair in Chicago about the same time we planned our trip. Why don't we go on the airship?" "I want a close up look first!" my mother answered.
My father, a calm methodical man, said, "I just heard it's docking here tomorrow at the Campo de Affonso airbase. Why don't we go out and see it?" They drove to the airfield the next day, and my mother told us later, "There was the huge airship, tied to the ground. It was a very windy day, and its outer covering was shivering. The fabric looked like you could poke a hole through it with your finger." She was horrified, deciding never to trust her children in such a thing. But my father insisted they look at the accommodations in the gondola, and they ascended the short sturdy ladder.
"What a surprise!" my mother said, "The large living room with its big windows had a number of attractive chairs and tables, and down the hall were wonderful roomy double staterooms." She felt the mattresses, and found them comfortable. The wide bunks were made up with linen sheets and warm fluffy blankets. "If anything happens, at least we'll all be together," she said.
Typical stateroom by day (left), and the steward making up one of the beds for the the evening (right).
"I've thought of the element of danger, but where isn't there any danger?" my father answered.
My father planned boarding the Graf Zeppelin when it returned in October. Our party was comprised of my parents, Dick and I, Billy, who would be eleven months old then, and his Scottish nurse, Mrs. Ruegg. Our Swiss governess, Marthe Christen, who taught Dick and me French and German, would go to the U.S. by ship and meet us there later. I was surprised and pleased that our next trip would be on the airship.
RIO TO MIAMI
My father was especially anxious to visit the 1933 Chicago World's Fair since, being in Brazil, he had missed the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (held in San Francisco) which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal. I'm sure that a free trip to the United States for the whole family helped influence his decision to fly on the Graf Zeppelin.
On October 19, our family was up before dawn, very excited, and ready to leave. Because weight was such an important factor and even kitchen wastes were saved all freight, mail, passengers and luggage were weighed. Apart from a not over generous baggage allowance, Billy's things weighed so much that very little was left for the rest of us.
My mother divided our 100 kilo (222 lbs.) family allowance as follows:
|My Father||14 lbs.|
The baby's paraphernalia used 167 pounds of our 222 pound allowance, leaving the remaining 55 to be split between the 5 others.
We were already waiting at Campo de Affonso Army Air Base, where the Zeppelin was to land. Our ship hove majestically and silently into sight, approached and descended with motors purring. Ropes were flung into the fresh cool morning air and grabbed by 200 soldiers on the field, who fanned out and pulled the Graf Zeppelin to the ground precisely on schedule at 6 a.m. before the awed and silent crowd on the field.
Now Dick and I saw the Zeppelin at close quarters. The five motors, which from afar had looked like fish attached to the belly of a whale, had propellers and were suspended, two on each side, and one in the middle near the enormous tail fins. The gondola, in which we would live for almost a week, looked firmly attached underneath the hull, its slanted windows giving it a look of seaworthiness (or airworthiness) that we were happy to note. Shaped like a big silver cigar, the Graf Zeppelin from different angles looked graceful or monstrous, but always awe-inspiring.
A bus took us across the field to the Zeppelin which soldiers were holding down with ropes. Our baggage had been put on board and Mrs. Ruegg, who was rather heavy, carried Billy, bouncing up and down in her arms. She was the first to put her foot on the ladder leading up into the gondola. At that moment a gust of wind tugged the Zeppelin and lifted the steps. A crew member snatched Billy from Mrs. Ruegg and at the same time hefted her up the step. We followed, to join 15 passengers and a crew of 47 officers and men already on board from Friedrichshafen.
Dick and I ran to the open windows as we cast off at exactly 6:30 a.m. on this clear and cloudless morning, perfect for air travel. As we slowly rose above the field we could hear the cheers of the crowd fade away and excitedly watched tiny houses, green fields, and purple mountains slip away too, the first of thousands of views that kept us from our usual indoor pastime of teasing each other.
We flew over the familiar beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema where wavelets now represented the rolling surf far below. The Captain circled Corcovado mountain with the statue of Christ on top. It was rumored that he stopped the Graf Zeppelin on his first trip to Rio, thinking the outstretched arms of the statue were those of a traffic cop.
Our long gray shadow followed us over the water and fell on the ripples which were waves. We flew over the white salt flats of Cabo Frio and past fishing fleets with their reeling flocks of seagulls. Our altitude was 2,000 feet, and our speed 50 miles per hour. Passing above S.S. Santa Rosa with its V-shaped wake, we exchanged salutes, as she was a Hamburg-Amerika Liner whose agents also booked zeppelin passages.
Inside the comfortable living room (which served as a dining room for meals) of the gondola, the windows were curtained, and red-flowered carpet covered the floor. We could hear a faint humming sound from the motors outside.
The control, chart, radio rooms and galley were at the front of the gondola. Next came the living room, from which a hall led to ten staterooms, five on each side. The staterooms, decorated with flowered wall paper, had little closets, end tables and sofa beds which turned into double-decker bunks.
My mother, Mrs. Ruegg, Billy and I slept in one room. My father and Dick had another room. My mother had a bed on one side, Mrs. Ruegg had an extra bed on the other side. I slept in the top bunk, and Billy's crib was in the middle of the room. His bottles and cereal were lined up on the little table and window ledge.
Billy sat in his crib and played with his stuffed dog, "Dodo" which he liked to chew, and his goat, fish and rubber duck. I played peek-a-boo through the sides of his crib. The passengers came to visit and play with him and my mother held him in her arms to look out the window.
By evening it was windy. Low clouds hung outside but we rode along smoothly. The waiters changed the living room into a dining room by putting white tablecloths and flowers on the tables, setting them with linen napkins, crystal glasses, and china plates edged in cobalt blue and gold. My mother called the food "German" and said it was very healthy. There was roast goose, boiled fish, veal cutlets, red cabbage, boiled potatoes, steamed apples and custard pudding. My mother had been assigned temporary correspondent for the New York Times during the trip and sent them many telegrams. Her first bulletin:
NY TIMES NEW YORK OCT. 19,1933
EVERYONE PLEASED ECKENER ABOARD; DISTINCTLY FAVORABLE IMPRESSION OFFICERS AND CREW'S EFFICIENCY AND COURTESY. ALL HAPPY. MRS. ERLA PARKER FROM CLEVELAND ON BOARD FOR FIFTH TRIP. FIRST PROGRAM OVER NATIONAL BROADCASTING TO THE UNITED STATES PLANNED AMONG PASSENGERS THIS AFTERNOON, BUT WAS POSTPONED ACCOUNT POOR RECEPTION. DUE PERNAMBUCO DAYLIGHT FRIDAY. SPENDING DAY THERE. DHM (Dorothea Harnecker Momsen)
We were scarcely underway when Mrs. Ruegg, who came from the ship-building city of Glasgow, Scotland, pointed a stern finger at one of the German officers and said, "You nasty man! You tried to bomb the Firth of Forth. But you missed!" (After all, only 15 years had gone by since the armistice).
She was also impressed by passenger William Forbes-Sempill, Master of Sempill, from Craigiever, Scotland. It was rumored that he was making the whole triangular trip to get firsthand knowledge for proposed trans-oceanic airship lines in which he was financially interested.
Among the passengers were Herr Joachim Breithaupt, a German Air Ministry official; Dr. Walter Haumann, a surgeon from Hattingen, Germany; Harald Diettrich, a German radio official; Charles Dollfus, the editor of a French aeronautical magazine in Paris; Ragna Hummel, an American engineer; Dr. Max Jordan, the European representative of the National Broadcasting Company; Wilhelm Neiman from Berlin; Lt. Commander Jesse L. Kenworthy, Commander of Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey, Herr Schönherr, and Captain von Schiller.
Dick, Billy, and I were the only children aboard. Fortunately for our parents, Dick and I behaved well among strangers, and our father's constant presence on the trip strengthened this good behavior. My mother said she could never understand why we were so different at home where we fought each other constantly, kicked, yelled, slammed doors, pulled each other's hair and even sometimes spat at each other.
Billy, however, had a naturally cheerful personality, and Captain Eckener was charmed by him and not intimidated by Mrs. Ruegg's starched white figure or her remarks. Every morning at the breakfast table, Captain Eckener would call Mrs. Ruegg over to his table with Billy in her arms, and feed him a little coffee spoonful of honey. Billy also had an audience when he drank what Mrs. Ruegg called "oats" from a bottle. One day Captain von Schiller, Dr. Haumann, Mr. Dollfus, Dr. Jordan, and Mr. Schönherr came to watch him eat. He held the bottle and showed them how fast he could gobble. When he screamed for more, they all laughed.
Mrs. Ruegg took Billy to the galley to meet the enormous German chef who made our meals. The chef offered him sugar and chocolate which Mrs. Ruegg didn't let him have, but she let him make a special meal for Billy. But only once.
"Never again!" said Mrs. Ruegg, as she fed Billy milk of magnesia and gave him extra baths. He had contracted a terrible stomach ache from the chef's food and couldn't even have his "oats" for a whole day.
The bathrooms were at the end of the hall and Billy also entertained some of the passengers during his daily bath. The small round aluminum sink was just the right size for him to sit in, and some of the officers and crew always stopped by to watch him splash and gurgle and try to catch the soap. He was the first baby they had on a long trip. Even today "The Zeppelin Baby," as he was called, has a dim memory of a white table and a curved wall, somewhere ...
The third night out Billy walked around his crib for the first time without holding on, his hands raised over his head. He was so excited with this feat that he could hardly sleep that night.
since April 20, 2002
since April 20, 2002