Charles E. Rosendahl was the leading figure in America’s rigid airship program. He was one of the most experienced airship aviators in the United States, and was a tireless proponent of lighter-than-air aviation, but is perhaps best remembered as the commander of NAS Lakehurst at the time of the Hindenburg disaster.
Charles Emery Rosendahl was born in Chicago, Illinois on May 15, 1892. He entered the United States Naval Academy in 1910 and was graduated in 1914. After serving in the surface fleet in numerous cruisers, destroyers, and the battleship Oregon, he was given command of the destroyer USS Claxton in 1921, before being assigned to the Naval Academy later that year as an engineering instructor.
Rosendahl’s distinguished career in the Navy’s lighter-than-air program began when he answered a call for airship volunteers in January, 1923. He reported to Naval Air Station Lakehurst for training in April, 1923, and by October he was assigned as a navigator and mooring officer aboard USS Shenandoah.
Lieutenant Commander Rosendahl was aboard USS Shenandoah when the ship was caught in a storm over Ohio on September 3, 1925. Rosendahl and six other men were in the bow section when the ship broke apart; without the weight of the control car, which had fallen from the ship, the bow was highly bouyant and climbed rapidly.
Under Rosendahl’s leadership, the men in the bow released helium from the cells and free-ballooned to a relatively gentle landing, which they all survived. Fourteen other members of the crew were killed in the crash, however, including the ship’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Zachary Lansdowne.
In March, 1926, Rosendahl was assigned as Executive Officer of USS Los Angeles, and was given command of the ship two months later. Rosendahl was a dynamic and energetic commander who was filled with enthusiasm for his ship and its mission. During the next three years, under Rosendahl’s leadership, USS Los Angeles logged over 1,400 flight hours during more than 100 flights, including an almost 40-hour nonstop flight to the Panama Canal Zone and a 52-hour nonstop return, and multiple moorings to the support ship Patoka.
Rosendahl relinquished command of Los Angeles to the ship’s Executive Officer, Herbert V. Wiley, to travel to Europe to observe British airship operations and participate in the flight trials of LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin.
Rosendahl was aboard Graf Zeppelin during its first transatlantic crossing to America in October, 1928 and its Round-the-World flight in August, 1929. During these flights, Rosendahl stood watch as a ship’s officer under the command of Hugo Eckener.
In 1931, Rosendahl was put in charge of the flight trials of the newly-built USS Akron and then assumed command of Akron when the ship was commissioned. Rosendahl commanded Akron on forty flights, until June 22, 1932, when he left Akron to rejoin the surface fleet aboard the battleship USS West Virginia and then the cruiser USS Portland.
In 1936, having been promoted to Navy commander, Rosendahl served as a watch officer aboard LZ-129 Hindenburg during four transatlantic crossings between Germany and North and South America, and he was also invited to fly on Hindenburg’s famous October 9, 1936 Millionaires Flight, on which Admiral William H. Standley, Chief of Naval Operations, was a fellow passenger.
Despite a distinguished career as a Naval officer and airshipman, Rosendahl is perhaps best remembered by the public as the Commanding Officer of the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey at the time of the Hindenburg disaster of May 6, 1937.
Rosendahl remained a fervent believer in lighter-than-air aviation, even after the Hindenburg crash, and published a book in 1938 entitled What About the Airship: The Challenge to the United States, in which he argued for the benefits of rigid airships.
As a Navy Captain during World War II, Rosendahl was involved with both the Navy’s anti-submarine blimp program as well as the surface fleet. Captain Rosendahl served as commander of the heavy cruiser USS Minneapolis when it was torpedoed during the Battle of Tassafaronga in November, 1942; despite heavy damage from the two Japanese torpedoes, which destroyed the ship’s bow, Minneapolis reached port for repairs and Rosendahl was awarded the Navy Cross.
Charles Rosendahl retired from the United States Navy as a Vice Admiral in 1946. He lived in Toms River, New Jersey with his wife Jean and died in Philadelphia in 1977.
C. E. ROSENDAHL
TOMS RIVER, NEW JERSEY
TOMS RIVER 8-1234
June 9, 1947
Mrs. Clara Adams
82 Riverside Drive
New York, N. Y.
Dear Mrs. Adams:
I was very pleased to have your letter of May 26th with respect to Doctor Eckener’s visit to the United States. I most assuredly do remember you and the very interesting experiences that you have had in the aeronautical world.
It is true that Doctor Eckener is in the United States. He is out at Akron with the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation and it is my understanding that he will be here for several months. I do not know just what his schedule for his activities will be, and thus it is rather difficult to say at this time how your idea of a dinner for him could be arranged. However, I shall probably see either Doctor Eckener or some of the Goodyear officials in the near future and I will pass your idea along to them.
I am sure you will be glad to know that Doctor Eckener is in very good condition, both mentally and physically, for a man of his age. It was indeed a pleasure to talk with him again and to see his continued enthusiasm for airships. Incidentally, I just had a letter from Captain Max Pruss and the surviving crew members of the Hindenburg. They had gotten together on May 6th, the tenth anniversary of the Hindenburg, and held a memorial ceremony in Frankfurt. Captain Pruss sent me a couple of photographs of the occasion. Although the plastic surgery for his very severe burns was successful, he is far from the fine looking man he was before the accident. Nevertheless he seems as cheerful as anyone can be under the circumstances.
With best wishes, I am
C. E. -Rosendahl