Pruss (or Pruß in German) was born on September 29th, 1891 in Sgonn in the district of Sensburg, East Prussia (which is now the city of Zgon, Poland) to Friedrich Pruss, a factory worker, and Luise Pruss, née Kaminski. In 1898 the Pruss family moved to Bielefeld.
In 1907 Pruss joined the “Schiffsjungen-Division” of the German Navy based at Kiel. He trained on the ship “Preussen” in the Navigation and Signals Service and received his helmsman’s certificate (Steuermannspatent) in 1914.
Pruss joined the German naval airship service during WWI and made his first flight as an enlisted trainee/observer aboard the Navy Zeppelin L3 in 1914. He flew as a petty officer on the non-rigid Parseval ship PL-6 (formerly an advertising airship for Stollwerck, a chocolate company based in Köln), on which he served in the Baltic for approximately three months. He then trained as a member of the crew of Leutnant (later Überleutnant and Kapitänleutnant) Horst von Buttlar-Brandenfels and served as an elevatorman on the World War I Zeppelin L6. Pruss remained part of that same crew aboard L11, L30, L25, and L54. He served on the Germany Navy zeppelins L6 (LZ-31), L11 (LZ-41), L25 (LZ-58), L30 (LZ-62), and L54 (LZ-99), mostly as an elevatorman, the most challenging and demanding position.
Pruss was elevatorman on LZ-126 under the command of Hugo Eckener during the ship’s transatlantic delivery flight from Germany to America to become the U.S. Navy airship USS Los Angeles. Pruss then worked with Eckener and fellow zeppelin officers Hans von Schiller, Hans Flemming, and Anton Wittemann giving lectures around Germany to raise money for the Zeppelin-Eckener-Spende and the construction of LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin.
Pruss served aboard Graf Zeppelin during many important flights, including the ship’s historic 1929 Round-the-World flight, and was given command of Graf Zeppelin in 1934. He served as a watch officer aboard Hindenburg during many flights of the 1936 season — along with fellow watch officers Albert Sammt, Heinrich Bauer, and Knut Eckener — under the command of both Hugo Eckener and Ernst Lehmann.
Pruss himself eventually received command of Hindenburg, and he was the ship’s captain on the transatlantic flight from Lakehurst to Frankfurt on September 30 – October 3, 1936, and during Hindenburg’s last three South American crossings of the 1936 season.
Max Pruss was in command of Hindenburg when it was destroyed by fire at Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937. He survived the crash, but suffered very serious burns on much of his body, including his face, and remained in a New York hospital for many months. Despite numerous operations to repair the burn damage he had suffered, Pruss remained badly scarred for the rest of his life.
To the end of his life, Pruss believed the Hindenburg disaster was the result of sabotage. In a 1960 interview, he dismissed the possibility that an electrical discharge could have caused the accident, arguing that zeppelins had passed through thunderstorms and even lightning many times without incident:
Pruss: You see, we have on every flight to South America we have lightning and thunderstorms. In about 4 degrees north of the equator they have thunderstorms all the time, and we were going with a ship traveling right through the thunderstorms and never was there trouble. During the First War, we had lightning hit the ship. At the bow you have a little hole through was going lightning in [i.e., lightning burned a small hole at the bow], and then [the lightning went] through the framework and then the radio station and the antenna was blown up, and no more [i.e., nothing else happened]. This thing happened at Lakehurst two times–we had big thunderstorms before the start. Passengers which were coming with airplanes [i.e., flying from Newark to Lakehurst on American Airlines], must come with buses, because flying was forbidden. And we were waiting outside the ship, because we are thinking not that the next lightning would go in the ship. And when the passengers were there, we took them inside, and we [flew] through the thunderstorm toward the sea.
Q: Do you think it was sabotage?
Pruss: Yes, I think it was sabotage. If the sabotage was from the inside or [from] others, it’s very difficult to say.
(Listen to complete interview with Max Pruss: ram audio file, approx 40 seconds)
By the time of the Hindenburg disaster Pruss was a member of the Nazi Party, and he was one of only two zeppelin captains, out of seven active commanders, who belonged to the Party; the other was Anton Wittemann. (Captain Walter Ziegler was also a member of the NSDAP but never actually commanded a zeppelin.) During World War II Pruss served the Luftwaffe as commander of the Rhein-Main airport in Frankfurt.
Pruss kept in touch with his fellow airshipmen over the years. In a 1947 letter to Clara Adams (see letter), Charles Rosendahl wrote:
“I just had a letter from Captain Max Pruss and the surviving crew members of the Hindenburg. They had just gotten together on May 6, the tenth anniversary of the Hindenburg, and held a memorial ceremony in Frankfurt… 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.”
During the 1950s, Pruss energetically but unsuccessfully tried to raise interest in the construction of new zeppelin airships to be inflated with helium. In support of his crusade he often used an argument offered by Charles Rosendahl in the 1930’s, when the airplane was already posing a competitive challenge to the airship: “If you want to get there quickly, take an airplane; if you want to get there comfortably, take an airship.”
In describing Hindenburg in his 1960 interview, Pruss commented:
I can only say that [Hindenburg] was a real ship for passengers, and a new ship, too, and it’s very regrettable that we have no airships. On an airship you have a wonderful trip, not with an airplane about 1,200 meters high and so you can’t see anything. In an airship, we have a height from 100 to 200 meters over the ocean. You have very nice islands, you have big ships. It’s for passengers a very, very comfortable [flight] and a very nice flight. No seasickness.
Pruss’s plan to revive passenger zeppelins centered on a modified version of LZ-131, which had been designed as a successor to LZ-129 Hindenburg and LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin II; it was proposed to equip the redesigned LZ-131 with four 1800 hp engines to carry 100 passengers or 42 tons of freight at speeds up to 100 MPH. Later plans envisioned another design for a 200 passenger, 920-foot long airship inflated with 10.5 million cubic feet of helium. But building such ships required not only a huge investment of funds for the zeppelins themselves — up to 24 million marks per ship — but also similar amounts for the reconstruction of hangar and operating facilities dynamited in 1940 by order of Hermann Goering and futher destroyed during the course of the war, and Pruss was never able to attract sufficient interest to turns these plans into reality.
Max Pruss died in Germany in 1960, of pneumonia contracted after a stomach operation.