Flight 23 was America’s first air terrorist attack
Chesterton, Indiana farmers Joseph Graf, Marion Arndt and John Lichinski were playing cards at Graf’s home on Route 1 just outside of town at about 9:00 p.m. on October 10, 1933 when they heard a “terrific explosion” which sounded to them like a bomb. They rushed outside and saw an airplane in the sky about 100 yards southwest in a steep dive, its motors roaring uselessly. In the darkness all three men saw cabin lights. When the plane disappeared behind some trees and struck the ground there was another ear-splitting explosion and a ball of flames.
George McNathan, who lived a little further down Route 1, near Valparaiso, noticed something a little different. While going out to the barn at 9:00, he heard the hum of an airplane motor from the east and looked up. Noting nothing unusual, as the plane was flying in a standard route, he almost gave it no more thought when suddenly he watched a ball of fire burst from the middle-rear of the plane, followed by a huge detonation that literally shook the ground around him. After the blast the plane made a counter-turn northward and dove directly down in an easterly direction and crashed upside down and nose first into the ground, sending a fireball 100 feet in the air. The crash scene was beside a gravel road about 5 miles outside of Chesterton in a wooded area on the farm of James Smiley.
These people, along with several others on the ground, did not realize it at the time, but they had just witnessed the first act of air terrorism in American history. The question became, who did it, and why?
United Flight 23 was a Boeing 247, one of the most modern airliners of the time and one of the first to have such amenities as snacks, a lavatory, and a “stewardess,” or flight attendant. The 247 line had logged over 60,000,000 miles with United Airlines since being put in service in late 1926. This particular plane, registered as NC13304, had been in service less than one year.
While the plane had flown to Newark, New Jersey from Cleveland, flight 23 was originating in Newark, with planned stops in Cleveland again, then Chicago with its final destination Oakland, California. There were no high-altitude non-stop transcontinental flights in those days; all of them flew low, at around 1,500 feet in unpressurized cabins, and hopped from city to city in their journeys across the U.S.
While in Newark the twin-engine plane was given a full inspection by a team of three mechanics. Other than replacing a landing tire because of an embedded nail, all other maintenance checks were satisfactory. After porters cleaned the inside of the cabin, washed the windows and loaded the luggage and other necessities, the flight took off from Newark airport a little after 5:00 p.m. with only five people on board — the pilot, co-pilot, a stewardess and only two paying passengers.
One of the passengers was an excited young Arlington, Massachusetts woman named Dorothy Dwyer. While waiting at the Newark loading platform she told the pilot, Harold Tarrant, that she was enroute from Boston to Reno, Nevada to visit her sister. That was a lie; it was later discovered she was going to Reno to marry a man named Stanley Baldwin. She was supposed to take a 4:00 p.m. flight but missed her connection when her arrival from Boston was delayed.
The other passenger, a man named Emil Smith who lived with his aunt in a flat on West Argyle Avenue on Chicago’s north side, raised some concerns with the porters, and he quickly became a suspect during the investigation. Just before boarding he took a bottle of liquor out of a bag. When told he could not drink on the plane, he placed the bottle back in the bag and then locked it in the forward compartment after removing another tightly-wrapped package. It was also discovered later that he had purchased a life insurance policy from a kiosk inside the airport prior to boarding. It was routine for plane passengers to buy these types of policies, and Smith paid a $2.00 premium for a policy with a lifespan of one flight, with benefits paid to his estate in case of death.
Smith closely guarded that paper-wrapped package in his lap while waiting in the airport for the next leg of his trip.
The pilot, Harold Tarrant, was a native of Oak Park, Illinois and his co-pilot, A. T. Ruby, was also from Oak Park. Tarrant had recently been promoted to pilot and both had excellent safety records.
Thirty minutes after inspections were completed the plane took off from Newark at 4:30 p.m. Prior to landing in Cleveland another pilot, Robert Dawson, said he visited with the passengers and personally spoke to Smith seated in seat 3, who stated he was enjoying the trip very much. Dawson stated also that Smith appeared congenial, and did not appear to be drinking.
After landing in Cleveland at 7:42 p.m., the stewardess Alice Scribner asked Smith and Dwyer if they wanted to stretch their legs on the ground, as it would be about twenty minutes before they would take off. Dwyer stayed in her seat, but Smith took his package and went out for only a few minutes, as it was cold and he had no jacket. The entire time he stood outside the plane he held that package under his arm.
In Cleveland, flight 23 picked up two more passengers, a United Air Lines radio service engineer named Warren Burris and a Chicago refrigerator salesman named Fred Schendorf. Schendorf’s wife was scared of air travel so he did not tell her about this flight. After taking on fuel and performing a radio check, the plane then took off.
At 8:39 the co-pilot radioed that they were flying at 1,500 feet, and they could see two beacon lights ahead. All conditions were good, with a 7,000-ft ceiling, but due to headwinds, they were going to be about fifteen minutes late landing in Chicago, at about 9:10 instead of the scheduled 8:55.
But the plane never made it to Chicago.
The massive mid-air explosion that seemed to originate from a blanket storage area behind the plane’s lavatory and the subsequent crash awakened the Ira Bernard family in their home near Westville, just a few miles away. Just afterward, Mrs. Bernard heard their party line phone ring and despite knowing the distinctive ringing was for their neighbor, gently lifted the receiver and listened in. Hearing there had been a plane crash up the road, she, her husband and their son George dressed and went to the crash site. Upon arriving, they found a few neighbors, including Graf, Arndt, Lichinski and a few others already there in the flashing illumination of the burning fuselage, trying in ultimately futile attempts to get close enough to assist any passengers that may have survived.
Seeing nothing could be done, they and many of their neighbors instead gathered up chunks of plane and scorched blankets for souvenirs. A depression was on, after all, and scrap metal was a valuable commodity.
More local souvenir hunters descended on the crash overnight into the next morning before police could arrive, and even then did nothing to stop them. Everything that could be picked up was taken. One woman, Mrs. R.C. Gardner, even found the plane’s chemical toilet about 100 yards away and carried it home. By the end of the day most of the plane pieces that could be carried had been removed by souvenir hunters.
That same day officials from United Air Lines and the United States Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) arrived at the scene and assessed the situation. They were perplexed to find the almost intact tail section of the plane a half-mile from the crash scene, along with the relatively unscathed but deceased bodies of Emil Smith and Warren Burris. A coroner later found both of them had burst eardrums. The remainder of the plane had slammed into a patch of woods, and had been according to investigators “completely extinguished” by the horrendous explosion and fire. The bodies of the crew and other two passengers were also discovered inside, badly burned.
But it was the location and circumstances surrounding the tail section that aroused so much interest. Officials theorized that maybe a broken gas line or faulty engine triggered the blast that blew off the section in mid-air and sent two passengers to their deaths. Porter County coroner Dr. Carl Davis, however, presented another theory that was at first widely disputed — that a time bomb, placed somewhere near the lavatory, caused the explosion that ripped the plane in two.
This theory was bolstered by analyses of parts gathered at the sight by Northwestern University’s Crime Detection Laboratory and those given back to investigators by souvenir collectors. Apparently, everything in the front of the compartment was blown forward, everything behind blown backward, and things at the side outward, supporting the explosion theory. The gasoline tanks, instead of being blown out, were crushed in, showing there was no explosion inside of them but outside.
Other theories were also presented by others, including the possibility that a passenger carried a high explosive in their baggage, or that there may have been “moth balls” in the gas tanks. A Cleveland-based Argentinian immigrant named Arturo deFauzon stated in a letter to the bureau that “If there is not a criminal hand in the ‘affair,’ I do believe the crash should be study for the angle of probabilities of a meteorite hitting the plane.”
Dr. C.W. Muehlberger, a member of Northwestern’s Laboratory, however, definitively determined the plane had been carrying a bomb that most likely contained “nitroglycerine, dynamite of high percentage strength, TNT or some similar substance.” He found that particles of metal had been driven with “bullet-like speed” into the tail section’s floor, verifying the “high explosive” aspect of the detonating material.
The planted bomb theory was the most likely and most accepted. Chicago Bureau Special Agent in Charge Melvin Purvis, who would go on less than two years later to capture the outlaw John Dillinger, poured money and resources into this first instance of airborne terrorism. They then began interviewing all persons in the vicinity of the crash, including friends and relatives of the passengers and crew.
But theories of who placed the bomb, when they placed it and why were not easily ascertained. Passenger air travel was still in its infancy in 1933. Planes did not carry data flight recorders, baggage was not examined or x-rayed, and to make matters worse much of the crash had been carted away before investigators arrived, hampering the search for clues. In fact, on October 11 United sold the wreckage to a Hobart, Indiana junk dealer for $75. He hauled it all away only a day or two later.
Labor agitation was floated as a premise for the explosion that some concluded was intended to smear the airline’s reputation and force unionization. One of the inspecting mechanics who changed the tire in Newark, Emidio Lima, told federal investigators that a month earlier the mechanics organized under the name of the Air Line Mechanics Association and had obtained a charter affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. He insisted there was no agitation between the mechanics and their employer. He also stated that he knew of no radicalism among any employees at the Newark Airport, and no friction between management and employees.
Rumors of a possible conflict with the airline pilots’ union were investigated. It was discovered that co-pilot Ruby may have been harassed and threatened by another Cleveland pilot named Larnod for not joining the union. United Vice President E.P. Lott told the Bureau that Larnod was an “excellent pilot” and he steadfastly denied harassing Ruby or anyone else about union activities.
A rather scurrilous story published by the Chicago Tribune November 3 on page two reported that a mob gangster — with no malicious intent — hid the bomb in the storage compartment among the blankets to merely rid himself of incriminating evidence in case he was searched upon landing. This theory was in conjunction with another that held that the Chicago Mafia was attempting to assassinate a U.S. attorney who was infamous for prosecuting mob bootleggers, and was known to make cross-country flights on a regular basis. In fact, the story reported that the arrest of a gangster was imminent. But like all the other theories, there was no documentation to back this up, and the Bureau of Investigation vehemently denied the report.
While it was believed the bomb had been placed in Newark, a thorough investigation proved that could not have happened. Milton Harris, a porter, told investigators that he saw nothing unusual about the plane or cargo, nor did he see anyone get on or off prior to takeoff. He had only assisted the stewardess, Alice Scribner, as she was entering the ship with three small bags. In fact, the only baggage loaded in the rear compartment was the pilot, co-pilot and stewardess’s baggage, as well as a 7”x9” package of Associated Press photographs, which were clearly marked.
Attention then turned to the passengers, particularly Emil Smith and his mysterious wrapped package. Newark ticketmaster R. L. Finan told investigators that he saw Smith take the package out of his bag and replace it with his bottle of liquor just after buying his ticket. He said the package was about the size of a pair of shoes and wrapped in brown paper. Nothing further was seen by him after Smith boarded the aircraft.
After the crash, however, the remains of that package were found and while the contents were not disclosed, the Bureau reported it contained only a “benign object” not associated with the explosion or crash. A heavily-damaged rifle found in the crash debris was also determined to have belonged to Smith, who according to family interviews was taking it to Chicago to shoot at a hunt club.
More interviews with friends and family of Smith, the other passengers and crew revealed they were all “reputable citizens.” None had experience with explosives, and none had any reason to take down a non-military passenger airplane on a routine transcontinental flight. Interviews with twelve passengers who had canceled their reservations on this flight revealed nothing, as did interviews with dozens of others who had flown on the plane for up to two months before the crash.
During the investigation some cryptic overheard messages and conversations were logged in an early version of “see something, say something.” A United employee who picked up Miss Dwyer’s fiancé, Stanley Baldwin from a Reno airport two days after the crash reported that Baldwin was “hysterical” over the death of his fiancé and that he had been taking morphine and bromide to help deal with it. He then said Baldwin thought “a bomb had blown up his fiancé’s ship,” a conclusion not reached at that time by investigators. Baldwin admitted that he had persuaded Dwyer to fly to Reno, and that she had lied to pilot Tarrant about her plans so as to keep their marriage a secret. There was no follow-up on why he attributed the crash to a bomb.
A most likely xenophobic San Francisco sewing machine agent named Steele called the Bureau October 24 and reported that prior to the crash he had overheard a “tough looking bunch” of loud, intoxicated Italian men on a train between Cleveland and Chicago discussing the perils of airplane travel. One of them, a “short dark and swarthy fellow” spoke of picking up a man whose name began with a “Z.” He thought nothing of the incident until after the crash, but in light of it thought it was worth mentioning.
A very odd letter was mailed October 15 to Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover from C.L. Moore in Kankakee, Illinois that seemed to implicate Germany in the blast and crash. “Just a thought — the air liner wrecked near Chesterton, Ind. — this liner will not be used in the next German war,” the sloppy hand-written missive stated. “What do you know about the personnel on the Macon [a zeppelin just placed into service on the west coast by the U.S. Navy] … Germany has been preparing for a long while.”
But as diligent as the investigators were, absolutely no reason for the explosion and crash could be found. Finally on September 7, 1935, Chicago Special Agent in Charge D.M. Ladd — who had replaced Purvis — sent a memo to Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover in Washington that simply stated “A review of the file in this office reflects that all leads in connection with this matter have been completely exhausted and authority is therefore requested from the Bureau to consider this case closed at this Office.”
On September 27 Hoover agreed, and the Bureau formally closed the case without finding the cause.
As a postscript, in 1999, a man named Howard Johnson recalled in an oral history project produced by the Westchester Public Library in northwest Indiana, that he had driven to the crash site in a Ford Model T shortly after it happened. He went on record stating that he had been told by someone at the time that a man with a briefcase had boarded the Boeing 247 in Cleveland before it took off to Newark, but then got off — without the briefcase:
No, I guess it had something to do with some labor racketeer because they said that — It was all rather vague, but they said that someone got on the plane in Cleveland and had a suitcase and then they got off and no one saw them take the suitcase off. So that’s no doubt what happened. They just left the bomb on the plane.
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