Gadgets. New products. Outlandish seeming inventions. The 1939 World’s Fair was focused on the marvels of the future and tourists were visiting in droves.
But within just six months of its opening, Europe erupted in war when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. And though the United States had not yet entered the war, it was unclear how long it would be able to remain neutral.
On July 4, 1940, tragedy struck at the fair when a seemingly simple device—a time bomb—exploded, killing two NYPD officers. Though it sparked a manhunt and suspicions it had been perpetrated by a pro-Nazi American, no bomber or manifesto was ever found—and no group claimed the crime as their own.
The bomb did inspire something futuristic, though: new technology that set the stage for modern bomb squads to protect the public against explosions.
Built on a former ash dump in Flushing, Queens, the fair’s theme was “Dawn of a New Day.” But though the fair featured tech-heavy attractions that showcased participating countries’ ingenuity and industry, the name of its theme unknowingly highlighted the world war that dawned during the fair.
War may not yet have reached the United States, but tensions were ramping up in New York, which was the site of pro-Nazi rallies by members of the German-American Bund and increasingly hostile rhetoric on the part of Nazi sympathizers. On June 20, 1940, two bombs exploded near the German Embassy and a building that housed Communist agencies in Manhattan. The bomb explosion at the World's Fair came just two weeks later, on Independence Day.
At the time, New York did have a bomb squad. But technology was rudimentary, and it was not well-equipped to deal with credible bomb threats; up to 400 bomb threats were made in New York every week. “The merger of the Bomb Squad and Forgery Squads in the mid-1930s suggests that bombs had generally been reduced in the minds of the higher-ups to a nuisance, albeit a criminal one,” writes Bomb Squad historian J.E. Fishman.
The first sign of the looming disaster at the World's Fair came on July 1, 1940, when the British Pavilion received a bomb threat. In response, plain-clothes detectives patrolled the site, blending in with visitors who had come to see the Magna Carta. Two days later a worker discovered a canvas bag making a ticking sound. But he ignored the bomb until the day afterward, when he took it to a supervisor. The bag was passed from person to person until the police were finally called. Inside was, literally, a ticking time bomb.
July 4 was a packed day at the fair, and the bomb made its way through a pavilion crowded with spectators. Once British officials called the police, the detectives on-site decided to move the bag to a less crowded area about 150 feet from dining visitors to the Polish Pavilion. Soon, Bomb and Forgery Squad officers Joseph Lynch and Fred Socha were on the scene. The men turned the bag over and investigated it as the buff-colored bag ticked and ticked.
Finally, one of the detectives suggested cutting a piece off the bag and peering inside. Socha and Lynch did so. But before they could see, the bomb exploded. Both were killed, and other officers were seriously wounded and maimed. The bomb exploded plate glass nearby, blew shrapnel up to 100 feet, and left a large crater in the ground. The tree under which the bomb had been placed had no more leaves or bark. Meanwhile, most fairgoers thought they had heard a fireworks explosion elsewhere at the fair.
The fair had acquired, in the words of the New York Times, a “war atmosphere.” Suddenly, it seemed like a miniature battlefield, complete with shrapnel and death. In response, New York’s mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, came to the site, and the city’s police were put on 24-hour duty. They were ordered to “pick up any known Bundists, Fascists, members of the ‘Christian Front’ or other suspects” in an attempt to discover who was responsible for the blast.
But despite a massive manhunt and the questioning of multiple members of the German-American Bund and other organizations, the perpetrator was never found. The bombing remains unsolved.
The NYPD may never have found a perpetrator, but it did learn from the crime. The tragedy of the bombing, and the close call at a fair packed with tens of thousands of people, was a wake-up call for the Bomb Squad. LaGuardia summoned James A. Pyke, the unit’s commanding officer, to his office and told him to brainstorm ways to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.
In response, the Bomb Squad used a condemned police truck and some trial and error to develop a bomb carrier. Dubbed the LaGuardia-Pyke Bomb Carrier, it was designed to take potentially explosive materials from crowded places to more secluded ones and protect those nearby from a blast if it did discharge en route. The mobile containment unit, which looked like a steel basket on wheels, used woven steel screens to protect against a bomb. It was the first to be both tested and deployed by a police station in the United States.
The carriers could withstand multiple sticks of dynamite, and once they were deployed the NYPD estimated one could be on-site within three minutes of any bomb threat made known to the department. “Here is a carrier in which even the largest of bombs encountered in police investigations could be moved without serious danger from premature explosions,” wrote Pyke in 1943.
Bomb squads have come a long way since then. But the World’s Fair tragedy informed a move toward technology that could protect both the public and the police force as they attempted to defuse and deal with explosives. Today, bomb squads in New York use high-tech “total containment vessels” to whisk bombs away from the city—devices whose ancestors were born that tragic day in Queens.