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The Unsolved 1940 World’s Fair Bombing Lives on in Modern Bomb Squad Tech

April 30, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

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.

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.

In July 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 front page of the New York Daily News on July 5, 1940 about the bomb.

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 in 1939, 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, and up to 400 bomb threats were made in New York every week.

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. “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.

Then, on July 1, 1940, the British Pavilion at the World’s Fair received a bomb threat of its own. In response, plain-clothes detectives patrolled the site, blending in with visitors who had come to see the Magna Carta, Britain’s major contribution to the fair. It was a worker who found the bomb two days later: a canvas bag he heard …read more


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