World’s Fair Time Bomb is Daring and Disastrous

World’s Fairs are a way for countries to thump their chests and show the best of their nations and cultures. The 1939-40 World’s Fair in New York City highlighting “The World of Tomorrow” was no exception. But a bomb explosion in 1940 dampened the fun.

The 1939 World’s Fair

The spring of 1939 was full of ominous signs. Germany had annexed Austria a year earlier, and in October, the Nazi regime had taken over the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. On March 16. 1939, Adolf Hitler proclaimed the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, extinguishing the independence of what had been left of Czechoslovakia.

Poster for the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair (Joseph Binder)
Poster for the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair (Joseph Binder)

Nevertheless, a World’s Fair opened on April 30, 1939, with the slogan, “Dawn of a New Day.” It was the first fair to focus on the future, not a mystical, unknowable future, but one based on the extension of new but current technologies. For instance, television debuted at the fair’s RCA Pavilion. NBC broadcast President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech and part of the opening ceremonies (in black and white) to the approximately 1,000 television sets scattered throughout New York City.

Other fair exhibits included “Elektro the Moto-Man,” a seven-foot-tall robot (Westinghouse), a time capsule to be opened in 6939, nylon, the View-Master, and General Motors’ vision for a car-based futuristic city.

Five months after the fair opened and after it closed for the 1939 season, Germany invaded Poland, launching World War II. The fair continued, though, reopening for its second season in April 1940. While America was not yet at war, much of Europe was under the Nazi heel.

A Bomb at the World’s Fair

It was July 4, 1940, American Independence Day. At the British Pavilion, a caller told the telephone switchboard operator that a bomb had been planted in the building and she should “get out.”

Meanwhile, an electrician discovered a small canvas satchel in a ventilation room on an upper level of the pavilion. (It’s unclear whether the discovery came independently or as a result of the phone call). Patrol officers gingerly took the satchel to an open area behind the Polish Pavilion and waited for bomb squad detectives.

A view of the British Pavilion at the World's Fair after the bomb was discovered (AP)
A view of the British Pavilion at the World’s Fair after the bomb was discovered (AP)

Detective Joseph Lynch was a college graduate who had trained as a pharmacist. The Great Depression squashed his plans to open his own drugstore, so he chose the stability of joining the police department instead. His education and intelligence allowed him to move quickly to the elite Bomb and Forgery Squad.

On this July 4, Lynch was on call but enjoying the holiday at home when he received a call about the suspicious package at the World’s Fair. He borrowed his sister’s car and drove to the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn to pick up his partner, Ferdinand “Freddy” Socha. Socha, also college-educated, was off duty but agreed to accompany his partner to the fair in Flushing Meadow Park.

The World’s Fair Bomb Kills the Two Detectives

At that time, Bomb Squad detectives had virtually no protective gear or safety equipment. Instead, they relied on experience, simple tools, and guts.

The New York Daily News featured the bombing in its July 5 edition (Daily News)
The New York Daily News featured the bombing in its July 5 edition (New York Daily News)

When Lynch and Socha arrived, they heard an audible ticking coming from the satchel. Socha bent down and used a pocket knife to cut a small hole in the case. Lynch peered through the hole and saw sticks of dynamite. “It’s the business,” he said to his partner.

Bomb Squad detectives Joseph Lynch (L) and Ferdinand Socha (R) were killed in the World's Fair bomb exploded (New York Post)
Bomb Squad detectives Joseph Lynch (L) and Ferdinand Socha (R) were killed in the World’s Fair bomb exploded (New York Post)

Seconds later, the package exploded, killing Lynch and Socha instantly. Patrolman Emil Vyskocil, who had been moving bystanders away, suffered severe shrapnel injuries to his back and legs. Detectives William Federer, Martin Schuchman, and Joseph Gallagher were also injured in the blast.

The New York City Police Department assigned 1,500 detectives to the case. They interviewed more than a hundred individuals, including members of fascist and pro-Nazi groups. They also interviewed workers at the British Pavilion on the theory that the bombing was an inside job. New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia offered a $25,000 reward (almost $561,000 in 2024) for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the bombers. The police union added $1,000.

Despite these measures, police never identified the bomber or his motives.

Epilogue

The murders of Joseph Lynch and Ferdinand Socha led to almost immediate improvements in safety equipment and protocols for Bomb Squad detectives. One of these was the LaGuardia-Pyke bomb truck, which, with modifications, is still in use today.

The LaGuardia-Pyke bomb truck (NYPD)
The LaGuardia-Pyke bomb truck (NYPD)

One theory of the bombing is that William Stephenson engineered the blast to push America into joining Britain in the war against Germany. Stephenson, Britain’s master spy and later the model for Ian Fleming’s James Bond, was then working in Manhattan. However, no proof of the Stephenson connection has emerged.

The 1940 World’s Fair bombing remains unsolved today.

You can read more about the 1939 World’s Fair in James Mauro’s Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World’s Fair on the Brink of War.

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