Was America’s first airline terrorist attack in the dunes?
Submitted by Matthew A. Werner
Photo credit: “From the Chris Baird Collection.”
On the night of October 10, 1933, Joe Graff, Marion Arndt, and Johnny Bechinski were playing a game of Hearts around 9:00 pm when they heard a loud boom in the air. They ran outside and saw a fireball careening to the ground. Farmer Francis Wiseman was outside when he heard the plane and claimed to see, “a terrific blast and then flashes of fire. The tail of the plan floated away and the front part of the plane shot up several hundred feet like a skyrocket.”
What they didn’t know at the time was that a bomb had detonated onboard.
The United Airlines Boeing 247 airliner originated in Newark, New Jersey en route to Oakland, California. It had stopped to refuel in Cleveland, Ohio, and intended to refuel again in Chicago. It was flying at 1,500 feet when the explosion dropped the plane on Joseph Brown’s farm in Jackson Township near present day 400 East and the Indiana Toll Road. All seven passengers on board died.
In 1999, area resident Howard Johnson recalled the aftermath in a recorded interview:
Donald Slont, who later ran Flannery’s Tavern, was on the local fire department. Of course, the fire truck went out there immediately when the alarm was sent out. When they picked up their stuff from the fire truck to come home after they had done everything that they could, the propeller, one of the propellers…was lying on the ground. It had broken off. Don was one of these guys that just laid his hands on anything that he could see, and he grabbed it…When they were investigating the thing, they couldn’t find that propeller so they thought the propeller had come off and that’s what made it crash. And here Donald had it all the time.
For years, that propeller hung on a wall in a garage on the corner of Broadway and Fourth Street in Chesterton. Other evidence disappeared too as local residents snatched up souvenirs as reported by the Chesterton Tribune in 2013:
Chesterton Tribune publisher Warren Canright, a boy of 7 in 1933, remembered seeing crash souvenirs of all sorts displayed in the front window of Morgan’s Hardware Store on South Calumet Road, including a valise belonging to one of the doomed passengers.
Canright himself, he told the society, grabbed a small piece of aluminum from the site, after being brought to visit the scene the next day.
“They didn’t seal off air crashes in those days,” Canright observed.
They didn’t do one other thing either: attempt to reconstruct the plane. Instead, while the remains of Flight 247D were still on the ground in Jackson Township, authorities sold the Boeing for scrap and had it hauled away, Keller said. Undoubtedly bits and pieces of it still remain, though, long forgotten in trunks and boxes and drawers, in attics and garages and barns throughout Duneland.
When FBI investigators arrived, most of the wreckage and personal effects of the passengers had been removed by a local scrapper and multiple souvenir seekers. Suitcases, alarm clocks, even the lavatory septic chemical tank turned up at local residents’ homes. Bit by bit, investigators tracked down evidence and recorded statements of the event. The FBI compiled more than 320 pages of reports, but the results were inconclusive. The mystery captured the attention of Chicago author, Bryan Alaspa, a true crime fan who has published numerous books.
“I found it fascinating that it was, essentially, what we’d call a terrorist attack these days,” Alaspa wrote via email, “but no one knew about it. It seemed like the perfect topic for a new book and that got me tumbling down the rabbit hole.”
That rabbit hole included a lengthy Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the FBI’s report (the FBI has since uploaded the files to its online FOIA library, The Vault). Alaspa has often wondered about the relationship between FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover, and the lead investigator of the crash, Melvin Purvis, who had tracked down notorious bank robbers Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, and Pretty Boy Floyd.
“Hoover was jealous of the fame Purvis had and was doing all he could on his end to sabotage Purvis’ work,” Alaspa wrote. “I could not find direct evidence that Purvis’ investigation into the crash and the underhanded methods of Hoover were the real reason no one was every caught, but I cannot help but draw a few conclusions that maybe there is some connection.”
So, who did it?
“There is a very strong suspect,” wrote Alaspa. “A man who was on the flight and acting strangely. . . the FBI cleared this man, but it’s very hard not to remain suspicious. However, the fact the bomb seems not to have been set with a timer, but with unstable explosives that would require the plane to jolt and the explosives to also be jolted makes it hard to believe it was a timed thing. It seems like a rather random way to blow up a plane. As if you had an agenda against the airlines while in a labor dispute.”
Christopher Baird lives in Arizona and researches historic aircraft accidents in his state, but the Chesterton crash piqued his curiosity and led him to research it as well—including his own lengthy search of the FBI files.
“I don’t have any theories as to a motive that I am confident with,” Baird wrote. “Maybe the bomb was being transported for later use as no detonator or timer device was ever found.”
Baird suggested maybe the bomb was never intended to down the airplane at all. “The pilot/mechanic union troubles at the time are plausible motives but I don’t see what they would gain from blowing up the airliner except pure spite.”
Then again, Baird added, “Someone stashed a bomb behind the towels in the lavatory. They went to the loo and carefully hid it. So maybe the plane was the target! My interest in this event stems from the core mystery of the circumstances and that it was never solved,” Baird wrote.
A downed plane, a hidden bomb, an unsolved mystery 75 years and counting—that would pique anybody’s interest, wouldn’t it?
There is much more to the story. To learn more about the United Airlines Boeing 247 crash, check out Chris Baird’s website, www.arizonawrecks.com, or purchase a copy of Bryan Alaspa’s book, “Sabotage,” at https://www.amazon.com.