Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia

The Empire State Plane Crash, July 28, 1945

A dense fog crept across the slate gray New York City sky on Saturday July 28, 1945. The war in Europe was largely over, V-E Day had been declared about seven weeks earlier, and the fall of Japan was near. The city was going about its business shortly before 10 a.m., when a US Army bomber plane carrying a pilot and two other men from Bedford, Massachusetts to LaGuardia Airport made a wrong turn and slammed into the north side of the Empire State Building about 935 feet above the street.

The building topped 1,200 feet, so the plane, which was going more than 200 miles per hour, rammed through the 78th and 79th floors with tremendous force, sending an elevator plummeting 75 floors and triggering three separate heavy fires.

Empire State Building Disaster: Interior, 12:40 pm; 79th Floor, showing hole in wall where plane crashed, July 28, 1945. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The pilot and the two other men in the plane—including a Navy machinist from Brooklyn—were killed instantly and 11 people in the building or on the ground died. The crash triggered a brief panic, launched several investigations and drew both praise and condemnation of the City’s feisty Mayor, Fiorello La Guardia.

Telegrams, letters, secret communications between the City and Washington, and a detailed and heavily-illustrated Fire Department report in the Municipal Library and Archives recount the events of that dark day.

At approximately 9:50 a.m., the pilot of the doomed B-25 Mitchell Aircraft, William F. Smith Jr., radioed the La Guardia Tower saying the plane was about 15 miles south of LaGuardia and asked about the weather at nearby Newark Airport. Following procedure, the LaGuardia Tower told the pilot to call Newark for the local weather.

“Within two minutes, this plane showed up directly southeast of LaGuardia and (LaGuardia Tower chief Operator Victor) Barden believing it intended to land, gave it runway, wind direction and velocity,” the memo read. “The pilot stated he wanted to go to Newark.”

Empire State Building Disaster: Interior, 79th Fl. 12:55 pm, July 28, 1945. Hole in south wall where plane crashed into elevators. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Airways Traffic Control radioed that the weather at Newark was 600 feet ceiling and said the plane should land at LaGuardia. Since it was a bomber, the tower contacted Army Advisory, which said visibility was a little better than that and the tower asked the pilot what he wanted to do.

Smith, a West Point graduate who had completed 42 missions in Europe during the war, made the fateful decision to proceed to Newark. The tower then cleared him to land at Newark, but noted they were “unable to see the top of the Empire State Building” and warned the pilot that if he did not have three miles of forward visibility, he should return to LaGuardia.

But visibility was near zero and the pilot apparently became disoriented, turned the wrong way after skirting the Chrysler Building on 42nd Street and almost immediately slammed into the north side of the Empire State Building. The first fire alarm was pulled at 9:52 a.m. and Mayor LaGuardia quickly rushed to the scene amid arriving fire trucks, ambulances and police cars.

Empire State Building Disaster: Interior, W side of 79th Fl, facing E; 12:30 pm, July 28, 1945. Firemen walking through rubble in rear. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

An extensive Fire Department report issued by Commissioner Patrick Walsh on August 21, 1945, picks up the story, reporting that the plane hit between the 78th and 79th floors with such tremendous force that it made an 18-by-20-foot hole in what was then the tallest building in the world. One engine flew through the south side of the building and landed a block away atop the roof of a factory on West 33rd St. The other engine plummeted down an elevator shaft and triggered a fire that lasted more than 40 minutes.

“The wreckage of a giant aircraft that had carried a large supply of gasoline and tanks of oxygen giving added furor to the blasting fire … scattered death and flames over a wide area,” Walsh wrote. “Elevator service to the scene of the fire, some 935 feet above the street, had been disrupted. Parts of a hurtling motor and other sections of the plane that passed entirely through the structure had brought fire to the roof and top floor of a thirteen-story building across the street from the scene of the original tragedy. A third fire had developed in the basement and sub-basement of the Empire Building itself.”

Empire State Building Disaster: Interior, S corner, 79th Fl., facing N; 12:05 pm, July 28, 1945. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Walsh wrote that the fires were brought under control in 19 minutes and were extinguished within 40 minutes. But, he added, “life hazard was very severe. Persons had been trapped on the 78th and many more on the 79th floor. Persons on the 80th and other floors were exposed to considerable smoke and heat. There was a dangerous possibility of panic among the people in the building.”

Empire State Building Disaster: Basement, 2:40 pm, looking NW, July 28, 1945. Elevator pit, parts of plane. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In a letter accompanying his report, Walsh praised the Mayor for getting to the scene quickly and making sure that accurate information got out to the public to prevent widespread panic. “Your presence at the scene with its attendant acceptance of the risks and rigors of the situation was very impressive and gave testimony to the cooperation that this department has received from you during past years.”

Miraculously, elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver survived the 75-story elevator shaft plunge, in what the Guinness Book of Records would later proclaim “The Longest Fall Survived in an Elevator.” Soon after the horrific accident, as firefighters were still rushing up to the 77th floor to fight the blaze, Army Lt. General Ira Eaker, Deputy Commander of the Army Air Forces, fired off a hand-delivered note to Mayor LaGuardia “to express the concern of the Army Air Forces for the unfortunate accident which occurred at the Empire State Building this morning.”

He vowed to cooperate with city and federal agencies “to ensure a complete and thorough investigation of the circumstances … It is our keenest desire that everything humanly possible be done for those who have suffered in this unfortunate and regrettable accident and we shall leave nothing undone which lies in our power to that end.”

Empire State Building Disaster: Interior, S corner, 79th Fl. Offices; charred bodies on desk in background.; 11:50 am, July 28, 1945. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The next day’s papers—from coast-to-coast—blared the story across their front pages. The New York Daily News story began: “A fog-blind B-25 Mitchell bomber, groping its way southward across Manhattan to Newark Airport crashed into the 79th-floor of the 1,250-foot Empire State Building … turning the world’s tallest building into a torch in the sky high above 34th St. and Fifth Avenue.” That morning the Mayor took to the airwaves with his Talk to the People program, offered condolences to the families of all the victims and read Lt. Gen. Eaker’s letter aloud. (LT2545)

The Archives holds a July 31 story in the Daily Mirror that lent an eerie quality to the story. It started: “The charred remains of the dead … in the Empire State Building tragedy were identified yesterday while souvenir seekers and looters had a ghoulish field day among the debris.” The story said looters invaded the 79th floor offices of the National Catholic Welfare Conference and stole charred stationary and $400 in cash. The thief dropped a bag holding $8,000 in Travelers Checks when police spotted him and gave chase. The owner of the Hicckock Belt Company told cops someone stole $300 worth of belts, suspenders and wallets.

Empire State Building Disaster: 34th Street, showing parts of plane on N side of street; 1:20 pm, July 28, 1945. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Despite the damage, much of the building was open for business on the Monday two days after the accident. The crash also led to creation of the Federal Tort Claims Act and brought calls from military and aviation experts for better training and safety rules. Brigadier General Robert Travis blamed a rash of accidents on a “lack of knowledge of equipment, lack of discipline and plain bullheadedness.”

Mayor LaGuardia added to the furor over the accident when he told the Herald Tribune he thought the pilot was flying too low, given the number of skyscrapers in Midtown. In response to one critical letter to the mayor, Goodhue Livingston Jr., LaGuardia’s executive secretary, noted that if the pilot “had maintained the proper altitude when flying over Manhattan the accident would not have occurred. Unfortunately, some of our Army Pilots who have been coming into our municipal fields during this war emergency period have on occasion have [sic] not maintained the proper safe altitude.”

The Empire State Building as it was in 1940, with a much shorter midtown. Department of Finance Tax Photo Collection.

The Empire State Building as it was in 1940, with a much shorter midtown. Department of Finance Tax Photo Collection.

An August 13 letter from H.H. Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, backed up LaGuardia. Arnold said there was no evidence the plane had malfunctioned, and he clearly pinned the blame on the pilot.

 “It appears that the pilot used poor judgment,” Arnold wrote, adding that Smith did not maintain the altitude and did not have the minimum visibility to go to Newark. “He had been warned by the LaGuardia Tower that the top of the Empire State Building could not be seen. Therefore, it may be assumed that he was mistaken in his establishment of his position with respect to the Lower Manhattan area.” Arnold said the military had taken measures to avoid a similar accident in the future by better communication between the military and air traffic control and by establishing local traffic routes for Army aircraft in the metropolitan area.

Unfortunately, less than a year later it happened again. On May 20, 1946, an U.S. Army Air Forces Beechcraft C-45F Expediter slammed into the north side of the 925-foot-high building at 40 Wall Street in a heavy fog. All five crew members were killed.

Columbus Day 1944: Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s broadcasts to Italy during World War II

Mayor LaGuardia speaking at reviewing stand, at the Columbus Day Parade, October 12, 1943. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Between July 1942 and May 1945 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia delivered weekly radio broadcasts in Italian via shortwave radio to Italy. This was a secretive undertaking organized by the Office of War Information (OWI), designed to keep Italians informed of Allied activities during the war, and to offer encouragement and hope during the period of German occupation. The recently-digitized Italian and English transcripts of the broadcasts at the New York Municipal Archives (NYMA) open a window into issues facing Italy during the war and the Mayor’s unsparing views of Hitler and Mussolini. The audio recordings reside at the Library of Congress; however a few have been made available for listening. The talks of October 1944, seventy-five years ago, document a critical turning point for Italy in the war and in US–Italian relations. The Mayor had not broadcast for nine weeks, reflecting mounting Italian-American skepticism regarding the Allies’ treatment of Italy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was facing re-election and needed the Italian-American vote. By forging an alliance between rival groups in New York City and striking a deal with the British, President Roosevelt’s promise of aid and recognition to Italy succeeded in making Columbus Day 1944 an unprecedented success, ushering in the iconic Fifth Avenue parade and the return of the Italian flag. LaGuardia’s return to the airwaves in October 1944 captures the drama of these events.

Major LaGuardia with soldiers in Italy in 1918. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

LaGuardia already enjoyed a national reputation in Italy for his speeches. Roughly twenty-five years earlier, as an army captain during the First World War, he spoke in Italian at La Scala in Milan and at the Coliseum in Rome, encouraging Italians to support the war effort. These speeches are well-documented with much coverage in both the Italian and English press. The WWII broadcasts, in contrast, were a secretive undertaking, with background material provided to LaGuardia by the State Department on Italian fascism and anti-Semitism during the German occupation of Italy. Italian fascists had been broadcasting to Italian-Americans in the US and the US wanted Italians to hear anti-fascist sentiments from an American. Mayor LaGuardia, a vocal anti-fascist, was actively pursued by the newly-formed OWI in the spring of 1942. Correspondence uncovered at the Municipal Archives reveals the Mayor’s close working relationship with the officials of the OWI, then based in New York City. There was agreement that these broadcasts were not to be publicized.

LaGuardia would dictate his talks in Italian about one week in advance of each planned broadcast. The pencil notes are his corrections, and the sketch is his as well. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The transmission was a complicated technical undertaking: LaGuardia would dictate his roughly fifteen-minute talk in Italian about one week in advance of each planned broadcast.  His OWI-employed translator, Elma Baccanelli, would then translate the talk into English and submit it to State Department censors for final approval. The final Italian transcript was then typed onto 5x8 cards and read by the Mayor on Saturday afternoon at the NBC studio in mid-town. It was sent by short-wave to BBC London and then converted to medium-wave for better reception in Italy. The talks were generally broadcast on Sunday nights around 9 pm in Italy.

The size of the audience is not known because it was illegal to listen, however, judging by the volume of letters he received (also at the NYMA), and the negative comments generated by the Nazi and Fascist press, his talks were listened to by many. I personally know this because of the many Italians I have met who remember listening to these broadcasts as children, often in a basement or a closet, and recall the experience with great emotion. These broadcasts were a lifeline of hope for the Italians. The language is simple and direct, a hallmark of LaGuardia, as he exhorts the Italians to resist the Germans, and he declares his unqualified love for Italy and confidence in an Allied victory. 

Some of the many letters Mayor LaGuardia received from Italy. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

A note from Elma Baccanelli, LaGuardia’s translator, in August 1943 informing him that his directive to the Italian Navy to help end the stalemate was removed by State Department censors.

Early in the process LaGuardia formed a productive and trusting relationship with Elma Baccanelli, an Italian-American employed by the OWI. Notes from the Municipal Archives show that she gently offered wording suggestions and had the unpleasant task of informing the Mayor when his words were censored. There were three noteworthy episodes of censorship during the three years of broadcasting, and the correspondence with the State Department, the OWI, and even President Roosevelt, reveals a tension between classified war plans and the Mayor’s desire to speak directly and frankly to the Italian people. In general, the reasons for censorship focused on perceived or suggested “instructions for revolt,” which LaGuardia never seemed to understand given that it was wartime. Rather than acquiescing to the censors, the Mayor simply cancelled his planned broadcasts on these occasions, claiming “there was nothing left to say after all the cuts.”

Mayor Laguardia must have complained to friends in Washington about the censorship, because on September 7, 1943 President Roosevelt sent LaGuardia this short, cryptic note defending the censorship. On September 9th the main Allied invasion force landed in Salerno, Italy. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The broadcasts present a chronology of the war from the viewpoint of an Italian-American anti-fascist. His use of simple language and repeated themes of encouragement, persistence, and affinity with the partisans, provide some insight into his target audience. He was not speaking to the prominenti of German-occupied Milan or Turin (although they listened). He was directing his words to Allied-occupied Southern Italy, where most Italian-Americans had originated.

His talks encompassed three Columbus Day holidays (1942-1944). Each of these three holidays is acknowledged. However, it is the Columbus Day of 1944 that stands out as a turning point in the influence of Italian-Americans on US policy towards Italy. While the Mayor took issue with the censor’s rulings and had previously cancelled a few broadcasts in a huff, between August 6 and October 8, 1944 he went “on-strike” and did not give any talks.

In the August 6, 1944 transcript he expressed his frustration that Italy had not been recognized as an ally by the United Nations despite the liberation of Rome by the Allies on June 5, 1944:

Here in America there is a great desire for news of the Italian patriots. Really, what do you call them in Italy: patriots or partisans? In any case, this activity of the patriots in the occupied territory and everything they do is of the greatest interest to all the Americans. They know how difficult direct action is where the Nazis are, the great peril and risk the patriots face. Therefore- this great admiration.

While we are speaking of the great activity of the patriots—what are the diplomats doing? I think it is time for the Italian situation to be clarified and for the United States to recognize Italy’s position; so that the material, economic, and political reconstruction may begin. After all, are we not friends? I think we are friends. Therefore why not say so?

Perhaps next week I will not speak. You know that unless you have something to say, it is difficult to speak. Only the tenor at the opera sings to hear his own voice; I can speak only when I have really something to say.

This last sentence is not meant for you Italians: do I make myself clear?

Therefore until I have something definite…this is your friend La Guardia saying, Courage! Forward!

The English language draft of LaGuardia’s October 8, 1944 speech. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

During the nine weeks of radio silence, a series of events unfolded that broke the diplomatic log jam for Italy. President Roosevelt, facing re-election and increasingly aware of the dire economic situation in Italy, worked with leaders of the Italian-American community in New York, bridging the rivalries between the pro-fascist Generoso Pope, publisher of the major Italian-language newspaper, Il Progresso, and the anti-fascist Luigi Antonini, head of the Italian American Labor Council (IALC), to assure Italian-Americans that he would provide Italy with all possible aid.

The British were reluctantly willing to work with the US regarding Italy. Following the Quebec Conference of September 12-14, 1944, a Roosevelt-Churchill statement on Italy was issued on September 26, 1944 giving Italy diplomatic representation and access to limited United Nations Relief and Recovery Administration (UNRRA) aid. This was not enough to satisfy Italian-American demands. Roosevelt then personally intervened with the UNRRA General Assembly, meeting in Montreal, to grant Italy $50 million in supplies. Pope published the President’s letter granting these concessions in his newspaper. Antonini arranged for the IALC to present FDR with its Four Freedoms Award in gratitude for the efforts in Italy.

American G.I.s and local children in front of a wall painted with “Fiorello LaGuardia,” and a crown victory symbol, Pozzvoli, Italy, 1945. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Pope was named the grand marshal of the 1944 Columbus Day Parade in New York City, the first year of the march up Fifth Avenue, coinciding with his founding of the Columbus Citizen’s Foundation, the sponsor of every Columbus Day Parade since. US Attorney General Francis Biddle was designated as Roosevelt’s representative at the parade and for the first time since 1941, permission was granted for Italian and American flags to be displayed together at the event.

Yet, there was still more to do before the October 12th festivities began. Roosevelt’s office issued a special statement on October 4, 1944 listing the specific American actions aiding Italy (“Present Problems in Italy”). On October 10, he released another statement implementing a troop pay credits program and reiterating the pledge to provide basic economic requirements for Italy’s reconstruction. Finally, on October 26, 1944, the resumption of full diplomatic relations with Italy was announced with the appointment of Alexander Kirk as US Ambassador to Italy. Ironically, Roosevelt went on to win the election without a strong Italian-American vote.

Mayor LaGuardia marching at head of Columbus Day Parade, flanked and followed by policemen, October 12, 1943. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

When LaGuardia returned to the airwaves on October 8, 1944, he was jubilant:

This is your friend LaGuardia speaking.

I have not spoken to you for nine weeks now. The last time, you will recall, I promised that I would not speak again unless I had something to say. I was really fed up that time. But now I can tell you that the statement made by our President and by Prime Minister Churchill on September 26 was just what I was waiting for. The statement says, among other things:

“We believe we should give encouragement to those Italians who are standing for political rebirth in Italy, and are completing the destruction of the evil fascist system. We wish to afford the Italians a greater opportunity to aid in the defeat of our common enemies…”

“The British High Commissioner in Italy will assume the additional title of Ambassador. The United States representative in Rome already holds that rank. The Italian government will be invited to appoint direct representatives to Washington and London.”

He goes on to say:

It is well to have ambassadors but the people cannot eat ambassadors, if the people are hungry. Therefore these promises must very soon be followed by relief.

And then again on October 15th:

I am happy that the events of the past week give me the opportunity to speak to you again today. Our President has announced that the Italian government will be credited in America for the dollar equivalent of the occupation lire issued in Italy and used by us and by our troops. This is the foundation of Italian credit in America. It will make easier the re-establishment of a commercial balance between the two countries.

And, concluding:

Thursday, October 12, 1944 we commemorated the discovery of America by our Christopher Columbus. It was truly a great day. The thoughts of the American people were turned towards Italy-towards poor, suffering Italy, and heartening statements were made by our President, our government, and various authoritative persons. They demonstrate clearly that Italy’s condition is well understood and that there is a real desire to help and remedy the sad plight in which she finds herself. These statements, made on Thursday, Columbus Day, will live forever and become part—either of our history or of our literature. If they are merely statements dressed up in fine language, they will live in literature.

LaGuardia continued speaking weekly until May 1945 when the Allies’ mission was complete and Italy was fully recognized by the UN. He then made sure Italy’s reconstruction continued when he assumed the role of Director General for UNRRA (1946-47) and personally supervised the delivered aid.

Katherine D. LaGuardia, MD, MPH

klaguardia@laguardiafoundation.org

Chair, Fiorello H. LaGuardia Foundation

Mayor LaGuardia surrounded by a crowd while visiting Rome, August 10, 1946. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Sources:

Transcripts and Correspondence Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives, 3581-3582 (boxes 219 &220).

James E. Miller Prologue 1981: Politics of Relief: The Roosevelt Administration and the Reconstruction of Italy, 1943-44 (pp. 193-208)

US Department of State: United States and Italy, 1936-1946: Documentary Record

Fish Strike

Strikes. New York’s had a few. And maybe never so many as during the 1930s. It seems as if every industry had a strike, judging from New York Police Department and Mayoral records. The NYPD Deputy Chief Inspector developed a list of the most important strikes between 1928 and 1937, inclusive. There was the paper-box strike, the Eagle pencil strike, the clothing salesmen strike, the Fur Workers, the Bee Line Bus workers (on multiple occasions), the Dugan Brothers Chauffeurs, the Cushman Bakery workers and the Building Services workers (requiring the deployment of 2,064 NYPD personnel—a record number) among others. All were related to fair wages and working conditions.