The NYPD has any number of cold cases, crimes that remain on the books, unsolved. Perhaps none are as old or as serious as the murder of a pair of bomb squad detectives in 1940, in a case that touched on international wartime politics. Matt Benedetti of NYCityLens takes us back to that event, based on archival research and on interviews with a retired NYPD Lieutenant, Bernard Whalen, author of The NYPD’s First Fifty Years and Justifiable Homicide.
On July 4, 1940, Joe Lynch was enjoying the holiday at home with his family in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx.
A member of the NYPD Bomb and Forgery Squad, Lynch was on call and likely hoping for a quiet afternoon. The newspapers that Independence Day were full of accounts of the sights and sounds from the World’s Fair, which was taking place in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Featuring monumental displays from 60 countries and “The World of Tomorrow’’ exhibit, the landmark event was attracting myriad visitors, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the King and Queen of England. Organizers hoped to draw a family crowd by setting affordable prices: 75 cents per adult and 10 cents for each child.
Many New Yorker’s radios, meanwhile, were tuned into baseball. Yankees announcer Mel Allen was calling the play by play from Fenway Park in Boston, where the defending World Series champions were in a doubleheader against the Red Sox, their American League rival. The twin bill featured two of the game’s finest hitters, Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees and Boston’s Ted Williams. During lulls in the action, Allen would remind the faithful to keep plenty of Ballantine beer in the icebox. A quick turn of the dial would find Red Barber, voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers, pitching Gillette blades between batters while calling a National League doubleheader from the Polo Grounds in Washington Heights, against the cross-borough New York Giants.
Listening to summer baseball was undoubtedly preferable to reading the troubling headlines plastered atop the afternoon editions that day. The International Situation section of The New York Times, for example, reported dire accounts of the fighting in Europe. France had fallen to the German blitzkrieg within six weeks while Great Britain had evacuated its beleaguered British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk. President Roosevelt, meanwhile, had assured the country that it would not be drawn into another conflict across the Atlantic. Most independent polls reflected a strong isolationist sentiment among Americans regarding any form of intervention in Europe.
A Fordham graduate and trained pharmacist, Detective Lynch had aspired to open an apothecary. Like so many professionals during the Depression, however, he elected to pursue a more stable source of income to support his growing family. After joining the New York Police Department, he quickly advanced through the ranks.
As a member of the elite six-man Bomb and Forgery Squad, Lynch had been busy. Since the mid to late 30s, New York City had experienced a series of threats and bombings. On September 11, 1938, for example, two explosions rocked West 29th Street in the Fur District. Only a few weeks earlier, on June 20, 1940, the squad investigated a flash bomb explosion near the German Consulate at 17 Battery Place, followed by a blast at the newspaper offices of the Communist Daily Worker on 35 East 12th Street.
Fortunately for the cops and city residents, most threats turned out to be hoaxes. Squad members were better equipped to decipher the notes accompanying the package than defusing the explosive itself. As well, the sophisticated ordnance protective gear in use today had not yet been developed.
At approximately 3:50 p.m., as Lynch’s standby duty was scheduled to conclude, the phone rang at his home on 230 Naples Terrace. If the call had been placed ten minutes later, Lynch would have been off the clock, perhaps cracking an ice-cold Ballantine.
Lynch quickly rang his colleague, Detective Freddy Socha, informing him that a suspicious package had been found inside the British Pavilion at the World’s Fair. Lynch promised his wife Easter that he would be home in time for dinner, and then the family planned to visit their ailing eldest daughter, also named Easter, in the hospital.
A moment later, Lynch was out the door.
His partner, Freddy Socha, was also an educated officer, having studied medicine. Despite being off duty that day, he had suggested Lynch contact him at his home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in the event of an incident. The longtime partners were close friends.
But he and his partner would not work together again. At 4:45 that afternoon, Detectives Joseph Lynch and Freddy Socha would be murdered in a terrorist bomb blast that remains unsolved and has stirred much resentment and controversy in the intervening 80 years.
“In early July, World’s Fair officials reported to the NYPD that a man with a German accent had made telephone threats regarding the fair,” said Bernard Whalen, a retired NYPD lieutenant and an author who extensively studied the case during the course of researching his two books.
The NYPD responded by posting undercover officers to look for suspicious activity across the fairgrounds throughout that week, but it was an American electrician, William Strachen, who spotted an unaccompanied attache case in the British Pavilion and alerted officials. It was in a ventilation room, a place not open to the public. “That area would only be known to people with inside knowledge of the pavilion,” Whalen said.
“The pavilions were a showcase for each country. The British brought the Magna Carta, the Crown Jewels, and even Nazi paraphernalia captured in France,” said Whalen. Germany was not permitted to participate in the World’s Fair due to the due to the war in Europe, though the conflict was noted in solemn ways. France and Poland displayed black flags in acknowledgment of the Nazi occupation of their respective homelands.
Detective Frederick Morlock of Precinct 110A in Corona, Queens carried the ticking case to an isolated spot on the edge of the grounds, behind the Polish Pavilion, according to a July 5, 1940 New York Times article. Upon their arrival, Lynch and Socha were briefed and entered the cordoned off area to make a visual inspection. Dressed in plainclothes, the pair carefully lifted the attache case off the ground and examined it. Using a penknife, Lynch carved an opening and peered into the case. There he saw twelve sticks of dynamite.
“It’s the business,” he whispered to his partner.
At 4:45, the bomb exploded, killing both officers and critically injuring several others, including Detectives Joseph Gallagher and William Federer.
The blast left a deep hole in the ground, as well as in the lives of surviving family members and colleagues. Detective Joseph J. Lynch was 33 years old and left a wife and five children. A nine-year veteran, Detective Ferdinand A. Socha was 35 and unmarried.
Witness accounts appeared in The New York Times evening edition: “’I saw the bomb go off,’ said Josephine Chmiel, a saleswoman at the Polish Pavilion. ‘It was a terrible explosion. I saw three men lying on the ground and two crawling away holding their faces,’ she said. ‘One tried to get to his feet…,’ she said, before succumbing to emotion.”
Another employee, L. Morski, described the explosion to the Times as a “cannon blow.” Detective Morlock, who initially removed the package from the British Pavilion, watched events unfold from a distance and was described as “badly shaken” by the gruesome scene, according to The New York Times. When an exhausted Detective Morlock returned to his St. Albans, Queens home the next morning, he discovered his shirt streaked with blood. Struck in the left shoulder by a piece of shrapnel, he had worked throughout the night without noticing the wound, according to a Times account.
In the aftermath of the lethal blast, the NYPD launched one of the largest investigations in the history of the department. At the direction of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Police Commissioner Lewis Valentine, the NYPD “turned virtually the full force of its police power in the search for the bomber by rounding up hundreds of persons identified with agitating groups,” according to the Times of July 6.
The City of New York and Detectives Benevolent Association announced a $26,000 reward for information leading for the arrest and conviction of those responsible. “Members or sympathizers of communist groups, the Irish Republican Army, and, of course, the German Bund were all brought in for questioning,” said Whalen.
A Nazi swastika flag found near the bomb site further escalated tensions and fueled speculation regarding the culprits. “Detectives raided suspected Bund hangouts in Greenwich Village and Yorkville, headquarters of some of the most vocal Nazis,” said Whalen. “By the next day, 150 suspects had been brought in.”
The pro-fascist German-American Bund had established a robust presence in the United States and particularly New York City. On February 20, 1939, only a year before, Bund leader Fritz Kuhn rallied 20,000 sympathizers at Madison Square Garden in chants of “Heil Hitler.” And “During the summer, Penn Station ran a ‘Camp Siegfried Special’ directly out to Yaphank, Long Island where the Bund created a Nazi-style training camp,” said Whalen.
Despite a massive dragnet, however, only one arrest was made. Edward Kangesier, a German Bundsman, was arrested by a special Espionage Squad after being found in possession of Nazi propaganda, maps, and weapons, though investigators could not link him to the bombing. Later, he did face immigration charges and was deported back to Germany. Meanwhile, hundreds of ‘tips’ from the public proved groundless and the investigation stalled.
Lynch and Socha were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The Police Honor Legion paid tribute to both officers by laying wreaths of 100 white carnations on each coffin and thousands attended the requiem services, including former Yankee great Babe Ruth.
Despite suspicions of the German Bund, as the hours passed the evidence seemed to lead back to the British Pavilion. “The location where the bomb was found would only be accessible and known to someone who worked inside the pavilion,” said Whalen. The theory of an inside job gained momentum among NYPD investigators and leadership. Even Commissioner Lewis Valentine seemed to affirm these suspicions in a press conference reported by the Times on July 8, 1940. Valentine “expressed disbelief that anyone but a person who worked in the British building would have known enough about the structure to plant a bomb in such a strategic spot where it was found,” he said.
For a time, even William Strechen, the American electrician who first discovered the package, was viewed as a prime suspect by investigators. Strechen was one of the few individuals who had access to the restricted pavilion, and he faced intense scrutiny before being released—and cleared.
According to police reports reviewed by Whalen, the behavior of the British security staff seemed curious to NYPD detectives. “The staff was current or former military and not very cooperative. They wouldn’t make witnesses available and restricted access to the pavilion, which was a crime scene,” said Whalen.
“If I wanted to solve a crime,” he added, “I wouldn’t impede investigators in any way, shape or form.”
Meanwhile, according to Whalen, the Federal Bureau of Investigation played a somewhat detached role as well, given the federal implications of the blast. “The FBI assigned an agent or two but never followed up on any leads,” said Whalen. While researching his book, The NYPD’s First Fifty Years, Whalen asked the FBI for information on the case and was told no such files existed.
In 1940, both Germany and Great Britain were engaged in influence campaigns in the United States. The Germans hoped to keep America out of the war; the British endeavored to draw the United States into the conflict as an active partner. But the sophisticated English efforts were arguably more robust and ultimately effective, according to several historians, including Jenent Conant. She chronicled the intelligence activities of the British Security Coordination in her book, The Irregulars: Britain’s Wartime Spy Ring in Washington. Of course, as the sole remaining belligerent facing the German military juggernaut in the summer of 1940, England’s future would be untenable without U.S. military involvement.
In 1999, the United Kingdom National Archives released documents previously protected under the Official Secrets Act. A detailed history of the espionage and propaganda campaigns conducted by agents of the British Security Coordination (BSC) in the United States was included among the declassified material. Recorded by Col. Bill Stephenson, the unit’s director, the files reveal the breathtaking scale and scope of the espionage and propaganda operations conducted by the BSC in the United States. Headquartered on the 35th and 36th floor of Rockefeller Center, the BSC initiated extensive propaganda and blackmail campaigns directed against isolationist “America First” elected officials, among others. (The British Embassy in NYC did not return a call for comment)
Was the bombing meant to influence American sympathies toward the English cause while simultaneously diminishing the isolationist position? We may never know. To the dismay of the NYPD, the investigation received little cooperation from the World’s Fair Corporation, the FBI, or the British Embassy, according to Whalen. News from Europe soon pushed the bombing investigation off the front pages and America would soon be at war on two fronts.
Whalen draws no definitive conclusions regarding British involvement in the bombing but believes the evidence raises many questions. Despite the exhaustive investigation, detectives were never granted permission to interview British Pavilion staff. “If you were going to do something to garner the world’s attention, you couldn’t pick a better target,” he said. “Americans were very upset with the Germans after the bombing.”
Today a plaque commemorating the sacrifices of Lynch and Socha marks the ground outside the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows Park. The case remains unsolved and the $26,000 reward still stands.