Terror At the Empire State Building: A B-25 Bomber Once Crashed Into the New York City Landmark

Photo of workmen clearing the wreckage of the B-25 bomber that crashed into the Empire States Building at the 78th floor in 1945. 29 July 1945. Acme Newspictures. Public domain.
March 13, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Empire State BuildingB-25World War IINew York CityHarry Truman

Terror At the Empire State Building: A B-25 Bomber Once Crashed Into the New York City Landmark

A tragedy on the eve of V-day.

For being the height of summer, the day was unusually dreary and foggy. Despite the chilly blanket of gray that shrouded the tall buildings of Manhattan, New Yorkers had much to feel good about on that Saturday, July 28, 1945.The Yankees had shut out the Philadelphia Athletics, 2-0, the day before. The war in Europe had been over for two-and-a-half months. President Harry S. Truman was in Germany, reviewing the troops in Frankfurt-am-Main and preparing for the “Big Three” conference in Potsdam, Germany, with Josef Stalin and the new British Prime Minister, Clement R. Attlee (who had just defeated Winston Churchill in the general election a couple of days earlier). In France, Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, who had headed up the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy regime, was on trial for treason.
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There was still a war on, however, with the Japanese as defiant as ever and contemptuously refusing to accept the joint proclamation by the U.S., China, and Great Britain demanding immediate surrender. Failure to do so, according to the proclamation, would result in Japan’s “prompt and utter destruction.” What the Japanese and all but a small group of Americans did not know was that, just 13 days earlier, the United States had secretly tested an atomic bomb in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

The newspapers in July 1945 were full of stories of the fire-bombing of Japanese cities, and pronouncements by military officials that the United States was preparing a force of seven million men, 8,000 airplanes, and untold numbers of ships for the planned invasion of Japan.

And to keep the general euphoria in check, the War Department had just released figures showing that 5,741 American military personnel had been killed, wounded, or gone missing the week of July 21.

But, still, New York’s and America’s mood was positive, a feeling in the air that Japan could not hold out much longer, that peace was, if not right around the corner, at least just a few blocks down the street.

“Climb, You Fool!”

Umbrella-carrying pedestrians in New York were out in force that drizzly Saturday morning of July 28, shopping at Macy’s, Gimbel’s, Barney’s, and other Manhattan department stores, looking for consumer goods that had been denied them for years due to wartime rationing. Others were enjoying breakfast in the many Fifth Avenue restaurants. A group of men, women, and children were already more than a thousand feet above midtown Manhattan, but disappointed that they couldn’t see through the “pea-soup” fog from the observation deck of the world’s tallest structure––the 1,250-foot-high Empire State Building.

On a normal workday, as many as 15,000 people worked in the skyscraper, but on this Saturday only about 1,500 were present. Among those in the building was a handful of workers at the Catholic War Relief Services office on the 79th floor, working on providing aid for the millions of homeless and destitute people in the war
zones around the world. None knew that this morning would be unlike any other in New York until a September day 56 years later.

Shortly before 10 AM, the low roaring sound of a large plane growled through the foggy skies. People on the street looked up and were startled to see a twin-engine B-25D Mitchell bomber, flying just a few hundred feet above them between tall buildings just north of 42nd Street, heading southwest. There were gasps among the onlookers when it appeared that the plane had just missed the Chrysler Building and was headed for the Grand Central Office Building beside the Beaux Arts Grand Central Station at Park Avenue and 42nd Street.

At the last second, though, the plane swerved right and climbed to miss the structure, only to have the Empire State Building suddenly loom out of the mist immediately in its path. Hundreds of people would have indelible memories of the events of that day. Stanley Lomax, a sports announcer with WOR radio, was driving to work when he heard the roar of the B-25’s engines, looked up, and reflexively shouted, “Climb, you fool!” But his shout went unheard.

Walter Daniels, an editor with the New York Times, was walking on 43rd Street on his way to work when the bomber zoomed overhead. “The roar of the motors sounded ominously low,” he said, “and it seemed to be going at a terrific speed. I believe people must have sensed disaster; everyone in sight started running for Fifth Avenue to see what was happening.” By the time Daniels had a clear view of the Empire State Building, “sheets of flame spurted out in all directions” from the building’s north side.

Striking the Empire State Building

There was a muffled explosion and people on the street yelled and screamed as the 10-ton bomber buried itself in the towering structure. For miles around people said they felt what seemed to be an earthquake. An employee inside the building, Doris Pope, recalled “That day, as we were getting ready to take our coffee break, we heard this terrible noise, and the building started to shake…. As we looked out our third-floor window, we saw debris fall on to the street. We immediately thought New York was being bombed.”

She wasn’t the only one. One witness, Alfred Spalthoff, reported seeing the plane hit the building. “When it hit, there was a big explosion that seemed to come from four or five stories at once on the 34th Street side, and also on the western side of the building, and it all seemed to go up in flames, blazing fiercely.”

Another observer, Marvin Sherres, at work at his advertising agency nearby, told a reporter that there was a low rumble of thunder, followed by “a great flash, and orange and red flames leaped up the side of the building.”

Monsignor Patrick A. O’Boyle, executive director of Catholic War Relief Services whose offices were on the 79th floor of the Empire State Building, was walking along 34th Street at 7th Avenue with Father Edward E. Swanstrom, the organization’s assistant executive director, when they saw the plane go into the building. Fearing that the collision took place at or near the level of their offices, they began sprinting toward the disaster.

Thousands of other people also began running––some toward the scene and others away from it. But what was happening outside the Empire State Building was nothing compared to what was happening inside.

Concern About the Weather

Bill Smith seemingly had everything going for him. A tall, broad-shouldered graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (class of 1942), where he had lettered in football and earned All-American honors in lacrosse, was home from the war.

A veteran of an unheard-of 100 combat missions over France and Germany––34 of them as a pilot––Smith had been awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Air Medals, and the French Croix de Guerre. Somehow, against all odds, he had survived the war and was now stateside, enjoying a few days with his wife Martha, a former Army nurse, and their infant son in Watertown, Massachusetts, outside of Boston.

The 27-year-old lieutenant colonel, formally known as William Franklin Smith, Jr., was the deputy commander of the 457th Bombardment Group, a unit recently deployed from overseas. During its more than one year of combat service from its base at Glatton, England, the group had flown 235 missions, the last one being on Hitler’s birthday, April 20, 1945.

Smith, a Birmingham, Alabama, native who bore a vague resemblance to movie star Clark Gable, had been the popular commander of the group’s 750th Bombardment Squadron. Following Nazi Germany’s collapse, the group had returned to the United States in June 1945, and was in the process of reassembling at Bradley Field, the Army air base in Sioux Falls, in preparation for retraining in B-29s and possible deployment to the Pacific.

Colonel Smith had been on the final leg of a cross-country trip from South Dakota to the East Coast. Although described as “jaunty” and “devil-may-care” by his men, Smith’s wife detected an unusual air of apprehension about him as he prepared for his flight that gray and rainy July morning. “He was so dubious about the weather and said flying conditions would be poor,” she told a reporter.

The previous evening, she related, he had bounced their son, William F. Smith III, on his knee and said, “The youngster recognized me for the first time since I’ve been home. Gee, it makes a man feel big and important to have a son like ours.”

A Routine Flight

Colonel Smith’s mission that morning was a routine one, free from flak and enemy fighters: fly from Hanscom Army Air Base at New Bedford, Massachusetts, to Newark Army Air Field, where he was scheduled to pick up the Sioux Falls air base’s commander, Colonel H.E. Bogner, before returning to South Dakota. Smith decided to take a short furlough and spend a few days with Martha and little Billy where they were living near Boston.

The only other crewman along on the ride with Smith was 31-year-old Air Force Staff Sergeant Christopher S. Domitrovich, of Granite City, Illinois, who had accompanied him from the Sioux Falls base. As flight engineer aboard a C-47 of the 72nd Troop Carrier Squadron delivering paratroopers to Operation Market-Garden, Domitrovich had been shot down over Holland on September 17, 1944, and captured by the Germans, but escaped and made his way back to friendly lines. It is unknown what role Domitrovitch was to play on that morning’s flight, but it is likely that he was Smith’s flight engineer.