4 Stories From When U.S. Terrorism Was Extremely Common
Terrorism is a huge problem these days. There's no denying that at all. However, what rarely comes up during discussions about the modern-day terror crisis is that, at least in the United States, terrorist attacks used to be a way bigger problem than they are now. Of course, we're not talking a series of attacks on the scale of 9/11. Not even kind of close. That goes a long way toward explaining why you've probably never even heard of some of the crazier stories from the days that some have dubbed "The Golden Age of Terrorism." We talk about a few on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by Cracked editor Robert Evans and musician Danger Van Gorder. I'm also talking about a few in this column you're reading right now. Here goes!
The Greenwich Village Townhouse Explosion (Nearly Killed Dustin Hoffman)
You've heard of the Weather Underground before, but it's most likely because Barack Obama's relationship with former WUO leader Bill Ayers became a huge controversy during the 2008 presidential election. Have you ever looked into what kind of shit that organization got up to when it was active, though? If there's any really simple way to grasp the enormity of the domestic terror problem in the 1970s, giving this list of confirmed WUO actions even so much as a quick glance should do the trick. Or just check out this screenshot:
I don't expect you to read this.
See how jam-packed it is? Well, that just covers the year of 1970. Granted, they were responsible for very few deaths (but definitely some), preferring to plant and detonate their explosive devices in those early morning hours when government employees aren't at work. I suppose that makes their activity a little less important in a historical sense, but still, can you imagine if one group pulled off a fraction of this stuff in the span of one year within the United States now? It would be absolute bedlam. We'd probably be living under martial law if that happened today.
Weirdly enough, the Weather Underground incident that claimed the most lives only killed the people who were planning it, but they just narrowly avoided taking out a way more high-profile target.
That's right. Dustin goddamn Hoffman. He starred in Marathon Man (and other stuff, probably). Did you like that movie? Well, he almost never got to make it. On the morning of March 6, 1970, two WUO operatives were assembling a variety of explosive devices in the basement of a townhouse in Greenwich Village. There's still some debate as to what they were planning to do with those bombs, but what's very clear is that they shouldn't have been allowed anywhere near explosives of any sort, because they apparently cut the wrong wire or some shit and blew themselves up.
Even worse, in a chilling example of "wrong place / wrong time," a third WUO member was entering the front door of the townhouse at the time of the explosion. He was killed when the building collapsed on top of him. Two others who were present at the time but further from the bomb-making party escaped, but were captured years later.
"What the hell does this have to do with Dustin Hoffman?" Simple: Hoffman lived in the neighboring townhouse, and he was home at the time of the explosion. This New York Daily News article that was originally published in 1970 included an amazing shot of Hoffman fleeing from the scene carrying a painting he wanted to save from being destroyed with the rest of his belongings.
Is it safe?
That caption is a Marathon Man reference. I'm glad Dustin Hoffman lived long enough that I'm now able to make it. I mean, not that he isn't still alive or anything. You understand. Let's move on.
Eastern Airlines Shuttle Flight 1320 (Had A Cliched Action Movie Ending)
Remember when Captain "Sully" Sullenberger crash-landed the commercial airliner he was piloting, saving hundreds of passengers from a watery, pollution-riddled death at the bottom of the Hudson River? You should, because it's only been like seven or eight years since it happened. If not, then don't worry. Clint Eastwood has you covered. His new Tom-Hanks-led blockbuster film Sully will give you all the details, even if it's in a way that might not be completely factual.
But let's talk about another commercial airline pilot who deserves the Hollywood movie treatment. His name is Robert Wilbur Jr. When he boarded Eastern Airlines Shuttle Flight 1320 in 1970, he'd been in his role as captain for just six months. Considering the flight was scheduled to go from Newark to Boston, which takes about an hour, he probably wasn't expecting much in the way of action. That's as routine as flights get, except for the part where it started in Newark.
Seen here, floating past NYC.
Unfortunately, a passenger named John Divivo had other plans. You see, this was a much simpler time. A time when we still trusted one another enough that we'd sometimes let airline passengers pay for their flights after they boarded and the plane was already in the air. That's the kind of flight Divivo was on. When he was approached about paying his fare, he said he had no money, and asked to talk to the captain. Amazingly, his request was approved.
When he entered the cockpit and pulled a gun, Captain Wilbur and his copilot, James Hartley, assumed the crazed man was going to ask them to fly to Cuba. Why? Because there was a time in this country when hijacking a plane and diverting it to Cuba was the go-to move for upstart young terrorists. Remember that crazy-long list of Weather Underground Organization attacks from the previous entry? Here's the same thing, except for U.S.-to-Cuba hijackings.
I do expect you to read this one.
Those all happened in 1969. Like I said, terrorism used to be absurdly common in America. Anyway, the pilots were wrong -- Divivo didn't have any particular destination in mind. He just wanted them to fly over the ocean until they ran out of fuel. Yikes! Realizing that this wasn't going to be a garden-variety hijacking, Hartley attempted to wrestle the gun away from Divivo. He didn't, but he did get shot, and was assumed to be dead.
With that, Divivo turned the gun on Captain Wilbur and shot him in the arm -- a fact the former Air Force pilot failed to relay when talking to the control tower.
Now, if this really was an action movie, the copilot would've sprung back to life at some point, revealing that his wounds in fact did not kill him right away like everyone believed. Maybe he'd even muster enough strength to sneak up on the hijacker, wrestle the gun away, and shoot him three times before lapsing back into unconsciousness and dying like a goddamn hero.
Except no! Anyone with even a scant amount of experience with action movies knows that if you shoot a person and don't check their pulse, that person is still alive. Always. Every movie.
Here's the stupid fucking zombie joke you're waiting for.
We'd have no reason to expect anything less from the dramatized version of this incident. Instead of things just ending peacefully from there, you know damn well that hijacker would make at least one final, dying effort to win. Except since he'd be well on his way to dying for real by that point, he'd just employ some desperate clawing maneuver to try to force the pilot to crash.
In my perfect version of the ending, the pilot would then pistol-whip his captor into submission before landing the plane safely and turning that dirty criminal over to the authorities.
So what was the real story like? Everything I just said, actually. I didn't make any of that up. Captain Wilbur landed the plane safely, and none of the passengers were harmed, and I'd like to remind you he did that with a bullet in his arm. Most of us couldn't drive ourselves to the emergency room with a bullet in our arm. But please, by all means, tell me more about how the guy who landed a plane in water once deserved a movie first.
The 4,000-Mile Hijacking (That Made Us Finally Start Searching Airline Passengers)
Remember that thing I said about air travel in the '70s being a much more trusting environment? For further proof of that, please consider that when Southern Airways Flight 49 took off on a Friday evening from Birmingham, AL in 1972, we still weren't checking passengers for weapons before boarding. There had been countless hijackings in this country up to that point, and not once did we think it was enough of a problem to necessitate searching people.
Compare that to today, when a single failed shoe bomb and an alleged terror plot involving nitroglycerin means we have to walk through security in our socks and carry travel-size containers of shampoo forever more.
But real talk: That liquid bomb stuff totally worked once.
With all that said, let's rewind to that 1972 Southern Airways flight. It deserves a place in aviation history for being the flight that finally compelled us to start patting people down before flying. It should have been a short trip, with the flight scheduled to go from Birmingham to Orlando to Montgomery. Instead, it turned into one of the longest flights in airline history.
It all started when three men entered the cockpit brandishing guns and hand grenades. They demanded a $10 million ransom and, of course, to be dropped off in ... Detroit. This presented a problem, seeing as how the plane only had enough fuel to make it to Montgomery. So stop number one was a return to Birmingham to refuel. With that, it was off to Detroit, where weather conditions were such that landing was impossible. After circling for another hour or so, it was decided they'd land in Cleveland ...
The Detroit of Ohio
... for more fuel. It was now 12:30 a.m. Just two stops in, the flight had already stretched into the following day, and it wasn't even close to being done.
After refueling, the hijackers demanded to be taken to Toronto, because why not? Upon reaching their destination, they circled for another two and a half hours before finally landing, at which point it was revealed that the ransom money was ready. Well, $500,000 of it, anyway. Slightly less than the originally requested amount, but still not a bad haul for a day's work. Unsurprisingly, the hijackers weren't satisfied. At 6:15 a.m., the plane took off again, this time heading for Knoxville, TN.
It's on this leg of the journey that things get especially intense. One of the hijackers, a man named Henry Jackson, advised that if the ransom money was not collected by 1 p.m., they would crash the plane into a nuclear reactor located in Oak Ridge, TN. That's the part of the story that finally made us consider instituting some safety measures at the airport. Fortunately, it never came to that. The pilot was informed that the ransom money was ready and that they should fly to Chattanooga to pick it up, just in the nick of time. Sure enough, upon landing, the hijackers were greeted with duffel bags full of money and buckets full of KFC that they'd requested for the passengers.
It's unclear if they were trying to feed them or kill them.
Sure, it was only $2.5 million, but who has time to count in a moment like that? They returned to the plane, handed the pilot and copilot a few stacks of money, which is kind of awesome, and then asked to be taken to Cuba, where Fidel Castro would surely accept them with open arms.
Except nah. Apparently, Castro didn't take kindly to being the second choice behind Detroit, and he refused to meet the hijackers. Outraged, they ordered the pilot to fly to Algeria after refueling, but soon realized there wasn't enough fuel for the trip, prompting another stop in Orlando. Upon landing, FBI agents promptly shot out the tires of the plane in an effort to prevent another takeoff. It didn't work. Riding on rims, the hijackers forced the co-pilot to take off again, this time with plans to go talk to Richard Nixon at his compound in Key Biscayne, FL. Of course, Nixon was having no part of that, leaving the hijackers no other recourse but to once again land in Cuba. They tried to escape after landing, but were immediately taken into custody by Cuban authorities.
At that point, one of the most hellishly long flights of all time mercifully came to an end, after nearly 30 hours' worth of takeoffs and landings. Keep that in mind the next time you're firing off angry tweets at Southwest Airlines because your flight took off 45 minutes late.
TWA Flight 541 (Had An Insane Twist Ending)
Let's stay on the "stories that sound like movie shit" theme for the rest of this article. First, let's talk about TWA Flight 541, which was hijacked on December 21, 1978. To understand the full story, though, we have to start back in 1972, when a man named Garrett Trapnell hijacked a TWA flight out of Los Angeles that was headed to New York. He demanded ransom money, the release of then-incarcerated political activist Angela Davis, and a sit-down conversation with President Nixon.
"Mind if we record it?"
What he got instead was shot by an FBI agent he allowed to board the plane, thinking the man was a negotiator. Trapnell was subsequently tossed in prison. End of story ... for six years, anyway.
On May 24, 1978, Trapnell's name came roaring back into the news when his friend, 43-year-old U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Barbara Ann Oswald hijacked a helicopter and forced it to land on the lawn of the prison where Garrett was being held. Everything went swimmingly up to that point, but then quickly went awry when the pilot, a Vietnam veteran, wrestled the gun away from Oswald and shot her dead.
All of that action alone is exciting enough to warrant maybe writing up a script and running it by your nearest Hollywood contact, but it gets crazier. In December of that same year, TWA Flight 541 was hijacked by a woman named Robin Oswald, who had what appeared to be dynamite strapped to her chest.
Much easier to get through a metal detector than traditional bombs.
If that name looks familiar, it's because she was the 17-year-old daughter of aforementioned helicopter-taker Barbara Ann Oswald. Just like her mom before her, Robin Oswald wanted Garrett Trapnell freed from prison.
However, because young people tend to lack follow-through on things like this, she was talked out of her plan and quickly surrendered. Upon her arrest, authorities realized the "dynamite" she used to back up her threat was actually just railroad flares wired to a doorbell.
Naturally, the story made lots of headlines, but since it involved a young woman, the most prevalent eyewitness account was the one that described her as "very beautiful" ...
Imagine how beautiful she'd be if she smiled!
... making it all the more tragic that "she wouldn't listen."
Pictured: mansplaining in the 1970s.
Final score: Patriarchy - 1, Female Terrorists - 0.
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