Thursday, February 19, 2015

O'Hare Field Rocket Fired at Girls' School -- February 19, 1954

I know a lot of schools are closed up tight today because of the cold weather, but back in 1954 on this date, February 19, everything was wide-open.  Back when annihilation of the human race, except for the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians, was on everyone’s mind, one Des Plaines school, St. Patrick’s Academy, was the scene of what was perhaps one of the biggest “oopsies” in Chicago history.

It sure could have been a lot worse.

Here is what the lead paragraph in the Chicago Tribune story said, “A loaded combat rocket from an F86-D jet airplane parked at O’Hare field was discharged accidentally yesterday afternoon, soared a mile and a half, and crashed into the foundation of St. Patrick’s academy in Touhy av. between Mannheim rd. and Lee st., Des Plaines.  Windows were shattered but no one was injured.

Can you imagine?

Des Plaines Police Chief John Wigham and Sgt. Amasa Kennicott
look at damage foundation of St. Patrick's Academy (Chicago Tribune Photo)
Poor Lieutenant Frederick Ludesking was the public information officer on duty at O’Hare that day.  He speculated that the rocket could have been accidentally launched by static electricity or “stray voltage from a radar transmitter.”

No one was near the plane when the rocket ignited.  It shot across the field, hit a concrete ramp, and ricocheted upward.  Ordinarily, said the lieutenant, “the rocket would have buried itself in the ground within the limits of the field.”

Instead, though, the three- to four-foot long projectile exploded on contact when it reached the foundation of St. Patrick’s.  The acting director of the school, Sister Gabrielle, said the explosion sounded “like an atom bomb.”

Every window on the first three floors of the east side of the school was shattered, and the blast, which blew a hole two feet wide and a foot deep at the base of the building’s foundation, even broke an inside door leading to the school’s cafeteria.

There were 400 souls inside the school at 2:30 p.m. when the rocket exploded.  Fortunately, no classroom on the first two floors of the building’s east side was occupied.  “The girls were excited by the explosion,” said Sister Gabrielle, “but they calmed down quickly, and everybody finished the remaining class period of the day.”

Now THAT is a well-disciplined student body.  

Oh dear, oh dear . . . yes, yes, yes, young ladies, a rocket just exploded on the east side of the building, blowing out all of the windows, but let’s just finish this last period, shall we?  Quick, quick, now girls.  Education awaits!

The path of the rocket from O'Hare to St. Patrick's
Chicago Tribune Photo
Lieutenant Ludesking, in public relations for a reason, directed everyone to look at the bright side.  The rocket used against the school was for use against other aircraft and was only 2.75 inches in diameter.  “Air to ground rockets, on the other hand,” he observed, “are five inches in diameter and carry a much larger warhead.”

Well, thank goodness.

In October of 1873 the great educator Horace Mann said, “Education is our only political safety. Outside of this ark all is deluge.”  Perhaps those good girls who went back into their classrooms and finished the day back in 1954 found this to be the most important lesson of their school careers.  

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