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“I Heard Something Ticking Away”—Diplomats Dealing With Explosives

Managing personal security is an important part of a Foreign Service Officer’s training. Weapons of mass destruction, sexual assault, cyberattacks, hostage situations, and especially bomb threats are just some of the terrible threats they face. Although awareness and training for diplomatic personnel has improved over the years, the menace has not necessarily decreased.

USAF EOD explosion (2009) Senior Airman Christopher Hubenthal | Wikimedia
USAF EOD explosion (2009) Senior Airman Christopher Hubenthal | Wikimedia

Serving abroad comes with a high risk, especially for people representing the United States.

Political Officer Ernest Siracusa was in Buenos Aires, Argentina when the Argentine Navy and Air Force bombed Plaza de Mayo square, targeting a large crowd expressing support for President Juan Perón. It is to this day the largest aerial bombing on the Argentine mainland. Siracusa was so close he could see the bombing from his window.

So what should personnel do if faced with a bomb threat? The established protocol for dealing with a suspicious object is not to touch it. Personnel are instead advised to evacuate the area and notify authorities. But what should they do if authorities show up late? What if there are no experts in the area? In this “Moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, read about diplomats dealing with bomb threats in different (and sometimes rather unconventional) ways.

Ernest V. Siracusa’s interview was conducted by Hank Zivetz in June 1989.
William B. Cobb Jr’s interview was conducted by Horace G. Torbert on May 30, 1990.
Dr. Eugene M. Braderman’s interview was conducted by Horace G. Torbert on April 30, 1990.

For more Moments on threats against embassies click HERE.

Drafted by Ianthe Van Dyck

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Excerpts:

Ernest V. Siracusa
Buenos Aires, Argentina—Political Officer
Read Ernest V. Siracusa’s full oral history HERE.

“I knew exactly what was going on and from my vantage point could see people fleeing the Plaza where I would have been a few minutes later.”

Escena posterior al ataque en inmediaciones de la Casa de Gobierno (1955) Argentine Media | Wikimedia
Escena posterior al ataque en inmediaciones de la Casa de Gobierno (1955) Argentine Media | Wikimedia

Everything Is Calm:
SIRACUSA: As I stepped out of the elevator on the ground floor, I ran into an Argentine stringer for Time magazine whose offices were on the second floor and I asked him (the standard greeting in times of tension) “Hola, Carlitos, qué hay de nuevo?” — “Hi, Carlos, what’s new?” Carlos answered: “Absolutemente nada, todo tranquilo” — “Absolutely nothing, everything is calm.” And at that very instant, the first bomb hit right out in the Diagonal Norte in front of the Embassy; followed immediately by other explosions farther away!!!

Q: Was the bomb directed at the embassy?

SIRACUSA: No. The bombs … were intended for the Plaza de Mayo and specifically the Casa Rosada where, obviously, they were hoping to get Perón. (We later learned that Perón, sensing or tipped off as to danger, had long since departed for parts unknown). I was startled by the noise and at first instant thought I’d heard a close bolt of lightning and thunder. But just as quickly, realizing that it was a bright and sunny day, the actuality dawned on me, shocking as it was. Afraid to reenter the elevator I turned and ran all the way up the eight flights to the Chancery. Being the only and therefore senior officer on board at the moment—I was Second Secretary, or maybe First Secretary by that time, I can’t remember—I rushed into our telephone operator’s room just in front of my office and asked her immediately to get Washington.

A Front Row Seat:
I had looked out my window, and I could see the planes coming—they were small Navy biplanes—coming right down the Diagonal Norte, those at a somewhat higher altitude maybe 5-800 feet) to drop their bombs and veer away and the lower ones, just about at my rooftop level, to enter the Plaza de Mayo at the Cathedral corner then to strafe and zoom up over the Casa Rosada at the other end. After the first wave had gone by, I knew exactly what was going on and from my vantage point could see people fleeing the Plaza where I would have been a few minutes later. I could also see the smoke rising from whatever destruction the bombs had caused in the Plaza beyond my field of vision.

***

William B. Cobb Jr.
La Paz, Bolivia—Commercial Officer
Read William B. Cobb Jr’s full oral history HERE.

“One day, without any warning, I got a telephone call saying there was a bomb outside the military attaché’s office.”

Just Put the Fuse Out:
COBB: One other thing that was sort of interesting, when I was security officer of the embassy—the embassy was located on five stories of a commercial building. One day, without any warning, I got a telephone call saying there was a bomb outside the military attaché’s office. I said, “Okay,” went down to the office and there was this bucket and a fuse coming out of it and the fuse was lit. I said, “Well, let’s just put the fuse out.” We doused it with water, put the fuse out, and called the security people in the Bolivian police and army. They came and took the bucket away and put in a little adobe structure and set it off and it blew the structure into pieces. It was a genuine bomb. [laughter]

***

Dr. Eugene M. Braderman
Amsterdam, the Netherlands—Consul General
Read Dr. Eugene M. Braderman’s full oral history HERE.

“A squad car came by, an officer looked at it, and he said, “There’s a bomb in that.””

Ahora review (1964) Revista Ahora | Archivo General de la Nación
Ahora review (1964) Revista Ahora | Archivo General de la Nación

A Bomb Behind the Sofa:
BRADERMAN: About 4:30 one afternoon, I got a call from one of my local employees, who handled visas, saying that he thought we had a bomb, could I come downstairs. I was on the second floor U.S. (first floor European). I came down to the ground floor, and I said, “Hans, what is it?” He said, “There was a big package (something that would resemble a Safeway or Giant grocery package here in the United States), which I found behind that sofa.” And he said, “I picked it up and I took it out and threw it in the bushes.” And I said, “You thought it was a bomb, you say?” “Yes.” “Well, you should never have picked it up.” He said, “Well, I didn’t think about anything. At any rate, it’s sitting there in the bushes.”

I gingerly went over and listened, and I thought I heard something ticking away. So I called the police. They said they would send somebody right over. Well, it took them almost ten minutes to get anyone. A squad car came by, an officer looked at it, and he said, “There’s a bomb in that.” I said, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” He said, “Look, we don’t know if it’s a big one, a little one, or what it can do, or anything of the sort. We need an expert.” I asked, “Do you have an expert?” He said, “We have one man on the force who specializes in this.” (This takes on, somewhat, the characteristics of a not-so-funny comedy, but anyhow …) So I said, “Well, get him, quickly!” They didn’t have any walkie talkies, so they said they’d send one of the squad cars out to find him.

Everyone Would Have Been Killed:
Well, it took 20 minutes for them to find this fellow, who came riding up on a bicycle. He took one look at the bag in the bushes and said, “That’s a bomb.” He said, “I wonder if it’s a percussion bomb, because if it is I don’t want to touch it.” I said, “It’s not a percussion bomb. It was inside, it was carried out here.” He said, “Oh, okay.” And he turned to me and asked, “Does anyone around here have a pair of pliers?” (This is in the year 1973, a big-city’s expert on bombs.) So we went to one of our cars and got a pair of pliers. And he defused the bomb. Then he took it apart, and I have shots of all the parts and everything else. He said, “In five minutes that would have gone off.” I asked, “And what would have happened in five minutes?” He said, “If it was in the building where it was placed, it would have blown the building to pieces and everyone would have been killed.”