In Depth

Edmonton's terrorist attack: the 1965 airport bombing

The CBC's Steve Finkelman looks back at a forgotten part of Edmonton's history -- a mad bomber, a murder and one of the first cases of modern-day terrorism right right in our own backyard.
For 49 years, Don Clarke has kept alive the tale of a nearly-forgotten piece of Edmonton’s history — a sensational story of a murder, the death penalty and international terrorism right in the heart of the city. 7:55

For 49 years, Don Clarke has kept alive the tale of a nearly-forgotten piece of Edmonton’s history — a sensational story of a murder, the death penalty and international terrorism right in the heart of the city.

"I've told this story many times over the years,” says the 81-year-old former police constable.

"People say ‘there is no such thing. Nah. That never happened.  Not at our airport. It wouldn’t happen in Edmonton.’"

Despite the disbelief, it did happen in Edmonton. On a snowy morning on January 28, 1965, Harry Hubachsnuck into the city’s downtown airport, carrying with him several bombs made with dynamite and a pack of matches.

The 36-year-old German immigrant, who worked on a farm east of Edmonton, was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. His target was four U.S. F-84 warplanes that were parked on the tarmac, awaiting repair by a Northwest Industries, a local aviation company.

"He did babble on about he was a communist sympathizer,” says Clarke.

“These airplanes were going over to Vietnam to kill people and maybe even his girlfriend."

In fact, the planes had never flown over Vietnam and likely never would have: the US air force planned to overhaul the planes and sell them to other countries.

After Hubach crept onto the tarmac, he surprised Threnton Richardson, the lone security guard working at the airport that night.

The bomber knocked out Richardson and tied him up, before moving to where the planes were parked.

Hubach attached the packages, stuffed with dynamite, to the four warplanes. He then set to lighting the explosives, completely destroying two of the F-84s and damaging another. The fouth plane was only saved because the matches that Haubach carried got wet from the snow and would not longer light.

“We have a dead man and some airplanes”

Hubach fled the tarmac, to where he had parked his car nearby. Had he left then, the only casualties of the night would have been three American planes. However, when the bomber got back to his car, he discovered that he didn’t have his keys on him. He had taken them out of his pocket as he subdued Richardson and had left them behind.

So Hubach turned around and made his way back to the shack where he had attacked the guard.

Richardson had not been idle. Having woken up some time during the bombings, the 48-year-old guard managed to free himself from his bonds. When Hubach returned to the shack and found the man free, the two began a struggle.

It ended when Hubach shot Richardson with a rifle, killing the guard.

It wasn’t long before the destruction at the airport was noticed. Clarke and his partner were in their patrol car, driving along Kingsway Avenue when the two spotted what looked like a bonfire on the tarmac.

Clarke climbed out of the vehicle, climbed over the fence around the airport and headed towards the flames. As he crossed the field, it was quickly apparent that they were dealing with something neither had ever seen before.

"As I got closer I did stumble over ... pieces of we subsequently found out had been blown up. Three of them, if I remember."

With no radio, Clarke ran straight to the guard shack to find a phone to call in the fire. That’s where he found the body of Threnton Richardson.

"I got to admit my first thoughts were ‘strange place for taking a nap.’ But it didn’t take long to know. I went over and felt for his pulse. His body was still warm. But he was dead."

Clarke used the phone, calling ambulances and more police to the airfield, saying “I don’t know what’s all been happened...but we have a dead man and some airplanes.”

“We didn’t even know what terrorism was”

Clarke joined his partner outside the shack, where the two noticed footprints leading away from the shack towards a field, where a vehicle sat.

They drew their guns and followed the trail. When they got close to the vehicle, they found Hubach huddled in the cab, his hands covering his face.

"I reached in and pulled his hands down. He offered no resistance. So we took him back to the crime scene, where by that time the place was swarming with everybody except J Edgar Hoover.”

Inside Hubach’s vehicle, police found hundreds of sticks of dynamite. When questioned, he freely admitted to blowing up the planes, but said he only killed Richardson because the guard refused to stay tied up.

"In those days we didn't even know what terrorism meant, but we had someone who had blown up some airplanes and killed a guard," Clarke says.

For what is thought to be the first example of modern day terrorism, the bombings did not stay in the public eye for long. It was in local headlines for only a few days, and was mentioned in some American newspapers. But soon, the story dropped out of sight for some reason.

Hubach was eventually convicted of capital murder and was sentenced to death by hanging. His lawyer appealed the conviction, and won his client a new trial.

The bomber eventually plead guilty to the killing and was handed a life sentence — by that time, the story and the man at the centre of it had largely been forgotten by the citizens of Edmonton.

What happened to Hubach after his conviction remains somewhat of a mystery. The Parole Board of Canada will not release records of his imprisonment. However, it is believed that he died sometime in the early 2000’s.

While Harry Hubach and the airport bombing has slipped from the memory of the city, that night continues to haunt Don Clarke.The devastation caused by Hubach’s improvised explosives might have been the most dramatic part of the story. But Clarke says it was the killing of Richardson — a World War II veteran with a wife and two children — that is the tragic legacy of that night.

“This is where it is such a shame. If he had had his keys, he would have gotten in his car and driven away,” he says.

“For Threnton Richardson, the fact that he survived over there fighting against the Nazis or whatever to come home to feel secure to take a job … Nobody ever thought he would get shot at 2:30 in the morning while eating a banana.”

The second part of this series, which will air Monday, will explore more about the lives of Harry Hubach and Threnton Richardson, including interviews with those who knew the two men the best.

Also, be sure to hear Steve Finkelman discuss his story on CBC's RadioActive on 740 AM/93.9 FM Monday afternoon. 

Video courtesy of Lech Lebiedowski, Alberta Aviation Museum Oral History Project