The Wright Brothers had their first successful flight with their aircraft on December 17, 1903. So when World War I broke out in 1914, planes were still very new but they were quickly integrated into the battlefield. Nearing the end of the war, the army was having planes mass produced across the United States and the most popular of these was the Curtis JN-4. It was a simple plane with fixed wheels, a wooden tail skid, and just two seats. The plane had a 90 horsepower engine that let the plane hit speeds of 75 mile per hour, climb to about 11,000 feet, and stay airborne for about two hours.
After World War I, the United States had a ton of these planes left over and decided to make some extra cash by selling them to civilians. Any American citizen could purchase a JN-4 for $300 (which is a little over $4,000 today). Thousands of pilots were able to learn how to fly in one of these planes, including Amelia Earhart.
Patrick Murphy was an Irish immigrant living in the United States in the 1920’s. Not much is known about Murphy and his early life. He seems to show up in Ardmore, Oklahoma where he would visit the local bars and, if he drank enough whiskey, he would start singing songs about his homeland. Murphy bought himself a small biplane that he would use to fly in air shows performing stunts and to also offer his services as a crop duster to farmers across the U.S. While in Alabama, Murphy was flying his plane with his plane’s mechanic as his passenger. Murphy crashed the plane and the mechanic died and Murphy severely injured his leg. Murphy was charged with manslaughter, but the charges were later dropped. Not wanting to stick around in Alabama after that, Murphy decided to get move on with his plane and made his way to Arizona.
Murphy got to Arizona in 1929 and he was completely broke. He tried to make money by offering joy rides to locals for two dollars. Unfortunately, Murphy quickly spent all that money on whiskey and then couldn’t even afford gasoline to fuel his plane back up. While drinking some whiskey and getting ready to sing some tunes in a saloon in Bisbee, Arizona, Murphy overhead a discussion about the Escobar Rebellion that was happening just a few miles away across the Mexican border. Murphy’s friend mentioned to Murphy that him and few of the other locals were going to go to the border to watch the fighting going on.
The Escobar Rebellion started in Mexico when General Don Jose Gonzalo Escobar and other military officers were upset that a civilian with no military experience had been selected as a provisional president of Mexico. After taking control of the city Monterrey, Escobar and his forces began to move North toward the Arizona/Sonora border so that they could take control of ports of entry between the U.S. and Mexico. So when Murphy and his friends got to border town of Naco, Arizona, they were able to watch as the federal forces that were hunkered down in Naco, Sonora try to keep out the rebel forces.
They watched from on top of a boxcar. Some of the Americans watching brought their families and had picnic baskets packed and were making bets on where the next bomb would land. There was sometimes close to 200 people gathered at the border to watch the ensuing battle. Both the Mexican federal and rebel forces were careful to not let any of the fighting spill into the United States so that America wouldn’t get involved, but the occasional stray bullet would make it’s way close to where Murphy and his friends were watching. Because they wanted to keep drumming up American sympathy and support, the rebels would often wait until night when all of the American patrons had left the Mexican businesses and gone back over the border before they would attack. One night, the rebels filled an abandoned train rail car with dynamite and tried to send it down the tracks into Naco, hoping to catch the highly flammable wood and adobe buildings on fire. Unfortunately for the rebels, the rail car derailed, crashed, and exploded before getting into the federal forces populated downtown area.
Murphy, however was enthralled with the rebel’s fighting tactics and began to create his own plan on how he could get into the action. Two days later, Murphy was in Mexico visiting with General Escobar. Murphy told Escobar, that for $3,000, he would build three bombs and drop them onto the federal forces in Naco using his plane. Escobar talked Murphy down to $1,000 and agreed to the plan. Escobar hired a couple other pilots to do the same thing and the federal forces caught on and also hired their own American pilots.
Murphy went back to Arizona and got to work creating the bombs by filling iron pipes with dynamite, scrap iron, nails, and bolts. In order to make them easier to carry, he placed the bombs into leather suitcases and five-gallon gasoline cans with strip fuses sticking out. On March 31, 1929, Murphy flew to Mexico, showed General Escobar his bombs, and then got back into his plane to drop the bombs on the federal forces. Murphy dropped the first two bombs by first lighting the fuses with a cigar and then tossing them out of the plane, but neither of them exploded. Murphy decided to make adjustments to the third bomb before dropping it to make sure that this one would go off.
On April 1st, 1929, Murphy made his second run and dropped the third bomb. This bomb went off, but instead of hitting the federal forces, the bomb hit the customs building on the Mexican side of the border and the only damage it did was spray the people watching the fighting from the American border with some dirt and debris. When that happened, Murphy could see all of the American patrons on Mexican bars running back over the border to watch the bombings in safety. After both of these runs, Murphy would meet up with an American pilot working for the federal forces and they would have some drinks back in the U.S. and talk about their bomb runs. Murphy and this other pilot also worked out a flying schedule so they could take turns bombing each other’s side.
Murphy went back to the drawing board and created four more bombs with some adjustments and improvements and then Murphy was ready for his next bomb runs. On his first run, Murphy was able to drop one of the bombs into a trench and killed two federal soldiers. Murphy, feeling successful, took off on another bomb run with his remaining three bombs. All three bombs that Murphy dropped hit buildings causing damage. Unfortunately, Murphy had dropped the bombs in Naco, Arizona and not Naco, Sonora, making this the first aerial bombing on American soil, superseding Pearl harbor. The bombs hit a garage, where a Mexican officer was storing his nice car hoping that keeping it in America would keep it from being damaged. The bombs also damaged a mercantile store, a pharmacy, and a U.S. Post Office and caused the townspeople to run for their lives. Luckily, the only casualties were minor injuries to a photographer and a reporter. Some other people were sprayed with shrapnel and building materials, but not hard enough to cause damage. However, because the post office is a federal bombing, Murphy had just committed a federal offense. The New York Times ran an article calling Murphy’s bombing “an incident that has created a tense international situation.”
Murphy didn’t care though, he was unaware that he had just bombed America, whether because he just didn’t know where the border was or he was drunk or both. Murphy started flying loop-de-loops and other aerial tricks over the federal forces. The federal forces had had enough and aimed their guns at Murphy’s plane. Murphy’s plane was hit by federal gunfire over 30 times. He was able to safely land his plane on the Mexican side of the border, but the plane was so damaged that he couldn’t get it to take off again. For reasons unknown, the federal forces didn’t go after Murphy when he landed so Murphy decided to just hide out.
Because America had now been bombed, the United States sent two companies of Buffalo Soldiers into Naco, Arizona. The commander of the companies rode into Mexico and met with General Escobar and told him that “in no uncertain terms, the rebels would stop bombing the United States or the next thing they heard would be his bugler sounding “Charge!”” He made sure that Escobar understood that the buffalo soldiers were on the border, prepared to cross over whenever he gave them the signal. Besides Murphy’s screw ups, the battle at Noco was not going great for Escobar. It wasn’t long after that Escobar loaded an airplane up with looted gold and took off for America, abandoning his war and his troops. After landing in America, Escobar was given asylum. Escobar never paid Murphy for the bombings.
Now that Escobar was in America and the rebel forces were defeated, Murphy began to worry that he would have to face a firing squad if he was caught in Mexico by federal forces. So he decided to try to sneak back into the United States. As soon as he crossed over the border, Murphy was picked up by American federal authorities and arrested for violated United States neutrality laws. He was sent to the Tucson jail, where he only stayed for a week before he was released. Patrick Murphy ended up never being charged with the bombing or any neutrality felonies. After he left the Tucson jail, Patrick Murphy kind of disappeared. There are some records showing that he probably tried to get as far away from the Mexican border as possible and ended up in Canada, but nobody really knows.
In 2008, Arizona’s official state balladeer Dolan Ellis wrote and recorded a song called “The Bombing of Naco” which has 1 rating of 5 stars on Amazon music.
“How a Possibly Drunk American Missed His Target and Is Responsible For The First Aerial Bombing On U.S. Soil” by John Stanley
“A Legendary Mistake: Arizona Historians Reflect On 1929 Bombing of Naco” by Emily Ellis
“On This Day: Irishman Carried Out 1st Aerial Bombing On American Soil” by Pauline Murphy
“Sierra Vista: Young City With A Past” by Ethel Jackson Price
“The Humble WWI Biplane That Helped Launch Commercial Flight” by Jordan Golson