February 18th, 1954
The 4-foot long Mark 4 Folding Fin Aerial Rocket, nicknamed “Mighty Mouse,” carried six pounds of high explosive in its 2.75″ warhead, and sliced through the air at roughly 1,300 feet per second. Although the “Mighty Mouse” was notoriously inaccurate, fighter-intercepters launched volleys of these rockets, usually a dozen or more, turning them into an aerial shotgun. A single Mk 4 rocket could bring down the largest Soviet bomber.
THIS is the weapon that blasted against the east side of St. Patrick’s Academy, an all-girl Catholic school in Des Plaines on a Thursday afternoon.
According to the Air Force officials, a maintenance crew from the 62nd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron had just lowered a rocket cluster on an F-86 Sabre at O’Hare Field (which had been Orchard Field, then O’Hare Field, then Chicago-O’Hare International Airport, then O’Hare International Airport…Let’s just say O’Hare).
The exact cause of the rocket’s malfunction is unknown. That shouldn’t be a surprise. In the 1950s, when the Soviets hid behind every shadow in America’s imagination, the Air Force gave out as little information as possible. Cold War paranoia kept military mouths shut, locked, and bolted.
The military’s official response went something like this.
Des Plaines Police: What the &#%@ was that?!
US Air Force: The rocket was defective. Probably caused by static electricity.
Des Plaines Police: Hundreds of kids were in there. You could have ki—
US Air Force: Structural damage was minimal. The school is lucky it wasn’t one of our larger, bunker busting rockets. The USAF’s official position is…Oops. Here’s a check. No more questions.
O’Hare sits about a mile-and-half from St. Patrick’s Academy. As the maintenance crew lowered the rocket pod and began removing the “Mighty Mouse” rockets, one suddenly launched in a whiff of acrid smoke and acrid propellent.
To prevent hardware or ordnance accidents from harming residents in the nearby suburbs, a small berm of earth surrounded one side of the air field. Any rocket—even one traveling just over the speed of sound—would explode into the dirt harmlessly.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the rocket slid along a small concrete ramp, which added just enough altitude to clear the air field’s protective terrain. Six pounds of high explosive whistled through the air, headed right for the girls’ Catholic school in Des Plaines at 2:30 in the afternoon.
400 students and teachers were in the four-story brick school at the time. Most students were finishing out their final class sessions. A group of seniors milled about outside, saying goodbye to a batch of seniors headed to the snowy hills of Eagle River, Wisconsin. These seniors stood only 30 feet away from the rocket’s impact.
It slammed into the stone foundation and exploded, gouging out a hole two feet wide and a foot deep. The explosion’s pressure didn’t just shatter windows on three floors all along the east side of the building, but shattered the heavy wooden frames holding the windows. Glass flew in deadly shards inside and school and across the grounds. And…
Two miracles happened that Thursday afternoon. You can attribute them to good luck or a good God, depending on your beliefs. But in every sense of the word, they were miracles.
The first miracle is that out of the 400 students and teachers in and around St. Patrick’s Academy at 2:30, not one was injured. The first two floors on the school’s east side happened to be vacant at that time of day. Children filled classrooms on the third floor, but despite shattered windows and flying glass, no one was injured. The seniors outside? They were all fine. Some ringing ears, but otherwise fine.
Des Plaines police and emergency teams came tearing down the road and into the school grounds, expecting carnage…only to find a school with shattered windows, a gaping hole, and no human casualties. Later on, school representatives would estimate a total of $1000 in damage (about $10,200 today).
And the other miracle?
Not everyone will understand this second miracle. Teachers, school staff, childcare workers, and parents will.
It sounded like an atom bomb. The girls were excited by the explosion, but they calmed down quickly and everyone finished the remaining class period of the day…
~St. Patrick’s Academy Director Sister Gabrielle, 1954
The students finished class that day. An anti-aircraft missile hit their school, and hundreds of students returned to work.
What can we say but…Wow. THAT is a miracle.