Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Henry Shorr's Utopia

Violence and the prelude to the act always has a jarring effect on the human psyche despite the frequency of its occurrences throughout history. When a child is at the forefront of episodic upheaval it's all the more pronounced. Such was the case with Henry Shorr and the hijacking of a Pan-American jetliner en route from Mexico City to Miami on October 21, 1969. Although the flight would end with no peril to the plane, passengers or crew, Shorr, the son of a Detroit radio legend and grandson of an infamous mobster of the same name, would meet his fate with tragic consequences.

In hindsight many who knew him would say that the act wasn't unexpected but for a rebellious teen to go from a vocal, if not sometimes rabid, high school protester to skyjacking a plane was a considerable leap in logic and acceleration of a growing radicalism. Having graduated from North Farmington High School just four months beforehand, his classmates portrayed Shorr as a politically radical loner who tried too hard to get his socialist message across. A view which earned him derision among fellow students who jokingly stumped to organize a campaign to send him to his beloved socialist paradise in Cuba.

He was described as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type by some due to a seemingly split persona. Not that he was a loud-mouth or rabble-rouser, he was remembered as both reserved and quiet, but because he would only become radically possessed when the subject turned to politics, as many times it did in the social revolution of the late 1960s. Others were not so blunt in their estimations of the young man and a local clergyman, Rev. Carl Kaltreider, pegged him as a "rebellious" type but by no means a "way out there kind of a kid". That rebelliousness had gotten him suspended twice from school but for nothing of great consequence. His transgressions included participation in a walkout along with nearly 200 other students over dress and grooming policies and was suspended for 5 days. The other incident involved a youth who had tired of Shorr's boorish insistence in trying to pass him a copy of the school's underground newspaper and struck him causing some injuries. Shorr's parents sued for medical payments and won, though Shorr was reprimanded by the prosecutor for his part in the skirmish. Despite the incidents Henry managed to graduate with a C average though he had considerably underachieved.

Now free to pursue his dream of social justice Shorr headed to Mexico City sometime later that summer to request a visa from the Cuban Embassy there. Unable to procure one he had phoned home once during the six weeks he was in Mexico and informed his father, former Detroit deejay and car audio businessman Mickey Shorr, that he was having difficulties obtaining his entrance into Havana. Having heard from Henry only once in a month and a half, the elder Shorr filed a missing persons report and even tried to pull some strings by contacting Bob Talbert at the Detroit Free Press in hopes of tracking down his son. Talbert commented that Shorr was sick with worry for Henry's well-being, which would contrast with statements the young man would make concerning his home life during the hijacking. Although the events leading up to the hijacking are uncertain, Shorr boarded Pan-Am flight 551 from Mexico City to Miami on October 21, 1969 and commandeered the jet near Mérida on the northwest coast of the Yucatán state in eastern Mexico, some 850 miles from Havana. The flight had 36 people aboard with 26 passengers and an infant included among the flight crew.

Shorr (he was listed as Henry Shorn on the manifest) approached flight attendant Maria Lobo from his seat in the tourist class compartment and told the Argentinian that he had "a gun pointing at you. Open the cockpit and tell the captain I want to go to Cuba." The pilot, Capt. Hudson Gillis, thought the stewardess was playing a prank and didn't emerge from the cockpit for a tense five minutes. The nervousness of the crew was matched by Shorr who was said to be shaking as he chatted with the pilot and a few passengers, among them Florida state Senator Tom Slade and his fiance Corlis Mullins, a former reporter for the Fort Pierce News Tribune. He discussed politics and philosophy with the couple stating that Cuba would be the catalyst for world revolution and "a better way" for all people. He also spoke of his own physical flaws, producing pictures of himself with a beard and long hair that he had groomed to "ugly himself up" a few days before the flight, as well as his oppressive upbringing. When asked if he was worried about his fate should he be returned to the United States he said it would be like "going from a Mussolini to a Hitler." A comment which those involved construed as the rhetoric of a mixed up kid.

Once disembarked from the flight in Havana, and facing a federal warrant and up to 20 years in a US prison, Shorr's whereabouts and status became unknown. As with many hijackers of the era -- there were 29 attempted skyjackings to Cuba prior to Shorr's in 1969 alone -- he most likely spent time in a Cuban prison attempting to prove that he wasn't a CIA operative, as was often the case with many erstwhile hijackers who forcefully entered the communist country. In the early 1970s two Washington reporters, Martin Schram and John Wallach, went to Cuba to interview former hijackers and learned of their deplorable mental and physical conditions while behind bars. Expecting to be received as heroes of the revolution they were treated like common criminals and subjected to abuse and torture, and once released were frequently subject to further arrests and harassment. Of the nearly hundred or so hijackers who made it to Havana only a few were able to pursue normal citizenship while the great majority remained jailed, escaped or were exiled. Shorr himself, mentioned in the report as "Jeff," committed suicide on September 28, 1970 at the age of 18 years old, apparently dispirited by his lost Utopia.



Gunman Forces Airliner To Cuba; The Dispatch, October 20, 1969

Farmington Teen Hijacked Jetliner; The Owosso Argus-Press, October 21, 1969

Flight To Tampa Hijacked To Cuba; The Evening Independent, October 21, 1969

Return Trip Means Trouble; The Owosso Argus-Press, October 21, 1969

Hijacker 'Very Unusual'; The Beaver County Times, October 22, 1969

Latest Airplane Hijacker 17-Year-Old from Detroit; The Rome News-Tribune, October 22, 1969

'Shaking' 17-Year-Old Hijacks Plane To Havana; The Reading Eagle, October 22, 1969

Skyjacker Forces TWA Plane To Cuba; The Bulletin, October 22, 1969

Plane Hijacker; The Youngstown Vindicator, October 23, 1969

Before The Trip: A Portriat Of 'Extremism'; The Farmington Observer, October 26, 1969

Shorr Accused Of Skyjacking; The Farmington Observer, October 26, 1969


Hijacker Died In Cuba; The Owosso Argus-Press, October 2, 1970


Hijackers Go Throuh Hell In Cuban 'Paradise'; The Milwaukee Sentinel, April 30, 1973


Dave Shorr said...

Hey man, Henry was my cousin. Actually he was my father's first cousin, also with the Henry name sake. Can you email me at You seem to know a lot about my family's history and I'd like to pick your brain.


Farmington vet said...

I think your a ho!

Anonymous said...

You are or You're

Comments lose validity when you don't have a command of the english language.