Not Fiction: UN HQ Really Did Come Under Bazooka Attack As Seen in ‘Godfather of Harlem’

Since debuting in the fall of 2019, the MGM+ (originally Epix) original series “Godfather of Harlem” has played fast and loose with the history of infamous crime boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (played by Forrest Whitaker) and his attempt to control his New York City neighborhood in the 1960s. The series takes some liberties for the sake of storytelling—likely exaggerating the amount of violence that occurred between Johnson’s crew and the New York Mafia, as well his close relationship with civil rights activist Malcolm X.

However, one recent episode in the series’ third season depicted Johnson’s men stopping an attempt by anti-Castro Cuban exiles to assassinate infamous Communist revolutionary Che Guevara. As depicted onscreen, the CIA aided the Cubans by providing them with a bazooka, which was fired from the shore of Long Island City, Queens, at the United Nations building across the East River in Manhattan where Guevara was addressing the assembly.

Che Guevara at the UN
Che Guevara speaking at the UN on December 11, 1964 (Public Domain)

Fortunately for the revolutionary, the rocket falls short.

It seems like pure fiction, the sort of event that plays out in a nonsensical series like “Blindspot” or “The Blacklist” — not a seemingly more grounded historical crime drama.

Yet, it actually happened—if not exactly as the series suggested.

Facts vs. Fiction – The Weapon of Choice

The important part is that anti-Cuban exiles did in fact attempt to assassinate Che Guevara using a bazooka-type rocket launcher. The attempt occurred on December 11, 1964, and the rocket did fail to reach the building, crashing instead in the East River.

M20A1 Super Bazooka
An M20A1 3.5-inch “Super Bazooka.” Introduced in the late 1940s, this weapon saw use in the Korean War and in the early stages of the war in Vietnam. (Private Collection)

The New York Sunday Daily News initially reported the bazooka was traced to Cuba, but that was later proven not to be true. Some modern sources have suggested it was an M20A1 3.5-inch “Super Bazooka,” which is what is seen on-screen in the “Godfather of Harlem” episode, while other reports indicate it was in fact a German World War Panzerschreck—the Raketenpanzerbüchse 54 (“Rocket Anti-armor Rifle Model 54”), a super-sized version of the U.S. military’s M1 “Bazooka.”

The one detail that the show gets right is that it was purchased at an Eighth Avenue Army surplus store, but it is unclear where the round(s) were obtained. Given that the M20A1 was still in service in the 1960s would suggest it may not have been the likely choice as the military wouldn’t have sold these off as surplus at the time. Likewise, even at the time, such military equipment would have generally been “demilitarized.”

That would have involved cutting a hole in the bore—rendering it inoperable, and unable to make the shot.

Thus, in all likelihood, a Panzerschreck may have been brought back as a souvenir by a returning G.I., and simply not been properly deactivated. It still doesn’t explain where the rounds were obtained. Somehow that fact has eluded researchers for years.

German version of the American bazooka
The Panzerschreck development was initially based on the American “bazooka”, captured during the Tunisian campaign, in November 1942. (Private Collection)

Facts vs. Fiction — The Assassination Attempt

As depicted in the MGM+ series, a group of anti-Castro protestors were outside the UN headquarters on Manhattan’s First Ave., and almost all police attention was apparently on them—with little consideration paid to the river and none on a vacant lot 900 yards away across the East River. Around 12:10 pm ET on Friday, December 11, 1964, as Guevara was giving his address the Panzerschreck/bazooka was fired at the main assembly room. Fortunately for all involved, the projectile fell short of the building by some 200 yards, exploding in the East River.

No one was hurt, but the explosion did rattle the windows.

Guevara, who had seen his fair share of combat, reportedly didn’t miss a beat and continued with his speech. The New York Times would later describe the attempt as the “wildest episode in UN history.”

Moreover, it was among the wildest of events depicted in the “Godfather of Harlem,” even if it played out a bit differently than the show would have you believe. For one, it doesn’t appear that Johnson’s men stopped the assassination. Rather the perpetrators had attempted to use a timer with the launcher and simply aimed badly. Photos have also suggested the would-be assassins may have attempted to arc the fire, which could also explain why it came up short.

The bazooka was found with a Cuban flag taped to it.

German soldier with Panzerschreck
Weapons such as the Panzerschreck still require careful aiming.

Of course, the M20A1 actually had a maximum range of 1,000 yards—and its effective range was also just 300 yards. The Panzerschrek’s maximum and effective range was about the same. Either way, it would have required more than a “magic bullet” to strike the room in which Guevara was standing.

Fact vs. Fiction — Who Was Responsible?

“Godfather of Harlem” directly ties the CIA to the attempt on Guevara, and while rumors persisted there is no evidence of the agency’s involvement. Though the CIA certainly had good reason for wanting Guevara dead, blowing up the United Nations likely was never a consideration.

In the end, three Cuban exiles, including Ignaclo Nova, Guillermo Nova, and Julio Carlos Perez were arrested for their role in the assassination attempt. They were each charged with two felonies and one misdemeanor in the “U.N. bazooka incident.” They claimed their motive was a “misguided sense of patriotism,” and that they never intended to hit the UN.

Instead, they said they simply sought to embarrass Guevara. The charges against them were eventually dropped on a technicality. That has only given rise to the conspiracy theories that someone in the CIA pulled some strings, but we’ll likely never actually know the truth.

Long Island Press Newspaper
The Long Island Press newspaper was among the media outlets that closely followed the story in 1964. (Public Domain)

The TV series also didn’t note that Guevara had actually escaped two attempts on his life that day. The first was by Molly Gonzales, another anti-Castro exile, who tried to break through the barricades with a seven-inch hunting knife when he arrived at the UN. Guevara later commented on the attempts, reportedly stating, “It is better to be killed by a woman with a knife than by a man with a gun. He also suggested the explosion gave his speech “more flavor.”

Less than three years after this largely forgotten assassination attempt, the infamous revolutionary was executed by Bolivia authorities. He had been captured in October 1967 while aiding communist insurgents. It wasn’t a bazooka that killed him, but an M2 Carbine. He was shot nine times, and afterward, his hands were cut from his body so that they could be sent to Argentina (the land of his birth) for fingerprint identification before later being sent to Cuba.

Cuban dictator Fidel Castro acknowledged Guevara’s death and proclaimed three days of public mourning.

More importantly, the lasting legacy of the attempt on Guevara’s life was that the drapes in the UN General Assembly remain closed during sessions; apparently, to protect attendees from potential flying shards of glass should anyone wish to try a similar strike. In fact, it was only in 2019 that the custom was rescinded—a nod to “transparency and openness.” Plus the view of the gentrified Long Island City, which has undergone a decade-long revitalization, isn’t all bad either!

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are Homeland Security Today, Armchair General, Military Heritage, Mag Life, Newsweek, The Federalist, AmmoLand, Breach-Bang-Clear, Newsweek, RECOILweb, Wired, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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