FEBRUARY 28

Image

FEBRUARY 28

Above: Louis Stamatakos and a B-17 Flying Fortress.

ON THIS DATE IN 1945, nineteen-year-old Louis Stamatakos risked his life dislodging bombs that failed to drop during World War II. As his B-17 Flying Fortress approached Kassel, Germany, two live, 250-pound bombs refused to disengage, putting the plane and its 10 occupants in peril. If someone didn’t free the bombs, “it was either bailing out or blowing up,” crew member Richard Rainoldi recalled.

Then someone yelled, “Get Stamatakos. He went to armament school.” The teenage tail gunner lowered himself into the bomb bay and began striking the shackles that held one of the bombs with a short-handled fire ax. Stamatakos knew “that if the bombs were accidentally struck or detonated in any way it would most likely take out our plane right there.” Twenty-thousand feet above German soil, he nudged one of the bombs free, then worked another 10 minutes to dislodge the second bomb. Climbing back into the tail section of the plane, he was “shaking all over.”

Six decades later, Louis joked that his act of bravery occurred “back when I was young and dumb.” The retired Michigan State University professor received a Silver Star for his World War II actions on Feb. 17, 2010.

FEBRUARY 27

Image

FEBRUARY 27

ON THIS DATE in 1860, seventeen-year-old Anna Dickinson made her first public address at a Philadelphia public debate on “Women’s Rights and Wrongs.” She was incited when man standing close to her rose to say that his daughters, although intelligent, had no business being doctors, lawyers, preachers, bankers, or anything similar. A woman’s place, he said, was in the home.

That brought Dickinson to her feet. Shaking a finger in the man’s face, she said, “In heaven’s name, sir, what else is to be expected from such a father?” J. Matthew Gallman in America’s Joan of Arc: The Life of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson (2006) wrote that Dickinson “launched a furious attack, driving the man from the hall with her invective,” and that “no one expected such strong remarks from such a diminutive young woman.”

That impromptu speech at Philadelphia’s Clarkson Hall was the first of many for Dickinson, who attracted huge crowds to hear her views on slavery and women’s rights. The first woman to address both congressional houses, she earned about $20,000 a year — the equivalent of about a half million dollars today — at the peak of her speaking career.

FEBRUARY 26

Image

FEBRUARY 26

ON THIS DATE in 1945, nineteen-year-old Douglas T. Jacobson launched a one-man assault on Japanese forces on Iwo Jima that resulted in the destruction of 16 enemy positions and the death of approximately 75 opposing soldiers. The private’s rampage, which included packing and firing a bazooka designed as a two-man weapon, occurred despite the fight-to-the-death mentality of the 21,000 Japanese soldiers fiercely defending the tiny but strategically important South Pacific Island.

Douglas had enlisted in the Marines as a seventeen-year-old in 1943 and fought on three other Pacific islands before the battle for Iwo Jima. Attacking Hill 382, the highest point on the island, he snatched a bazooka from a fallen Marine and proceeded to destroy a 20-millimeter aircraft gun, two blockhouses (concrete military fortifications), seven rifle em- placements, and a tank. According to his Medal of Honor citation, the Marine also “annihilated approximately 75 Japanese, thereby contributing essentially to the success of his division’s operations against the fanatically defended outpost of the Japanese Empire.”

FEBRUARY 25

Image

FEBRUARY 25

ON THIS DATE IN 1842, Ida Lewis was born. At sixteen in 1858, the daughter of a Rhode Island lighthouse keeper made the first of her many rescues from Newport Harbor, hauling in four teenage boys whose small sailboat had capsized.

The 103-pount Lewis thought nothing of risking her life to save strangers from drowning. “If there were some people out there who needed help, I would get into my boat and go to them even if I knew I couldn’t get back,” she said after rescuing two soldiers in an 1869 storm. “Wouldn’t you?”

A celebrated rescue in March 1867 made Lewis a celebrity — to her great discomfort. Two soldiers were clinging to a capsized boat when the young woman and her brother paddled a skiff through fierce waves during a thunderstorm to retrieve them. “When I saw the boat approaching and a woman rowing I thought, ‘She’s only a woman and she’ll never reach us,’” sergeant James Adams said. “But I soon changed my mind.”

The rescue made national news and Harper’s Weekly published a story that called her “The Newport Heroine.” Lewis was besieged with visitors, including President Grant and women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony, but never enjoyed her fame. She is credited with saving 18 lives in her 39 years as the unofficial Lime Rock Lighthouse keeper.

FEBRUARY 24

Image

FEBRUARY 24

Above: David Stoliar’s permit to board the Struma.

ON THIS DATE in 1942, nineteen-year-old David Stoliar was the only one of 768 Jewish refugees to survive the sinking of the immigrant ship Struma, which was torpedoed in the Black Sea by a Soviet submarine. “The ship vaporized around me, some 500 passengers were killed immediately,” Stolier said in 2012, the 70th anniversary of World War II’s worst civilian maritime disaster. “I was thrown into the sea along with several hundred others … no one came to our aid. Everyone died, everyone, except for me.”

After the torpedo blast sunk the ship, Stoliar grabbed a floating piece of deck, which he clung to for 24 hours. The SS Struma was one of 141 immigrant ships that made their way to Palestine between 1934 and 1948.

FEBRUARY 23

Image

FEBRUARY 23

Above: The Kate Mullany House in Troy, New York, is now a National Historic Site.

ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY years ago today (1864), nineteen-year-old Kate Mullany (sometimes spelled Mullaney) launched a strike involving about 300 women from 14 Troy, New York, laundries. Weeks earlier the Irish immigrant and commercial laundry worker had formed one of the first all-female unions in the U.S.

Working 85 hours a week washing collars at a laundry, Mullany received a weekly paycheck of just $3 to $4, a sum that shrunk if she damaged any fabrics. Meanwhile, employees at her Troy, New York, shop sustained frequent injuries from harsh chemicals in boiling water and hard-to-wield irons that caused frequent burns.

After just five days the laundry owners gave into the union’s demand of a 25 percent wage increase and safer working conditions.

Under Mullany’s leadership, the union voted to strike again in 1866 and 1868, both times winning higher wages from ownership. In 1868, the National Labor Union president called her “one of the smartest and most energetic women in America” and appointed her as assistant secretary, making Mullany the first woman to hold a national labor position.