ON THIS DATE in 1916, sixteen-year-old British seaman Jack Cornwell remained at his post despite a shell splinter in his chest that would kill him during the World War I Battle of Jutland, an act that made his name a byword for bravery. Later that year the British Boy Scouts introduced a Jack Cornwell Scout Badge, and a Jack Cornwell award for bravery debuted in 2001.
After Cornwell’s death, he was interred in a communal grave, but the British public demanded a more illustrious sendoff. A subsequent funeral parade drew thousands of onlookers and British elementary schools celebrated September 30, 1916, as Jack Cornwell Day.
ON THIS DATE in 1941, two Greek teenagers tore down the Nazi flag from atop the Acropolis, an act of World War II defiance that gave heart to a nation toiling under German occupation.
Less than two months after German tanks had rolled into Greece, Apostolos Santas, nineteen, and Manolis Glezos, eighteen, climbed the Acropolis Hill in Athens, shimmied up a 50-foot flagpole, and removed the Nazi flag, which, they said, “offended all human ideals.” The teenagers tore off five pieces of the flag for themselves, dumped the rest down a well in a cave, and made their getaway. A Greek police officer stopped the two that night but refused to arrest them.
Stories in the German-run Greek newspapers announced that the flag-removers would be executed if caught, but the identities of Santas and Glezos remained a secret until after the war. By publicizing this act of patriotic vandalism, the Germans unwittingly encouraged all Greeks fighting to regain control of their country.
Above: Wendy Diaz and other Honduran sweatshop workers.
ON THIS DATE in 1996, fifteen-year-old Wendy Diaz revealed the dreadful working conditions at a Honduran factory that made products for the Kathie Lee Gifford clothing line. “If I could talk with Kathie Lee I would ask her to help us, to end all the maltreatment, so that they would stop yelling at us and hitting us,” she said at the press conference hosted by U.S. Representative George Miller.
Earlier, the National Labor Committee had revealed that child laborers had been overworked and abused at Global Fashion in Honduras, which made clothes for Eddie Bauer and J. Crew as well as talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford’s clothing line for Wal-Mart. Diaz said about 100 minors, some as young as twelve, worked up to 70 hours a week while making less than $22 and were mistreated by supervisors who “insult us and yell at us to work faster. Sometimes they throw the garment in your face, or grab and shove you.” She reported that bosses often molested the girls, and that the workers were sometimes made to work all night after the end of a day shift.
The Honduran’s testimony made her a hero to New York City garment workers; the New York Daily News reported one woman yelling “Keep fighting, Wendy,” and another saying “You are our voice” when she walked along 37th Street and Eighth Avenue in early June. A minister in Brooklyn later announced that a scholarship fund was being established for Diaz.
ON THIS DATE IN 1987, eighteen-year-old West German Mathias Rust landed a rented plane on Moscow’s Red Square, embarrassing the Soviets during the last years of the Cold War. Moscow’s nerve center was supposed to be defended by an impenetrable antiballistic missile system, yet the pilot managed to buzz Lenin’s tomb in his 1980 Cessna Skyhawk before landing and signing autographs.
Rust’s mission, he said, was to hand a 20-page peace manifesto to Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “I thought my chances of actually getting to Moscow were about 50-50, but I was convinced I was doing the right thing,” he told Air & Space magazine in 2005.
On the last leg of his flight, the pilot flew from Helsinki, Finland, to Moscow, passing through 400 miles of heavily fortified airspace. When a Soviet MiG-23 fighter jet flew over him, Rust feared for his life. The MiG, with three times the wingspan and ten times the weight of the Cessna, turned around and pulled next to Rust, then zoomed off.
When Rust landed on Red Square next to St. Basil’s Cathedral, “people were smiling and coming up to shake my hand or ask for autographs,” he said. The festive atmosphere turned serious when KGB agents and two truckloads of armed soldiers took Rust to a Russian prison. He would be convicted of illegally crossing the Soviet border and violating international flight regulations.
Sentenced to four years in a Soviet labor colony, he was released after serving eleven months.
ON THIS DATE in 1958, nineteen-year-old Shelagh Delaney debuted her play “A Taste of Honey” at London’s Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Praised by The New York Times for its “energetic honesty” and “bittersweet humanity,” the drama about working-class characters in a hardscrabble British town remains a moving document of a bleak young adulthood. Moving to Broadway in 1960, “A Taste of Honey,” portrayed a tough teenage daughter of a slatternly mother who has a fling with a black sailor, gets pregnant, and moves in with a gay male friend. A 1961 film version of the play made the cut on The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004), and the play received a Broadway revival in 1981.
Delaney followed with more plays, numerous short stories, and a 1963 book of short stories titled Sweetly Sings the Donkey. Her most memorable later work may have been her screenplay for 1985’s Dance With A Stranger, a film about Ruth Ellis, a poor Welsh woman who was convicted of killing her lover and executed in 1955.
Delaney died at age 71 in 2011.
ÉVARISTE GALOIS filled his brief, brilliant life with enough conflict and intrigue to fill an Alexandre Dumas novel. On May 25, 1829, the seventeen year old submitted the first of two memoirs that introduced a new branch of algebra known today as Galois Theory to France’s Academy of Sciences. Due to professional jealousy, a secretary’s death, and ahead-of-his-time ideas, the young genius never received credit for his theories during his lifetime, which ended at twenty with his death in a duel.
As a student, Galois had been described as “original and queer” and “argumentative” by his teachers, and an examiner for the École Polytechnique, an elite institution of higher learning, concluded that the young man possessed “little intelligence.” The theories the teenager submitted to the Academy of Sciences in May and June of 1829 never passed beyond Augustin-Louis Cauchy, a renowned mathematician who was supposed to present Galois’ work to the Academy but offered his own work instead. The young man revised and re-sent his theories, titled “On The Conditions That an Equation Be Solvable by Radicals,” to a Grand Prix for Mathematics contest in 1830, but this time an Academy of Sciences secretary took the manuscript home, and promply died. Galois’ paper, called “one of the most inspiring masterworks in the history of mathematics” by astrophysicist and author Mario Livio, was lost in the dead man’s papers.
The night before his death in a duel, Galois worked frantically to write everything about Galois Theory so that his brother could publish it. In his final scribblings, the French genius provided the foundations of modern algebra and group theory, with some theorems that wouldn’t be proved for a century.
Eric Temple Bell, a mathematician and science fiction author, wrote that “in all the history of science there is no completer example of the triumph of crass stupidity over untamable genius than is afforded by the all too brief life of Évariste Galois.”
ON THIS DATE in 1854, seventeen-year-old Charlotte Forten began a now-classic diary that described life for a free African American before, during, and after the Civil War.
Born to one of the most prominent black families in 19th-century America, Forten began her journal by writing about school lessons, sewing, and a pleasant walk by the water. In other entries she expressed a desire to fight slavery and improve the life of African Americans, stating in January of 1856, “Oh, that I could do much towards bettering our condition. I will do all, all the very little that lies in my power, while life and strength last!”
In 1862, the twenty-two-year-old Forten traveled to St. Helena Island in South Carolina, where for two years she taught freed slaves to read and write. In 1864, poor health forced her to return to the north, where she published an article titled “Life on the Sea Islands” in The Atlantic Monthly.
After her first journal, which covered the years from 1854 to 1864, with a two-year break from 1860 to 1862, Forten compiled a second diary that chronicled the years from 1885 to 1892.