FEBRUARY 28: “It was either bailing out or blowing up”

Layout 1Above: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, Stamatakos joked that his act of valor 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: Early feminist


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.” Standing next to her, a man 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 public addresses 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: Iwo Jima hero


SEVENTY YEARS AGO today, 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: “The Newport Heroine” born

ida-lewisON THIS DATE in 1842, Ida Lewis was born. At sixteen in 1858, the daughter of a Rhode Island lighthouse keeper made the first of 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 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: One survivor

stolierON 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.

Reaching for the moon

civilrights04IN HONOR OF BLACK HISTORY month, I have counted down 28 — because there are 28 days in February — young African Americans (or groups of African Americans) who played significant roles in breaking racial barriers and/or fighting injustice before and during the Civil Rights Movement. Here are the top four:

gty_Josephine_Baker_nt_120207_wmain4. JOSEPHINE BAKER, 19, made her debut at Paris theater and became a European dancing sensation in 1925. Called “The Black Venus,” she became the highest-paid entertainer in Europe, a French heroine of World War II, and the only woman to speak at the March on Washington in 1963. Her success as an international entertainment star broke racial barriers, but she is just as memorable for her lifelong crusade against racial injustice.

CHECK OUT: http://www.biography.com/people/josephine-baker-9195959

3. THE LITTLE ROCK NINE, average age 15
, integrated Central High in Arkansas in 1957. The students entered the school protected by soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. Three weeks earlier, the Arkansas governor had deployed the National Guard to prevent the integration of the Little Rock school. Despite violence and verbal abuse, eight of the nine black students lasted through the school year.

CHECK OUT: Warriors Don’t Cry (1994) by Melba Patillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine.

 THE GREENSBORO FOUR, all 18, protested segregated seating by refusing to leave a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. Franklin McCain, David Richmond, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil took seats at Woolworth’s lunch counter, ordered coffee, and — as expected — received no service. On the sixth day of the Woolworth’s sit-in, 1,000 protesters, many of them white, crowded into the store, and the anti-segregation sit-in movement spread to 70 other Southern cities that had whites-only seating and service arrangements. “What is new in your fight is that it was initiated, led, and sustained by students,” Dr. Martin Luther King said. “You now take your honored place in the world-wide struggle for freedom.”

CHECK OUT: http://www.sitinmovement.org/history/greensboro-chronology.asp

, organized a high school walkout to protest separate-but-unequal conditions in her all-African American Virginia school in 1951. She and four other students lured the Moton High principal away with a false report that students were causing a ruckus downtown, and then forged a note bringing the school together in the auditorium, where she implored the 456 students to join them in a walkout. This resulted in a NAACP lawsuit that was bundled into the Brown v. Board of Education suit.

CHECK OUT: http://www.motonmuseum.org/biography-barbara-rose-johns-powell/

FEBRUARY 23: An all-female union

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

ON THIS DATE in (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.