March 31: codebreaker born

NINETY YEARS AGO TODAY, Cecil Phillips was born in Asheville, North Carolina. He began his cryptanalysis (the study and deciphering of codes) career at eighteen and was soon assigned, with a handful of others, to work on “the Russian Problem” — the U.S. government suspected the Soviets of trying to steal military secrets. The code-breaking enterprise known as “the Venona project” was so hush-hush that only a select few working in wartime intelligence knew of its existence.

In November of 1944 Phillips, nineteen, made a key breakthrough in solving the code used by the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, to disguise the true content of messages sent to and from the U.S. It took about two more years for some of the encrypted Soviet dispatches to be deciphered enough to reveal that about 200 American-based spies had been employed by the Soviets. A U.S. ally against Germany in World War II, the Soviet Union had been searching for secret information on the construction of the first atomic bombs, which were completed in 1945.

The most publicized spies revealed by the Venona project were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a husband-and-wife team convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets and executed in 1953.

MARCH 30: IKEA launched

kampradAbove: Ingvar Kamprad in front of his first IKEA store, located in Älmhult, Sweden.

ON THIS DATE in 1943, seventeen-year-old Ingvar Kamprad registered the name IKEA. The Swedish youth started out peddling wallets, watches, and other small items, with IKEA gradually emerging as the world’s largest furniture retailer. The key was an innovation that allowed the company to efficiently ship unassembled chairs, tables, and other products. By 2003, the founder of a one-man business had become the richest man in the world, according to Reuters, but Kamprad’s admitted involvement with pro-Nazi groups in the 1940s caused some to question his legacy.

Kamprad created the IKEA name by combining the I and K in his initials with the E for Elmtaryd, his family’s farm, and the A for Agunnaryd, a nearby village. His small-time business grew after he added furniture to his product line and he saw a great surge in sales when he began using “flat packs” to ship his wares in the 1950s. The flat packs resulted in furniture that could be broken down, shipped at low cost, and re-assembled by customers.

Strictly a mail-order business through most of the 1950s, IKEA opened its first store in Sweden in 1958 and its first store in Norway five years later. By 2011, there were 332 IKEA stores in 38 countries.

In 1994 Kamprad was linked to involvement with pro-Nazi groups in the mid-1940s. The furniture magnate called his Nazi activities “a part of my life which I bitterly regret.”

MARCH 27: He laughed at danger

mcleod11Above: McLeod and Hammond battle German planes in a painting by Merv Corning.

THE YOUNGEST CANADIAN to receive the Victoria Cross in World War I was a pilot who laughed at danger. Literally. “After getting out of a very tight corner by sheer piloting, with six or seven (German planes) on our tail, he would turn round to me and laugh out loud,” said one lieutenant who served on Alan McLeod’s bomber flights.

Alan McLeod

Alan McLeod

McLeod’s finest hour came on March 27, 1918, when the eighteen-year-old pilot and his observer, A. W. Hammond, took on eight German Fokker triplane fighters in northern France. Hammond shot down three enemy planes and received six wounds, and McLeod took five bullets before a German shot the plane’s gasoline tank, igniting the aircraft.

McLeod made a crash landing and braved a machine-gun assault from the Germans while pulling Hammond from the burning wreckage of the plane. Struck by shrapnel from an exploding bomb, the pilot managed to drag his observer to safety before collapsing from what his Victoria Cross citation described as “exhaustion and loss of blood.” When soldiers of the South African Scottish Regiment came across the two bodies, “both smelt terribly of burnt flesh.”

The two survived, and McLeod traveled to London’s Buckingham Palace to receive the Victoria Cross. Back home in Canada, the war hero contracted influenza and died in November of 1918. It’s possible that smoke inhalation during his heroic flight and rescue had weakened his lungs and made him susceptible to the disease.

MARCH 25: Factory fire kills 146

hundredON THIS DATE in 1911, a fire incinerated the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City, killing 146 people, most of them young, female, immigrant Jewish workers.

One who survived, 17-year-old Rose Rosenfeld Freedman, lived to the age of 107. She reported that the Triangle workers died due to the callousness of factory owners.

“Hundred forty-six people in a half an hour,” she said in the 2000 PBS documentary The Living Century. “I have always tears in my eyes when I think … It should never have happened.”

Freedman escaped death in the factory fire by correctly guessing that the bosses would know a way out of the blaze, which was incinerating locked-in workers on the lower floors. She raced to the 10th floor, where the executive offices were located, and rode with the bosses on a freight elevator that went to the roof, where firefighters rescued them.

Others were not so fortunate. Unable to exit the locked doors, 146 workers either burned to death, suffocated from the smoke, or leaped from windows to their death. The average age of the casualties was 19, and two were just 14.

After the tragedy, one of the factory owners tried to bribe Freedman into telling the newspapers that the downstairs doors were unlocked, but she refused to lie. “The executives with a couple of steps could have opened the door,” she said in 2000. “But they thought they were better than the working people.”

The fire brought attention to the need for safer working conditions and led to a number of city, state and federal laws enacted to prevent other factories from becoming potential death traps. For years, Freedman crusaded for worker safety laws and appeared at labor rallies.

For more about Freedman, check out her 2001 New York Times obituary:

MARCH 25: Stunning steeplechase winner


ON THIS DATE in 1938, seventeen-year-old Bruce Hobbs rode his mount, Battleship, to victory in the prestigious Grand National steeplechase. A 40-to-one longshot, Hobbs and Battleship edged an Irish horse, Royal Danieli, by a head in a thrilling finish at England’s Aintree Racecourse. The rider from Long Island, New York, was the youngest jockey in the race and easily the tallest at 6-foot-3, yet his horse, owned by American millionaire Marion duPont Scott, was the smallest mount in the four-and-a-half-mile race.

Hobbs rode 35 winners during the 1937-38 season and became the first jockey to win three Grand Nationals in one year. Later in 1938 he broke his spine during a crashing fall from a horse and was told he’d never ride again. He defied the odds by returning to the saddle before serving in World War II.

MARCH 24: Spielberg’s first film

steven-spielberg-firelightON THIS DATE in 1964, seventeen-year-old Steven Spielberg debuted a full-length film called Firelight at the Little Theater in Phoenix, Arizona. Around 500 people paid $1 a ticket to view the 140-minute film about UFOs invading the fictional town of Freeport, Arizona. Years later the director would call it “one of the five worst films ever made,” but the movie employed real actors from his high school’s theater company and made back its production cost of $500. It anticipated his 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which also portrayed aliens and humans meeting on earth.

Spielberg later made a notable short film about a couple on the road called Amblin’, then directed Joan Crawford in a 1969 episode of Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery.” After directing 1974’s Sugarland Express, his first Hollywood film, he made his name with Jaws, a smash from 1975 that is credited (and sometimes blamed) for ushering in the era of blockbuster summer films.

After years of primarily making movies for young viewers, like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Spielberg earned Academy Awards for 1993’s Schindler’s List and 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. His other popular films include Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Empire of the Sun (1987), Jurassic Park (1993), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), and Lincoln (2012).