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.
EIGHTY YEARS AGO TODAY, seventeen-year-old Japanese Corporal Yukio Araki, holding a puppy, died in a suicide attack on American ships near Okinawa.
On this date in 1799, fossil hunter Mary Anning was born. At age twelve or thirteen, she and her brother unearthed a 17-foot-long fish skeleton near their home on the southern coast of England. The prehistoric fish, called an Ichthyosaurus (pronounced IK-thee-oh-SAWR-us), or “fish lizard,” had “flippers like a dolphin, a mouth like a crocodile, and a pointed snout like a swordfish,” wrote Shelley Emling in The Fossil Hunter.
The discovery of the Ichthyosaurus launched the greatest fossil-finding career of the 19th century. Anning later uncovered a complete nine-foot Plesiosaurus (pronounced PLEH-see-oh-SORE-us), or “near lizard.” Despite her discoveries, she was prevented from presenting her work to the Geological Society of London, which prohibited women as members or guests, and the geologists who purchased her skeletons often gave Anning no credit when publishing their findings. “Even when her first Ichthyosaur was cited in scholarly journals, her part in its retrieval was omitted,” Emling wrote.
Rafaela Herrera, 19 in 1762, ranks 59th in this countdown of the world’s greatest teenagers. All she did is take charge after her father’s death and repel an attack on her Nicaraguan fortress from 50 British warships.
AT NUMBER 60 in a highly subjective countdown of the world’s greatest teenagers is Kate Mullaney. In 1864, she formed what some believe to be the first female labor union and launched a successful strike.
ABOVE: Bobby Cain passes through a group of students at Clinton High School in Tennessee.
BOBBY CAIN was “the victim of some of the most angry racial vituperation in recent American history,” a Collier’s reporter wrote in a 1956 story about the 12 African American students who integrated a school in Clinton, Tennessee. The eldest of the Clinton 12, Cain survived a school year scarred by vicious slurs, hate-mongering, and physical violence to become the first black graduate of a formerly all-white public school in the South on May 17, 1957.
Even graduation day simmered with danger: Fearing for Cain’s life, the principal assigned a group of football players to look out for the seventeen year old, who was nonetheless struck in the face by an unknown aggressor when changing out of his cap and gown.
The troubles for Cain and the other 11 African-American students attempting to integrate Clinton High began after a peaceful first day of school. In the middle of that first week a pair of white supremacists stirred up an angry anti-integration mob. Arriving at school one morning, the black students saw racially insulting signs carried by screaming protesters. “Let me tell you, it definitely wasn’t a good time with all those people calling us the n-word,” Alfred Williams recalled 50 years later.
Cain was ready to call it quits but his mother told him, “You’ve got to take it.”
His make-or-break moment came one day when he found himself and another black student followed off-campus at lunchtime by 200 or so white antagonists. Pushed off a sidewalk into a street, Cain pulled out his pocketknife and confronted the mob. “After that day, I found a little courage of my own,” he told George McMillan of Collier’s. “That night I determined to stick it out for Bobby Cain, and not for anybody else.”
Cain later graduated from Tennessee State University and worked for many years for the State of Tennessee Department of Human Services. In October of 1957, Clinton High School was bombed and severely damaged by white supremacists. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1960.
ABOVE: Dicey Langston defends her father.
ON THIS DATE in 1766, Dicey Langston was born. At sixteen in 1781, she learned that the pro-British “Bloody Scouts” were planning to attack a band of Whigs (pro-Revolution Americans) at a spot near Spartanburg, South Carolina. Langston made a nighttime journey through woods, swamplands, and the Tyger River in time to inform the small Patriot force, which included her brother, of the impending ambush. When the Bloody Scouts arrived, the Whigs were long gone, their lives saved by the young woman’s courage and fortitude.
Langston cemented her status as a Revolutionary War heroine with two other acts of valor. Refusing to divulge Whig secrets when accosted by a Loyalist company, she was reported to have said, “Shoot me if you dare! I will not tell you.” She later challenged an enemy, this time a drunken British officer, to shoot her instead of her crippled father. The officer spared them both.