Great New England Hurricane: September 21, 1938

Will Rogers Dies in Plane Crash: August 15, 1935

New Jersey hurricane headlines, 1938
On the afternoon of September 21, 1938, a massive hurricane unexpectedly slammed ashore in New England in what would be one of the deadliest and costliest natural disasters in United States history.

The hurricane was first detected in the Caribbean on September 16, and soon the storm was forecasted to hit southeast Florida on the morning of the 20th. Floridians began preparing for the hurricane, but it unexpectedly turned north before it could make landfall in Florida. The storm was expected curve back out to sea, but instead it traveled due north virtually unnoticed. Unaware that the hurricane was headed straight for New England, no hurricane warnings were given outside of Florida, meaning New Englanders were caught totally by surprise, especially since they hadn’t experienced a major hurricane in over 100 years.

The hurricane was not only unusual for hitting New England, it was also unique for the speed at which it traveled, racing from North Carolina to Long Island in just 7 hours—which inspired its nickname, the “Long Island Express.” By 10 a.m. on the morning of the 21st, the sky had clouded over at Long Island, and it began to get windy. By afternoon, the wind was gusting hard and the sky had turned yellow. Even so, since there had been no hurricane warning, residents assumed it would be just a bad late-summer storm.

Map highlighting damage from 1938 hurricane

The hurricane made landfall on Long Island around 3 p.m., slamming ashore with such force that it was picked up by seismographs in Alaska. In addition to the hurricane-force winds and driving rain, a massive storm surge flooded the coast. On the mainland, the storm caused immense damage to the coasts of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island in particular, though all states in the area were affected to varying degrees. The hurricane entered Canada early on the morning of the 22nd, where it finally began to peter out, though it still caused gale-force winds in Montreal.

Ultimately, more than 680 people were killed (more than half of them in Rhode Island), and 1,750 people were seriously injured. 20,000 buildings were totally destroyed and another 75,000 were damaged. The hurricane even permanently altered the coastline in some places. Aid was quickly sent to the area, and rescue and rebuilding efforts began immediately, but the damage to many local industries was severe.

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Will Rogers Dies in Plane Crash: August 15, 1935

Will Rogers Dies in Plane Crash: August 15, 1935

Will Rogers
On August 15, 1935, Will Rogers, one of the most beloved American celebrities at the time, died at age 55 in a plane crash in Alaska along with the plane’s pilot, famous aviator Wiley Post.

Will Rogers, born in 1879 in what is now Oklahoma, began his career as a cowboy. But in his twenties, he moved on to life in the public eye as a vaudeville performer, showing crowds his skill with the lariat and soon incorporating in to his act what would become his trademark humor. His popularity led to a successful career on Broadway, on the radio, and in silent (and later, talking) movies. In 1934, the year before his death, he was the biggest box-office draw in Hollywood.

Will Rogers shows his skill with the lariat
Rogers was also the most-read newspaper columnist in the country, taking on a wide range of current events and political topics with his good-natured humor. He famously wrote, “I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn’t like.”

Always up for an adventure, Rogers enjoyed traveling the world and became a major supporter of the nascent aviation industry. He became friends with famed pilot Wiley Post, the first pilot to fly solo around the world. In early August 1935, Rogers joined Post on his mission in Alaska to survey air routes between the U.S. and Russia.

The pair decided to fly to Point Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point of U.S. territory. The day of their flight, the dangerous 500-mile journey was complicated by extremely poor visibility. Unsure of exactly where they were, the two men landed in a lagoon near Point Barrow to ask a group of Inuit for directions. Just after taking off again, the plane crashed back into the lagoon at 8:18 p.m., killing Rogers and Post instantly.

Plane wreck that killed Will Rogers and Wiley Post
When news of Rogers’ death reached the States, the nation was stunned, and newspapers carried the story as their top headline. Thousands of people attended his Hollywood memorial service, and Rogers was buried first in California then later moved to Oklahoma.

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Army Rangers Take Pointe-du-Hoc on D-Day: June 6, 1944

Army Rangers Take Pointe-du-Hoc on D-Day: June 6, 1944

Normandy landings map
During the Normandy landings of D-Day during World War II, a force of Army Rangers scaled the sheer cliffs of Point-du-Hoc to the west of Omaha Beach and disabled the heavy German artillery there, making them the first American forces to accomplish their mission on D-Day.

In the lead up to D-Day, the Allies were aware of a group of 155mm German cannon positioned on a promontory called Point-du-Hoc, which was located between the planned landing sites of Omaha and Utah beaches. Although the guns could pose a threat to American troops landing on those two beaches, the main worry was the potential damage they could cause to the Allied transport ships offshore during the landings.

With this threat in mind, the Army Rangers were given the mission of disabling the guns at Pointe-du-Hoc early on the morning of D-Day. In preparation, Allied bombers dropped explosives on Pointe-du-Hoc in the months prior to the landings, and the bombings were renewed the morning of D-Day, this time followed by naval bombardment.

Photo of one of the places Rangers scaled Pointe-du-Hoc; taken a couple days after D-Day

Companies D, E, and F of the 2nd Rangers were assigned to ascend the cliffs of Point-du-Hoc, while the remaining Rangers were given other objectives to help with the taking of the promontory. The Rangers faced difficulties the morning of D-Day before they even landed on the beach, which put them about 40 minutes behind schedule.

As Companies D, E, and F neared and then hit the beach, they had to face German fire from above, and the hail of bullets continued as the Rangers attempted with varying levels of success to deploy the equipment necessary to scale the cliffs, including rocket-propelled ropes with grapnels as well as ladders. Each group of Rangers used whatever methods they could to get to the top of the cliff, and once there, they faced the German defenders while trying to find the 155mm guns.

Difficulties of Rangers taking Pointe-du-Hoc
When the Rangers reached the emplacements where the big guns were supposed to be, they found that the guns had been moved and replaced with telegraph poles to fool Allied surveillance. So the Rangers moved on to their next objective of securing a nearby road to prevent German reinforcements from reaching Omaha Beach.

As they worked to achieve this, two groups of rangers discovered the missing guns about a mile from where they were supposed to be and disabled them. This meant the Rangers’ primary objective was achieved by 9 a.m., though their work was far from over, as they were forced to hold Pointe-du-hoc until June 8, when the relief column came to their aid.

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Lindbergh Completes His Transatlantic Flight:
May 21, 1927

Lindbergh Completes His Transatlantic Flight: May 21, 1927

Lindbergh Reaches Paris
On May 21, 1927, at 10:22 p.m. local time, 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh and his silver monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, landed in Paris, France, making him the first aviator to successfully fly nonstop across the Atlantic from New York to Paris.

A former barnstormer, Army Air Service cadet, and airmail pilot, Lindbergh decided to try to win the Orteig Prize—$25,000 to the first aviator to fly nonstop from New York to Paris or vice versa. Many well-known pilots of the day had attempted the flight, but all previous attempts had ended in accident or death.

Lindbergh, a virtually unknown pilot at the time, had a hard time finding a company to sell him a plane in which to make the journey, even after he found backers in St. Louis to fund him. Eventually, he found Ryan Airlines, based out of San Diego, which would custom-build him a plane to his exact specifications—a light-weight, one-seat, single-engine monoplane with only the bare essentials to allow for extra fuel.

Map of Lindbergh's transatlantic flight

The plane, named the Spirit of St. Louis, was completed in a mere 60 days, and after stopping in St. Louis, Lindbergh flew on to New York to make his attempt. Initially, the flight was postponed due to poor weather, but as soon as it began to clear up, Lindbergh departed on May 20 at 7:52 a.m. The trip took him 33 ½ hours, and though he faced challenges like ice building up on his plane, Lindbergh’s greatest struggle was staying awake and alert over the long flight.

From the moment he touched down, Lindberg became an instant celebrity. Tens of thousands (and perhaps upwards of 100,000) French greeted him at the airport, and an estimated 4 million people packed the streets during his parade in New York City. 30 million Americans (about a quarter of the population at the time) came to see him as he toured the Spirit of St. Louis around the country in the months that followed. He even received the Medal of Honor for his landmark flight.

Cartoon about how Lindbergh closed the distance between US and France with his flight
Lindbergh used his immense fame to promote the nascent aviation industry, and though he would lose favor in later years because of his controversial political and personal views, for a time he was easily one of the most famous people in the world.

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Death of FDR: April 12, 1945

Death of FDR: April 12, 1945

Death of FDR
On April 12, 1945, just months into his fourth term, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office at the age of 63 after he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage (stroke) while visiting Warm Springs, Georgia.

Stricken by polio at age 39, Roosevelt was largely confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. However, this didn’t stop him from becoming governor of New York or, later, president of the United States, winning four consecutive terms spanning the Great Depression and World War II.

Although Roosevelt struggled with his health off and on for many years, it began to seriously decline about a year before his death. By 1944, Roosevelt showed symptoms of congestive heart failure, though the information was kept from the public.

Photos of FDR throughout his life

Roosevelt began his fourth term in January 1945, and a few days later he left for a conference at Yalta with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. When he returned a month later, he addressed Congress, sitting down during the speech for the first time in his presidency.

Beset by a poor appetite, lack of strength, and weight loss, in late March 1945 Roosevelt visited Warm Springs, Georgia, his favorite retreat, to try to recoup his health. He was there for about two weeks, and at first, Roosevelt’s health seemed to rebound. But on the afternoon of April 12, he complained of a terrible headache and fell unconscious. He never woke up and two hours later was pronounced dead at 3:35 p.m.

Roosevelt's body moved to funeral train at Warm Springs
His wife, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, came to Warm Springs from Washington DC following Vice President Harry Truman‘s oath of office, and the deceased president’s body was put on a train to DC on the 13th. An estimated 2 million people lined the tracks as the train went by to mourn the president. Following the funeral at the White House, Roosevelt’s body was interred at his family home in Hyde Park, New York, on the 15th.

The president’s death came as a shock to Americans, who hadn’t been aware of Roosevelt’s poor health, though after his death, stories of his illnesses began to circulate. Many sincerely mourned Roosevelt’s passing, as he had led the country through the Great Depression and all but the end of World War II and was seen by many as a charismatic and confident leader, despite his sometimes controversial policies.

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Released Nationwide: February 4, 1938

Halifax Explosion: December 6, 1917

Snow White and Her Prince
On February 4, 1938, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—the first full-length animated feature film—had its general release to theaters throughout the country, where it was an instant success.

Before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney had gained fame for his innovative use of sound, color, and multi-plane camera technology in animation through his animated shorts of Mickey Mouse and his Silly Symphonies. Always searching for new ideas, Disney announced to his studio in 1934 that they would be creating the first full-length animated film, based on the Grimm’s fairy tale of Snow White.

The process of making Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would take the Disney studio three years and cost about $1.5 million—many times above the original budget. The studio grew from about 200 to 600 employees to handle the multi-step process of hand cel animation, which would eventually result in more than 200,000 drawings for the film.

Snow White's Seven Dwarfs

With Disney’s high standards for the film, and the animators’ and other staff’s need to innovate solutions to problems that hadn’t been encountered before, the film progressed slowly. As the date of the Hollywood premiere neared, many skeptics doubted whether “Disney’s folly,” as some called it, would be completed on time.

But when the premiere date rolled around on December 21, 1937, not only was the film complete, but the star-studded Hollywood audience loved it. The film was released to Radio City Music Hall in New York in January, where it ran for five weeks—a run longer than any other film previously shown there. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had its general release in the United States starting on February 4, and over the following months it played at theaters all over the country, as well as overseas.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs glasses
The film was a hit, receiving both popular and critical acclaim. Theaters were packed, and some had multiple runs of the film to accommodate all the fans. Snow White—themed merchandise, from hats and dolls to garden seeds and glasses, was everywhere, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ended up earning $8 million (over $100 million today) in its first year. It remains one of the top grossing American films of all time.

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Cabinet Member Resigns Following Political Scandal: January 2, 1923

Halifax Explosion: December 6, 1917

Teapot Dome scandal
On January 2, 1923, Albert Fall, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, announced his resignation from the Cabinet amidst news of his involvement in the Teapot Dome scandal, often considered the biggest American political scandal until Watergate.

Prior to World War I, the government had set aside two oil reserves in California and one in Wyoming to provide oil for the Navy in case there was ever a shortage. The one in Wyoming was referred to as Teapot Dome because of its proximity to a formation called Teapot Rock.

After President Warren G. Harding was elected in 1920, he appointed Albert Fall, a friend from Harding’s days in Congress, as Secretary of the Interior. While in this role, Fall oversaw the transfer of the Navy oil reserves in California and Wyoming from the oversight of the Secretary of the Navy to his own purview in May 1921.

Wyoming Oil Fields and Teapot Dome

In late 1921 and 1922, after accepting bribes, Fall secretly leased the federal oil reserves for development and drilling to two oil men, Edward Doheny and Harry Sinclair, without accepting competitive bids, shortchanging the government in favor of making millions for the oil men.

The Wall Street Journal broke the story of the lease on April 14, 1922, and almost immediately, the Senate began looking into the matter, quickly creating a committee, headed by Senator Thomas Walsh, to investigate. Hearings began in October the following year (1923), in which the Congressional committee called witnesses to testify, including Fall (who had by then resigned from the cabinet).

Sinclair jailed for contempt of Congress
In early 1924, two special prosecutors were appointed to handle the investigation, and later that year they filed several lawsuits that aimed to cancel the leases on the oil fields and convict Fall, Doheny, and Sinclair for their wrongdoing. Following various court battles, the leases were eventually overturned and Doheny and Sinclair had to pay hefty fines (Sinclair was also sentenced to six months in jail for contempt of Congress). Fall was eventually (in 1929) found guilty of accepting a bribe, fined, and sentenced to a year in prison—the first former Cabinet member to serve jail time for misconduct while in office.

The extent of President Harding’s possible involvement in the scandal remains unknown, as he died unexpectedly in August 1923 while still in office.

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Halifax Explosion: December 6, 1917

Halifax Explosion: December 6, 1917 Destruction at Halifax Harbor
On December 6, 1917, the munitions ship Mont-Blanc exploded in Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia, in the biggest man-made explosion prior to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan during World War II.

While sailing into the harbor on the morning of December 6, the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc—with its cargo of 2,925 tons of explosives for the Allied war effort—encountered the Imo, a Norwegian ship headed to New York to pick up relief supplies for Belgium. The Imo was traveling on the wrong side of the Narrows (the narrowest part of the harbor), and after miscommunication between the two ships, the Imo struck the Mont-Blanc. The sparks from the collision caused some of the Mont-Blanc’s cargo to catch fire, and its crew, unable to stop the fire and knowing what would happen, abandoned ship.

The smoke cloud attracted many onlookers on shore, who came to watch as other ships tried to put out the fire and pull the Mont-Blanc farther from land. But at 9:04 a.m., the Mont-Blanc exploded, incinerating the ship and sending out a powerful shockwave that broke windows up to 50 miles away.

Destruction at Halifax Harbor

An estimated 1,500 people were killed instantly or nearly so from the explosion and shockwave, as well as from flying glass and debris, collapsing and burning buildings, and the tsunami created in the harbor that crested at 45 feet. An estimated additional 9,000 people were injured, and over the following hours and days, the death toll would rise to 1,952, nearly 500 of them children. 12,000 buildings in a 16-mile radius were damaged, with 1,630 completely destroyed, leaving 6,000 people homeless and many thousands more without adequate shelter.

Almost immediately, the rescue effort began, facilitated by the soldiers and sailors present in the wartime boomtown. Initial rescue efforts were hindered by rumors of a potential second explosion, which caused many people to flee the disaster area. Efforts were also slowed by a heavy snow storm that hit the area the following day. In the hours, days, and weeks that followed, other areas of Canada, as well as the United States and other countries, sent relief supplies, including food, blankets, clothes, money, and medical supplies, in addition to nurses and surgeons.

Rescue effort following Halifax Explosion
Though a government commission initially determined the following February that the Mont-Blanc held full responsibility for the disaster, higher courts eventually ruled that no one party was to blame.

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Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapses: November 7, 1940

War of the Worlds Radio Scare: October 30, 1938

Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapses
On November 7, 1940, at 11 a.m., the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed into Puget Sound just four months after its opening.

Although locals had wanted a bridge between Tacoma and the Kitsap Peninsula for decades, it wasn’t until the U.S. military got behind the idea as a defense measure that the idea became a reality. Construction began on November 23, 1938, and was finished a little over a year and a half later. At the time of it’s opening on July 1, 1940, the bridge was the third-longest suspension bridge in the world, with a center span 2,800 feet long. It was extremely slender, with a deck just 2 lanes (39 feet) across and 8 feet deep, making it the most flexible suspension bridge in the world.

Before the bridge opened to the public, workers noticed that even in light winds the bridge deck developed rippling vertical waves and nicknamed the bridge “Galloping Gertie.” The motion was sometimes so pronounced that it caused some workers—and later motorists and pedestrians—to feel motion sick. Bridge engineers worked to find a solution to dampen the bridge’s movement, but when initial methods failed, they hired a university professor to solve the problem. The professor’s report was released just a week prior to the collapse and before any of his suggestions could be implemented.

Opening of new Tacoma Narrows bridge in 1950

On the morning of November 7, under winds that eventually reached 42 mph, the bridge began its typical undulations. The waves became so bad that the bridge was closed to traffic. Finally, one of the cable bands slipped, and the bridge took up a new twisting (torsional) motion. The unexpected twisting (caused by the bridge’s design and aereoelastic flutter) put too much stress on the bridge, and it collapsed 190 feet into the Sound. The only fatality was a dog in a car abandoned on the bridge.

World War II interrupted the rebuilding of the bridge, so the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge wasn’t completed until 1950. The new “Sturdy Gertie” bridge, which abandoned the extreme slenderness of the old bridge, is still in use today.

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War of the Worlds Radio Scare: October 30, 1938

War of the Worlds Radio Scare: October 30, 1938

War of the Worlds cartoon
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre staged a radio adaptation of the H. G. Wells sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds that fooled at least some Americans into believing that Martians really were invading the United States.

In order to make the adaptation of book to radio more interesting, the show was set up to seem like a normal music program that kept getting interrupted by increasingly alarming, official-sounding “news bulletins” that tracked the violent progress of a Martian invasion centered in New Jersey. Traditional accounts maintain that despite announcements that the show was fictional, vast numbers of Americans thought the broadcast was real. In fact, newspapers the next day carried tales of mass panic and hysteria as listeners allegedly fled their homes, and Orson Welles met with the press to express regret for the confusion.

Recent scholarship on the subject, however, tends to argue that the mass panic caused by the War of the Worlds broadcast was exaggerated by the newspapers of the time. Even according to the papers themselves, not everyone strictly believed the Martian story: those who only caught part of the broadcast or heard the news secondhand often merely believed that a disaster of some kind had struck the East Coast. And many people who had initially been fooled called their local newspaper or police station to verify the story and thus quickly learned that it was fiction. Still, many people were indeed at least initially frightened by the broadcast, and the hysteria reported in the newspapers did exist to some extent, though it was more likely on an individual rather than group level.

War of the Worlds' Broadcast Creates Panic in the East

While the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast might not have been as panic-inducing as originally believed, a similar broadcast in Quito, Ecuador, in 1949 really did cause hysteria. A local version of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds program caused radio listeners to panic, and when the broadcast was revealed as fictional, their fear turned into an angry riot. The radio station was attacked, causing $350,000 ($3.5 million today) in damage and multiple deaths.

And those aren’t the only instances. Renditions of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast also fooled listeners—at least to some extent—in Chile in 1944 and in Buffalo, New York, in 1968.

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