Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle

Although America’s space shuttle was not the budget-friendly platform it was intended to be, the program was so successful that the Soviet Union decided to build their own. Unbeknownst to most, they actually did, and it even flew in space.

On April 12, 1981, NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia roared to life for the first time. As the shuttle’s three powerful main engines ignited, they burned a swimming pool’s worth of fuel every 25 seconds, thrusting the 4.4 million pound shuttle into the sky with an astonishing 37 million horsepower. In just eight and a half minutes, the shuttle would expend all of the fuel in its massive orange fuel tank and burn through its two solid-fuel rocket thrusters.

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
(NASA)

If you were to start an 80’s sitcom just as the Columbia launched that day, the space shuttle would go from zero to 17,500 miles per hour before the first commercial break.

The success of Columbia’s first mission was an exciting time for the United States, but on the other side of the globe, it left Moscow in a sour mood. The Soviets had been watching America’s space shuttle program mature, thanks to America’s more media-friendly approach to space travel. In fact, by Columbia’s first launch, the Soviets had already begun development on their own space shuttle–one that bore a striking resemblance to NASA’s new crown jewel.

Using the Cold War as rocket fuel

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev June 19, 1973 during the Soviet Leader’s visit to the U.S. (Wikimedia Commons)

The American space shuttle program had roots that reached all the way back to the Apollo era, but the concept itself wasn’t presented to the public until 1972. Two years later, as NASA’s efforts were beginning to take shape, a secret meeting was held in the Kremlin between the head of the Soviet Union’s Military-Industrial Commission, Vladimir Smirnov, and the Soviet leader at the time, Leonid Brezhnev.

While the Americans had always done a good job of dressing their space efforts up as nothing more than the pursuit of science and national pride, the military applications of such a vehicle were clear. America’s space shuttle would allow for the launch of bigger, more complex spy satellites, allow crews to fly into orbit to conduct maintenance or repairs, and, most importantly, allow for the vessel itself to be re-used–theoretically driving down the price of orbital operations. Among the Soviets, there was also the fear that this new spacecraft could be used as some sort of orbital bomber.

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
NASA’s Space Shuttle Enterprise under construction in 1976 (NASA)

“Such a vehicle is like an aircraft. It is capable, through a side maneuver, of changing its orbit in such a way that it would find itself at the right moment right over Moscow, possibly with dangerous cargo,” Smirnov explained in the meeting.

Just as defense officials in the United States may have over-estimated (or intentionally inflated) the threat posed by the Soviet Union’s various military and technological programs, Smirnov and his supporters knew that it was in their best interest to really sell the idea that the American shuttle posed a serious threat to Soviet interests.

“They began to use the shuttle to frighten Leonid Illyich Brezhnev and they explained to him that damned shuttle could zoom down on Moscow at any minute, bomb it to smithereens and fly away,” a Russian journalist wrote in 1991, just before the Soviet Union fell.

“Brezhnev understood, yes, of course, an alternative weapon is necessary.”

The Cold War was ripe with this sort of military one-upmanship, both as a means to gain a military advantage, and as a public means of validating each nation’s respective economic models. Every American success the Soviets couldn’t match was seen as a defacto argument in favor of capitalism by leaders in Moscow.

In effect, admitting that they couldn’t build their own shuttle would mean acknowledging that the Soviet system was falling short of the scientific, engineering, and material capabilities of America’s government model. This ideological conflict was the very bedrock of the Cold War, and just ten years before the Soviet Union would collapse under the weight of its own failure, things were already beginning to look bleak. The Soviet Union needed a win, and Smirnov was able to convince Brezhnev that a Soviet space shuttle could be just that.

The Soviet’s secret Space Shuttle program begins

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
Soviet Buran space shuttle (WikiMedia Commons)

By early 1976, the Communist Party’s Central Committee and the Soviet Council of Ministers gave their approval to move forward with plans to develop a new shuttle. Heading up the secret effort was Col. General Alexander Maksimov, a military official tasked with managing the Soviet’s existing military space programs. Two scientists, V. P. Glushko and Gleb Lozino-Lozinskiy, were also tasked with leading the effort, but among those involved, there was no doubt that the new shuttle program, dubbed “Buran,” would be a distinctly military endeavor.

“It is no secret to anyone in our sector … that the Energia-Buran system was ordered from us by the military,” said Yuri Semenov, developer of the Energia booster program. “It was said at meetings on various levels that American shuttles, even on the first revolution, could perform a lateral maneuver and turn to be over Moscow, possibly with dangerous cargo. Parity is needed, we needed the same type of rocket-space system.”

Initially, the Soviets considered restarting a previous space-plane program called “Spiral.” Development had ended on the small space-plane concept more than a decade prior, however, and Soviet officials noted that the intended use of “Spiral” wouldn’t offer anything close to the capability offered by America’s forthcoming shuttles.

Stealing the Space Shuttle

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
(NASA)

With the Americans making steady progress on their own space shuttle program by the late 1970s, the Soviet leadership recognized how far behind they were. If they were going to keep pace with NASA, they would need to find a way to expedite the design process without backtracking to their canceled Spiral program. While the decision to scrap Spiral was made based on its limited capability, many within the Soviet Union were frustrated by the seemingly schizophrenic approach to developing orbital platforms.

“The Spiral was a very good project but it was another mistake for our government. They said Americans didn’t have a space shuttle [back then] and we shouldn’t either and it was destroyed. Then, after you made your space shuttle, immediately they demanded a space shuttle. … It was very crazy of our government.”

-Georgi Grechko, Soviet Cosmonaut

Despite the frustrations of those involved and the Soviet Union’s impending collapse, at the time, the Soviet space program remained among the best in the world. Its scientist and engineers had racked up victory after victory in the first rounds of the Cold War’s space race, putting the first satellite, animal, and man into orbit before the Americans. NASA may have thrown a knockout punch with the moon landing in 1969, but the Soviets were far from down for the count. If America could design a space shuttle, it was entirely plausible that the Soviets could too. The only question was: Could they do it fast enough to keep pace with NASA?

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
NASA Shuttle and Buran shuttle compared

Without help, the answer seemed to be a resounding no, but the Soviets were no strangers to reverse engineering American technology. For instance, in the late 1950s, the Soviets got their hands on one of America’s highly capable air-to-air missiles, the AIM-9 Sidewinder, through a deal brokered with China (and one pilot’s incredibly good luck). The Soviets were able to glean a great deal of information about missile technology from the single missile they acquired and rapidly put Soviet variants of the missile into production. A space shuttle, however, would certainly be a lot tougher to steal… but as it turned out, they wouldn’t have to.

America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, was a civilian agency that was clearly delineated from America’s military. While this separation may have been more about aesthetics than function (nearly every space effort had military implications), NASA did not treat its shuttle program like it was the development of a weapon system at all. As a result, documentation and even plans for the shuttle were all considered unclassified–and readily available to the public. In fact, much of the material the Soviet Union needed was hosted on commercial databases, making the effort to gather these documents one of the first (if not the first) case of digital espionage.

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
(WikiMedia Commons)

“Documents acquired dealt with airframe designs (including the computer programs on design analysis), materials, flight computer systems, and propulsion systems. This information allowed Soviet military industries to save years of scientific research and testing time as well as millions of rubles as they developed their own very similar space shuttle vehicle.”

-The 1985 CIA analysis on “Soviet Acquisition of Militarily Significant Western Technology”

Reaching orbit

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
(Wikimedia Commons)

With all the technical information they needed, construction on the Buran began in 1980, and within just four years, the Soviets were able to unveil their strikingly familiar-looking space shuttle. Despite the clear aesthetic resemblance, however, the Buran did depart from the American design in a number of important ways.

First and foremost, rather than housing the shuttle’s main engines within the spacecraft itself, the Soviets chose to simply attach their shuttle to their super-heavy lift Energia rocket. It was also designed and built to operate autonomously, making it capable of completing orbital missions without a crew on board. Perhaps the most significant departures from the American shuttle were the four jet engines mounted on the rear of the aircraft that would offer the vehicle powered flight. However, despite there being images of these jet engines on the Buran, they were not present as the spacecraft prepared for its first orbital flight.

On November 15, 1988, seven and a half years after the Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off from Kennedy Space Center, the Buran launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soviet space shuttle did not have a crew on board, which may have been seen as an appropriate precaution. Less than 20 years earlier, three cosmonauts died after their Soyuz 11 spacecraft depressurized in space. Four years prior to that, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed in the first-ever launch of the Soyuz spacecraft. While crew safety was likely a consideration, by 1988, the Soviet Union was already amid political turmoil. Killing another crew in a space launch would not have helped the situation.

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
Soviet Buran space shuttle (Wikimedia Commons)

The Buran first reached low earth orbit on the back of its massive Energia rocket. From there, it boosted itself into a slightly higher orbit before circling the planet twice and beginning reentry. Without its jet engines, the Soviet space shuttle would have to glide back to its runway at the Baikonur Cosmodrome just like the American shuttle. Unlike the American shuttle, however, the Buran had no pilot on board to manage the descent.

In a resounding success for the ship’s autonomous systems, the Buran touched down shortly after reentry, making what some called a “flawless” runway landing. In fact, upon closer inspection, the Buran’s heat shielding seemed to have faired even better than America’s first shuttle launch. With new data to work with, the Soviets began preparing for another launch that would never come.

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
Remains of a Buran spacecraft being towed to Zhukovsky Airfield (Wikimedia Commons)

Three years after the Buran’s first and only successful flight, the government of the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it, any hope of ever putting the Soviet space shuttle Buran back into orbit.

This article originally appeared on Sandboxx. Follow Sandboxx on Facebook.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time North Dakota seceded from the Union

After Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861, the Civil War began in earnest. It would be won by force just a few years later, in a war that tore the country apart — a war that Americans still haven’t forgotten. So when North Dakota governor William “Wild Bill” Langer declared North Dakota’s independence — in 1934 —  you have to wonder what he was thinking.


It’s likely he was thinking about anything that would get him out of going to a federal prison. Langer was just convicted of a felony and the state Supreme Court upheld a conviction that would remove him from the Governor’s office. His lieutenant governor, Ole Olson (yes, that’s really his name), took over.

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
Wild Bill is sick of your sh*t.

Good thing the National Guard was already on the streets.

Langer was skimming money from government paychecks into an account run by the group that put him in the office of governor. But that’s not even what he was convicted for, which was conspiracy to violate an act of Congress. His jail sentence was longer than his time in office.

But the voters loved him anyway. Despite the charges and convictions, they voted for him.

Martial law had to be declared in North Dakota. Earle Sarles, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard and the man technically in charge of the entire state at that moment, basically decided, on the spot, who would be governor: Olson or Langer.

What no one except Langer loyalists knew at the time was that the governor drew up a “Declaration of Independence for the State of North Dakota” the night before Court’s decision. But true to the North Dakota Constitution (and the oath he took to wear a U.S. Army uniform), he supported the court ruling and backed Olson.

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Mic drop.

When the North Dakota National Guard was called up to forcibly remove him from the Capitol Building in Bismarck, Langer’s supporters will still marching and demonstrating the capital’s streets.

Langer would be exonerated for the crime in 1935 and successfully ran for U.S. Senate, being seated in 1941 — where he had to explain the Declaration of Independence to the Congress.

Articles

This Marine came back to his family 5 years after he died

On Feb. 25, 1968, a patrol left the besieged Khe Sanh garrison — where U.S. Marines were outnumbered by North Vietnamese forces almost 4 to 1 — and was drawn into a well-executed ambush.


The patrol, conducted by two squads, was nearly wiped out and few survivors managed to crawl out of the jungle. It was later dubbed “The Ghost Patrol.”

One of the Marines listed as lost in the battle, Pfc. Ronald L. Ridgeway, actually spent the next five years in solitary confinement in a North Vietnamese prison camp before returning to the family that had “buried” him months after his disappearance.

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Marine Pfc. Ronald Ridgeway (Photo: YouTube/Vietnam Veteran News Podcast)

The Battle of Khe Sanh began when the North Vietnamese attacked one of America’s northernmost garrisons near the border between Vietnam and Laos. Army Gen. William Westmoreland had predicted the attack months before and reinforced the base with additional men and munitions and ordered repairs and upgrades to the base’s airfield.

When the North Vietnamese attacked on Jan. 21, 1968, it quickly became clear that the preparations weren’t enough. The 6,000 troops were attacked by an enemy force that would eventually grow to an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 enemies, and the carefully hoarded supply of artillery and mortar rounds were 90 percent destroyed by an enemy artillery attack that hit the ammo dump.

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
And the Marines needed that ammo. They went through it at a prodigious rate while trying to beat back the siege. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

Westmoreland convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson that the base should be held at all costs, triggering a 77-day siege that required planes to constantly land supplies on the improved airfield.

The Marines and other troops on the base sought continuously to knock the North Vietnamese off balance and to relieve the pressure on the base. The February 25 patrol aimed to find North Vietnamese and either kill them or take them captive to collect intelligence.

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F-100 strikes close to the lines while supporting the Marines at Khe Sanh on March 15, 1968. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

It was led by an inexperienced lieutenant who, after his men spotted three enemy fighters who quickly fled, ordered a full-speed chase to capture or kill them despite advice to the contrary from others.

The three enemies turned out to be bait, and they drew the Marines into a nearly perfect crescent-shaped ambush.

The Marines fought valiantly, but they were taking machine gun and other small arms fire from three sides mere moments after the fight began. Grenades rained down on their position as they sought cover, concealment, and fire superiority.

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle
Infantry Sgt. Kregg Jorgenson is rushed behind friendly lines during a firefight in the Vietnamese jungle.(Image: YouTube/CBS Evening News)

Under increasing fire, Ridgeway and another Marine attempted to break contact and return to the base, but they came across a wounded Marine on their way. Unwilling to leave an injured brother, they stopped to render aid and carry him out.

As they stopped, bursts of machine gun fire hit the three Marines, wounding all three. One was killed by a grenade moments later, another died of wounds that night, and only Ridgeway survived despite the enemy shooting him in the helmet and shoulder. He was later captured when a Vietnamese soldier tried to steal his wristwatch and realized the body was still breathing.

Buran: How the Soviets stole the Space Shuttle

That September, his family was part of a ceremony to bury unidentified remains from the battle and memorialize the nine Marines presumed dead whose bodies were only partially recovered.

But for five years after the battle, Ridgeway was an unidentified resident of the Hanoi Hilton, undergoing regular torture at the hands of his captors.

It wasn’t until the North Vietnamese agreed to a prisoner transfer as part of the peace process in 1973 that they released his name to American authorities, leading to Ridgeway’s mother getting an alert that her son was alive.

Five years after the battle and four years after his burial, Ridgeway returned to America and was reunited with his family. He later visited the grave and mourned the eight Marines whose names shared the list with his. A new memorial was later raised with Ridgeway’s name removed.

MIGHTY HISTORY

World War I created millions of conscripted Veterans, improved benefits

World War I marked the fourth time Congress declared war, but just the first time America instituted a draft. The “Great War” also created a new series of benefits for Veterans–some that exist in different forms today.


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A story from The Cook County News-Heraldfrom Grand Marais, Minnesota, July 4, 1917, referring to World War I registration slackers.

VA

World War I and the draft

April 6 marks the start of the U.S. involvement in World War I, which 4.7 million Americans fought in.

President Woodrow Wilson asked for a declaration of war April 2, 1917. The Senate voted April 4 and the House of Representatives voted to adopt the war resolution April 6.

Despite the declaration, American men did’nt volunteer in large numbers. Because the U.S. needed to organize, train and equip a force to fight Germany, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which started U.S. conscription.

Following the May 18 passage, the first draft registration day was June 5, 1917, for the 48 states and Washington, D.C. In July, the first draft registration for Puerto Rico, Alaska and Hawaii started. This period also started the round up of draft evaders, called “slackers.”

According to the Library of Congress, over 70% of American Army troops were conscripts.

Of the 4.7 million Americans who fought, 116,000 died in service and 204,000 were wounded.

New benefits

Veterans did see new benefits arise out of their World War I service. Congress amended the War Risk Insurance Act of 1914 in 1917 to offer government-subsidized life insurance for Veterans. Additional legislation provided Veterans a discharge allowance at the end of the war.

The War Risk amendments also established authority for Veterans to receive rehabilitation and vocational training. The benefits focused on Veterans with dismemberment, sight, hearing, and other permanent disabilities. Injured service members remained in service and trained for new jobs.

The Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1918 provided vocational rehabilitation training for honorably discharged disabled World War I Veterans. The act also gave special monthly maintenance allowances for Veterans who couldn’t carry on a gainful occupation. In 1919, a new law fixed Veteran medical care. It gave the Public Health Service greater responsibility, transferred military hospitals to the Public Health Service and authorized new hospitals.

The war also produced another benefit for service members: information. For 17 months, The Stars and Stripes newspaper informed American service members about the war. Over 100 years later, the publication still provides independent news and information to active duty, Department of Defense civilians, Veterans, contractors and families.

Current day

For information on VA life insurance, visit https://www.va.gov/life-insurance/options-eligibility/.

To learn about VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment, see https://www.benefits.va.gov/vocrehab/.

To read about the current Military Selective Service Act, last amended July 9, 2003, go to the Selective Service System website.

Listen to what the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service is working on to report to Congress on the military selective service process.

This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why the Emu War wasn’t as silly as folks make it out to be

It’s always brought up as a fun fact that, at one point in history, Australia sent troops on an “all-out” assault against emus that were destroying the Western Australian Outback. A while later, it was decided that the humans wouldn’t win and the history books marked a big ‘L’ for the Aussies in the Great Emu War of 1932.

When it’s put like that, it’s funny and makes a great fun fact that can be brought up whenever Australia’s military might is in question. But the thing is, Australia’s military kicks ass — and saying, “Australia lost a war against a bunch of flightless birds,” while sort of true, doesn’t really do what actually happened justice.


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If there’s anyone who could actually be blamed for the perceived failure of the Great Emu War, it’s this guy, Sir George Pearce. The man who decided to set up the Australian Army for a lifetime of jokes.

The Australian government didn’t just decide to go on a mass Emu-killing spree out of the blue. It was in response to the destruction of farms caused by emus in their search for food and water. After WWI, Australia rewarded its returning veterans with farmland to call their own. The only stipulation was that this farmland was basically barren Outback that was plagued with native animals. The terrible soil didn’t leave farmers with many options in terms of crops, but wheat grew fairly well given the conditions. Unfortunately, wheat also attracted emus.

Of the nearly 5000 veterans who participated in the program, very few were able to grow crops without having them destroyed by hungry birds. Even fewer could afford to build fences to keep the emus at bay. The government, not willing to address the problem of terrible land quality, decided that the emu was entirely at fault for crops not growing.

It was declared by Western Australian Senator, Sir George Pearce, that veterans and troops should tackle the problem head-on and hunt the birds.

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Good luck fighting an enemy too stupid to know it’s been shot four times with only enough ammo to take out half the population even if your aim is perfect.

The biggest misconception about the Emu War is that it was a massive assault staged by the Australian military. It wasn’t. It was literally just three men, a pick-up truck, two Lewis machine guns, and 10,000 rounds. There were veteran farmers who also took up arms, but only Major G.P.W. Meredith and his two gunners were officially at war.

That’s three men versus 20,000 massive birds.

Emus aren’t just large turkeys. They stand at an average height of six feet four inches, can run up to 31 mph, have the strongest legs of any animal, and can easily shred apart metal fences with their talons. As the three Aussie hunters found out, emus can take roughly five bullets before realizing they’ve been shot and ten rounds before they finally die.

Emus naturally flock in hordes of hundreds, which means that any time the hunters unloaded into the horde, the birds would quickly disperse into smaller mobs that scattered in different directions. With only so many guns, the hunters could only focus on those smaller mobs while the rest took off running.

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If they aren’t in mobs, you’ll be searching for hours just to find one.

In that respect, the hunters were technically efficient. They managed to gun down a confirmed 986 emus over the span of a few weeks. Of the 9,900 rounds they used, they averaged out about one kill per ten or so rounds — the estimated number required to kill an emu. The three men also faced constant backlash from the news and local farmers during their hunt.

The media laughed at them for the absurdity of it all and dubbed it the “Great Emu War” to make light of the situation. It give readers a moment of levity during the otherwise-grim Great Depression. While the general population thought it was silly to send any troops after birds, the farmers were upset that the government sent only three guys to go solve a problem spanning an Australian state that’s twice the size of Alaska.

The hunters tried to give up several times because they knew how pointless it was — but each time, they were pushed back into hunting emus. Eventually, they gave up on December 9th, 1932, and everyone laughed at the three men for failing to do the impossible.

The only logical way to deal with the emus was what happened eventually. The government placed a bounty on the emus and let the farmers handle it — which they did very well. Over time, the farmers would collect a bounty on over 57,000 emus and the farms turned profitable again. It should also be noted that some farmers were smart enough to breed emus and collect a bounty on the birds they’d raised, but that was bound to happen.

All in all, the Aussies would eventually prevail over the emus. It just took more than three guys in a pick-up truck to do it.

Articles

That time a guy jumped out of a plane at 18,000 feet with no chute — and survived

On the evening of March 24, 1944, a Royal Air Force airman jumped out of his damaged bomber without a parachute.


Not only did he survive, but he landed with little more than bumps and bruises.

His name was Nicholas Alkemade. Or should we say, the “indestructible” Nicholas Alkemade. Born Dec. 10, 1922, Alkemade was a rear gunner on a four-engine Avro Lancaster its crew had nicknamed “Werewolf.”

In March 1944, the crew was on a bombing mission over Berlin, which went without incident. But on their way back to England, the bomber caught on fire after being razed by machine-gun fire from a German fighter. The order came from the Werewolf’s pilot to abandon the crippled bomber, but Alkemade wasn’t wearing his parachute, since the gunner’s area was too cramped for it to be worn all the time.

When he tried pulling his chute out of storage, it was in flames. The plane was going down and he had few options.

“I had no doubts at all that this was the end of the line,” he told Leicester Mercury years later. “The question was whether to stay in the plane and fry or jump to my death. I decided to jump and make a quick, clean end of things. I backed out of the turret and somersaulted away.”

So out he went, headed from 18,000 feet above the Earth to the ground at 120 miles per hour. He lost consciousness during the descent, which would have been the end of this story. Except, three hours later, Alkemade — now safely lying on the ground — opened his eyes.

The RAF Museum picks up the story:

He was lying on snowy ground in a small pine wood. Above him the stars were still visible, only this time they were framed by the edges of the hole he had smashed through the tree canopy. Assessing himself, Alkemade found that he was remarkably intact. In addition to the burns and cuts to the head and thigh, all received in the aircraft, he was suffering only bruising and a twisted knee. Not a single bone had been broken or even fractured. Both of his flying boots had disappeared, probably torn from his feet as he unconsciously struck the tree branches. Being of no further use, Alkemade discarded his parachute harness in the snow.

Though his incredible survival arguably made him the luckiest man in the world, his luck soon changed. He began to blow on his emergency whistle, which got the attention of German civilians nearby. After he was taken to a local infirmary, he was interrogated by the Gestapo the next day.

He told them what happened, and like anyone else would, they basically called bullsh-t.

“You say you fell from a plane, but you have no parachute,” the Gestapo interrogator asked him, according to the Mercury. His interrogators accused him of burying it and being a spy, until he told them to find his discarded harness, along with the crashed aircraft that was nearby, according to the RAF Museum.

The Germans investigated and found he was legit. They even gave him a certificate stating, “It has been investigated and corroborated by the German authorities that the claim of Sergeant Alkemade, No. 1431537, is true in all respects, namely, that he has made a descent from 18,000 feet without a parachute and made a safe landing without injuries, the parachute having been on fire in the aircraft. He landed in deep snow among fir trees.”

Alkemade spent his next 14 months as a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III in Poland, and returned to England after the war ended. He died in 1991.

Articles

This training film showed how American machine guns outshot German machine guns

Believe it or not, folks, gun debates raged long before there was an Internet. Though in some cases, it was rather important to “diss” some guns. Like in World War II.


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(WATM Archive)

The Nazis had some pretty respectable designs. The MP40, a submachine gun chambered for the 9mm Luger cartridge, with a 32-round magazine was pretty close to their standard submachine gun.

Compare that to the American M1928 Thompson submachine gun, which fired the .45 ACP round and could fire a 30-round magazine or drum holding 50 or 100 rounds, or the M3 “Grease Gun,” also firing the .45 ACP round and with a 30-round magazine.

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(WATM Archive)

Two of the major Nazi machine guns were the MG34 and the MG42. Both fired the 7.92x57mm round. They could fire very quickly – as much as 1,500 rounds per minute in the case of the MG42. The major machine guns the Americans used were the M1917 and M1919. Both fired the .30-06 round and could shoot about 500 rounds a minute.

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German paratroopers open fire with a MG 42 general purpose machine gun. German Bundesarchiv photo.

That said, the primary Nazi rifle, the Mauser Karabiner 98k, was outclassed by the American M1 Garand. The Germans also didn’t have a weapon to match the M1 Carbine, a semi-auto rifle that had a 15 or 30-round magazine.

And the Walther P38 and Luger didn’t even come close to the M1911 when it came to sidearms. That much is indisputable.

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GIs from the 77th Infantry Division man a machine gun nest on the island of Shima, May 3, 1945. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

But it isn’t all about the rate of fire in full-auto – although it probably is good for devout spray-and-pray shooters. It’s about how many rounds are on target – and which put the bad guys down. The German guns may not have been all that when it came to actually hitting their targets, at least according to the United States Army training film below.


MIGHTY HISTORY

This British marksman could have killed George Washington

It’s difficult to imagine how history would have been altered if George Washington had been killed during the Revolutionary War. Without the father of our country leading its fight for freedom, the war might have been lost and America might still be a British colony. In fact, this alternative history might have come true if not for the moral convictions and gentlemanly ethics of a Scottish infantry officer named Patrick Ferguson.


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A miniature of Ferguson c. 1774-177 (Artist unknown/Public Domain)

Ferguson was born into nobility in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on May 25, 1744. His father was a senator at the College of Justice and his mother was the sister of Patrick Murray, 5th Lord Elibank. He began his military career early, joining the army at the age of 15. He served with the Royal Scots Greys and fought in the Seven Years’ War before he returned home due to a leg injury. In 1768, he returned to military service, purchasing command of a company in the 70th Regiment of Foot under the Colonelcy of his cousin, Alexander Johnstone. He commanded the company in the West Indies until his leg injury forced him to return home.

Ferguson arrived in Britain in 1772 and participated in light infantry training where he helped develop new tactics for the army. During this time, he also invented the Ferguson breech-loading rifle, arguably the most advanced sharpshooting rifle of its day. His sharp intellect and ingenuity caught the attention of General William Howe, Commander-in-Chief of British land forces in the colonies. Consequently, he was sent to fight in the American War of Independence.

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British Army manual for the Ferguson rifle

In 1777, Ferguson arrived in the colonies and was given command of what became known as Ferguson’s Rifle Corps, a unit of 100 riflemen equipped with the new Ferguson rifle. One of their first engagements was the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania on September 11.

Ferguson’s light infantry tactics emphasized small units of well-trained marksmen maneuvering around the battlefield over the doctrinal rank and file style of combat of the day. As such, Ferguson and his rifle corps moved ahead of General Howe’s army as they advanced on Philadelphia. As they maneuvered, Ferguson spotted a prominent American officer alongside another officer in Central European hussar dress; the two officers were conducting a reconnaissance mission on horseback. With their accurate sharpshooting rifles, Ferguson and his men could have easily cut the officers down in a volley of musket fire. However, the officers had their backs turned to the Brits. As a man of honor, Ferguson decided not to fire on the officers who were unaware of his presence.

Later in the battle, Ferguson was shot through his right elbow and taken to a field hospital. There, a surgeon told Ferguson that some American soldiers who were treated there earlier said that General Washington had been in that area earlier in the day. Ferguson wrote in his journal that, even if the officer had been Washington, he did not regret his decision.

Although the identity of the American officer remains uncertain, the man in hussar dress was almost certainly Count Casimir Pulaski, one of the Founding Fathers of U.S. Cavalry (along with Michael Kovats de Fabriczy). During the battle, Pulaski conducted reconnaissance missions and even scouted a retreat route for Washington after his army was defeated. If the American officer was indeed Washington, and if Ferguson had decided to take the shot, September 11, 1777, might have been a turning point in American history.

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Portrait of Casimir Polaski (Artist: Jan Styka/Public Domain)

Ferguson took a year long hiatus from military service to recover from his wound and returned to battle in 1778. He continued to fight in the American War of Independence until his death during the Battle of King’s Mountain, on the border of North and South Carolina, on October 7, 1780. During the battle, Ferguson was shot from his horse. His foot was caught in the stirrup and he was dragged to the American side where he was approached for his surrender. In response, and as a final act of defiance, he drew a pistol and shot one of the Americans. The Patriots responded by shooting him eight times, stripping his body of clothing, and urinating on him before he was buried in an oxhide near the site of his fall.

While Ferguson’s actions at the Battle of King’s Mountain were less than gentlemanly, his determination to go down fighting embodies the warrior spirit. This is juxtaposed by his moral conviction to hold his fire at the Battle of Brandywine. Whether or not the American officer there was General Washington, Ferguson’s legacy will forever be marked by the shot he didn’t take.

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9 things you didn’t know about the “I Have a Dream” speech

Just this month on the anniversary of the March on Washington, MLK’s granddaughter gave a moving speech of her very own…and she’s not even a teenager yet! The history books don’t always tell the full story, so keep reading for some of the most interesting facts you never knew about Dr. King’s most famous speech.

 


1. MLK’s speech almost left out his “dream”

His “Dream” speech wasn’t a new concept. He used it frequently in previous speeches, so his advisor, Rv. Wyatt Tee Walker, suggested he leave it out, calling it “hackneyed and trite.” The new speech was supposed to be called “Normalcy Never Again,” but when King got up on stage as the final speaker of the day, the audience had other plans. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson yelled out of the crowd, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” Going against his advisor’s suggestion, King paused and said, “I still have a dream.” It was a bold move, but even his advisor later admitted it was the right one.

MLK before his big speech

2. King didn’t write the speech alone

While some of his speech was improvised, he had help with the first draft. It was originally written by Stanley Levison and Clarence Jones, with plenty more heads coming together to create the final version.

3. The March was originally planned to leave out female speakers

Despite the innumerable women who contributed to the Civil Rights Movement, none were included in the original speaking schedule. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, the only woman who was on the national planning committee at the time, pushed for acknowledgment of their achievements. A “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” was added to the docket, but it was only after additional pressure that a woman was invited to lead it.

Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, took the stage, saying, “We will walk until we are free, until we can walk to any school and take our children to any school in the United States. And we will sit-in and we will kneel-in and we will lie-in if necessary until every Negro in America can vote. This we pledge to the women of America.”

Josephine Baker, a famous American entertainer, also spoke, telling the crowd, “You know I have always taken the rocky path. I never took the easy one, but as I get older, and as I knew I had the power and the strength, I took that rocky path, and I tried to smooth it out a little. I wanted to make it easier for you. I want you to have a chance at what I had. But I do not want you to have to run away to get it.”

4. The March was organized by an openly gay man

Ever heard of Bayard Rustin? Most people haven’t, but he was an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement. He strongly encouraged King to avoid violence, fundraised for the Montgomery bus boycott, and organized the March on Washington in only two months. Despite his dedication, he remained behind the scenes for a reason. He was worried that his sexual orientation would be used as an attempt to discredit the civil rights movement, so he worked virtually unseen. President Obama recognized his work posthumously, however, awarding him The Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

5. Hollywood stars attended the March to draw attention

Harry Belafonte already planned to attend the March himself when he reached out to other stars to encourage their participation. He asked Hollywood studio managers to give the actors the day off so they could attend, which they did. Many A-listers attended, including Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jr, Lena Horne and Burt Lancaster. The celebrity presence had two purposes; to boost media coverage, and to ease concerns about violence. The participation of so many high-profile celebrities toned down the widespread anxiety and increased support from President John F. Kennedy.

6. Wiretapping was a real concern

Speeches and marches don’t plan themselves, and the planning continues right up until the event starts. The day before King gave his most famous speech, he got together with his advisors to discuss the final version. They were worried that King’s hotel suite at the Willard Hotel wasn’t secure enough and could easily be wiretapped, however, so they met in the lobby instead, to discuss the speech.

7. Dr. King’s bodyguard was a college basketball player

George Raveling was in the audience when event organizers asked if he would step on stage to act as King’s bodyguard. As he was standing next to King, he asked if he could keep the paper copy of the speech. Raveling, now a retired basketball coach, still owns the original, typewritten speech.

8. The media didn’t care about the speeches

Today, King’s speech is celebrated and studied as one of the best speeches in all of history. Right after it happened, however, many reporters overlooked the speech almost entirely. Instead of covering the speeches given, newspapers (including Dr. King’s) focused on the size and scope of the March itself. The speech wasn’t given much attention during King’s lifetime, resurfacing in the public eye years later.

9. ‘I Have a Dream’ was rated a better speech than JFK’s ‘Ask not what you can do’ speech

In 1999, a panel of over 130 scholars rated Dr. King’s speech as the best of the 20th century. Even Kennedy himself knew what a pivotal speech it was, commending King by saying, either “He’s damned good” or “That guy is really good,” depending on who you hear it from.

Either way, we can all agree the speech was awe-inspiring and revolutionary. You can read or listen to the full speech here!

 

MIGHTY HISTORY

6 reasons why being a Roman Legionnaire would suck

The Roman Empire stretched from modern-day Syria to modern-day Spain. To maintain that amount of real estate, you have to have an amazing military to protect it. The Roman Legion was one such force.

But every military that has made its mark on history was notorious for rigorous training and extremely harsh conditions that make today’s toughest Special Operations training look like Air Force boot camp. Here’s why, in reality, being a Roman Legionnaire would’ve sucked.


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Suddenly, Sergeant Major doesn’t seem so far away.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Judith L. Harter)

Minimum enlistment requirement

It was 25 years. These days, when you sign the dotted line, you’re in for a minimum of four years and you have the option to stay longer to earn a pension and retirement benefits. The average Roman Legionnaire was expected to serve 25 years — no exceptions.

The retirement benefits, however, involved getting a nice piece of land within the empire to spend the rest of your days — If you don’t die first, that is.

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It doesn’t make this suck any less, right?

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brennon A. Taylor)

Long, forced marches… Every day.

If you think the 20-kilometer hike you just did last Wednesday, the 25 kilometers you had to do the night before Christmas leave, or the 30-mile hike you did in Korea sucked, just think about what you’d have to do as a Roman Legionnaire. These guys had to carry their entire kit 90 miles, every day.

This kit included their armor, weapons, shield, and a backpack, which contained the equipment needed to help build camps. Additionally, they had to carry their rations and cooking gear.

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Remember this? It would be more regular as a Roman Legionnaire.

(Photo by Lance Cpl. Carlin Warren)

Marching cadence

Remember those 90-mile forced marches we mentioned? Imagine your company commander calling cadence the whole time. Well, that’s what Centurions did for their Centuries. They would call, “right, left,” the whole time, starting with the right, of course, because the left was seen as wrong or evil.

That’s why issued rifles are made for right-handed war heroes.

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The amount of training probably saved a lot of lives…

(History Answers)

Weapons training

In the Roman Legion, you wake up in the morning and eat breakfast with your seven tent mates and then you do a little weapons training. By a little, we mean a lot. You’re training every morning with your gear and wooden weapons and shields that weigh twice as much as your regular gear, constantly going against your friends to become a much better warrior.

This is a good thing, but you know you complain about three-day field ops. Yes, you do.

The pay was salt

And you thought your steady income and clothing allowance was bad. Granted, the Roman Legion did pay their soldiers but, at the time, salt was worth quite a bit. So, a soldier would get paid in salt.

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Gunny Hartman would’ve had a great time, though.

The hazing was terrible

If you think your seniors duct-taping a mattress to you and having you take a leap of faith from the third story of your barracks was bad — it was so much worse the Roman Legion.

Remember those annoying Centurions from the marches? They carried a vine branch to whip the disobedient and it was totally okay for them to do so. Getting whipped for stepping out of line is pretty mild considering your friends could stone you to death for being a coward or trying to desert — and that’s only barely scratching the surface of Roman Legion punishments.

Articles

A future Kentucky governor attempted biological warfare in the Civil War

Dr. Luke Blackburn was a respected medical doctor and philanthropist until he allegedly attempted to create a yellow fever outbreak targeting Northern civilians and soldiers during the Civil War. Despite widespread outrage at the time, he later won a landslide victory to become the governor of Kentucky.


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Governor of Kentucky Luke Blackburn is best remembered for having fought many outbreaks of yellow fever and other diseases. (Photo: Kentucky Historical Society)

Blackburn was a native Kentuckian who began working as a physician after receiving his medical degree from Transylvania University. Early in his career, he implemented a quarantine to shut down a cholera epidemic and he later led another that successfully stopped an outbreak of yellow fever in the Mississippi River Valley. He gave an encore performance against another outbreak in 1854.

But when the tide of the Civil War started going against the South, he found that his loyalty to the Southern cause was greater than his dedication to the Hippocratic Oath.

The vaunted doctor allegedly traveled to Bermuda in 1864 when an epidemic of yellow fever broke out. During this time in the Civil War, the disease was known for striking down cities, killing thousands.

Blackburn helped treat the sick in Bermuda, but he also stole the clothing and bedding of those who died of either yellow fever or smallpox. He then sent trunks of these items to auction places in the North where they were sold and distributed among civilians.

Godfrey Hyams, an Englishman who met Blackburn in Canada, was one of the men paid to smuggle the tainted clothing and bedding into the North. He was promised $100,000 for his services, almost $1.5 million in current dollars.

Hyams was able to sell five trunks of clothing through auctioneers, but only one Union soldier death was attributed to the men and that one was circumstantial. The soldier had died from smallpox after buying clothes at a consignment store that held Blackburn clothing.

The reason that no one died of yellow fever due to Blackburn’s actions is that the disease can not be transmitted via the clothing or bedding of its victims, though no one knew it at the time. Oddly enough, the Transylvania-trained doctor would have been more successful if he had recruited more bloodsuckers into his organization. Specifically, he needed female mosquitoes.

Yellow fever is a blood-borne virus spread by certain female mosquitoes. If Blackburn had succeeded in bringing a few victims North for mosquitoes to bite, he may have succeeded in his dark quest. But it wasn’t until 1901 that a team led by Maj. Walter Reed proved the connection between mosquitoes and yellow fever, so Blackburn didn’t know in 1864 and 1865 that his plan could never work.

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The female yellow fever mosquito spreads the disease by biting into humans. The left and center illustrations show the female. The one on the right is male. (Illustration: Public Domain by E. A. Goeldi in 1905)

But Blackburn was dedicated to his plan. He returned to Bermuda to fill three more trunks with infected clothing and bedding. He contracted a man there, Edward Swan, to send these trunks to the North the following Spring, but Swan was found out and tried.

Meanwhile, Hyams had still not been paid. Hyams finally got tired of waiting and went to the U.S. counsel’s office in Toronto to sell out his employer in early April 1865. A public trial filled the newspapers in Canada and throughout the U.S., but Blackburn was eventually acquitted on a technicality.

The trunks had been shipped to Nova Scotia before entering the U.S., and the court that was trying Blackburn did not have jurisdiction over crimes committed there. Meanwhile, the three other trunks from Bermuda were never on Canadian soil.

Blackburn, for his part, did not testify at his trial but said years later that the entire plot was too preposterous for gentlemen to even believe it existed. After his Canadian acquittal, he avoided the U.S. for a time to avoid prosecution, but he went south in 1868 to fight a yellow fever outbreak in Texas and Louisiana.

Prosecutors allowed him to work unmolested and Blackburn went on to fight yellow fever in Tennessee, Florida, and then back in his hometown of Kentucky over the following 10 years. His success fighting the outbreak in Kentucky caused his public image to drastically improve there.

In 1879, he won the gubernatorial election in Kentucky and became the governor. Much of his efforts in that position were aimed at easing prison crowding and bad conditions through pardons and the construction of a new prison. These measures proved unpopular and Blackburn failed to secure the Democratic nomination in 1883. He returned to private life and died in 1887.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Here is how World War II rationing worked

One of the most notable parts of being on the home front of World War II was rationing. A lot of stuff was rationed – stuff we take for granted, like gas, sugar, coffee, and food. Part of this was because Axis advances cut off the supplies of some materials, like rubber (the Ames Historical Society notes that 90 percent of America’s rubber came from the Dutch East Indies). But a big part was the fact that the scale of the American build-up required a major shift in using America’s industry.


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USS Arizona after being struck by Japanese in Pearl Harbor.

So, how did it work in the United States? Well, there was a government agency, the Office of Price Administration, that handled the rationing. The rationing didn’t hit right away. Tires were rapidly restricted, simply because what rubber was available was needed for military vehicles and aircraft. Gas rationing, in fact, was intended to help conserve tires, and started in some states in May 1942. This was a month after the Doolittle Raid. Even though the Untied States had turned the tide in the Pacific by December, the gas rationing was extended nationwide.

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A ration book for gasoline in the United States. Ironically, the purpose was to conserve tires. (Wikimedia Commons)

The real day-to-day impact came with the food rationing. In 1943, the United States began to ration the canned foods. Part of this was to ensure the military had plenty of the canned food (which formed the basis of the C-ration). But it also cut down on metal consumption – after all, you need a lot of metal to build a Navy that would have almost 6,800 ships by Aug. 14, 1945.

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The back of a ration book issued during World War II. (Wikimedia Commons)

When Japan’s surrender was announced on Aug. 15, 1945, the rationing ended. You can see a video showing how the system was explained to Americans in 1943, using a cartoon by Chuck Jones (famous for drawing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck) below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FH4yuW2xcLU
MIGHTY TRENDING

Martin Luther King Jr.: Planting trees in whose shade he would never sit

On September 20, 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived at the Blumstein’s department store in Harlem, New York for a book signing. His new book “Stride Toward Freedom” chronicled the Montgomery bus boycott that began when Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a public bus to a white passenger. The boycott had come to a close in December of 1956, when the Supreme Court ruled that the segregation of public buses was indeed unconstitutional. It was a watershed moment for both the Civil Rights movement and for America itself.

As a crowd formed in the shoe section of Blumstein’s, King took his seat behind a roped-off section of the store. Soon, eager readers were lining up to catch a moment of the influential figure’s time and his signature for their book. He exchanged brief pleasantries with each person as they approached the table, and as a 42-year-old woman in a stylish outfit and sequined cat’s eye-glasses took her turn, King’s demeanor was no different.

“Are you Martin Luther King?” The woman reportedly asked through a notable southern accent.

“Yes,” King replied, but before he could go on any further, the seemingly ordinary woman threw herself at the table and the man behind it, plunging a seven-inch pen knife into King’s chest.

Bystanders responded by pulling the woman away from King and pinning her on the floor as she shouted, “I’ve been after him for six years. I’m glad I done it!”

King, a man who was no stranger to threats, seemed somehow stoically calm, despite the serious bleeding from his chest. As his fans and supporters surrounded him, ushering him toward medical help, he was heard counseling them, soothing their collective anxieties as though he knew everything was going to be okay.

“That’s all right. Everything is going to be all right,” King was heard saying.

Of course, King couldn’t know it would be all right. Maybe it was just in his nature to ease the burden on others. With the knife still in his chest, King was lifted in his chair and carried out to an ambulance that would rush him to Harlem Hospital. Shortly thereafter, the police would march the same dangerous woman back into King’s company. This time there were no books to sign. The police wanted him to confirm that the women they had in custody was indeed his attacker. When they’d placed her under arrest, they also recovered a loaded .25 caliber pistol from her bra.

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Despite the terrible attack, King was lucky. The seven-inch knife had punctured his chest just a fraction of an inch away from his aorta, or the main artery that carried blood from his heart to the rest of his body. King, who remained conscious and soothing throughout the ordeal, had only narrowly escaped death, but the risk hadn’t passed. He was rushed into surgery, where he had two ribs removed from his side to allow the knife to be pulled out without causing further damage.

“The X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery,” Dr. King later said in his famed ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop’ speech.

“And once that’s punctured, you’re drowned in your own blood — that’s the end of you.”

He would leave the hospital days later with a new scar in the shape of a cross over his heart. Despite the brutal attack, he was resolute when questioned by the press: He bore no ill will toward the woman who had stabbed him and reaffirmed his position that non-violence is the only way to manifest the type of positive change he sought for his country.

The attacker, whose name was Izola Curry, didn’t look like the sort of person most would expect to attack Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Curry was a fashionable middle-aged Black woman, but beneath her polished exterior laid a turbulent and troubled mind. Curry was a paranoid schizophrenic who had struggled with her mental health for years. In her confused state, she’d grown convinced that King and the NAACP were conspiring with communists against her. To King, however, the attack was a symptom of a greater illness than even Curry’s schizophrenia.

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“A climate of hatred and bitterness so permeates areas of our nation that inevitably deeds of extreme violence must erupt,” he said at the time.

“The experience of these last few days has deepened my faith in the relevance of the spirit of nonviolence, if necessary social change is peacefully to take place.”

King would continue to change the world for another decade, before yet another act of violence would rob him of the remainder of his life. It could be argued that, as of that fateful day in 1958, he was acutely aware of the risk his efforts posed to his safety. If he did feel fear somewhere beneath the obvious empathy he felt for the woman who attacked him, however, it never showed. King did not shy away from his work, nor his beliefs, no matter the risk.

Related: 3 BLACK SERVICE MEMBERS WHO HELPED SHAPE HISTORY

Now, as we prepare to honor the memory and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. some 63-years after his death, the story of the near fatal attack offers some uncomfortable parallels with today’s America. As rhetoric about race, mental illness, and the danger of radicalized beliefs permeate our national discourse today just as it did in 1958, we could all learn something from King’s ability to find a catalyst for positive change in even the darkest of places.

In King’s final public speech, he recalled the 1958 attack and how close he came to death… but even amid telling the story, King’s focus was not on his own mortality, but rather on the goodness he found in others as a result of the experience, and the progress he envisioned for America to come.

He told the story of a 9-year-old white girl who wrote to him to say that she’d read that if he had sneezed while the blade was in his chest, he almost certainly would have died.

“And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze,” King recounted.

King went on to echo the young girl’s sentiment, using it to remind the audience about the important steps the Civil Rights movement had made in the years that followed. King didn’t recount these events like he was listing his own victories, but there was an air of pride about his statements. King, like so many great Americans before him, saw each victory and failure as another part of the struggle that has defined America since its very inception. America, he knew, has always been defined by the aspiration for a better tomorrow, the drive to become a more perfect union.

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(Public Domain)

“If I had sneezed — If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.

I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.”

For all of his philosophical wisdom, King was, at his heart, a pragmatic man. He saw the complexity, the hate, the love, the anger, and the joy all woven into the fabric of his nation. He knew his goals were grander than one man, no matter his eloquence and empathy. He knew that the progress he helped usher in was delicate, and that the fight for our nation’s soul was far from over. King knew America would never be perfect… but importantly, he knew that it was in the effort, in the aspiration, that America’s true greatness had always, and will always, lie.

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In a way, it’s deeply tragic that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to look out over the crowd of supporters that had gathered on that April day in 1968 and know that he wouldn’t be there to see America embrace the equality he longed for… but King was a great American. Like our Founding Fathers, King knew that a society grows great when men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. Progress, like a tree, needs time to take root.

Today, our nation continues to struggle with some of the same issues it faced during King’s days of fighting for equality, as well as daunting new ones that stretch beyond the horizon. America has always been imperfect, but our greatness doesn’t lie in what we are. The real America has always been found in what we, its people, strive to become.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

This article originally appeared on Sandboxx. Follow Sandboxx on Facebook.