Why Pilots Didn’t Wear Parachutes during World War 1

World War 1 plane crash
By John F. Ross

When brand new technology first appears it’s often striking in retrospect to see that so many seemingly commonsense safety measures frequently take years to develop. World War 1 ace and race driver Eddie Rickenbacker knew this all too well, first as a race car driver in the new world of auto racing, where many years passed before the racing community adopted many already existing safety features, including rear view mirrors, seat belts, and hard helmets. A mechanician sat next to the driver, much of his job to alert his companion to cars coming from behind. Both driver and mechanician frequently paid the ultimate price for lack of such safety gear when their cars hit another one or went into a barrier: the men were often launched like projectiles in the air.

But perhaps no technological oversight seems more outrageous than the official American policy on pilots wearing parachutes during World War 1.

Read more ›

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Military History, Modern History

The Truth about Lincoln’s Beard

By Daniel Stashower

My son’s history teacher thinks I’m spreading lies.

To be fair, he was wonderfully polite about it. “I read your book,” he told me, standing by the punch bowl at Back to School night. “That story about Lincoln’s beard . . . isn’t that apocryphal?”

Apocryphal. The mannerly way of saying: “you’re full of it.”

Here’s the story in a nutshell. In Springfield, Illinois, towards the end of 1860, Abraham Lincoln decided to grow a beard. He had just been elected president, and the change of appearance was intended to mold a new image as he entered the White House, putting the seal on his transformation from prairie rail-splitter to judicious statesman. A popular piece of lore tells of a letter Lincoln received from eleven-year-old Grace Bedell, a girl in upstate New York, who advised him during the campaign that growing out his whiskers would likely tip her family’s support in his direction: “[Y]ou would look a great deal better for your face is so thin,” Miss Bedell reasoned. “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”

Lincoln without a beard
Abraham Lincoln without a beard, May 20, 1860. Photo is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Read more ›

Tagged with:
Posted in Modern History

A Brief Note about the Passing of Jeremiah Denton

By Alvin Townley

“I used to be a Senator,” Jeremiah Denton explained when I first met him. “I’ll always be an admiral. I’ll always be an aviator.”

Like so many other naval aviators, the brotherhood of combat and long deployments aboard aircraft carriers forged a uniquely strong character in Jeremiah Denton, the former prisoner of war, former U.S. Senator from Alabama, and Navy admiral who passed away today at age 89.

His sense of competitiveness and the character forged at the U.S. Naval Academy got him through flight training and through nearly eight years as a POW in North Vietnam. The fire that always drove him never dimmed, until this past month, and after my time with him, I’m left reminded of what one man with character and a driving mission (“to return with honor”) can accomplish.

As the POWs would tap to each other through cell walls in Hanoi, “GBU”—God Bless You—Jeremiah Denton.

Jeremiah Denton saluting
Courtesy of the Department of Defense, via Wikimedia Commons.


ALVIN TOWNLEY is the acclaimed author of Legacy of Honor: The Values and Influence of America’s Eagle Scouts, Spirit of Adventure: Eagle Scouts and the Making of America’s Future, and Fly Navy: Discovering the Extraordinary People and Enduring Spirit of Naval Aviation. His most recent book is Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Contemporary History, Military History

Lost Nuclear Bombs and Malaysia MH370

By L. Douglas Keeney

A gust of wind whirled up some dirt which blossomed up into the dry air before blowing off the road and into the yard of the local school. Further down the coastal road was the sea were a half dozen fishermen were preparing their boats. It was the morning of January 16, 1966, the start of another quiet day in the village of Palomares, Spain, perhaps a little warm for this time of the year but a glorious Mediterranean day nonetheless with the pleasing smell of salt water suffusing the air and thin contrails stitching white lines across the brilliantly blue sky.

Major Larry Messinger didn’t know much about the geography below him or what a fisherman’s day was like; he was in the cockpit of a B-52 intercontinental nuclear bomber which at that moment was at 30,000 feet and was armed and able to strike Moscow at a moment’s notice. His job was to deter a war with the threat of unquenchable nuclear fire, unstoppable retaliation—but he was tired and his crew was tired and their day was already a long one, nearly twenty hours in the air on an airborne alert mission in defense of the United States of America. And now he had his hands full. They needed gas before they crossed the Atlantic Ocean and a refueling tanker was flying directly in front of his windshield. He inched his bomber forward.

Read more ›

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Military History, Modern History

An Official History of UFOs

By Nick Pope

Nowadays, when the media reaches out to the US government for a quote on a UFO story, the response is a polite “no comment”, referral to a dismissive statement on the Department of Defense website, and the suggestion that people interested in the subject should contact civilian UFO organizations. It wasn’t always like this. Back in the forties, fifties and sixties, the issue was taken seriously by the United States Air Force and the Pentagon, and the subject even attracted congressional and presidential interest. It’s probably a story that DOD press officers would prefer to gloss over, but it’s a fascinating piece of Cold War history and it shines a light on an era when Hollywood sci-fi movies led many people to believe that an alien invasion was just as likely as a Soviet invasion.

Throughout human history, people have seen strange things in the skies. Meteors and fireballs were once seen as signs from the gods. But the modern UFO phenomenon dates back to the Second World War, when pilots on bombing missions reported strange balls of light (and sometimes unusual aircraft) following their planes. Allied pilots thought they were some sort of Axis secret weapon, but there was no apparent hostility and after the war it transpired that Axis pilots had seen similar things. These objects were dubbed “Foo Fighters.”

On June 24, 1947, a light aircraft pilot called Kenneth Arnold saw nine delta-shaped craft flying over the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. He described how they moved in a strange, jerky fashion, “like a saucer skipped across water.” The media coined the phrase “flying saucer,” and reports were soon coming in from all over America— and indeed from all around the world. A modern mystery was born.

Read more ›

Tagged with:
Posted in Contemporary History

The History Reader Newsletter: expert interviews, articles, excerpts, and more delivered to your inbox each month

About Us

For more than sixty years, St. Martin’s Press has published award-winning history books on a range of subjects.

Drawing on this impressive stable of experts from ancient, medieval, modern, contemporary, and military history, The History Reader offers articles, interviews, insights, and further reading for history buffs and book lovers everywhere.

Newsworthy Books and Further Reading

The Forgotten Man Behind the New York City Subway by Doug Most on Huffington Post.


Read The New York Times review of Alvin Townley's Defiant.