Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History

Khalid Elhassan - May 5, 2020

American history is littered with names of great people. But what about the lesser-known people who shaped American history? Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s principal plantation and Neoclassical Palladian hilltop mansion near Charlottesville, Virginia, is one of America’s most iconic historic buildings. Featured on the back of nickels, not only is Monticello a National Historic Landmark, but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It only exists today because of the preservation efforts of a little-known nineteenth-century Jewish sailor and philanthropist, Uriah Phillips Levy.

He saved Monticello from ruin, then donated it to the US government. Historic accounts naturally gravitate to the accounts and deeds of the famous, but much of history was actually created by little-known figures, such as Monticello’s savior. Following are forty things about him and other lesser-known Americans who shaped the country’s history.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Monticello. Wikimedia

40. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Needed a Savior

Thomas Jefferson was a complex man. He penned soaring rhetoric such as “all men are created equal“, which inspired idealists ever since. He also owned hundreds of slaves. A prominent Enlightenment figure and proponent of decency, Jefferson sexed up his dead wife’s lookalike half-sister when she was thirteen and kept her as a concubine for the rest of her life. He even enslaved his own children from that relationship.

He authored quotes such as “I have never considered a difference in politics… as cause for withdrawing from a friend“. He also turned on his friend John Adams, subjected him to some of the most heinous political attacks in American history, and became his avowed enemy. He advocated for a simple life, yet lived far beyond his means, splurging on luxuries such as fine imported wines. So deeply indebted that he was unable to afford maintenance, his plantation, Monticello, was decrepit and mortgaged to the hilt when he died. It took a little-known Jewish sailor to save and preserve it for the nation.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
A young Uriah Levy in the US Navy. American Jewish Historical

39. The Jewish Commodore and Jefferson Fan

US naval officer Uriah Phillips Levy (1792 – 1862) was one of the great characters of American Jewish history. An eccentric and pugnacious man, Levy was a shrewd and wealthy businessman. He was also an admirer of Thomas Jefferson – an admiration based on the third president’s track record of championing religious liberty.

As Levy put it: “I consider Thomas Jefferson to be one of the greatest men in American history. … He did much to mold our Republic in a form in which a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life“.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Thomas Jefferson’s statue in the US Capitol’s Rotunda. Architect of the Capitol

38. Commissioning Jefferson’s First Statue in Washington

Levy first expressed his admiration for Thomas Jefferson while he was still a lieutenant in the US Navy. Decrying the lack of a statue of the third president in the US Capitol building, he went ahead and commissioned one.

The Jefferson statue was presented to Congress in 1834, and it still stands in the Rotunda to this day- the only one furnished with private funds. That was just the start of demonstrating an appreciation that, as seen below, culminated in the purchase and preservation of Jefferson’s home.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
The USS Argus, aboard which Uriah Levy served and fought during the War of 1812. Wikimedia

37. An Exceptional Rise in the US Navy

Uriah Levy joined the Navy as a cabin boy in 1806, and fought in the War of 1812. His ship, the USS Argus, raided British shipping in the English Channel and captured 20 vessels before it was itself captured in 1813. Levy and his crewmates spent the rest of the war imprisoned in Britain. Upon his release, he fought in the Second Barbary War (1815).

Few who started off as cabin boys rose high in the US Navy, but Levy was an exception, and exceptional. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1817, became a sailing master – a US Navy rank in those days between lieutenant and captain – in 1837, and made captain in 1844.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Uriah P. Levy. Monticello

36. Dealing With Antisemitism in the Navy

Jews being relatively few in America back then, and quite rare in the Navy, Levy faced considerable anti-Semitism. He loathed to tolerate it. His reactions to insults got him court-martialed six times, demoted from the rank of captain once, and kicked out of the Navy twice – although he was reinstated both times.

He eventually became commander of the Mediterranean Squadron – a position that came with a promotion to commodore. At the time, it was the Navy’s highest rank.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Flogging in the US Navy. Blue Jacket

35. Reforming the Navy

Uriah Levy spent 49 years in the US Navy, but of those, only 16 years were on active duty. He spent the remaining years in the day’s equivalent of an inactive naval reserve, “awaiting orders”, signifying that he was on call and could be activated at any moment. He spent those inactive years making himself wealthy with investments in New York City’s real estate market.

Levy nonetheless played an outsized role in shaping and reforming the Navy. Among his naval legacies, the greatest was probably the lead role he played in abolishing flogging as a punishment – a reform that was quite controversial at the time. To ensure against backsliding or a future reversal of his reforms, he successfully lobbied Congress into passing an anti-flogging bill in 1850, cementing the ban as a matter of federal law.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
The Marquis Lafayette in later years. Military Wikia

34. Saving Monticello

While in France to study naval tactics in the 1830s, Uriah Levy arranged a meeting with the Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis Lafayette. The aging marquis asked Levy about Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Randolph, and of Jefferson’s plantation estate, Monticello. Levy did not know, but promised to find out as soon as he returned home.

Back in America, Levy discovered that Monticello had been sold after Jefferson’s death in 1826 to satisfy his debts. The plantation had been poorly maintained in Jefferson’s later years, as his deep indebtedness prevented him from making necessary repairs. A visitor in 1824 described the mansion as “old and going to decay“, and its gardens and lawns as “slovenly“. Monticello was further neglected by its purchaser, a man named James Turner Barclay. In 1834, Levy struck a deal to take the run down estate and 218 surrounding acres off Barclay’s hands, for $2700.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Uriah Levy in later years. Geni

33. Restoring Monticello

Today, Monticello is a pristine mansion, carefully restored to its caretakers’ best conception of Thomas Jefferson’s original plan. It is difficult to imagine that lovingly cared for plantation as having once been a seedy and rundown mess. Yet a seedy and rundown mess was what Uriah Levy bought when he purchased Monticello in 1834. He set about its restoration with a will.

Levy gathered a small army of workers, including a dozen slaves whom he purchased, to clean out the house’s interior, repair its exterior, and restore the surrounding lawns and gardens. He went to great lengths to restore Monticello to its former glory, including chasing down furniture that had been auctioned off after Jefferson’s death. Because of his naval career and business in NYC, Levy lived only sporadically in Monticello. When he died in 1862, he left Monticello to the US government, plus income from his estate, valued at the then-princely sum of $300,000, to support an agricultural farm at Monticello for the orphaned sons of sailors and others.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Japanese carriers aflame at the Battle of Midway. YouTube

32. The Cryptanalyst Who Set the Stage For Japan’s Defeat at Midway

At 10:25 AM, June 4th, 1942, Japan was mistress of the Pacific, possessed the world’s most powerful aircraft carrier force, and was dictating the terms of the war. By 10:30 AM, Japan had effectively lost WWII after suffering a stunning defeat at the Battle of Midway: three of her aircraft carriers were burning wrecks, and a fourth was destroyed later that day.

The stage was set a few months earlier when Jimmy Doolittle’s bombing of Tokyo in the spring of 1942 gave the Japanese military a black eye. So they set out to draw the US Navy into a climactic battle in which they hoped to win a decisive victory. Evidence began piling up that the Japanese were gearing up for a major move, but nobody was sure about their target. Then Navy cryptanalyst Joseph Rochefort tricked the Japanese into tipping their hand, thus allowing American carriers to set up a devastating ambush at Midway.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Joseph Rochefort. Wikimedia

31. What Is “AF”?

American cryptanalysts had cracked Japanese ciphers, and knew that they planned to attack a target codenamed “AF”. However, nobody was sure just what AF was. So Navy cryptanalyst Joseph Rochefort devised a ruse to trick the Japanese into showing their hand.

Suspecting that AF was Midway Island, Rochefort directed Midway’s radio station to send an uncoded message, stating that its water purification system had broken down, and that the island was running out of drinking water. 24 hours later, American codebreakers intercepted a Japanese message to the effect that “AF” was running out of water. With the identity of AF thus confirmed, Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Theater, sent his carriers to the vicinity of Midway, to wait in ambush for the Japanese.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Ed Freeman. Pinterest

30. Ed “Too Tall” Freeman Fought in Three Wars

Ed “Too Tall” Freeman was among those who fought in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. He dropped out of high school to join the US Navy during WWII, and ended up serving aboard the USS Cacapon, an oil tanker that supplied the American advance in the Pacific. It took him through operations in the Solomons, the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.

Discharged from the Navy after the war, Freeman graduated high school, then enlisted in the Army in 1948. Two years later, he was a first sergeant in Korea, fighting in the Battle of Pork Chop Hill. Out of 257 Americans at the start of that battle, Freeman was one of only 14 survivors. His conduct earned him a battlefield commission and command of a company, which he promptly led back up Pork Chop Hill. With two wars under his belt, Freeman bided his time to fight in a third.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Ed Freeman receiving the Medal of Honor in 2007. Stars and Stripes

29. Too Tall Freeman’s Medal of Honor

Ed Freeman’s commission made him eligible to fly helicopters, but when he applied for pilot training, he was told that at 6 feet 4 inches, he was “too tall” – hence his nickname. When the height limit was raised in 1955, Freeman finally qualified. Ten years later, during the Battle of Ia Drang, enemy fire was so intense that the landing zones were closed for evacuating wounded troops. Freeman volunteered to fly his Huey anyhow, and made fourteen trips through heavy fire, bringing in water and supplies, and taking out dozens of wounded.

He was nominated for a Medal of Honor, but a paperwork filing deadline was missed, so Freeman ended up with a Distinguished Service Cross, instead. Decades later, the deadline rules were changed, and Freeman’s eligibility for the country’s highest honor was restored. It took 42 years, but Ed Freeman’s 1965 heroics finally received their just recognition in 2007, when he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He passed away a year later.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Murder Incorporated’s chiefs, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, left, and Albert “The Lord High Executioner” Anastasia. National Crime Syndicate

28. When Murder Went Corporate

Not all who impacted American history impacted it for the better. Two who definitely had a negative historic impact were Lepke Buchalter, founder of what came to be known as “Murder Incorporated”, and Albert Anastasia, a key leader of that sinister organization.

From the early 1930s to the early 1940s, the Italian-American mafia had an oversight board known as The Commission. To enforce its will, The Commission kept a coalition of Italian and Jewish gangsters as retained contract killers. Dubbed “Murder Incorporated” or “Murder Inc.”, the hitmen were the mob leadership’s on-call execution squad. During its existence, Murder Inc. enforced The Commission’s will and regulated the underworld by taking out the troublesome, making the hitmen, literally, the mob’s troubleshooters.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Midnight Rose coffee shop and candy store in Brooklyn, Murder Incorporated’s headquarters. Pintrest

27. Founding Murder Inc.

Murder Incorporated was formed in the early 1930s, following a period of chaotic gang warfare that greatly disrupted mafia activity. After the dust settled, the mob was reorganized in a more streamlined structure, to enable it to pursue its illicit activities in a business-like manner, with as few disruptions as possible. That was accomplished by setting up what came to be known as “The Commission” – a collective leadership council, akin to a board of directors – to oversee broad strategy and settle disputes.

Murder Inc. was the muscle that would do the actual dispute settling. It was the brainchild of Jewish-American labor racketeer Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. In essence, it was a streamlined contract killing system, intended to isolate mafia members from any connection with the necessary murders that went with their line of business. Murder Inc. operated out of a 24 hour Brownsville coffee shop called Midnight Rose, where the killers whiled away the time, ready at a moment’s notice to go out on a job once word came down.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Murder Incorporated hitmen Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, Harry “Happy” Maione, and Frank “Dasher” Abandando. Pintrest

26. The Lord High Executioner

After its founding in the early 1930s, Murder Inc. was initially led by its creator, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, until he was arrested in 1936. The execution squad was then taken over by the colorful Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia, also known as the “Lord High Executioner”.

Much of Murder Incorporated’s work took place in and around New York City. However, the on-call killers’ reach was nationwide, and they carried out hits as far away as Detroit, southern Florida, and Los Angeles. The organization existed for barely a decade, from its founding in the early 1930s to its exposure in 1940. During that relatively brief period, Murder Inc. carried out an estimated 1000 contract killings.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Wanted poster for Louis “Lepke” Buchalter after he jumped bail and went on the lam in 1936. Tablet Magazine

25. The Murder Machine’s Unraveling

Lepke Buchalter’s downfall began with the 1936 Murder Inc. killing of a Brooklyn candy store owner, Joseph Rosen, whom Buchalter had shaken down out of a garment factory, then feared he would snitch to the authorities. The Rosen murder went unsolved for some time, but two months later, Buchalter was convicted of anti-trust violations. He went on the lam while out on bail, and was sentenced in absentia to two years. Albert Anastasia took over as boss of Murder Inc.

Buchalter eventually surrendered in 1939, and got a 14-year federal sentence, plus another 30 years on state charges. While Buchalter was imprisoned, a Murder Inc. hitman named Abe Reles turned state evidence, and implicated Buchalter in the 1936 Rosen killing. In 1941, Murder Incorporated’s founder and two of his key lieutenants were tried for four homicides, convicted, and sentenced to death. He met his end on “Old Sparky”, Sing Sing Prison’s infamous electric chair, in 1944. Buchalter was the only major American mob boss executed or sentenced to death.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles. Pinterest

24. End of the Lord High Executioner

When Murder Incorporated hitman Abe Reles turned snitch, Albert Anastasia, AKA “The Lord High Executioner”, was seemingly toast. Reles was scheduled to offer evidence against Anastasia but fell to his death from a 6th floor window a few hours before doing so. Police claimed that Reles had been trying to lower himself out the window via an improvised rope made of tied bedsheets. However, he had shown no inclination to escape, and ever since snitching on the mob, had been deathly afraid to be out of police sight. With Reles dead, Anastasia escaped prosecution.

He enlisted in the US Army during WWII, rose to technical sergeant, and was honorably discharged in 1944. After the war, Anastasia founded what is today the Gambino crime family, but his greed and brutality alienated his subordinates. On October 25th, 1957, belated karma finally caught up with The Lord High Executioner, when he was shot to death in a barber’s chair while waiting for a shave.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Life Magazine’s cover photo of a weary Marine in the closing days of the 1944 Battle of Saipan. Life Magazine

23. The Saipan Stare Marine

Towards the close of the 1944 Battle of Saipan, photographer W. Eugene Smith snapped a photo of a US Marine rifleman that captured the weariness and wariness of combat as few photos have before or since. The image appeared in LIFE Magazine, and subsequently became famous as ‘The Saipan Stare’. Unfortunately, a controversy about the identity of the photo’s subject erupted decades later, when a Santa Fe bar owner claimed that it was of his father, Angelo Klonis.

The son believed that his father had been an OSS operative and that the photo was taken in Europe, not Saipan. The claims were initially taken at face value, but subsequent research debunked them. According to wartime records, Klonis was not an OSS operative, but a cook whose unit’s baptism of fire occurred in France, two days after the iconic photograph was taken on the opposite side of the globe in Saipan. So who was the subject of the iconic photo?

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Another photo of Thomas Underwood taken by W. Eugene Smith. 1st Battalion, 24th Marines

22. Tracking Down the Saipan Stare Marine

Evidence supports that photographer W. Eugene Smith had correctly labeled the photo for what it was: that of a Marine in Saipan. The subject is wearing a Marine camouflage cover on his helmet. He is clad in Marine dungarees. His equipment is secured by Marine straps, not Army ones. Photos before and after on the photographer’s contact sheet depict personnel with unit patches of the 1st Battalion, 24h Marines.

Finally, the photographer’s original caption for the image reads “T. E. Underwood, 24th Batt. St. Petersburg, FL“. There was a PFC Thomas Ellis Underwood from Saint Petersburg, Florida, who fought in Saipan, serving as a squad leader with Company B, 1/24 Marines. He fought in Iwo Jima the following year, earned a Bronze Star, and was killed in action at age 22.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
The Battle of Leyte gulf’s four main actions, 1 Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, 2 Battle of Surigao Strait, 3 Battle of Cape Engaño, 4 Battle Off Samar. Wikimedia

21. The Little Known Admiral Who Saved America From a Disaster

The Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944 was history’s biggest naval engagement. It came about as a result of a complex Japanese plan that featured many moving parts and attacks from various directions. The aim was to draw off the main American fleet guarding the American landings at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines and send it on wild goose chase. Then, a powerful Japanese naval contingent would fall upon the unprotected Leyte Gulf and devastate the Americans there.

Accordingly, Japanese aircraft carriers were dangled as bait for Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey, tasked with protecting Leyte from the north. He steamed off with his powerful 3rd Fleet to sink them, telling nobody. The plan almost worked, until the Americans were miraculously saved at the last minute by a tiny scratch force, let by a Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague. He miraculously turned back a vastly more powerful Japanese fleet at what came to be known as the Battle Off Samar.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Clifton Sprague. Nav Source

20. Tiny Taffy Three

When Bull Halsey hared off after the Japanese decoy carriers, he abandoned his post as protector of the Leyte invasion forces against a Japanese attack from the north. Left behind was a small fleet of escort carriers and destroyer escorts that had been repurposed for ground attack and support duties, and that had little in the way of anti-ship weapons. While Halsey was away, a powerful fleet of 23 Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers, including the world’s most powerful battleship, the 18.1-inch gun Yamato, showed up north of Leyte Gulf. It steamed towards the landing site under the command of an admiral Kurita.

The Americans were caught by surprise. All that stood between Kurita’s mighty armada and a massacre of the Americans at Leyte Gulf was a small force of escort carriers and destroyer escorts. The northernmost contingent which first came in contact with the Japanese, known as “Taffy 3” and commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague, consisted of 7 destroyers and destroyer escorts, nicknamed “tin cans” for their lack of protection.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
The USS Gambier Bay and her escorts laying a smoke screen in the opening stages of the Battle Off Samar. Wikimedia

19. The Tin Cans’ Suicidal Charge

Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague knew that his destroyers’ 5-inch guns stood no chance against the 23 armored Japanese battleships and cruisers steaming towards Leyte Gulf. He also knew that thousands of Americans would die if the Japanese reached Leyte. So he ordered Taffy 3’s destroyers and destroyer escorts into a suicidal charge.

The desperate attacks of the American “tin cans” were supported by planes flown from the escort carriers, making strafing attacks or dropping high explosives suitable for ground attack but mostly useless against the Japanese ships. When the American planes ran out of ammunition, they made dry strafing and bombing runs to discomfit the Japanese.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Taffy 3 destroyers laying smoke while under fire during the Battle Off Samar. Wikimedia

18. Sprague and Taffy 3 Save the Day

Taffy 3’s attacks were so sublimely courageous, daring to the point of recklessness and beyond, and incessant, that Japanese admiral Kurita lost his nerve. He convinced himself that he faced opposition far stronger than it actually was and that it must be the first outer layer of a powerful US naval presence.

Kurita, who had an overwhelming victory in his grasp if had kept his cool for just a little longer, and steamed on for another hour to bring his heavy guns within range of Leyte, turned his ships around and sailed away. In so doing, he gifted the Americans in Leyte Gulf with a seemingly miraculous reprieve.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
An English Civil War engagement. Pintrest

17. The Americans Who Fought England’s King a Century Before the Revolutionary War

King George III was the American Revolution’s biggest baddie, and the boogieman upon whom the Patriots pinned most of the blame for the conflict. Indeed, when one examines the Declaration of Independence and gets past the first few uplifting “We hold these truths to be self-evident” sentences, the rest of the document is one long screed, decrying his tyranny and infamies.

However, George III was not the first king against whom American patriots took up arms. That distinction belongs to king Charles I. Over a century before America’s War of Independence, American colonists, led by Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, took up arms against King Charles during the English Civil War (1642 – 1651).

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Colonel Thomas Rainsborough. Art dot Com

16. “The Poorest He Hath a Life to Live as the Greatest He

When England’s Parliament and King Charles I fought each other in the 1640s, Puritans were a major Parliamentarian constituency. At the time, Puritans happened to be pretty thick on the ground in New England. So in 1644, a Puritan Colonel Thomas Rainsborough sailed across the Atlantic with a regiment of New Englanders to fight against Charles.

The American side, presaging future events, proved radical, and pushed for universal male suffrage three centuries before it was actually granted in England. As Rainsborough put it: “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government“.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Execution of King Charles I. Wikimedia

15. The English Civil War Was Also Fought in America

American originals such as Colonel Thomas Rainsborough and his Puritan followers sailed across the Atlantic to fight in the English Civil War in England. That war also traveled in the opposite direction, crossing the Atlantic to be fought on American soil. By the 1650s, the English Civil War was all over, and Parliament had decisively defeated the royalists. King Charles I had been captured, tried, convicted, and beheaded, his heir had fled to the continent, and England was ruled by a Lord Protector, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell.

However, small-scale fighting still flared up every now and then between Royalists and Parliamentarians. One such flare-up, which came to be known as the Battle of the Severn, took place on American soil near Annapolis, Maryland, on March 25th, 1655.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Battle of the Severn. In Red Coat Rags Attired

14. The English Civil War’s Final Battle Was Fought in Maryland

In 1655, Maryland’s governor, sworn to the colony’s royalist Catholic Lord Baltimore, sailed with a small militia to the Puritan settlement of Providence, today’s Annapolis. His goal was to surprise the region’s Puritans, and compel them to swear allegiance to Lord Baltimore. Unfortunately for Maryland’s governor, things did not work out as he had planned.

Instead of surprising the Puritans of Providence, they ended up surprising the governor on March 25th, 1655. By attacking the governor’s forces unexpectedly from the rear, the Puritans routed their opponents at the Battle of the Severn. By the time it was over, the governor’s militia had lost 49 men, while the Puritans lost only 2. The Battle of the Severn holds the distinction of being the last battle fought in the English Civil War.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Carrie Nation. Encyclopedia Britannica

13. Carrie Nation’s Crusade

In the years leading up to Prohibition, American passions rose and reached a fever pitch about the best means for dealing with the social scourge of alcohol. Many chose the traditional means of civic engagement such as boycotts, organizing and joining interest groups, or lobbying and pressuring politicians. Others, such as Carrie Amelia Moore Gloyd Nation, chose the direct action route.

Carrie Nation was an imposing woman. Standing over six feet tall, built like an offensive lineman, sporting thick, powerful arms, and a no-nonsense visage, she became the scourge of saloons. Eccentricity – or more – ran in the family, such as a mother who believed herself to be Queen Victoria. Carrie described herself as: “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like“. She figured that Jesus did not like saloons, and set out to do something about them.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Carrie Nation after carrying out a “hatchetation”. History

12. The Saloon Wrecking Rampage

Carrie Nation captured national attention in 1901 by picking up a hatchet and wrecking a saloon in Topeka, Kansas. As she described it: “[I] smashed the mirror and all the bottles under it; picked up the cash register, threw it down; then broke the faucets of the refrigerator, opened the door and cut the rubber tubes that conducted the beer. Of course, it began to fly all over the house.

I threw over the slot machine, breaking it up and I got from it a sharp piece of iron with which I opened the bungs of the beer kegs, and opened the faucets of the barrels, and then the beer flew in every direction and I was completely saturated. A policeman came in and very good-naturedly arrested me“. Wrecking saloons became Carrie’s thing, and she even coined a neologism that entered the contemporary lexicon: “hatchetation”.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
The black barrage balloon operators on Omaha Beach. National Archives

11. The Men of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion

In 1942, the US Army created the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion – a segregated specialty unit of black soldiers – as part of the Coastal Artillery Corps. The unit used barrage balloons to protect American GIs from low-level strafing and dive-bombing by enemy planes. To accomplish their tasks, they were trained to make flammable hydrogen gas, gauge wind speed, predict weather patterns, and learn other skills necessary to keep their balloons in the air.

On June 6th, 1944, the men of the 320th stormed the beaches of Normandy – the only black combat unit on D-Day – carrying silvery balloons. They had quite the experience in the run-up to that day, on the eventful day itself, and during the ensuing Normandy Campaign.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
The black barrage balloon operators’ training camp near Paris, Tennessee. National Archives

10. Coming Face to Face With Jim Crow

Many black recruits of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion – particularly those from the north – were jittery when they got off the train in Paris, Tennessee, for training at nearby Camp Tyson. Those who were not from the South were fearful about what they would encounter in the land of Jim Crow. It did not take long for them to discover that things were just as bad as they had imagined and often worse.

The first bad sign was when their locomotive crossed the American marker: the Mason-Dixon Line, and all black soldiers were ordered to the “Negro car” – the filthiest and most decrepit one at the end of the train. Upon arrival, their orientation included helpful tips to get along with the locals – or at least avoid infuriating them into a potentially homicidal rage. Among other things, they were advised to never look a white person in the eye, and to step off the sidewalk if one was coming towards them.

Also Read: Jim Crow Laws for Road Trip Travel Guide for Black Americans.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Some members of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. Voice of America

9. “Every Time You Go to Town, Somebody Gets Beat Up”

The black soldiers of the 320th lived in segregated barracks and ate in segregated mess halls. Off base, things were often hazardous. They were routinely harassed by white civilian police, white MPs, and white soldiers – including one who shot a black trainee in the back, killed him and escaped punishment.

One black soldier recalled years later that he stopped going off base because “every time you go to town, somebody gets beat up“. On one of the few times he headed into nearby Paris, he was viciously beaten up by two white civilian cops and a pair of MPs. What galled the men of the 320th the most, however, was seeing German and Italian POWs eating in restaurants where black American soldiers were not welcome.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Arthur Guest, of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. The Daily Beast

8. Ready to Die For Their Country, Despite Their Country’s Mistreatment of Them

The black soldiers of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion endured the daily indignities, the racist pejoratives routinely hurled their way, and the general mistreatment meted out to them on a regular basis. Despite that, they remained ready to die for their country, and so that others, thousands of miles away, could live free. As one of the unit’s members, private Wilson Monk put it decades later: “There was never any doubt about the loyalty of black soldiers … Even considering the fact that we weren’t treated equally“.

Preparing for D-Day, hydrogen was pumped into thousands of big balloons that were then tethered to ships for the journey to Normandy. On the morning of June 6th, 1944, the 691-man 320th battalion had its baptism of fire when it landed on Utah and Omaha beaches. The men plunged off of landing craft into waist-deep water and waded ashore, with bullets whizzing about them. Attached to the belts of many were car-sized or larger balloons, filled with highly flammable hydrogen.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Men of the 320th in Normandy. YouTube

7. The 320th On D-Day and During the Normandy Campaign

Arriving on Normandy’s beaches alongside the infantry in 150 landing craft, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion became the only American black combat unit to see action on D-Day. Braving enemy fire, they flew and maintained their flammable balloons at an altitude of roughly 200 feet. Tethered to cables, they created a hazardous thicket to discourage the Luftwaffe from strafing the beaches. Their conduct earned them a commendation from Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who cited the 320th for conducting “its mission with courage and determination” and proving itself “an important element of the air defense team“.

In late July, 1944, part of the battalion moved to the recently liberated port of Cherbourg, while the rest remained in the landing beaches until that autumn. All in all, the black barrage balloon operators spent 140 days in France, before returning to the US, to prepare for the expected invasion of Japan. They had made it as far as Hawaii, when the atomic bomb ended the war.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Waverly Woodson. Black Past

6. D-Day’s Heroic Medic

Waverly Woodson, Jr., one of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion’s medics, performed prodigies of selfless courage on D-Day. Although seriously injured and burned when his landing craft was hit by an artillery shell, Waverly ignored his wounds to help others. Repeatedly and often recklessly exposing himself to enemy fire for over 30 hours, he saved the lives of dozens of GIs that day.

He was nominated for the Medal of Honor, but never got it. For that matter, no African American soldier received the Medal of Honor during WWII. It would be another half-century before an African American received a Medal of Honor for his service during WWII.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Balloons of the 320th in Normandy. War History Online

5. D-Day’s Black Soldiers Were All But Erased From History

The 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion was one of two black units present at D-Day that received a commendation from General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Although the black barrage balloon operators won accolades at the time, and returned home as minor celebrities, they and their story all but vanished from the record in subsequent years.

Few books about D-Day mention the men of the 320th. No movie about that day – including iconic ones such as The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan – show black soldiers. Saving Private Ryan at least showed the barrage balloons, even if it did not depict the soldiers who operated them.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Charles Guth. Wikimedia

4. The Man Who Cashed in on Coca-Cola’s Greatest Screwup

Pepsi was invented in 1893, but for decades, it remained a niche drink with a tiny American market. It was nowhere close to getting noticed by Coca-Cola, and stood no chance of challenging the soft drink giant. Then in the 1920s, Charles Guth, president of candy manufacturer Loft Inc., asked Coca-Cola for a discount on its syrup, which was used in some of his retail stores’ soda fountains.

Coca-Cola refused, so when Pepsi entered bankruptcy in 1923, Guth bought it for $10,500 (about $175,000 today). He then got chemists to rework its formula and make it as close to Coke as possible. Over the following decade, Pepsi-Cola was offered to the Coca-Cola Company for purchase on various occasions, but the soda giant declined the offer each time. It would come to regret it.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
A 1940s Pepsi ad targeting African Americans, a market ignored by Coca-Cola and other businesses at the time. Dawn

3. Pepsi Displaces Coke

Within two years of buying Pepsi, Charles Guth turned it around and transformed it into a profitable enterprise. By 1936, Pepsi was selling half a billion bottles a year, making it the second-largest soda company, behind only Coca-Cola. It was right around then that Loft Inc. sued Guth, accusing him of breach of fiduciary duty, and took Pepsi from him in 1939.

Loft then concentrated on Pepsi, and spun off its non-soda businesses in 1941. The brand kept growing, and eventually merged with Frito Lay in 1965, to become PepsiCo. That new company went on to finally eclipse Coke in sales in the 1980s, and in 2005, PepsiCo surpassed the Coca-Cola Company in market value.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
Percy Spencer. The Harlow

2. The Man Who Revolutionized How We Eat

American tinkerer and inventor Percy Spencer (1894 – 1970) was not what one would call a highly educated man – he quit school in fifth grade to work in a mill. However, the lack of formal education did not stop him from patenting inventions that contributed to America’s victory in WWII. Nor did it stop him from inventing the microwave oven. As an MIT scientist put it: “The educated scientist knows many things won’t work. Percy doesn’t know what can’t be done“.

In his teens, Spencer was fascinated by and developed a passion for the then-new phenomenon of electricity, so he became an electrician. He joined the US Navy at 18, made himself an expert on radio technology, and by 1939, he was one of the world’s leading experts in radar tube design. It was that expertise that helped Spencer invent the microwave oven.

Fascinating and Lesser Known People Who Changed American History
An early Raytheon microwave oven was installed in the cruiser USS Savannah. Wikimedia

1. From Melted Chocolate to Microwave Ovens

Percy Spencer was working for defense contractor Raytheon as head of its power tube division, when America was thrust into WWII. His expertise earned Raytheon contracts to produce radars for the military – the second highest priority after the Manhattan Project. One day, while standing in front of active radar, Spencer noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted.

Curious about how that came about, he investigated and began experimenting with food, including popcorn – resulting in the world’s first microwaved popcorn. Spencer eventually attached an electromagnetic field generator to an enclosed box, and thus created the world’s first microwave oven. Raytheon patented his invention in 1945, but Spencer’s only reward was a one-time $2 gratuity from Raytheon – a standard token payment the company paid all inventors on its payroll back then.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Burton, Turkus B., and Feder, Sid – Murder Inc.: The Story of the Syndicate (2003)

Carlson, Elliot – Joe Rochefort’s War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway (2013)

Daily Beast – These Black Soldier Fought For America. It Didn’t Protect Them From Jim Crow

Daily Beast – The Black Heroes Who Protected US Troops on D-Day

First Battalion, 24th Marines – Underwood v. Klonis

Hervieux, Linda – Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, At Home and At War (2016)

New York Times – When Jim Crow Reigned Amid the Rubble of Nazi Germany

Smithsonian Air & Space Museum – Protecting the Beaches with Balloons: D-Day and the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion

History Net – Joe Rochefort’s War: Deciphering a Code Breaker

Hornfischer, James D. – The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the US Navy’s Finest Hour (2005)

Motley Fool – How Coke Helped Create Pepsi, and Other Historic Market Moments

ThoughtCo – The History of Pepsi Cola

Murderpedia – Louis Lepke Buchalter

New England Historical Society – Percy Spencer Melts a Chocolate Bar, Invents the Microwave Oven

New York Times, July 3rd, 2010 – America’s Revolution: The Prequel

Orkent, Daniel – Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (2010)

Parshall, Jonathan – Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (2005)

Smithsonian Magazine, December 27th, 2017 – Three Things to Know About Radical Prohibitionist Carrie A. Nation

Stars and Stripes, February 28th, 2007 – Vietnam War Helicopter Pilot Awarded Medal of Honor

Mashed – The Untold Truth of Microwave Popcorn

Wikipedia – Albert Anastasia

Wikipedia – Ed Freeman

Wikipedia – Uriah P. Levy