The Stories Behind 16 of History's Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos

Khalid Elhassan - August 13, 2018

The invention of photography, widely considered to date to 1826, changed history and the preservation of moments thereof. As the speed with which images could be captured increased, there was a corresponding increase in our ability to instantaneously capture the events depicted in those images as they happened, then share them widely. Over the years, many photos came to influence the world by shaping how we think, or even how we live.

Following are sixteen of history’s most remarkable or influential photographs.

Lunch Atop a Skyscraper

The Great Depression was, well… pretty depressing, in more ways than one. It produced many memorable photographs, capturing the gloom, doom, misery and uncertainty of a nation reeling from a severe economic downturn and high unemployment. Lunch Atop a Skyscraper went against that grain of suffering and sadness.

On September 20th, 1932, an unknown photographer snapped a shot of one of the most dangerous, yet lighthearted, lunch breaks ever. Seated on a steel girder more than 800 feet above Manhattan, 11 ironworkers were taking a break from toiling on the Rockefeller Center to eat, smoke, and chat in a carefree manner, seemingly oblivious to their peril.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper. New York Times

The image appeared in the New York Herald Tribune of October 2nd, 1932, and caused a sensation. It was embraced by New York City ironworkers as a badge of their profession, and by the Big Apple as affirmation of its image as the place where the impossible was routine. For the rest of the country, the workers, seemingly thumbing their noses at both danger and the Depression, became a symbol of American grit, resilience, and daring.

As it turned out, the photo was actually part of a publicity stunt on behalf of the Rockefeller Center. The workers were real enough, but the event was staged as part of a promotional campaign for the massive skyscraper complex then under construction. Further raining on the parade, the New York Times asserted in 2012 that there might not have even been any danger involved, as a completed floor probably stood just a few feet below the girder, out of the frame. Nonetheless, regardless of authenticity, the image was a rare bright spot during a grim stretch of the country’s history.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
‘Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag’, by Yevgeny Khaldei. Time Magazine

Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag

Victory comes at a price, and few knew this better than the men and women of the Red Army in WWII, having withstood the German surprise onslaught on the Soviet Union in 1941 only by dint of superhuman sacrifices and tenacity. By the end of 1941, the Red Army had lost about 5 million personnel, and civilian losses amounted to millions more.

Forced to retreat until the enemy came within literal sight of the Kremlin in the winter of 1941, they managed to hang on by the skin of their teeth, before beating the Germans back from the gates of Moscow. They endured another onslaught the following year that brought the Germans all the way to the Volga river, before the tide was turned with a Soviet comeback victory at Stalingrad.

They then clawed their way back, fighting gargantuan battles and campaigns to beat back the Germans until they reached Berlin. By war’s end, four fifths of Germans killed had met their fate on the Eastern Front, while all the other Allies combined – American, British, French, etc – accounted for only one fifth. It did not come cheap: estimates for total Soviet deaths range from 25 million killed at the conservative end, to a high of 40 million dead or more.

It was against that background that photographer Yevgeney Khaldei arrived in Berlin in 1945, lugging a Leica camera and a massive Soviet flag that his uncle, a tailor, had sewn out of red tablecloths. On May 2nd, 1945, he snapped the most iconic Soviet photo of the war, Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag. It captured two Red Army soldiers, Meliton Kantaria and Mikhail Yegorov, raising the Soviet flag atop the Reichstag – viewed as a symbol of Nazism – with the wreckage of Berlin beneath them. As Khaldei described the event: “this is what I had been waiting for for 1400 days“.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
The Burning Monk. All That is Interesting

The Burning Monk

In 1963, South Vietnam was seething with discontent, fueled by widespread governmental corruption and a steadily intensifying insurgency. Moreover, the country’s Catholic president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was pursuing discriminatory policies that favored Catholics for public service and military positions, land distribution, tax concessions, and business arrangements.

Some Catholic priests even ran their own private armed militias, which they put to use demolishing Buddhist pagodas and forcing people to convert – activities to which the government turned a blind eye. Since Catholics were a distinct minority, and about 90% of South Vietnamese were Buddhists, Diem’s pro-Catholic tilt did not sit well with most of his countrymen.

Protests erupted in May, when Diem’s government banned the flying of Buddhist flags – only days after it had encouraged Catholics to fly Vatican flags at a celebration of Diem’s elder brother, a Catholic archbishop. Government troops opened fire on protesters flying Buddhist flags in defiance of the ban, killing and wounding dozens, which only led to more protests.

On June 10th, 1963, American correspondents were tipped that “something important” would happen the following day near the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. Most ignored it, but not photographer Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press. He showed up on the 11th, and as his camera clicked, two monks doused with gasoline a serene elderly monk, seated lotus style. The monk, Thich Quang Duc, then struck a match and dropped it on himself, and maintained his serene while flames engulfed him.

At the time, few Americans knew where Vietnam was on a map. After the photo of the Burning Buddhist appeared on newspapers across the country, there was no forgetting that war torn country. As president Kennedy commented: “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one“. It made people question American support for Diem’s government, and contributed to Kennedy’s decision not to oppose a coup that overthrew Diem a few months later.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
A weary Marine in the closing days of the 1944 Battle of Saipan. Life Magazine

The Saipan Stare

In July of 1944, in the closing days of the Battle of Saipan, photographer W. Eugene Smith snapped a photo of a US Marine that captured the weariness and wariness of combat as few photos have before or since. It appeared in LIFE Magazine, with the caption: “Surrounded by the enemy, with bullets whizzing from all directions, this Soldier jerked his head around as one bullet cracked uncomfortably close. He was about 100 feet from the front lines, on the day after the famous breakthrough on Saipan, and had been practically hand-driving Japs out of their pillboxes. More than 2,000 Japs were killed in the drive to the sea.”

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 taken at face value at first, 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 in Saipan.

Evidence supports that the photographer 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 years, earned a Bronze Star, and was killed in action at age 22.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
Alberto Korda’s ‘Guerrillero Heroico’. Time Magazine

Guerrillero Heroico

Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928 – 1967) was an Argentinean Marxist who rose to prominence during the Cuban Revolution, and gained international fame thereafter as a guerrilla warfare innovator, author, and diplomat. His image became a romantic icon of anti imperialism, and after his death, he was regarded as a martyr by leftists worldwide.

Born in Argentina in 1928, Guevara was raised in a leftist environment. An asthmatic who nonetheless excelled in athletics, he studied medicine, and as a young man spent his holidays motorcycling through South America in the early 1950s. In his travels, he encountered conditions of dire poverty, inequality, and injustice, that radicalized and set him on the path to Marxism.

By 1955, Guevara had relocated to Mexico, where he met and befriended Fidel Castro, who was planning to overthrow the Cuban regime, and accompanied him and a small force to Cuba in 1956 to launch a revolution. He became one of Castro’s main advisors, and commanded revolutionary forces in guerrilla warfare, leading them to final victory and the seizure of the island in 1959.

His iconic photo was taken on March 5th, 1960, by photographer Alberto Korda, who was covering a funeral for victims of a freighter that had exploded in Havana’s harbor. Korda focused on Fidel Castro, and only shot two frames of Guevara as an afterthought. His newspaper published only Castro’s shots, and Guevara’s were returned to Korda.

It remained relatively obscure for seven years, until a wealthy Italian got a hold of it and helped make it famous. When Guevara was killed soon thereafter by the Bolivian army with CIA help, the Cuban regime embraced him as a martyr and revolutionary symbol, and Korda’s photo was the perfect revolutionary romantic image. The photo rocketed to global fame as Guerrillero Heroico (“Heroic Guerrilla Fighter”), becoming a shorthand symbol for rebellion and one of the most recognizable images of all time.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
Raising the Flag Over Iwo Jima. Time Magazine

Raising the Flag Over Iwo Jima

On February 19th, 1945, US Marines landed on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima, and fought a vicious five week battle. On February 23rd, Marines captured Mount Suribachi, the island’s dominant geographical feature and highest point. A US flag was quickly raised atop Suribachi’s crest, but it was small, and an officer ordered that it be replaced by a larger flag. So a large flag, measuring 96 inches by 56, was found and carried to the top of Mount Suribachi.

Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal made it to the top of Suribachi in time for this second flag raising, and was in place when five Marines and a Navy corpsman prepared to hoist it. He almost missed the shot while piling rocks to stand upon for a better vantage point. As he described it: ” Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken, and when you take a picture like that, you don’t come away saying you got a great shot. You don’t know.”

Rosenthal did not know it at the time, but as it turned out, he got not just a great shot, but one of the greatest shots of all time. The film was sent to Guam for development, and upon seeing it, his editor exclaimed: “Here’s one for all time!” It was immediately transmitted back to the US, and was soon picked and published by hundreds of newspapers.

As well as one of the most iconic American images of World War II, Rosenthal’s photo also became the only photograph to win a Pulitzer in the same year as its publication. In 1954, the photo was reproduced as a bronze sculpture, the United States Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, erected at an entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
United States Marine Corps War Memorial. Wikimedia

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
Aftermath of Kent State shooting. ACLU

Kent State Shooting

By 1970, much of America had soured on the war in Vietnam, and millions were actively protesting the country’s continued involvement in the conflict. Protest was particularly fierce in American higher education campuses, and the ending of college deferments, which had previously exempted most college students from the draft and service in Vietnam, added fuel to the fire.

The backlash reached a fever pitch after a televised address by president Nixon on April 30th, 1970, in which he announced a widening of the conflict with American military operations in Cambodia. The following day, protests and demonstrations swept many colleges and universities across the country, including that of Kent State, in Ohio.

On May 1st, following Kent State student antiwar demonstrations, bonfires were lit, and clashes erupted with police, during which protesters threw rocks and bottles. Bars were closed, but it backfired, as students who had not been involved in the protests, plus local roughnecks, expressed their displeasure by breaking windows and looting stores.

Kent’s mayor declared a state of emergency, and asked Ohio’s governor to send in the National Guard. By May 4th, about a thousand National Guardsmen were on Kent State’s campus, and when students held an antiwar rally, they were met with tear gas. Some students threw back the canisters, as well rocks, at the soldiers. Things escalated, soldiers advanced on the students, and 29 Guardsmen opened fire.

Within seconds, four students were killed, and nine more were wounded. Student and part time photographer John Filo was in the campus photography lab, and grabbed his camera and ran out upon hearing gunfire. He captured a shot of 14 year old Mary Ann Vecchio, crying over a fatally wounded 20 year old Jeffrey Miller. It was printed on the front page of the New York Times, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, and became a symbol for the lost innocence of a nation’s youth.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
The surrender of Singapore. History Net

The British Surrender of Singapore

In 1942, the Japanese invaded the Malay Peninsula from the north, then rapidly advanced, brushing aside or sidestepping all opposition. They swiftly reached and captured the fortress city of Singapore at the peninsula’s southern tip, despite being outnumbered by the British. That feat convinced the British that their foes were natural “jungle fighters”.

However, Japan has no more tropical jungles than does Britain, and the Japanese had no more natural aptitude for jungle fighting than any other people whose homes lie well north of the Tropics. The Japanese prevailed in the Malay jungles because their troops were hardened veterans, while their opponents were inexperienced and ill trained.

Japanese soldiers were also innovative and adaptable, as illustrated by their vanguard’s commandeering of bicycles to speed up the advance, while British commanders ranged from mediocre to incompetent. British generals, looking at all the greenery of the Malay Peninsula, assumed it was impenetrable jungle, and thus never expected an advance on Singapore from that direction.

When the Japanese invaded, British commanders set up defensive positions to block their advance, frequently anchoring their flanks to “jungle” on one or both sides. However, much of the foliage was not jungle, but plantations. They looked formidable when seen from the air, but on the ground they posed no barrier, comprised as they were of rows of trees with wide spaces in between, carefully cleared of underbrush. They formed straight leafy boulevards, through which the Japanese easily bicycled or marched in the shade.

The result was a humiliating surrender of a large British garrison in Singapore to a smaller Japanese attacking force. Images of the surrender, capturing the British commander, Lieutenant General Arthur Percival as he toted a Union Jack while an aide carried a white flag, circulated around Asia. That broke the spell of British colonial invincibility, and hastened the fall of the British Empire after the war.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
An inflatable dummy tank used in Operation Fortitude. Alchetron

Operation Fortitude Inflatable Tank

During World War II, British intelligence sought to deceive the Germans about the time and location of the intended invasion of Europe in 1944. So they devised Operation Bodyguard, which had three goals. First, conceal the time and date of the invasion. Second, convince the Germans that the main invasion would land in the Pas de Calais instead of Normandy. Third, convince the Germans, even after the Normandy landings, to maintain a strong defense in the Pas de Calais for at least two weeks, rather than drain it of defenders to reinforce their troops in Normandy.

A sub-plan, Operation Fortitude, created a fictitious First US Army Group in southeast England under the command of general George Patton. FUSAG sold its existence to the Germans with fake radio traffic between fictitious units, and by allowing German spy planes to fly over concentrations of FUSAG tanks and transports that were actually inflatable dummies.

German intelligence was also fed fake reports via double agents and turned spies about FUSAG’s intentions to invade the Pas de Calais, so as to tie down the German defenders there. A subsidiary, Fortitude North, created a fictitious British Fourth Army in Scotland, and convinced the Germans that it planned to invade Norway, so as to tie down the German divisions there.

Bodyguard convinced the Germans that the Normandy invasion of June, 1944, was not the main event, but the first in a series of landings. So they kept units guarding the Pas de Calais, threatened by the fictitious FUSAG, instead of sending them to reinforce Normandy. Bodyguard sought to convince the Germans to stay put in the Pas de Calais for two weeks after D-Day. Instead of two weeks, the Germans remained in the Pas de Calais for seven, before finally releasing the units there for use in Normandy. It was too late: by then, the Allies had been given precious time to build a powerful beachhead in Normandy, before breaking out to liberate France and Western Europe.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
Stjepan Filipovic. United States Holocaust Museum

“Death to Fascism! Freedom to the People!”

In 1916, Stjepan Filipipovic, a Croatian, was born in what become Yugoslavia after World War I. He left home in his teens, became a metalworker, and joined the local workers’ movement, becoming a labor activist. He was arrested for political activity, and sentenced to a year in jail. When he was released in 1940, he joined the Communist Party.

Germany invaded and overran Yugoslavia the following year, and Filipovic volunteered to join the partisan resistance. He was posted to a guerrilla unit near Valjevo, in today’s Serbia, and given responsibility for recruitment and for securing arms. He showed considerable promise, and by year’s end he had risen to command an entire partisan battalion.

In February, 1942, he was captured by the Nazis and sentenced to be publicly hanged in Valjevo’s town square, but had the courage and presence of mind to seize the moment and defy his captors during his last seconds on earth. Mounting the gallows, and with the hangman’s noose around his neck, Stjepan Filipovic defiantly thrust his hands in the air and struck a dramatic pose that was captured on camera.

Urging the gathered crowd to continue the struggle against the Nazi oppressors and their Yugoslav collaborators, he cried out just before he was hanged: “Death to fascism, freedom to the people!” – a partisan slogan that Filipovic’s martyrdom helped popularize. After the war, he was named a national hero of Yugoslavia, and a statue was erected in Valjevo in his honor, replicating his Y shaped pose in an artistic rendition reminiscent of a Goya painting.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
Stjepan Filipovic statue in Valjevo. Executed Today

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
Hitler posing in front of the Eiffel Tower. Business Insider

Hitler in Paris

World War I and its devastation traumatized France and the French. So they devised a plan to avoid a repetition: the Maginot Line. It would secure the Franco-German border to the south, while the mobile French army was stationed in the north, to advance into Belgium soon as the Germans attacked. That way the war would be fought as far forward and outside of France as possible.

The amassed enough mobile forces in the north to keep the Germans from bursting into France via that route, as they had done in WWI. However, they ignored a stretch of wooded terrain, the Ardennes Forrest, which they deemed impassable for tanks. The Germans figured the Ardennes was actually passable, so that was where they massed the bulk of their armor.

When the Germans burst through the Ardennes and raced to the English Channel to sever France’s armies in the north from the rest of the country, the French were wrong footed: their mobile forces were advancing into Belgium, and couldn’t be turned around in time to stop the Germans pouring out of the Ardennes, and they lacked adequate reserves to plug the widening gap.

Collapse quickly followed, and the same country that two decades earlier had fought the Germans for four bloody years and emerged victorious in WWI, capitulated and signed a humiliating surrender after just 40 days’ fighting in WWII. Hitler celebrated the victory by touring Paris, and his photos posing in front of the Eiffel Tower became emblematic of the French debacle.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
Winston Churchill with a Tommy Gun. Daily Mail

Churchill’s Mobster Photo

Few led a life as varied, eventful, and as replete with accomplishments and failures, as did Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965). He is best known for his WWII leadership, during a stretch when Britain stood alone and defiant against the Nazi juggernaut. However, even before that supreme moment, Churchill had led a full life that would have exhausted most.

A poor student, his aristocratic father sent him to the army, a dumping ground back then for dim aristocratic kids. After three tries, he passed the entrance exams into Sandhurst, Britain’s military academy, and was commissioned in 1895. He took a side gig as a war reporter, and his news stories from various colonial campaigns earned him fame as a war correspondent.

Churchill entered politics and was elected to Parliament in 1900 as a Conservative MP, but switched to the Liberals, rising in their ranks to become the government’s youngest cabinet minister in 1908. During WWI he was criticized for a series of failures, culminating in the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign of 1915 that had been his brain child, and whose collapse forced him to resign in disgrace.

He switched back to the Conservatives in 1924, joining them as Chancellor of the Exchequer, quipping: “anyone can rat. It takes genius, however, to re-rat“. His stint as Chancellor proved disastrous, marked by a collapse in British exports, massive layoffs, labor turmoil, a general strike that paralyzed Britain, culminating in a Conservative defeat in 1929.

Churchill entered the 1930s with a poor political reputation, and he spent the decade in a political isolation that he described as his “wilderness years”. He devoted his time to writing, and to issuing warnings about the gathering Nazi menace that were ignored. He was vindicated when war broke out in 1939. Appointed Prime Minister in 1940, he cemented his place in history as Britain’s wartime leader.

One of his most famous wartime photos, in which he wielded a Thompson submachine gun while wearing a pinstriped suit, fedora, and chomping on a cigar, was taken while he visited troops to raise morale. Nazi propaganda tried to make hay of it, claiming he was more of a mobster than a statesman, but their effort backfired, and the photo ended up becoming a symbol of Churchill’s – and Britain’s – tenacity and defiance.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
USS Arizona burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Wikimedia

USS Arizona Sinking

Japan launched a surprise attack against the US naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, by aircraft laden with torpedoes and bombs, and escorted by Zero fighters. The planes took off from carriers that had made their way in secrecy and radio silence to launch positions 200 miles north of Hawaii, and executed a strike nearly a year in planning. The attack sought to cripple America’s Pacific fleet and impede US interference with planned Japanese conquests of American, British, and Dutch territories.

It was a daring strike that caught the defenders off guard. Starting at 7:48 AM local time, 353 Japanese aircraft, in two waves, devastated anchored American vessels. Armed with torpedoes modified for Pearl Harbor’s shallow waters, and with bombs designed to pierce thick armor, the attackers sank four battleships and damaged another four.

They also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer, and a training ship. It was a lopsided slaughter: for the loss of 29 airplanes, 5 midget submarines, and 64 personnel killed and 1 captured, the Japanese killed more than 2400 Americans and wounded around 1200, sank or beached twelve ships and damaged nine others, while destroying 160 airplanes and damaging 150 more. A photo of the burning battleship, the USS Arizona, billowing smoke as it sank, became the emblematic image of Japanese perfidy.

However, the Japanese had focused on ships while ignoring important infrastructure, such as oil storage facilities, docks, power stations. The destruction of such installations would have impeded the use of Pearl Harbor as a base for the US war effort in the Pacific. There were no US aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor that day, so America’s carrier arm remained intact. Between the intact installations, and the fortuitously spared American carriers, the seeds of Japan’s eventual doom had been sown even before the dust had settled in Pearl Harbor.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
The coronation of Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Wikimedia

The Coronation of Emperor Bokassa

Jean-Bedel Bokassat (1921 – 1996) was an army officer who became military dictator of the Central African Republic. He then declared the small landlocked country an empire, and named himself Bokassa I, Emperor of the Central African Empire. His years running the country were marked by terror, corruption, and increasingly bizarre behavior.

When Central Africa gained its independence from France, the president invited Bokassa, who had been a captain in the French colonial army, to head the military. He accepted, then staged a coup and seized power. An admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, Bokassa imitated him by crowning himself Emperor of Central Africa. He then bankrupted his impoverished country with a lavish coronation that cost about 80 million dollars, with a diamond-encrusted crown that cost 20 million.

Bokassa’s rule was marked by a reign of terror in which he personally oversaw the torture of suspected political opponents, before feeding their corpses to crocodiles and lions he kept in a private zoo. There were also accusations of cannibalism, triggered by photographs in Paris-Match magazine, showing a deep-freezer containing children’s bodies.

His most infamous atrocity was the arrest of hundreds of schoolchildren in 1979 for refusing to buy school uniforms from a company owned by one of his wives. His imperial guard murdered over 100 of the children, under Bokassa’s personal supervision. That was a final straw, and French paratroopers deposed him soon thereafter.

Exiled to France, he soon wasted the millions he had embezzled and fell into poverty, which came to light when one of his children was arrested for shoplifting food. He returned to Central Africa in 1986, where he was tried, convicted of murder and treason, and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was released in 1993, and died three years later.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
B-24s bombing the Ploesti oilfield complex in 1943. Wikimedia

Low Flying B-24s During the Ploesti Raid

The Romanian oil field and refinery complexes surrounding Ploesti were a vital source of oil for the Axis during WWII, providing them with roughly one third of their needs. The Germans defended Ploesti with one of the world’s densest and best integrated air defense networks, including hundreds of 88mm flak guns, thousands of smaller ones, plus Bf 109 and Me 110 fighter planes.

On August 1, 1943, which came to be known as “Black Sunday”, 177 American B-24 “Liberator” heavy bombers took off from Libyan airfields for Ploesti. Maintaining radio silence and flying at about 50 feet to avoid enemy radar, they skimmed over the Mediterranean, then flew at treetop level upon reaching land. However, the Germans were alerted and the raid came to grief because of a cascade of mishaps.

A navigation error took some bombers directly above a German position. A lead navigator’s crash resulted in bomber groups arriving over the target staggered instead of simultaneously. A bomb group leader, seeing that all formation was hopelessly lost, broke radio silence to order the scattered B-24s to make their way to Ploesti individually and bomb as best they could.

The Liberators were met by alert defenders. Hundreds of antiaircraft guns, machineguns, and a specially designed flak train whose cars’ sides dropped to reveal flak guns, opened up on the bombers, while fighter airplanes fell upon them. The low flying B-24s also had to contend with smoke stacks suddenly looming in their path amid the billowing smoke.

Images of low flying Liberators over Ploesti captured the dynamic drama of the moment. Of the 177 B-24s that took off that day, 162 reached Ploesti. Of those, 53 were shot down, for the loss of 660 crewmen. Of the 109 surviving Liberators that reached an Allied airbase, 58 were damaged beyond repair. The damage to Ploesti was quickly repaired, and within weeks, the oil complex was producing even more oil products than it had before the raid.

The Stories Behind 16 of History’s Most Influential and Remarkable Photos
The Hindenburg Disaster. Pintrest

The Hindenburg Engulfed by Flames

By 1937, zeppelins had ferried tens of thousands of paying passengers over a million miles, in over 2000 flights, without a single injury. It was widely assumed that they were the wave of the future. One of Germany’s Zeppelin Company’s airships had recently flown passengers across the Atlantic in luxury and style, in a mere 60 hours – quite a feat for commercial travel at the time.

Then catastrophe struck the Hindenburg, the Zeppelin Company’s flagship and the biggest airship ever built – three times the length and twice the height of a Boeing 747. On May 6th, 1937, after an uneventful trans-Atlantic flight, the Hindenburg tried to dock with a mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, when it suddenly erupted in flames.

Within 37 seconds from when the first spark appeared, the world’s biggest airship was incinerated. Of 97 people on board, 35 died, and another died on the ground. The spectacular disaster, captured on reel and film and widely disseminated around the world, shattered public confidence in zeppelins, and brought the airship era to an abrupt end.

The catastrophe was commonly blamed on sabotage: the Hindenburg was not only the pride of the Zeppelin Company, but also a source of German national pride and a symbol of resurgence under the Nazis. Many were eager to stick it to the Nazis, and an incendiary bullet was advanced as a plausible cause. Another widely accepted hypothesis blamed a static spark.

Whatever started the fire, it would not have spread as rapidly as it did if the Zeppelin Company had not opted to fill its airships with highly flammable hydrogen, instead of a less combustible alternative such as helium. If the Hindenburg had used helium, like airships do today, neither shot nor spark could have reduced it to cinders in under a minute.

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

America in WWII – Raid in Ruins: Ploesti

BBC History – World Wars: The Fall of France

Daily Mail – Found After 74 Years, the Tommy Gun Churchill Used to Rally British Troops in 1940 as Hitler Prepared to Invade

Encyclopedia Britannica – Jean-Bedel Bokassa: President of Central African Republic

First Battalion, 24th Marines – Underwood v. Klonis

Guardian, The, May 7th, 2017 – The Hindenburg Disaster, 80 Years On: A ‘Perfect Storm of Circumstances

Keegan, John – Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy From Napoleon to Al Qaeda (2003)

Libcom – Stjepan Filipovic: Everlasting Symbol of Antifascism

Listverse – 10 of the Most Important Photographs in History

National Interest, February 17th, 2017 – Singapore: The Battle That Destroyed the British Empire in Asia

New York Times, November 8th, 2012 – How a Galway Pub Led to a Skyscraper

Ohio History Central – Kent State Shootings

Reader’s Digest – This Vintage Photo Reveals a Secret Behind One of the World’s Most Famous Images

Wikipedia – Battle of Saipan

Wikipedia – Guerrillero Heroico

Wikipedia – Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag

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