History as a whole tends to be misconstrued if not outright forgotten as each generation comes and goes. Important historical events are often recalled piecemeal by the average person, if they’re not unknown entirely. According to a national survey of Americans,
“Twelve percent incorrectly thought WWII General Dwight Eisenhower led troops in the Civil War; 6 percent thought he was a Vietnam War general; and while most knew the cause of the Cold War, two percent said climate change.”
With so many harboring such misconceptions, why should they know the harrowing escape of Poland’s sole submarine in 1939? The 1943 bombing of Boise City by American bombers seems like something that would be engrained in public consciousness, but it is not remembered either. Fortunately, there are those who recount such events for the rest of us. Here are some of the forgotten events discussed in videos by rising YouTube channel “The History Guy: History Deserves to Be Remembered.”
“Eddie Rickenbacker’s Raft, a story of survival”
At 13, the death of Eddie Rickenbacker’s father forced him to find a job, and he passionately pursued work in mechanics and engineering. After becoming a race car driver, he volunteered for the U.S. Army. Eventually accepted into the Air Service, Rickenbacker became America’s top-scoring ace during World War I. By the end of the war, he had 26 confirmed kills under his belt. His post-war career saw him become President of Eastern Airlines. While traveling on Flight 21 in 1941, Rickenbacker managed to survive grievous injuries when the aircraft struck a tree on takeoff.
A relatively obscure figure 100 years later, The History Guy tells of Rickenbacker’s even lesser known exploits during World War II. This time contributing as a civilian, Rickenbacker used his celebrity status to promote public investment in the war. At the request of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Rickenbacker flew out to the Pacific Theater to review American air bases. In 1942, the B-17 bomber he was traveling in flew off course and forced the plane to land in the Pacific Ocean.
Rickenbacker and the crew were left adrift in their rafts with only four oranges to eat over six days. On the eighth day, a seagull landed on Rickenbacker’s head. After catching it, he and the crew ate the bird and used what they could of it as fish bait. They separated soon after one crew member died, believing it would increase their likelihood of being found. Despite their emaciation, all remaining survivors were located. Just as he had survived 26 enemy aircraft, Rickenbacker survived 23 days in the open ocean.
“A Cold War and a Warm Handshake”
The Cold War was a time of unprecedented stress. The competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in virtually every field is best exemplified by the space race. The advancement of rocket technology had two implications: that each nation was progressing toward putting both humans and nuclear weapons into orbit. The Soviet Union managed to put the first artificial satellite and human into space, but these accomplishments are overshadowed by the U.S. moon landing. Yet despite the tension on earth, space revealed an unexpected opportunity for cooperation between the two countries.
In 1971, American and Soviet scientists began to collaborate on a docking system that would allow their respective spacecraft to dock with each other. The purpose of the docking technology was to facilitate rescue operations in case of an emergency. Crew members from each nation visited the other’s launch facilities four times, and they learned the other’s languages, as constant and precise communication was vital. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project ended in a success, with Astronaut Tom Stafford and Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov shaking hands after docking. Though the Cold War continued for years, this moment showed that cooperation could shine through the impenetrable politics on the Earth below.
“The Extraordinary Voyage of the Polish Submarine Orzeł”
In 1939 Poland faced the full force of the German and Soviet militaries, losing all of its territory in little over a month. Yet while Poland as an independent nation did not exist again until 1989, that was not the end for the Polish spirit. Resistance not only carried on during the brutal Nazi occupation, but into both the post-war Soviet occupation and subsequent Polish satellite state. In Britain, a government in exile was established, funded by Polish gold reserves that had been smuggled out of German hands.
A much smaller symbol of resistance occurred in the escape of the Submarine Orzeł. The Dutch-made submarine was one of five commissioned by Poland in 1935. During the invasion, the vessels participated in the counteroffensive by screening the coast for German ships. In the event of Polish defeat, they were instructed to make their way to Britain. Three were damaged and forced to dock in neutral Sweden, while a fourth accompanied Polish destroyers to Britain.
The Orzeł evaded German ships in the Baltic Sea before heading to neutral Estonia for repairs. International law dictated that the “belligerent” vessel and its crew could only stay for 24 hours, but before repairs could be completed, Estonian officers confiscated the submarine’s weapons and navigational charts. The Polish crew purposefully delayed the removal of the torpedoes, facilitating an escape attempt at night. The crew overpowered the Estonian guards, but as the submarine set off, it was caught on a sandbank. Avoiding artillery and machine gun fire, the ship managed to pull away and head for deeper water.
Because they lacked their charts and radio equipment, the crew used a list of lighthouses as a trail along the Baltic coast. Eight days after the surrender of Poland, the Orzeł made it to Scotland. It served under the British Royal Navy before mysteriously disappearing in 1940. The sinking of a Soviet tanker during Orzeł’s escape had been falsely pinned on the Polish submarine, and the Soviets used the sinking to justify invading the Baltic states.
Human history is a vast expanse. There are innumerable events that have either shaped the course of our species or shed light on those that did. Sometimes they don’t have to be instrumental in major events. Sometimes, they only need to speak to a core value or narrative. The British occupation of Iceland, for instance, had little effect on an international scale. Yet it speaks to the anxieties that come from a lack of control. These forgotten achievements and trials are not only records; they serve as analogies for the world as it moves forward. That is what makes them history worth remembering.