Preparations for the Final Solution begin

On July 31, 1941, Hermann Göring, writing under instructions from Hitler, ordered Reinhard Heydrich, SS general and Heinrich Himmler’s number-two man, “to submit to me as soon as possible a general plan of the administrative material and financial measures necessary for carrying out the desired final solution of the Jewish question.”

Goering recounted briefly the outline for that “final solution” that had been drawn up on January 24, 1939: “emigration and evacuation in the best possible way.” This program of what would become mass, systematic extermination was to encompass “all the territories of Europe under German occupation.”

Heydrich already had some experience with organizing such a plan, having reintroduced the cruel medieval concept of the ghetto in Warsaw after the German occupation of Poland. Jews were crammed into cramped walled areas of major cities and held as prisoners, as their property was confiscated and given to either local Germans or non-Jewish Polish peasants.

Behind this horrendous scheme, carried out month by month, country by country, was Hitler, whose “greatest weakness was found in the vast numbers of oppressed peoples who hated [him] and the immoral ways of his government.” This assessment was Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s, given at a Kremlin meeting that same day, July 31, with American adviser to the president Harry Hopkins.

READ MORE: The Holocaust

Third Battle of Ypres begins in Flanders

On July 31, 1917, the Allies launch a renewed assault on German lines in the Flanders region of Belgium, in the much-contested region near Ypres, during World War I. The attack begins more than three months of brutal fighting, known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

While the first and second battles at Ypres were attacks by the Germans against the Allied-controlled salient around Ypres—which crucially blocked any German advance to the English Channel—the third was spearheaded by the British commander in chief, Sir Douglas Haig. After the resounding failure of the Nivelle Offensive–named for its mastermind, the French commander Robert Nivelle–the previous May, followed by widespread mutinies within the French army, Haig insisted that the British should press ahead with another major offensive that summer. The aggressive and meticulously planned offensive, ostensibly aimed at destroying German submarine bases located on the north coast of Belgium, was in fact driven by Haig’s (mistaken) belief that the German army was on the verge of collapse, and would be broken completely by a major Allied victory.

READ MORE: Life in the Trenches of World War I

After an opening barrage of some 3,000 guns, Haig ordered nine British divisions, led by Sir Hubert Gough’s 5th Army, to advance on the German lines near the Belgian village of Passchendaele on July 31; they were joined by six French divisions. In the first two days of the attacks, while suffering heavy casualties, the Allies made significant advances—in some sectors pushing the Germans back more than a mile and taking more than 5,000 German prisoners—if not as significant as Haig had envisioned. The offensive was renewed in mid-August, though heavy rains and thickening mud severely hampered the effectiveness of Allied infantry and artillery and prevented substantial gains over the majority of the summer and early fall.

Dissatisfied with his army’s gains by the end of August, Haig had replaced Gough with Herbert Plumer at the head of the attack; after several small gains in September, the British were able to establish control over the ridge of land east of Ypres. Encouraged, Haig pushed Plumer to continue the attacks towards the Passchendaele ridge, some 10 kilometers from Ypres.

Thus the Third Battle of Ypres–also known as Passchendaele, for the village, and the ridge surrounding it, that saw the heaviest fighting–continued into its third month, as the Allied attackers reached near-exhaustion, with few notable gains, and the Germans reinforced their positions in the region with reserve troops released from the Eastern Front, where Russia’s army was foundering amid internal turmoil. Unwilling to give up, Haig ordered a final three attacks on Passchendaele in late October. The eventual capture of the village, by Canadian and British troops, on November 6, 1917, allowed Haig to finally call off the offensive, claiming victory, despite some 310,000 British casualties, as opposed to 260,000 on the German side, and a failure to create any substantial breakthrough, or change of momentum, on the Western Front. Given its outcome, the Third Battle of Ypres remains one of the most costly and controversial offensives of World War I, representing–at least for the British–the epitome of the wasteful and futile nature of trench warfare.

READ MORE: World War I—in Color

Marquis de Lafayette becomes a major-general without pay

On July 31, 1777, a 19-year-old French aristocrat, Marie-Joseph Paul Roch Yves Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, accepts a commission as a major-general in the Continental Army—without pay.

During his service as the Continental Congress’ secret envoy to France, Silas Deane had, on December 7, 1776, struck an agreement with French military expert, Baron Johann DeKalb, and his protege, the Marquis de Lafayette, to offer their military knowledge and experience to the American cause. However, Deane was replaced with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, who were unenthused by the proposal. Meanwhile, King Louis XVI feared angering Britain and prohibited Lafayette’s departure. The British ambassador to the French court at Versailles demanded the seizure of Lafayette’s ship, which resulted in Lafayette’s arrest. Lafayette, though, managed to escape, set sail and elude two British ships dispatched to recapture him. 

Following his safe arrival in South Carolina, Lafayette traveled to Philadelphia, expecting to be made General George Washington’s second-in-command. Although Lafayette’s youth made Congress reluctant to promote him over more experienced colonial officers, the young Frenchman’s willingness to volunteer his services without pay won their respect and Lafayette was commissioned as a major-general.

Lafayette served at Brandywine in 1777, as well as Barren Hill, Monmouth and Rhode Island in 1778. Following the formal treaty of alliance with Lafayette’s native France in February 1778 and Britain’s subsequent declaration of war, Lafayette asked to return to Paris and consult the king as to his future service. Washington was willing to spare Lafayette, who departed in January 1779. By March, Franklin reported from Paris that Lafayette had become an excellent advocate for the American cause at the French court. Following his six-month respite in France, Lafayette returned to aid the American war effort in Virginia, where he participated in the successful siege of Yorktown in 1781, before returning to France and the further service of his own country.

READ MORE: American Revolution: Causes and Timeline 

Hurricane sinks Spanish treasure ships

A hurricane strikes the east coast of Florida, sinking 10 Spanish treasure ships and killing nearly 1,000 people, on July 31, 1715. All of the gold and silver onboard at the time would not be recovered until 250 years later.

From 1701, Spain sent fleets of ships to the Western Hemisphere to bring back natural resources, including gold and silver. These groups of ships were heavily fortified against pirates, but there was little that could be done to protect them from bad weather.

On July 24, 10 Spanish ships and one French ship left Havana, Cuba, on their way to Europe, carrying tons of gold and silver coins, about 14 million pesos worth. The Spanish ships stayed very close to the Florida coast, as was the custom, while the French ship, the Grifon, ventured further out from the shore. A week later, as the ships were between Cape Canaveral and Fort Pierce, in modern-day Florida, the winds picked up dramatically.

The hurricane advanced quickly and, one by one, the ships were wrecked. The Nuestra Senora de la Regla sank, sending 200 people and 120 tons of coins to a watery grave. The Santa Cristo de San Ramon went down with 120 sailors aboard. In all, somewhere between 700 and 1,000 people lost their lives in the wrecks. Meanwhile, the Grifon was able to ride out the storm; most of its crew survived.

In the following months, Spanish officials in Havana sent ships to salvage the treasure. About 80 percent had been recovered by April 1716, but the rest remained lost until the 1960s.

READ MORE: 6 Famous Shipwrecks Still Waiting to be Discovered

Labor leader Jimmy Hoffa is reported missing

On the morning of July 31, 1975, James Riddle Hoffa, one of the most influential American labor leaders of the 20th century, is officially reported missing after he failed to return home the previous night. Though he is popularly believed to have been the victim of a Mafia hit, conclusive evidence was never found and Hoffa’s fate remains a mystery.

READ MORE: What Happened to Jimmy Hoffa? 

Born in 1913 to a poor coal miner in Brazil, Indiana, Jimmy Hoffa proved a natural leader in his youth. At the age of 20, he helped organize a labor strike in Detroit, and remained an advocate for downtrodden workers for the rest of his life. Hoffa’s charisma and talents as a local organizer quickly got him noticed by the Teamsters and carried him upward through its ranks. Then a small but rapidly growing union, the Teamsters organized truckers across the country, and through the use of strikes, boycotts and some more powerful though less legal methods of protest, won contract demands on behalf of workers.

Hoffa became president of the Teamsters in 1957, when its former leader was imprisoned for bribery. As chief, Hoffa was lauded for his tireless work to expand the union, and for his unflagging devotion to even the organization’s least powerful members. His caring and approachability were captured in one of the more well-known quotes attributed to him: “You got a problem? Call me. Just pick up the phone.”

Hoffa’s dedication to the worker and his electrifying public speeches made him wildly popular, both among his fellow workers and the politicians and businessmen with whom he negotiated. Yet, for all the battles he fought and won on behalf of American drivers, he also had a dark side. In Hoffa’s time, many Teamster leaders partnered with the Mafia in racketeering, extortion and embezzlement. Hoffa himself had relationships with high-ranking mobsters, and was the target of several government investigations throughout the 1960s. In 1967, he was convicted of bribery and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

While in jail, Hoffa never ceded his office, and when Richard Nixon commuted his sentence in 1971, he was poised to make a comeback. Released on condition of not participating in union activities for 10 years, Hoffa was planning to fight the restriction in court when he disappeared on the afternoon of July 30, 1975, from the parking lot of a restaurant in Detroit, not far from where he got his start as a labor organizer. His family filed a missing persons report to the Bloomfield Township police the next day. Several conspiracy theories have been floated about Hoffa’s disappearance and the location of his remains, but the truth remains unknown.

READ MORE: 6 Mysterious Disappearances in US History

Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, dies

Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order of Roman Catholic missionaries and educators, dies in Rome. The Society of Jesus, as the Jesuit order is formally known, played an important role in the Counter-Reformation and eventually succeeded in converting millions around the world to Catholicism.

Ignatius, the son of a noble and wealthy Spanish family called the Loyolas, was born in his family’s ancestral castle in 1491. Little interested in church matters, he trained as a knight and in 1517 went in the service of a relative, Antonio Manrique de Lara, the duke of Najera and viceroy of Navarre. In May 1521, during the siege of Pamplona by the French, his legs were shattered by a cannonball. Seriously wounded, he was transported to his family’s castle, where he was forced to lie in convalescence for many weeks. During this time, he was given the Bible and a book on the saints to read. He came to see the service of God as a kind of holy chivalry and resolved to live an austere life in imitation of the saints.

In February 1522 he made a pilgrimage to Montserrat, where a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary and Child, supposedly carved by St. Luke, resides. Ignatius hung his sword and dagger near the statue as symbols of his conversion to a holy life. For the next year, he lived as a beggar and prayed for seven hours a day, often in a cave near Manresa in northeastern Spain. During this time, he composed an early draft of The Spiritual Exercises, his manual for spiritual meditation and conversion. In 1523, he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

After his return to Spain in 1524, Ignatius resolved to gain an extensive education to prepare himself for his spiritual mission. He studied in Barcelona and at the University of Alcala, where he began to acquire followers. Suspected of heresy, he was tried in Alcala, and later in Salamanca but both times was acquitted. He was forbidden to teach until he reached the priesthood, and he went to the University of Paris to continue his studies.

In August 1534, the Jesuit movement was born when Ignatius led six of his followers to Montmartre near Paris, where the group took vows of poverty and chastity and made plans to work for the conversion of Muslims. If travel to the Holy Land was not possible, they vowed to offer themselves to the pope for apostolic work. In 1537, Ignatius and most of his companions were ordained. Unable to travel to Jerusalem because of the Turkish wars, they went to Rome instead to meet with the pope and request permission to form a new religious order. In September 1540, Pope Paul III approved Ignatius’ outline of the Society of Jesus, as the Jesuit order is formally known.

Under Ignatius’ charismatic leadership, the Society of Jesus grew quickly. Jesuit missionaries played a leading role in the Counter-Reformation and won back many of the European faithful who had been lost to Protestantism. In Ignatius’ lifetime, Jesuits were also dispatched to India, Brazil, the Congo region, and Ethiopia. Education was of utmost importance to the Jesuits, and in Rome Ignatius founded the Roman College (later called the Gregorian University) and the Germanicum, a school for German priests. The Jesuits also ran several charitable organizations, such as one for former prostitutes and one for converted Jews. When Ignatius de Loyola died on July 31, 1556, there were more than 1,000 Jesuit priests.

During the next century, the Jesuits set up ministries around the globe. The “Black-Robes,” as they were known in Native America, often preceded European countries in their infiltration of foreign lands and societies. The life of a Jesuit was one of immense risk, and thousands of priests were persecuted or killed by foreign authorities hostile to their mission of conversion. However, in some nations, such as India and China, the Jesuits were revered as men of wisdom and science.

With the rise of nationalism in the 18th century, most European countries suppressed the Jesuits, and in 1773 Pope Clement XIV dissolved the order under pressure from the Bourbon monarchs. However, in 1814, Pope Pius VII gave in to popular demand and reestablished the Jesuits as an order, and they continue their missionary work to this day. Ignatius de Loyola was canonized as a Catholic saint in 1622. His feast day is July 31.

Ranger 7 photographs moon

Ranger 7, an unmanned U.S. lunar probe, takes the first close-up images of the moon—4,308 in total—before it impacts with the lunar surface northwest of the Sea of Clouds. The images were 1,000 times as clear as anything ever seen through earth-bound telescopes.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had attempted a similar mission earlier in the year—Ranger 6—but the probe’s cameras had failed as it descended to the lunar surface. Ranger 7, launched from Earth on July 28, successfully activated its cameras 17 minutes, or 1,300 miles, before impact and began beaming the images back to NASA’s receiving station in California. The pictures showed that the lunar surface was not excessively dusty or otherwise treacherous to a potential spacecraft landing, thus lending encouragement to the NASA plan to send astronauts to the moon. 

In July 1969, two Americans walked on the moon in the first Apollo Program lunar landing mission.

READ MORE: Apollo 11 Moon Landing Timeline: From Liftoff to Splashdown

Fighter jet collides with passenger plane

A mid-air collision between a Boeing 727 and a fighter jet in Japan kills 162 people on July 30, 1971. The military plane was flying without radar.

All Nippon Airways Flight 58 was traveling from Chitose Airport in Hokkaido to Tokyo, filled largely with members of a group dedicated to the assistance of war victims. Takeoff was uneventful and the plane soon reached 28,000 feet. Cruising over the Japanese Alps, Flight 58 suddenly encountered two military jets.

One of the Japanese F-86 Sabre jets was piloted by Captain Kuma; the other was being flown by his student, Sergeant Ichikawa, who had only a few hours of flying experience. Neither jet was equipped with radar, which would have indicated the presence of the Boeing 727. Ichikawa’s fighter jet struck the airliner and sent both planes plunging into the mountains. Ichikawa was able to eject himself and parachute to safety. Everyone on board Flight 58, however, was killed.

Yoshimi Ichikawa was charged with involuntary manslaughter, but was acquitted at trial.

“The Blair Witch Project” released in theaters

On July 30, 1999, The Blair Witch Project, a low-budget, independent horror film that will become a massive cult hit, is released in U.S. theaters.

Shot with shaky, handheld cameras, the documentary-style movie told the story of three student filmmakers who disappeared into the woods and were never heard from again, although their footage was later discovered. With the help of a Web-based viral marketing strategy—a relatively new concept at the time—The Blair Witch Project generated huge buzz over the question of whether or not it was based on a true story. In fact, the story was entirely fake. Fake or not, it didn’t matter at the box office: The Blair Witch Project grossed some $250 million worldwide and was featured on the covers of Newsweek and Time magazines.

The Blair Witch Project followed the young filmmakers as they went into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, to make a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch. The filmmakers got lost and experienced a series of scary events and unexplained phenomena, such as strange noises and piles of stones being inexplicably re-arranged. The trio never returned to civilization, but their film equipment was supposedly found and the footage they shot became The Blair Witch Project. Unlike other horror films that featured bloody scenes and special effects, The Blair Witch Project scared moviegoers through implied terror and violence.

Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, who met as film students at the University of Central Florida, wrote and directed The Blair Witch Project. The two filmmakers had their lead actors—Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard—improvise their lines based on private messages each actor received during filming. To make The Blair Witch Project seem more realistic and heighten the psychological tension, Sanchez and Myrick reportedly did things to agitate the actors during production, such as shaking their tent and cutting back on their food supply. They also had the actors do their own filming, and the resulting grainy, black-and-white footage became a Blair Witch trademark.

President Eisenhower signs “In God We Trust” into law

On July 30, 1956, two years after pushing to have the phrase “under God” inserted into the pledge of allegiance, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs a law officially declaring “In God We Trust” to be the nation’s official motto. The law, P.L. 84-140, also mandated that the phrase be printed on all American paper currency. The phrase had been placed on U.S. coins since the Civil War when, according to the historical association of the United States Treasury, religious sentiment reached a peak. Eisenhower’s treasury secretary, George Humphrey, had suggested adding the phrase to paper currency as well.

Although some historical accounts claim Eisenhower was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, most presidential scholars now believe his family was Mennonite. Either way, Eisenhower abandoned his family’s religion before entering the Army, and took the unusual step of being baptized relatively late in his adult life as a Presbyterian. The baptism took place in 1953, barely a year into his first term as president.

Although Eisenhower embraced religion, biographers insist he never intended to force his beliefs on anyone. In fact, the chapel-like structure near where he and his wife Mamie are buried on the grounds of his presidential library is called the “Place of Meditation” and is intentionally inter-denominational. At a Flag Day speech in 1954, he elaborated on his feelings about the place of religion in public life when he discussed why he had wanted to include “under God” in the pledge of allegiance: “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”

The first paper money with the phrase “In God We Trust” was not printed until 1957. Since then, religious and secular groups have argued over the appropriateness and constitutionality of a motto that mentions “God,” considering the founding fathers dedication to maintaining the separation of church and state.

READ MORE: Why Eisenhower Added ‘Under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance During the Cold War