Voyager completes global flight


Updated:
Original:
Year
1986
Month Day
December 23

After nine days and four minutes in the sky, the experimental aircraft Voyager lands at Edwards Air Force Base in California, completing the first nonstop flight around the globe on one load of fuel. Piloted by Americans Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, Voyager was made mostly of plastic and stiffened paper and carried more than three times its weight in fuel when it took off from Edwards Air Force Base on December 14. By the time it returned, after flying 25,012 miles around the planet, it had just five gallons of fuel left in its remaining operational fuel tank.

Voyager was built by Burt Rutan of the Rutan Aircraft Company without government support and with minimal corporate sponsorship. Dick Rutan, Burt’s brother and a decorated Vietnam War pilot, joined the project early on, as did Dick’s friend Jeanna Yeager (no relation to aviator Chuck Yeager). Voyager‘s extremely light yet strong body was made of layers of carbon-fiber tape and paper impregnated with epoxy resin. Its wingspan was 111 feet, and it had its horizontal stabilizer wing on the plane’s nose rather than its rear–a trademark of many of Rutan’s aircraft designs. Essentially a flying fuel tank, every possible area was used for fuel storage and much modern aircraft technology was foregone in the effort to reduce weight.

When Voyager took off from Edwards Air Force at 8:02 a.m. PST on December 14, its wings were so heavy with fuel that their tips scraped along the ground and caused minor damage. The plane made it into the air, however, and headed west. On the second day, Voyager ran into severe turbulence caused by two tropical storms in the Pacific. Dick Rutan had been concerned about flying the aircraft at more than a 15-degree angle, but he soon found the plane could fly on its side at 90 degrees, which occurred when the wind tossed it back and forth.

Rutan and Yeager shared the controls, but Rutan, a more experienced pilot, did most of the flying owing to the long periods of turbulence encountered at various points in the journey. With weak stomachs, they ate only a fraction of the food brought along, and each lost about 10 pounds.

On December 23, when Voyager was flying north along the Baja California coast and just 450 miles short of its goal, the engine it was using went out, and the aircraft plunged from 8,500 to 5,000 feet before an alternate engine was started up.

Almost nine days to the minute after it lifted off, Voyager appeared over Edwards Air Force Base and circled as Yeager turned a primitive crank that lowered the landing gear. Then, to the cheers of 23,000 spectators, the plane landed safely with a few gallons of fuel to spare, completing the first nonstop circumnavigation of the earth by an aircraft that was not refueled in the air.

Voyager is on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

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“Balloon Boy” parents sentenced in Colorado


Updated:
Original:
Year
2009
Month Day
December 23

On December 23, 2009, Richard Heene, who carried out a hoax in which he told authorities his 6-year-old son Falcon had floated off in a runaway, saucer-shaped helium balloon, is sentenced to 90 days in jail in Fort Collins, Colorado. Heene’s wife Mayumi received 20 days of jail time for her role in the incident.

The so-called “Balloon Boy” saga riveted viewers around the globe two months earlier, on October 15, when it played out on live television. At around 11 a.m. that day, Richard Heene, a handyman, amateur scientist and father of three boys, called the Federal Aviation Administration to report that a large balloon in his family’s Fort Collins backyard had become untethered, and it was believed his son Falcon had crawled aboard the craft before it took flight. Minutes later, Heene phoned a local TV station, requesting a helicopter to track the balloon. A short time afterward, Mayumi Heene called 911.

The homemade silver craft was soon being tracked by search-and-rescue personnel, as well as reporters, on the ground and in the air. The Colorado National Guard launched two helicopters to follow the balloon, and a runway at Denver International Airport was briefly shut down as the balloon traveled into its flight path. At around 1:35 p.m., the craft touched down in a Colorado field after drifting a distance of some 50 miles from its starting location. Rescue officials soon discovered the balloon was empty, prompting fears that Falcon Heene had fallen from the craft during its flight. A massive ground search ensued, and later that afternoon it was announced the boy had been found safe at home, where he reportedly had been hiding.

Suspicions that the entire incident had been a hoax intensified that night, after Falcon Heene told his parents during a live interview on CNN: “You guys said we did this for the show.” Mayumi Heene later confessed to police the incident had been staged to help the family get a reality TV show. (The Heenes had previously appeared on the program “Wife Swap.”)

In November 2009, Richard Heene pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public official (“to initiate a search-and-rescue mission which in turn would attract media attention,” according to an affidavit filed by prosecutors), while Mayumi Heene pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of making a false report. Richard Heene later claimed he pleaded guilty only to placate authorities and prevent his wife from being deported to her native Japan. In addition to jail time, the Heenes were required to perform community service and Richard Heene was later ordered to pay $36,000 in restitution for the search effort.

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Japanese war criminals hanged in Tokyo


Updated:
Original:
Year
1948
Month Day
December 23

In Tokyo, Japan, Hideki Tojo, former Japanese premier and chief of the Kwantung Army, is executed along with six other top Japanese leaders for their war crimes during World War II. Seven of the defendants were also found guilty of committing crimes against humanity, especially in regard to their systematic genocide of the Chinese people.

On November 12, death sentences were imposed on Tojo and the six other principals, such as Iwane Matsui, who organized the Rape of Nanking, and Heitaro Kimura, who brutalized Allied prisoners of war. Sixteen others were sentenced to life imprisonment, and the remaining two of the original 25 defendants were sentenced to lesser terms in prison.

Unlike the Nuremberg trial of German war criminals, where there were four chief prosecutors representing Great Britain, France, the United States, and the USSR, the Tokyo trial featured only one chief prosecutor–American Joseph B. Keenan, a former assistant to the U.S. attorney general. However, other nations, especially China, contributed to the proceedings, and Australian judge William Flood Webb presided. In addition to the central Tokyo trial, various tribunals sitting outside Japan judged some 5,000 Japanese guilty of war crimes, of whom more than 900 were executed.

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Construction of Plymouth settlement begins


Updated:
Original:
Year
1620
Month Day
December 23

One week after the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth harbor in present-day Massachusetts, construction of the first permanent European settlement in New England begins.

On September 16, the Mayflower departed Plymouth, England, bound for the New World with 102 passengers. The ship was headed for Virginia, where the colonists–half religious dissenters and half entrepreneurs–had been authorized to settle by the British crown. In a difficult Atlantic crossing, the 90-foot Mayflower encountered rough seas and storms and was blown more than 500 miles off course.

Along the way, the settlers formulated and signed the Mayflower Compact, an agreement that bound the signatories into a “civil body politic.” Because it established constitutional law and the rule of the majority, the compact is regarded as an important precursor to American democracy. After a 66-day voyage, the ship landed on November 21 at the tip of Cape Cod at what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts.

After coming to anchor in Provincetown harbor, a party of armed men under the command of Captain Myles Standish was sent out to explore the area and find a location suitable for settlement. While they were gone, Susanna White gave birth to a son, Peregrine, aboard the Mayflower. He was the first English child born in New England. In mid-December, the explorers went ashore at a location across Cape Cod Bay where they found cleared fields and plentiful running water, and they named the site Plymouth. The expedition returned to Provincetown, and on December 21 the Mayflower came to anchor in Plymouth harbor. Two days later, the pilgrims began work on dwellings that would shelter them through their difficult first winter in America.

In the first year of settlement, half the colonists died of disease. In 1621, the health and economic condition of the colonists improved, and that autumn Governor William Bradford invited neighboring Indians to Plymouth to celebrate the bounty of that year’s harvest season. Plymouth soon secured treaties with most local Indian tribes, and the economy steadily grew, and more colonists were attracted to the settlement. By the mid-1640s, Plymouth’s population numbered 3,000 people, but by then the settlement had been overshadowed by the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north, settled by Puritans in 1629.

The term “Pilgrim” was not used to describe the Plymouth colonists until the early 19th century and was derived from a manuscript in which Governor Bradford spoke of the “saints” who traveled to the New World as “pilgrimes.” In 1820, the orator Daniel Webster spoke of “Pilgrim Fathers” at a bicentennial celebration of Plymouth’s founding, and thereafter the term entered common usage.

READ MORE: Did the Pilgrims Intend to Land at Plymouth?

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Vincent van Gogh chops off his ear


Updated:
Original:
Year
1888
Month Day
December 23

On December 23, 1888, Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, suffering from severe depression, cuts off the lower part of his left ear with a razor while staying in Arles, France.  He later documented the event in a painting titled Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Today, Van Gogh is regarded as an artistic genius and his masterpieces sell for record-breaking prices; however, during his lifetime, he was a poster boy for tortured starving artists and sold only one painting.

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in the Netherlands. He had a difficult, nervous personality and worked unsuccessfully at an art gallery and then as a preacher among poor miners in Belgium. In 1880, he decided to become an artist. His work from this period–the most famous of which is The Potato Eaters (1885)–is dark and somber and reflective of the experiences he had among peasants and impoverished miners.

In 1886, Van Gogh moved to Paris where his younger brother Theo, with whom he was close, lived. Theo, an art dealer, supported his brother financially and introduced him to a number of artists, including Paul Gauguin, Camille Pisarro and Georges Seurat. Influenced by these and other painters, Van Gogh’s own artistic style lightened up and he began using more color.

In 1888, Van Gogh rented a house in Arles in the south of France, where he hoped to found an artists’ colony and be less of a burden to his brother. In Arles, Van Gogh painted vivid scenes from the countryside as well as still-lifes, including his famous sunflower series. Gauguin came to stay with him in Arles and the two men worked together for almost two months. However, tensions developed and on December 23, in a fit of dementia, Van Gogh threatened his friend with a knife before turning it on himself and mutilating his ear lobe. 

Afterward, he allegedly wrapped up the ear and gave it to a prostitute at a nearby brothel. Following that incident, Van Gogh was hospitalized in Arles and then checked himself into a mental institution in Saint-Remy for a year. During his stay in Saint-Remy, he fluctuated between periods of madness and intense creativity, in which he produced some of his best and most well-known works, including Starry Night and Irises.

In May 1890, Van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, where he continued to be plagued by despair and loneliness. On July 27, 1890, he shot himself and died two days later at age 37.

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The execution of Eddie Slovik is authorized


Updated:
Original:
Year
1944
Month Day
December 23

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower endorses the finding of a court-martial in the case of Eddie Slovik, who was tried for desertion, and authorizes his execution, the first such sentence against a U.S. Army soldier since the Civil War, and the only man so punished during World War II.

Private Eddie Slovik was a draftee. Originally classified 4-F because of a prison record (grand theft auto), he was bumped up to a 1-A classification when draft standards were lowered to meet growing personnel needs. In January 1944, he was trained to be a rifleman, which was not to his liking, as he hated guns.

In August of the same year, Slovik was shipped to France to fight with the 28th Infantry Division, which had already suffered massive casualties in the fighting there and in Germany. Slovik was a replacement, a class of soldier not particular respected by officers. As he and a companion were on the way to the front lines, they became lost in the chaos of battle, only to stumble upon a Canadian unit that took them in.

Slovik stayed on with the Canadians until October 5, when they turned him and his buddy over to the American military police, who reunited them with the 28th Division, now in Elsenborn, Belgium. No charges were brought; replacements getting lost early on in their tours of duty were not unusual. But exactly one day after Slovik returned to his unit, he claimed he was “too scared and too nervous” to be a rifleman and threatened to run away if forced into combat. His admission was ignored-and Slovik took off. One day after that he returned, and Slovik signed a confession of desertion, claiming he would run away again if forced to fight, and submitted it to an officer of the 28th. The officer advised Slovik to take the confession back, as the consequences would be serious. Slovik refused, and he was confined to the stockade.

The 28th Division had seen many cases of soldiers wounding themselves or deserting in the hopes of a prison sentence that would at least protect them from the perils of combat. So a legal officer of the 28th offered Slovik a deal: Dive into combat immediately and avoid the court-martial. Slovik refused. He was tried on November 11 for desertion and was convicted in less than two hours. The nine-officer court-martial panel passed a unanimous sentence: execution-“to be shot to death with musketry.”

Slovik’s appeal failed. It was held that he “directly challenged the authority” of the United States and that “future discipline depends upon a resolute reply to this challenge.” Slovik was to pay for his recalcitrant attitude-and he was to be made an example. One last appeal was made-to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander. The timing was bad for mercy. The Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes forest was issuing in literally thousands of American casualties, not to mention the second largest surrender of an American Army unit during the war. Eisenhower upheld the sentence.

Slovik would be shot to death by a 12-man firing squad in eastern France in January of 1945. None of the rifleman so much as flinched, believing Slovik had gotten what he deserved.

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Chuck Berry is arrested on Mann Act charges in St. Louis, Missouri


Updated:
Original:
Year
1959
Month Day
December 23

On December 23, 1959, Chuck Berry is arrested in St. Louis, Missouri, on charges relating to his transportation of a 14-year-old girl across state lines for allegedly “immoral purposes.”

“Never saw a man so changed,” is how the great Carl Perkins described the experience of touring England in 1964 alongside Chuck Berry. “He had been an easygoing guy before, the kinda guy who’d jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes. [But] in England he was cold, real distant and bitter.” The “before” to which Perkins referred was the four-year period from 1956 to 1959, when Berry established his reputation as one of rock and roll’s founding fathers, not only turning out such classic hits as “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Goode,” but also establishing the very template that nearly every rock and roll guitarist after him would follow. What had changed Chuck Berry, in Perkins’ opinion, was partly the long, hard grind of years and years of one-night-only live performances, but, as Perkins also said, “I figure it was mostly jail.” Between 1960 and 1963, the man who helped invent rock and roll spent 20 months in federal prison following his conviction on charges of violating the Mann Act.

The Mann Act is the common name for a piece of federal legislation originally known as the United States White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910. Though intended as a tool for cracking down on organized prostitution, the vague language of the Mann Act regarding the transportation of women for “immoral purposes” rendered its provisions broadly unenforceable. It has been selectively applied in various high-profile cases over time, however—most famously in Berry’s and in that of the heavyweight boxing great Jack Johnson.

In Berry’s case, the Mann Act charges stemmed from what Berry contended was his offer of legitimate employment in his St. Louis nightclub to a girl he had met in a bar in Juarez, Mexico. Three weeks after being fired from Berry’s nightclub, 14-year-old Janice Norine Escalanti took a different story to the St. Louis police, and Berry was arrested two days later, on this day in 1959.

Berry’s defense was not found credible by the all-male, all-white jury at his first trial, and he was convicted on March 11, 1960, and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. Although he would have his conviction vacated and a new trial ordered by a Federal Appeals Court in October 1960 due to disparaging racial comments made by the judge in his original trial, Berry would be convicted again on retrial in March 1961 and serve the better part of the next two years in prison.

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“Philadelphia,” the first major Hollywood movie about AIDS, opens in theaters


Updated:
Original:
Year
1993
Month Day
December 23

On December 23, 1993, Philadelphia, starring the actor Tom Hanks in the first major Hollywood movie to focus on the subject of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), opens in theaters. In the film, Hanks played Andrew Beckett, a gay attorney who is unjustly fired from his job because he suffers from AIDS. Denzel Washington co-starred as Joe Miller, a homophobic personal-injury lawyer who takes on Beckett’s case and comes to terms with his own misconceptions about gay people and the disease.

Directed by Jonathan Demme (Something Wild, The Silence of the Lambs) and featuring Antonio Banderas as Beckett’s boyfriend, Jason Robards as his boss and Joanne Woodward as his mother, Philadelphia was nominated for five Academy Awards and collected Oscars for Best Actor (Hanks) and Best Original Song (Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia”). During his Academy Award acceptance speech, Hanks thanked his high school drama teacher and a fellow classmate, calling them, “two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with, to fall under their inspiration at such a young age.” Prior to Philadelphia, only a handful of smaller films, such as 1986’s Parting Glances and 1990’s Longtime Companion, had dealt with AIDS, which emerged as an epidemic in the early 1980s and was initially heavily stigmatized because it was perceived as a disease of gay people and drug users.

Before making Philadelphia, Hanks, who was born on July 9, 1956, in Concord, California, co-starred in the 1980s TV sitcom Bosom Buddies and rose to fame on the big screen with roles in Splash! (1984) and Big (1988), for which he received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination. Hanks followed his Best Actor win for Philadelphia with a second Best Actor Oscar for his performance in 1994’s Forrest Gump, in which he played a good-hearted man with a low I.Q. who winds up at the center of key cultural and historical events during the second half of the 20th century. With Forrest Gump, Hanks became only the second man, after Spencer Tracy, to win back-to-back Best Actor Oscars.

Hanks was also nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Actor category for his performances in director Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Cast Away (2000), in which he starred as a man stranded on a deserted island. Among Hanks’ other movie credits are Sleepless in Seattle (1993), a romantic comedy co-starring Meg Ryan that was a huge box-office success; director Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), based on the true story of the ill-fated 1970 moon mission; You’ve Got Mail (1998), another popular romantic comedy co-starring Meg Ryan; The Green Mile (1999); Catch Me if You Can (2002); The Da Vinci Code (2006); Charlie Wilson’s War (2007); Cloud Atlas (2012), Bridge of Spies (2015); The Post (2017); and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019).

Hanks made his feature-film directorial debut with 1996’s That Thing You Do!, which he also wrote and starred in. He also co-executive produced (with Spielberg) and directed one episode of the acclaimed 2001 HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, also set during World War II.

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Subway shooter Bernhard Goetz goes on the lam


Updated:
Original:
Year
1984
Month Day
December 23

Bernhard Goetz, who shot four young black men on a subway car the previous day, flees New York City and heads for New Hampshire after becoming the central figure in a media firestorm.

On the afternoon of December 22, Troy Canty, Barry Allen, Darrell Cabey, and James Ramseur reportedly approached Goetz as he was riding the subway and demanded $5. Goetz pulled out a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver and shot each of the boys in response. He then shot Cabey a second time, severing his spinal cord. After refusing to give up his gun, he walked to the end of train, jumped onto the tracks, and disappeared.

Immediately catching the public’s attention, the case ignited serious debate and controversy. While the so-called “Subway Vigilante” was on the lam in New Hampshire, police discovered that three of the shooting victims had been carrying screwdrivers in their pockets during the attempted mugging and all had significant criminal records. Many observers immediately used this information as justification for Goetz’s behavior, congratulating him for standing up to the boys.

Goetz turned himself in to New Hampshire police on December 31. Back in New York, he was released on $50,000 bail while a grand jury was convened. Goetz was initially indicted on only three counts of illegal gun possession, but prosecutors were dissatisfied with the insignificant charges, and the grand jury reconvened in March. This time they charged Goetz with four counts of attempted murder. The victims also instituted civil suits.

During the criminal trial, which began in December 1986, Goetz attempted to persuade jurors that he had acted in self-defense. To this end, the defense highlighted the fact that Goetz had been mugged in 1981 and the accused attacker was charged only with “mischievous mischief.” Goetz was found not guilty on all criminal charges but was found guilty for violating one minor gun statute, for which he received a one-year sentence. However, in the civil trial, Goetz was ordered to pay a multimillion-dollar sum for paralyzing Darrell Cabey, although it is unlikely that Cabey will ever receive the money.

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Crew of USS Pueblo released by North Korea


Updated:
Original:
Year
1968
Month Day
December 23

The crew and captain of the U.S. intelligence gathering ship Pueblo are released after 11 months imprisonment by the government of North Korea. The ship, and its 83-man crew, was seized by North Korean warships on January 23 and charged with intruding into North Korean waters.

The seizure infuriated U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. Later, he claimed that he strongly suspected (although it could not be proven) that the incident with the Pueblo, coming just a few days before the communist Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, was a coordinated diversion. At the time, however, Johnson did little. The Tet Offensive, which began just a week after the ship was taken by North Korea, exploded on the front pages and televisions of America and seemed to paralyze the Johnson administration. To deal with the Pueblo incident, the United States urged the U.N.’s Security Council to condemn the action and pressured the Soviet Union to negotiate with the North Koreans for the ship’s release.

It was 11 long months before the Pueblo‘s men were freed. Both captain and crew were horribly treated and later recounted their torture at the hands of the North Koreans. With no help in sight, Captain Lloyd Bucher reluctantly signed a document confessing that the ship was spying on North Korea. With this propaganda victory in hand, the North Koreans released the prisoners and also returned the body of one crewman who died in captivity. Some Americans criticized Johnson for not taking decisive retaliatory action against North Korea; others argued that he should have used every diplomatic means at his disposal to secure a quick release for the crew. In any case, the event was another blow to Johnson and America’s Cold War foreign policy.

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