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John’s Believe It Or Not… February 8th

* 1944 – Tommy Prince poses as an Italian farmer to fool Germans while fixing com lines. * 1943 Americans secure Guadalcanal. * 1587 Mary Queen of Scots beheaded. * 1915 Birth of a Nation opens. * 1990 Del Shannon dies of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Tommy Prince, the most decorated Aboriginal soldier in Canadian history.

It’s Thursday! Did You Know…

* 1944 – Tommy Prince poses as an Italian farmer to fool Germans while fixing com lines.

Canadians are typically seen as some of the most peaceful and non-confrontational people on the planet. But under this layer of politeness and goodwill, Canada has produced some of the fiercest and bravest soldiers the world has ever seen.

Born into the Brokenhead Ojibwa band, Tommy Prince became a Canadian hero at a time when Aboriginal people were still discriminated against by the government. During World War II, Prince enrolled in the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion. As the name suggests, the group was one of the first modern special forces units, performing highly dangerous missions behind enemy lines. They were arguably the closest real-world counterpart to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Prior to deployment, the team trained rigorously in stealth tactics, hand-to-hand combat, the use of explosives, amphibious assaults, and alpine warfare. Prince’s particular role was to scout forward and observe enemy movements. His unit terrified Axis soldiers, who called them “the Black Devils” because of their ability to sneak behind enemy lines and slit throats under the cover of darkness. As one of Prince’s officers recalled: “He moved like a shadow. Sometimes, instead of killing the Germans, he’d steal something from them. Other times, he’d slit their throats and not make a sound.” One of Prince’s most famous stunts came in Italy, in 1944. Dressed as a farmer, he set up an observation post in an abandoned house only 200 meters (656 ft) from a German camp. He would report on German movements via a communications wire, and the positions would then be struck by artillery. Unfortunately, the wire eventually became damaged by the shelling. Completely unfazed, Prince grabbed his farming tools and walked out in full view of the Germans. Pretending to be a local working his field, he walked along the wire until he found the problem, which he repaired while pretending to tie his shoes. Just to seal the deal, he shook his fist at both the Germans and the Allies, to show his supposed anger toward both parties. Prince successfully fooled the Germans, and his reconnaissance resulted in the destruction of four artillery posts.Not content with terrifying the enemy in Italy, Prince moved on to France, where he walked 70 kilometers (43 mi) across mountainous terrain behind enemy lines, going without food or sleep for three days. When he located his target—a large German camp—he led his unit straight to it, capturing over 1,000 enemy soldiers as a result. By the end of the war, Prince was one of the most decorated soldiers in Canadian history and had also done a lot to lift the reputation of Aboriginal people in Canada. He continued to fight for Aboriginal rights upon his return home. In his own words: “All my life I wanted to do something to help my people recover their good name. I wanted to show they were as good as any white man.” And he did just that.

Tommy Prince (front left) is the most decorated First Nations veteran in Canadian history.
Tommy Prince (front left) is the most decorated First Nations veteran in Canadian history.

* 1943 Americans secure Guadalcanal.

On this day in 1943, Japanese troops evacuate Guadalcanal, leaving the island in Allied possession after a prolonged campaign. The American victory paved the way for other Allied wins in the Solomon Islands.

Guadalcanal is the largest of the Solomons, a group of 992 islands and atolls, 347 of which are inhabited, in the South Pacific Ocean. The Solomons, which are located northeast of Australia and have 87 indigenous languages, were discovered in 1568 by the Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendana de Neyra (1541-95). In 1893, the British annexed Guadalcanal, along with the other central and southern Solomons. The Germans took control of the northern Solomons in 1885, but transferred these islands, except for Bougainville and Buka (which eventually went to the Australians) to the British in 1900.

The Japanese invaded the Solomons in 1942 during World War II and began building a strategic airfield on Guadalcanal. On August 7 of that year, U.S. Marines landed on the island, signaling the Allies’ first major offensive against Japanese-held positions in the Pacific. The Japanese responded quickly with sea and air attacks. A series of bloody battles ensued in the debilitating tropical heat as Marines sparred with Japanese troops on land, while in the waters surrounding Guadalcanal, the U.S. Navy fought six major engagements with the Japanese between August 24 and November 30. In mid-November 1942, the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, died together when the Japanese sunk their ship, the USS Juneau.

Both sides suffered heavy losses of men, warships, and planes in the battle for Guadalcanal. An estimated 1,600 U.S. troops were killed, over 4,000 were wounded and several thousand more died from disease. The Japanese lost 24,000 soldiers. On December 31, 1942, Emperor Hirohito told Japanese troops they could withdraw from the area; the Americans secured Guadalcanal about five weeks later.

The Solomons gained their independence from Britain in 1978. In the late 1990s, fighting broke out between rival ethnic groups on Guadalcanal and continued until an Australian-led international peacekeeping mission restored order in 2003. Today, with a population of over half a million people, the Solomons are known as a scuba diver and fisherman’s paradise.

US Marines rest in the field in Guadalcanal.
US Marines rest in the field in Guadalcanal. (Wikipedia)

* 1587 Mary Queen of Scots beheaded.

After 19 years of imprisonment, Mary Queen of Scots is beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in England for her complicity in a plot to murder Queen Elizabeth I.

In 1542, while just six days old, Mary ascended to the Scottish throne upon the death of her father, King James V. Her mother sent her to be raised in the French court, and in 1558 she married the French dauphin, who became King Francis II of France in 1559 but died the following year. After Francis’ death, Mary returned to Scotland to assume her designated role as the country’s monarch.

In 1565, she married her English cousin Lord Darnley in order to reinforce her claim of succession to the English throne after Elizabeth’s death. In 1567, Darnley was mysteriously killed in an explosion at Kirk o’ Field, and Mary’s lover, the Earl of Bothwell, was the key suspect. Although Bothwell was acquitted of the charge, his marriage to Mary in the same year enraged the nobility. Mary brought an army against the nobles, but was defeated and imprisoned at Lochleven, Scotland, and forced to abdicate in favor of her son by Darnley, James.

In 1568, Mary escaped from captivity and raised a substantial army but was defeated and fled to England. Queen Elizabeth initially welcomed Mary but was soon forced to put her friend under house arrest after Mary became the focus of various English Catholic and Spanish plots to overthrow Elizabeth. Nineteen years later, in 1586, a major plot to murder Elizabeth was reported, and Mary was brought to trial. She was convicted of complicity and sentenced to death.

On February 8, 1587, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded for treason. Her son, King James VI of Scotland, calmly accepted his mother’s execution, and upon Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603 he became king of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

The beheading of Mary Stuart, (1542-1587), Queen of Scots.
The beheading of Mary Stuart, (1542-1587), Queen of Scots. (Pinterest)

* 1915 Birth of a Nation opens.

On February 8, 1915, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a landmark film in the history of cinema, premieres at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles. The silent film was America’s first feature-length motion picture and a box-office smash, and during its unprecedented three hours, Griffith popularized countless filmmaking techniques that remain central to the art today. However, because of its explicit racism, Birth of a Nation is also regarded as one of the most offensive films ever made. Actually titled The Clansman for its first month of release, the film provides a highly subjective history of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Studied today as a masterpiece of political propaganda, Birth of a Nation caused riots in several cities and was banned in others but was seen by millions.

David Wark Griffith was born in La Grange, Kentucky, in 1875, the son of an ex-Confederate colonel. His father died when he was seven, and he later dropped out of high school to help support his family. After holding various jobs, he began a successful career as a theater actor. He wrote several plays and, on the advice of a colleague, sent some scenarios for one-reel films to the Edison Film Company and the Biograph Company. In 1908, he was hired as an actor and writer for the Biograph studio and soon was promoted to a position as director.

Between 1908 and 1913, Griffith made more than 400 short films for Biograph. With the assistance of his talented cinematographer, G W. “Billy” Bitzer, he invented or refined such important cinematic techniques as the close-up, the scenic long shot, the moving-camera shot, and the fade-in and fade-out. His contributions to the art of editing during this period include the flashback and parallel editing, in which two or more separate scenes are intermixed to give the impression that the separate actions are happening simultaneously. He also raised the standard on movie acting, initiating scene rehearsals before shooting and assembling a stock company of film professionals. Many of these actors, including Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford, Mae Marsh, and Lionel Barrymore, went on to become some of Hollywood’s first movie stars.

Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, tells the turbulent story of American history in the 1860s, as it followed the fictional lives of two families from the North and the South. Throughout its three hours, African Americans are portrayed as brutish, lazy, morally degenerate, and dangerous. In the film’s climax, the Ku Klux Klan rises up to save the South from the Reconstruction Era-prominence of African Americans in Southern public life.

Riots and protests broke out at screenings of Birth of a Nation in a number of Northern cities, and the recently formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) embarked on a major campaign to have the film banned. It eventually was censored in several cities, and Griffith agreed to change or cut out some of the film’s especially offensive scenes.

Nevertheless, millions of people happily paid to witness the spectacle of Birth of a Nation, which featured a cast of more 10,000 people and a dramatic storyline far more sophisticated than anything released to that date. For all the gross historical inaccuracies, certain scenes, such as meetings of Congress, Civil War battles, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, were meticulously recreated, lending the film an air of legitimacy that made it so effective as propaganda.

The Ku Klux Klan, suppressed by the federal government in the 1870s, was refounded in Georgia in December 1915 by William J. Simmons. In addition to being anti-black, the new Klan was anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant, and by the early 1920s, it had spread throughout the North as well as the South. At the peak of its strength in 1924, membership in the KKK is estimated to have been as high as three million. There is no doubt that Birth of a Nation played no small part in winning wide public acceptance for an organization that was originally founded as an anti-black and anti-federal terrorist group.

Griffith went on to make 27 more films. In 1919, he founded United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin.

Before D. W. Griffith’s time, motion pictures were short, uninspiring, and poorly produced, acted, and edited. Under his guidance, filmmaking became an art form. Despite the harm his Birth of a Nation inflicted on African Americans, he will forever be regarded as the father of cinema.

Lillian Gish / The Birth of a Nation / 1915 directed by D.W. Griffith [Epoch Producing Corporation]
Lillian Gish / The Birth of a Nation / 1915 directed by D.W. Griffith [Epoch Producing Corporation]

* 1990 Del Shannon dies of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Born Charles Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1934, the singer/songwriter known as Del Shannon committed suicide on this day in 1990. In a period when the American pop charts were dominated by cookie-cutter teen idols and novelty acts, he stood out as an all-too-rare example of an American pop star whose work reflected real originality. His heyday as a chart-friendly star in the United States may have been brief, but on the strength of his biggest hit alone, he deserves to be regarded as one of rock and roll’s greatest.

Legend has it that while on stage one night at the Hi-Lo Lounge in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1960, the young and unknown Del Shannon stopped his band mid-song to have his organ player repeat, over and over, an unusual chord sequence he had just ad-libbed: A-minor to G. Charlie went to work the next day in his job as a carpet salesman with those chords stuck in his mind, and by the time he took the stage that night, he’d written a song called “Little Runaway” around them—(A-minor) As I walk along I (G) wonder, what went wrong…”. It would be three more months before Shannon and his band could make it to a New York recording studio to record the song that Shannon now saw as his best, and possibly last, shot at stardom. As he told Billboard magazine years later, “I just said to myself, if this record isn’t a hit, I’m going back into the carpet business.” Del Shannon sold his last carpet a few months later, as “Runaway” roared up the pop charts on its way to #1 in April 1961.

“Hats Off To Larry” and “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow The Sun)” were Shannon’s only other top-10 hits in the United States, but he enjoyed a much bigger career in the UK, where he placed five more songs in the top 10 over the next two years. Like most stars of his generation, Shannon was primarily regarded as an Oldies act through the 70s and 80s, but he was in the midst of a concerted comeback effort in early 1990, with a Jeff Lynne-produced album of original material already completed and rumors swirling of his taking the late Roy Orbison’s place in The Traveling Wilburys. This only added to the shock experienced by many when Shannon shot himself in his Santa Clarita, California, home on February 3, 1990. Shannon’s widow would later file a high-profile lawsuit against Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of the antidepressant Prozac, which Shannon had begun taking shortly before his suicide. That suit was eventually dropped, but the case brought early attention to the still-unresolved question of the possible connection between suicidal ideation and SSRIs, the class of drugs to which Prozac belongs.

February 8, 1990: Musician Del Shannon dies of self inflicted gunshot wound
February 8, 1990: Musician Del Shannon dies of self inflicted gunshot wound (Pinterest)

Today’s Sources: 

* Canadian History Timeline – Canada’s Historical Chronology

* Listverse                                                               

* This Day In History – What Happened Today                                            

Author: John Fioravanti

I'm a retired History teacher (35 years), husband, father of three, grandfather of three. My wife, Anne, and I became business partners in December 2013 and launched our own publishing company, Fiora Books (, to publish my books. We have been married since 1973 and hope our joint business venture will be as successful as our marriage.

13 thoughts on “John’s Believe It Or Not… February 8th”

  1. I have never seen Birth of a Nation, and did not know it was so racist. Interesting. I did not know about Tommy Prince. That’s a great story! The sad story is Del Shannon. Thanks, John

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Having been in Scotland over the summer I can say that Mary was a revered monarch. She is still remembered as the head of an independent Scotland. The Tommy Prince story was impressive. Guadalcanal was a nightmare and Hal Popplewell’s poem about the battle said it all. The last verse.
    And when he gets to heaven,
    To St. Peter he will tell,
    “Another Marine reporting, Sir,
    I’ve served my time in Hell!”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for this perspective on Mary. I’m sure Guadalcanal was absolute hell and a major reason why Truman opted for the bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima. War is nothing short of tragic – humans at their very worst.


  3. I have not seen”Birth of a Nation” in its entirety. Guess I should find and watch it. I also did NOT know that about Del Shannon. Very tragic. The comment that he was considered an “oldie” act really harkens back to Opher’s ageism blog, doesn’t it…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t seen that film either – and I have no desire to do so. Yes, ageism is alive and well. I’m so sorry that Del Shannon decided to take his own life at 56. Thanks, Cheryl. By the way, I selected one of tomorrow’s stories with you in mind.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. I have noticed recently that people who were followers signed up to follow again. I know of another person who had to re-follow everyone she used to follow. I’m assuming it is a WordPress issue. Thanks, Cheryl.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I was very impressed when I read about him – and I didn’t realize that we utilized Special Forces during WWII. Thanks, Opher.


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