20 November 2007

This day in history: 20 Nov

1789: New Jersey became the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights.

1820: A sperm whale (Physeter catodon) attacked and sank the Nantucket whaler Essex 2000 miles off the western coast of South America - one of the events which inspired Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby-Dick.

1883: Screw sloop-of-war USS Lancaster was making a port call in Marseille, France, when a local youth fell into the water astern of the ship. Ordinary Seaman Apprentice John F Auer and Boatswain's Mate Matthew Gillick jumped into the water and rescued the boy. Auer and Gillick were awarded the Medal of Honor.*

1917: The Battle of Cambrai began. This day saw the first successful use of massed tanks in combat, with almost 400 tanks spearheading the attack by Byng's Third Army. Captain Richard W L Wain, A Battalion the Tank Corps, was badly injured when his tank was knocked out by a direct hit from a German strongpoint near Mercoing. He refused medical assistance, and successfully charged the enemy position with a Lewis Gun, capturing the strongpoint and taking prisoner about half the garrison. He then continued to attack with a rifle until killed by a sniper. Wain was awarded the Victoria Cross.

1943: US forces landed on Makin (27th Infantry Division) and Tarawa (2nd Marine Division) atolls in the Gilbert Islands (Operation GALVANIC).

1944: USS Mississinewa (AO 59) was sunk at Ulithi by a Japanese kaiten (suicide submarine) - the first successful attack by one of these vessels. 60 crewmen died, along with the operator of the kaiten.

That same day, Staff Sergeant Herschel F Briles, 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion, was leading a platoon of tank destroyers across an exposed slope near Scherpenseel, Germany, when they came under heavy enemy artillery fire. A direct hit was scored on one of the vehicles, setting it afire. With a comrade, Briles left the cover of his own armor and raced through incoming fire to rescue the crew of the damaged vehicle. Briles lowered himself into the burning turret, removed two wounded men, and then extinguished the fire. For this and for his actions the following day, Briles was awarded the Medal of Honor.

1947: HRH The Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, RN, were married at Westminster Abbey in London.

1998: The first module of the International Space Station, Zarya (the Functional Cargo Block), was launched from Baikonur.

Queen Alexandra (1844–1925) and Francisco Franco (1892-1975) died on this date.

And happy birthday to Peregrine White (1620-1704), Tippu Sultan (1753–1799), Chester Gould (1900–1985), Robert F Kennedy (1925–1968), Richard Dawson (1932-TBD) and Dickie Smothers (1939-TBD).

* The Medal of Honor has not always been a combat award. There are several cases of the medal's being awarded for lifesaving in this fashion.

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