Late on the 13th April 1970, the spacecraft Apollo 13 was rocked by an explosion from one of its oxygen tanks. The resulting emergency led to the calm announcement by the crew of, “Houston we’ve had a problem”. However, most people misquote the phrase as “Houston we have a problem” after the award winning 1995 film changed the tense. The movie also placed the words in the mouth of Commander Jim Lovell, where in fact it was Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert who first reported the issue.
The explosion occurred after a routine procedure to stop gasses settling in their tanks. An investigation by NASA has since found that a spark from an exposed wire in the oxygen tank caused a fire, leading to an expansion of gasses that eventually blew apart the tank. The explosion ripped off the side of the Service Module, vented oxygen into space, and left the crew stricken in a damaged craft.
Rather than landing on the moon, the mission’s focus was now to bring the crew safely home. Improvisation was key, with the crew forced to turn their landing unit into a lifeboat to ferry them back to Earth before transferring back to the Command Module for reentry. Fortunately the heat shield had not been damaged, and the crew splashed down safely on April 17th.
The United States table tennis team heralded the era of ‘ping pong diplomacy’ by becoming the first official American delegation to visit China in 20 years.
Relations between America and China had soured in the aftermath of the Communist Revolution, and grew worse as a result of the Korean War in which the countries fought on opposing sides. Relations were so poor that, by the time the two countries travelled to Nagoya in Japan for the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in 1971, they had no diplomatic or economic relationship.
Richard Nixon intended to bring China in from the cold when he took up the presidency in 1969. Meanwhile, increasing tensions between China and the USSR had similarly led Chairman Mao to consider rebuilding relations with the United States. Both table tennis teams being in Nagoya offered the perfect opportunity.
Having missed the US bus after practice one evening, American player Glenn Cowan travelled back to his room with the Chinese team. Although the Chinese claim that Cowan “stumbled up the steps” of their bus, he claimed in an interview that he was invited to travel with them. Whatever the reality, during the short bus journey Cowan was given a silk-screen picture of the Huangshan mountains by the Chinese player Zhuang Zedong.
Favourable press coverage, which led Mao to comment on Zhuang Zedong’s positive actions as a diplomat, resulted in the entire American team being invited to China after the tournament ended. Having arrived in the country on 10 April, they spent ten days touring Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai. Their visit heralded a new period in Sino-American relations that culminated in President Nixon himself travelling to China the following year.
On the 9th April 1865, after four years of Civil War, approximately 630,000 deaths and over 1 million casualties, Confederate States Army General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. This triggered a series of other surrenders across the south, and marked the beginning of the end of the American Civil War.
Prior to the surrender, Lee’s army had been forced to abandon the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and was retreating with the hope of joining with other Confederate forces in North Carolina. However, the Union army managed to cut them off with cavalry and infantry and so – with his army surrounded and his men weak and exhausted – Lee had no option but to surrender.
Lee and Grant sent a series of messages that led to them meeting in the village of Appomattox Courthouse, where they signed the surrender documents in the parlour of a house owned by Wilmer McLean. The terms were as generous as Lee could hope for, the Union wanting to avoid any possible excuse for an uprising. All officers and men were pardoned and allowed to return home with their private property including their horses. Furthermore, all Confederate officers would be allowed to keep their side arms, and Lee’s troops would be fed with Union rations.
With the surrender signed, Grant is reputed to have stepped outside and declared, “The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again.”
Times Square in New York was given its name shortly after the offices of The New York Times moved to the area.
Having once belonged to the prominent real estate investor John Jacob Astor, the second half of the 19th century saw the area around the modern Times Square become the centre of the New York carriage business. The establishment of the American Horse Exchange by the prominent businessman William Henry Vanderbilt fuelled this development which led to the area being named Longacre Square after London’s carriage district which centred on Long Acre.
While the late 1800s saw the area develop a reputation as a red light district, the arrival of electricity attracted the impresario Oscar Hammerstein I who opened a huge theatre complex called the Olympia in 1895. Although the nearby Empire Theatre had opened two years earlier, the imposing Olympia contributed to a change in the economic makeup of Longacre that coincided with the arrival of New York’s first rapid transit system.
Easy access to middle- and upper-class restaurant and theatre goers, alongside the fast distribution network provided by the new Interborough Rapid Transit line, persuaded Adolph S. Ochs of The New York Times to move his newspaper’s headquarters to the area at the start of the 20th century. Having chosen a prime piece of land he built the Times Tower, the second tallest building in the city at the time, with its basement containing the printing presses right next door to the new subway line.
To coincide with the arrival of the newspaper, Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. approved a resolution to change the name from Longacre Square to Times Square. Even after the newspaper moved offices the name stayed, as did the neon lights and millions of visitors.
On the 6th April 1896, the first modern Olympic Games opened in Athens. Known as the father of the modern Olympics, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin had organised a congress two years earlier in which the host city was chosen and the International Olympic Committee founded.
American James Connolly won the first final for his 13.71m triple jump, leading the USA’s 14 competitors to win a total of 11 events between them. The most successful individual competitor was the German Carl Schuhmann who won the team events in the horizontal bar and parallel bars events, the horse vault event and – despite being considerably smaller than his opponents – the wrestling competition. He didn’t receive any gold medals, however. Winners at the 1896 Olympics were instead presented with a silver medal, an olive branch, and a diploma. It wasn’t until 1904 that the tradition of awarding gold, silver and bronze medals to first, second and third place began.
The 1896 Summer Olympics did, however, lay down many traditions – not least of which was the first competitive marathon race. A Greek water carrier called Spyridon Louis won the race in a time of 2 hours 58 minutes and 50 seconds. The same route, finishing at the stadium used in the 1896 games, was used when the Olympics returned to Greece in 2004. The winner finished almost 45 minutes faster than in the 1896 competition.
By the time of the 2004 games, however, the rope climbing competition that saw competitors climbing a 14m rope in 1896 had been removed.
On the 5th April 1621, the Mayflower – the boat that carried the Pilgrim fathers to America – returned to England from the settlement at Plymouth. The story of the Mayflower usually focuses on its journey to New England, with the ship itself being a central character in the story of European settlers in North America. However, the ship itself was nothing special.
By 1620 the Mayflower was already reaching the end of its working life. It had been a cargo ship, regularly making short journeys to France in order to load up with wine and other goods to sell in England. The ship’s voyage to the New World was in many ways just a delivery contract between the Pilgrims and the ship’s master, Christopher Jones. With the Pilgrims safely ashore in America, Jones and his crew were free to return to England.
However, the bitter winter and outbreak of disease meant that construction of a settlement on land was not completed until March 1621. With many of the ship’s crew struck down by disease, Jones was forced to stay until those of his crew who survived were fit enough for the return journey at the start of April.
After its return, Jones used the Mayflower for some other trading runs to France, but he died just a year later. By 1624 the ship had also reached the end of its life. Legend says that it was sold and broken up for scrap, with the beams used to construct a barn in the county of Buckinghamshire.
On the 4th April 1968, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 39. The previous day he had delivered his final public speech, known as the “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” address, in which he made direct reference the many threats against his life.
King was standing on the balcony outside his room at the Lorrain Motel in Memphis when he was hit by a single bullet that shattered his jaw and several vertebrae. Despite being rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital where doctors worked to keep him alive, he was pronounced dead at 7.05pm.
Two months after the assassination an escaped convict called James Earl Ray was arrested at Heathrow Airport in the UK and extradited back to America for trial. Ray confessed to the assassination and was sentenced to 99 years imprisonment, but withdrew his confession a few days later. His attempts to withdraw his guilty plea have fuelled allegations of a conspiracy that used James Earl Ray as a scapegoat.
King’s death was met with riots across America that lasted for two days, reflecting anger that King’s non-violent approach had only been met with violence. However, all was calm at his funeral on April 9th, in which a recording of his last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church was played at his own request. He didn’t want people to remember him for his awards and honors, but for trying to “feed the hungry”, “clothe the naked”, “be right on the [Vietnam] war question”, and “love and serve humanity”.
On the 3rd April 1882, the American outlaw Jesse James was shot dead by fellow gang-member Robert Ford. His death became a national sensation – James had been a famous Confederate guerrilla fighter during the Civil War, and had become America’s most wanted criminal in the years since.
As a train robber, James and his gang rarely robbed passengers. This may have led to their popular association with the legend of Robin Hood – stealing from the rich to give to the poor. However, there is no evidence that the James gang actually shared their loot with anyone but themselves.
Despite their early success, by 1881 the gang was falling apart. Many members had fled, or been killed or arrested, and so Jesse James was forced to ally with new gang members. In January 1882 one of his new associates, Robert Ford, met with Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden and agreed to kill James in return for a full pardon for his own crimes and a $10,000 reward.
On the morning of April 3rd, shortly before leaving their safe house to rob the Platte City bank, James noticed a dusty picture on the mantelpiece. As he stood on a chair and turned to clean it, Robert Ford shot him in the back of the head. He presented himself to the police where, on the same day, he was charged with murder, pled guilty, sentenced to death by hanging, and then granted a full pardon by Governor Crittenden.
On the 29th March 1973, the last American troops withdrew from South Vietnam. Taking place two months after the Paris Peace Accords were signed between the U.S., North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the final withdrawal ended eight years of direct American military involvement in Vietnam.
As the number of US troops sent to fight in Vietnam increased throughout the 1960s, opposition to the war similarly grew. By the spring of 1969 new President Richard Nixon, who had been elected the previous November, had begun to implement the Nixon Doctrine that is more commonly known as the policy of Vietnamization. This intended to “expand, equip, and train South Vietnam’s forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S. combat troops.”
Pressure to quit Vietnam completely increased after news of the My Lai Massacre was broken on the 12th November. Troop withdrawals therefore continued, although the US began attacks on Cambodia and Laos in an attempt to flush out Viet Cong and disrupt their supply lines. This coincided with the killing by National Guardsmen of four student protesters at Kent State University which turned yet more people against the war.
Throughout this period Henry Kissinger took part in secret talks with the leadership of North Vietnam. Despite a number of setbacks, they signed the Paris Peace Accords on the 27th January. The last American troops withdrew on the 29th March, but the last American civilians didn’t leave South Vietnam until they were evacuated in Operation Frequent Wind during the North Vietnamese takeover of Saigon two years later.
On the 19th March 1962, American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan released his eponymous debut album.
Dylan had arrived in New York from Minnesota the previous year, but had quickly worked his way into the coffee houses and folk clubs of Greenwich Village. It was here that he became known to established folk singer Carolyn Hester who invited him to join her as a harmonica player. While rehearsing in her apartment in September, Dylan met Columbia Records’ talent scout John H. Hammond who stated he decided to sign Dylan “on the spot” although in reality the contract wasn’t finalised until the end of October.
The album was recorded over six hours of sessions on the 20th to the 22nd of November. Legend has it that the album cost $402 to produce, but this figure was only stated as a joke by John Hammond – the true cost is unknown. Although there were a couple of false starts, five of the final recordings were the first take as Dylan refused requests to do a second.
Only two tracks on Dylan’s debut album were his own compositions and it failed to hit the Billboard 100, selling less than 5,000 copies in its first year and earning Dylan the nickname “Hammond’s Folly” from record executives. Despite this set-back, however, he returned to the studio shortly after the release of his first album to begin work on his second, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which consisted almost entirely of original songs. Opening with the now-classic Blowin’ in the Wind, it was this album that established Dylan as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation.