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History's Happenings for October 8

Great Chicago Fire Begins

Although it has never been proven that Mrs. O'Leary's cow really kicked over a lantern, it is a fact that the Great Chicago Fire, which started October 8, 1871, left a third of the city homeless in massive destruction.

After two months of severe drought, something definitely happened near Mrs. O'Leary's barn -- some say it was two ladies seeking milk for punch at a nearby gathering, others say a dropped pipe at a beer party next door. Or, as the rumor goes, it was Mrs. O'Leary herself, milking her family cow. A lantern would seem to be the likely culprit in two out of three theories (though the cow may well have been innocent!)

Whatever the cause the city, mostly built of wood at the time, burned fiercely in the typical Lake Michigan wind for two days, until doused by a heaven-sent downpour late on October 9th. In the final tally, 20,000 buildings had been destroyed in a four square mile area downtown, and 100,000 of Chicago's population of 324,000 had been left homeless by the blaze. Approximately 250 people lost their lives.

After the fire, the city was quickly rebuilt, using far more masonry in its construction, and spreading its business district out away from the original concentration around the Chicago River.

Birth of WWI Ace Eddie Rickenbacker

Ace Flyer Eddie Rickenbacker

Born in Columbus, Ohio on October 8, 1890, Edward V. ("Eddie") Rickenbacker was a successful and world-renowned race-car driver before joining the U.S. Army in 1917.

During World War I, Rickenbacker commanded the 94th Aero Pursuit Squadron in France, and personally shot down 22 enemy planes and four balloons. His exploits earned him, among other awards, the Congressional Medal of Honor. After the War, he wrote about his experiences in his book Fighting The Flying Circus (1919).

During the second World War, on an inspection tour of Army Air Corps bases in the Pacific theatre, Rickenbacker's transport was shot down and he spent three weeks floating in a raft with six others before being rescued. He described this ordeal as well, in Seven Came Through (1943).

Having joined Eastern Airlines in 1938, Rickenbacker served as its Chairman from 1954 until 1963. He died in 1973.

Birth of Argentine Dictator Juan Peron

Perhaps better known for his second wife, Evita, Juan Peron was nonetheless a leading force in Argentine politics for three decades.

Born on October 8, 1895 near Buenos Aires, Peron was educated at several military schools and first entered the political world in 1930 when, after the army took over the national government, he served as a secretary to the Minister of War until 1935.

After another coup in 1943 in which he was heavily engaged, Peron successively added the posts of Minister of Labor, Minister of War, and Vice President to his titles. His policies, while strongly anti-Communist, were devoutly pro-labor. When he was ousted and imprisoned in 1945, his power having become a threat to other hopefuls, the labor movement arose and secured his release.

His strong support among the ordinary Peronistas helped elect Peron (and in popular effect, Evita) to the presidency in 1946, which office he held until the flow of benefits to labor began to ebb in the 1950's. Evita's death in 1952 and Peron's excommunication by the Catholic Church led eventually to his ouster in 1955.

But his popularity among the masses never totally disappeared. After eighteen years in exile, he returned to his native Argentina in 1973, was re-elected president, and died in office in 1974.

Lost Battalion Saved In Argonne

Major Charles Whittlesey, commanding the Lost Battalion

From the 2nd through the 8th of October, 1918, a battalion of the 77th U.S. Infantry successfully held out against a large surrounding German force in the Argonne Forest region of France. When it was finally rescued by American forces, only 194 of the original 600 were left alive. The name "lost battalion" stuck and made its way into the annals of World War I.

Sgt. York — One-Man Army!

Sgt. Alvin C. York

As Sergeant (then Corporal) Alvin C. York's patrol herded its prize of 75 captured German troops back through the Argonne Forest on October 8, 1918, they were suddenly brought to ground by intense machinegun fire. Nine out of the 17 members of the patrol had already been killed when York, a sharpshooter from the Tennessee back woods and at the risk of his own life, picked off 15 of the attacking Germans, one by one.

Unhappy with the apparent turn in their luck, the remaining enemy troops surrendered to York — all 132 of them!

Having marched back the equivalent of almost two companies of prisoners taken only by his tiny patrol and by himself personally, Sgt. York soon became the most decorated U.S. soldier of World War I, his many awards including the Medal of Honor.

After the war, donations from appreciative citizens helped Sgt. York buy a farm back home in the hills of Tennessee, and to establish a fund for the education of local children.

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