February 26, 2017

The story behind “Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer”


The idiomatic expression “on a wing and a prayer” is a now widely used to describe doing something under extremely difficult or disadvantageous circumstances and hoping that sheer luck, determination and/or God will allow its success.

During World War II, when the phrase first became part of the English language, it had a literal application.

It referred to Allied airmen flying back to their base in damaged planes, hoping and praying that they’d make it.

In his Dictionary of Catch Phrases (first published in 1977), the great language maven Eric Partridge speculated that “a wing and a prayer” was originally associated with the British Royal Air Force.

He thought it might have been used by RAF pilots as early as 1940.

That’s possible. But there are no newspapers or other sources I could find online that used the phrase prior to 1943, which is when it was made famous by an American song inspired by news stories about an American bomber crew.

On February 26, 1943, a B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber piloted by Hugh G. Ashcraft, Jr. of Charlotte, North Carolina was limping back from a bombing mission in Germany to an American base in England.

The plane, dubbed The Southern Comfort by its crew, had been riddled by flak and was damaged severely, “with a hole four feet square in the rudder, the nose shattered and the Number 3 engine spewing oil and flames.”

As they approached the shores of Britain, Ashcraft told his men over the radio: “Those who want to, please pray.”

Miraculously, Ashcraft got the The Southern Comfort to its home base and landed it safely, generating news in his home state of North Carolina and elsewhere about the pilot and crew that “prayed” their plane back.

The incident made Ashcraft a local celebrity. After the war, he became the first president of the Harris Teeter chain of supermarkets, which was first established in North Carolina and grew to have 243 stores in seven states.

The stories about Ashcraft’s cool-headed bravery and his suggestion to pray inspired the songwriting team Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh to write a new patriotic song.

The catchy phrase that popped into the mind of Adamson, the lyricist, was “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer.”

He used it as the title of the song and in the chorus, which goes:

“Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.
Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.
Though there’s one motor gone, we can still carry on,
Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.”

The first popular version of the song, recorded by The Song Spinners, was released in June 1943.

Their version quickly became a hit. Soon, the song was being recorded and performed live by a long list of other singers, groups and bands, making it one of the biggest hits of the year.

One of the hippest versions recorded in 1943 was by a black vocal group from Missouri called The Four Vagabonds. (If you haven’t heard it, get hip by clicking this link to listen to it.)

I also personally love the far more recent cover of the song by Ry Cooder, on his 1972 album Boomer's Story.

If you’re a World War II history buff, you may know that the song also inspired the title of the 1944 movie Wing and a Prayer (a.k.a. A Wing and a Prayer: The Story of Carrier X).

That classic film, starring Dana Andrews and Don Ameche, is about American aircraft crews. However, it’s set in 1942 in the Pacific theater and is not about The Southern Comfort or B-17s.

If you’re highly-knowledgeable about aviation history, like my late friend writer Robert F. Dorr, you may know the aircraft primarily featured in the film are Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters and Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bombers. You’d have to be a serious expert on planes, like Bob, or a student of anachronisms in movies, to know those planes weren’t actually used on U.S. Navy carriers until 1943.

Anyway, the fame of Adamson and McHugh’s hit song of 1943, which lent its title to a popular film the following year, firmly embedded “a wing and a prayer” in our language.

It’s a phrase that’s still familiar to most people, even if they’ve never heard the song or the story behind it.

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February 21, 2017

“Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!”


You can find many different lists of “books that changed the world” on the Internet.

Those lists vary considerably. But there are some books that show up on almost all of them.

One is The Manifesto of the Communist Party, more commonly known as The Communist Manifesto.

The Manifesto was co-written by Karl Marx and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels.

It was first published in London on February 21, 1848 and it did indeed change the world by serving as a key philosophical foundation for socialism and communism.

The original edition of this seminal work by Marx and Engels was published in German, their native language.

Over the next few years it was translated into many other languages, including English.

Several famous quotations from The Communist Manifesto are included in many books of quotations and still frequently cited today.

One is the opening sentence of the Preamble:

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism.”

Another is the first line of Chapter I:

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

The other famous words in The Communist Manifesto are its closing lines, at the end of Chapter IV.

The official English translation of the last four sentences, as approved by Engels, are:

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!.”

The shortened, more familiar — and often parodied — mistranslation of the last few sentences is:

“Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

As it turned out, other people’s visions of “Communistic revolution” and Marxism weren’t exactly what Marx and Engels had in mind.

In a letter he wrote on August 5, 1890, Engels remarked: “Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French ‘Marxists’ of the late [18]70s: ‘All I know is that I am not a Marxist.’”

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February 11, 2017

“Dying / Is an art, like everything else.”



“Lady Lazarus” is one of the best-known poems by the American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath.

It includes the oft-quoted lines:

       “Dying
        Is an art, like everything else.
        I do it exceptionally well.

        I do it so it feels like hell.
        I do it so it feels real.
        I guess you could say I've a call.”

This famous passage has a link to February 11th, but not because Plath wrote it on that date. She wrote the poem in October 1962.

The link is that on February 11, 1963 Plath turned art into reality by dying — at her own hand.

She stuck her head in the gas oven in her London flat and killed herself.

Plath had tried to commit suicide before but survived, a fact reflected in the dark humor of “Lady Lazarus.”

If you are a fan of Plath and her her poetry, you may know the story of why she was feeling suicidal again on that February day.

In 1956, after winning a Fulbright scholarship, Plath attended Newnham College in England. There she met the British poet Ted Hughes and married him the following year.

It was, as they say, a troubled marriage. And, Plath and Hughes could both be described as troubled people.

Hughes was a philanderer and (allegedly) abusive.

Plath suffered from periods of severe depression. Today, she would probably be diagnosed with clinical depression and possibly bipolar disorder.

In September of 1962, Hughes abandoned Plath and their two young children, Nicholas and Frieda, to live with a beautiful German expatriate named Assia Wevill.

The anguish Plath felt inspired some of her best poems, including “Lady Lazarus.”

And, in January 1963, Plath’s highly-acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar was published (under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas), putting her on the verge of worldwide fame.

A month later, on February 11th, Plath killed herself.

Ted Hughes has been vilified ever since by feminists and many other people, though he also has his defenders.

Given her depression problems, Sylvia Plath might have committed suicide regardless of how Hughes treated her.

But it’s hard to overlook the fact that in 1969, following six turbulent years with Hughes, Assia Wevill also committed suicide — after killing the daughter she and Hughes had together.

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