August 22, 1957 – Two Americans Tried in Cuban Court

Who was Russell Masker?


On August 22, 1957, two American men were put on trial in Cuba for carrying unlicensed arms, resisting arrest, and attempting to join the resistance movement of Fidel Castro.  The proceedings were held in the Urgency Court in Santiago, created in the 1930s to try terrorists.  Russell F. Masker and Thomas M. Miller of Miami, Florida had been arrested on August 9th in the town of San Luis, about thirty miles from Santiago in Cuba’s southeastern Oriente Province, the locus of Castro’s M-26-7 activities.  Masker and Miller denied the charges, asserting they had come to Cuba as tourists, had carried no weapons and had not resisted arrest.  The New York Times reported that the Urgency Court could sentence the Americans to as much as five years in prison, with no guaranteed right of appeal.

Little is known about Russell Masker and Thomas Miller, either before or after their arrest and trial.  Russell Masker makes an intriguing appearance in a Cuban Secret Service (G-2 MINFAR) document dated January 12, 1961.  In a report to the secret service department chief, Commander Ramiro Valdes Menedez, about “yanki” (United States) mercenary camps in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Florida, the following statement appears on page 25:

“Last November 22, the ‘Diario de las Americas’ reported the death of North American Russell F. Masker, victim of a stray shot from Cuban Rolando Martinez Capaneria during military instruction in a camp located in ‘Cayo Sin Nombre’, thirty miles from Cayo Hueso [Key West].”

The American-led Bay of Pigs Invasion against the Castro regime took place in April of 1961.  Whose side was Masker on?

August 21, 1957 – The Russians Launch the R-7

August 21, 1957 Launch of the R-7: Photo Source RKK Energia and

On August 21, 1957, the Soviet Union carried out the first successful test launch of their prototype intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7.  The two-stage, 112-foot-long, oxygen- and kerosene-fueled rocket blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and carried a dummy warhead 3500 miles.  The Soviets described the R-7 as a “super long-distance intercontinental multistage ballistic rocket”.  It was the “super long-distance” part that alarmed the United States, and the world at large, during the Cold War era of the 1950s.  Russian R-7 ICBMs were intended ultimately to be “tipped” with nuclear devices – weapons – capable of delivering the equivalent of almost 3 megatons of TNT.

At this time, the United States’ ICBM program was producing nothing but “spectacular failures“.  Initially, each branch of the armed services worked independently and in competition with one another to develop an American ICBM.  The success of the R-7, a version of which was used in October to launch the Sputnick satellite, redoubled the efforts of American scientists and military to win the Race to Space and prevent the spread of International Communism.  In the late fifties, the Atlas program began to make significant progress toward parity with the Russians.  In July of 1959, the first fully-operational Atlas ICBM lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

On The Road – 1957 Flxible Starliner

1957 Flxible Starliner: Photo Source Hemmings

1957 Flxible Starliner: Photo Source Hemmings

I think I’m in love. Road trip!

The beauty on wheels above is a 1957 Flxible Starliner, gloriously restored on the outside and fully updated on the inside for modern-day glamping.

The Flxible Company cornered the market on excitement from its very beginning. Chartered in 1914 at the Flexible Sidecar Company, the Loudonville, Ohio assembly line began turning out motorcycle-sidecar combinations for civilian and military use in World War I. Flexible jettisoned the “e” in 1919 in order to copyright their brand. Bigger changes were necessary in the early 1920s when Henry Ford began cranking out inexpensive Roadsters, undercutting the motorcycle-sidecar market. Flxible adapted by flexing into custom bus, hearse, and ambulance manufacturing. Touring companies’ investments in Flxible buses paid off when they were able to comfortably carry sightseeing parties in style over long distances. One quality-built coach racked up over 275,000 miles from 1925 to 1928.

Flxible developed the Clipper, a 29-passenger bus, in the late 1930s. Cities, airports, National Parks, resorts, and movie studios maintained fleets of dependable, economical Clippers. During World War II, Flxible retooled their factories to make tank, fighter plane, and ship parts for the war effort. Touring coach production returned in 1946 with the introduction of a redesigned Clipper, displaying a trademarked front “smiley face”. In 1950, the Flxible fleet expanded with the addition of Visicoach – a Clipper-based model with extra head- and engine-room.

The Starliner was introduced in 1957. It featured a new and innovative suspension system including torsion bars, which savvy 1950s Mad Men named the Flxilastic suspension system. Early Starliners sported eyebrow windows on the roof and under floor storage bays. A total of only 276 Starliners were manufactured between 1957 and 1967, when Clipper-based model production was discontinued. Many surviving vintage Starliners – similar to the better-known vintage Airstream trailers – have been revamped and converted into motor homes. The immaculately restored Starliner motorhome above is currently on the market for – drum roll, please – $235,000.

August 19, 1957 – Dr. David Simons Sets New Altitude Record

On August 19, 1957, Air Force physician and space flight researcher Dr. David Simons reached a record altitude of 102,000 feet (over 19 miles) above the earth in a telephone-booth-sized, air-conditioned capsule suspended from a helium balloon.  Dr. Simons had conducted earlier experiments with monkeys, mice, guinea pigs, and human volunteers to investigate reactions to weightlessness and the hazards of exposure to primary cosmic radiation.  But in August of 1957, as part of the Air Force’s Man High Project, it was Simons’ turn to experience the world from a vantage point beyond 99% of the earth’s atmosphere.  Life Magazine published an article about the historic flight, “A Journey No Man Had Taken”, during which Dr. Simons conducted  25 experiments armed with cameras, a 5-inch telescope, a tape recorder, a microphone taped to his chest, and photographic cosmic ray bombardment track plates taped to his arms and chest.  He observed the moon and Venus, aurora borealis and cloud formations.  He stated that his most important finding was that with the right equipment, humans could survive at the very edge of space.

Simons took off from a deep, open-pit iron mine in Crosby, Minnesota and landed, 32 hours and 10 minutes later, in a field in South Dakota.  In his Life article, Dr. Simons described seeing a “purplish-black” sky, etched with thin bands of blue.  Thin shells of dust “hovered over the Earth like a succession of halos”.  He later wrote a book, with Don A. Schanche, about his experiences, titled “Man High“.  A sign he posted on the inside of his capsule warned, “Have all the fun you want, but don’t jump up and down”.

In the days after the “high point” of his career, as his commanding officer Col. John Paul Stapp jokingly put it, Dr. David Simons was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  He continued to conduct research, including studies on radio telemetry for in-flight medical monitoring.  After his retirement, he became fascinated with and researched pain and myofascial trigger points, co-authoring in 1983 a still-standard text on the subject.

August 18, 1957 – The USCG Storis in Uncharted Waters

Roald Amundsen’s sloop, the Gjoa, which ran aground in James Ross Strait in 1906. Painting by Roger Morris, available at

On August 18, 1957, the USCG cutter Storis was hard at work on a major task, erecting shore aids-to-navigation and charting a usable channel across Queen Maud Gulf to Simpson Strait.  The survey work, Captain Harold Wood wrote in his records of the voyage, was a “humdrum job of miles and miles of soundings, each recorded on our charts, and each obtained under adverse conditions of weather, with fog and ice making further complications”.

The Storis, along with cutters Spar and Bramble, formed a Hydrographic Survey Unit (HSU) supporting construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line of radar posts lining the far Northwest Passage.  DEW line sites, manned and unmanned, were put in place to provide advance notice of a potential Soviet land or air invasion of North America.  Over several days in mid-August, 1957, the HSU painstakingly charted Simpson Strait, Rae Strait, and James Ross Strait.  Except for two earlier small vessels, James Ross Strait was previously untraveled, and one of those small vessels had run aground there in 1906.  “We might have trouble getting through ourselves, ” Wood wrote.

Ice recco support by plane and helicopter kept the Storis advised of conditions ahead.  Even so, she ran aground on a rock shoal at one point, eventually needing to rely on the incoming tide to lift her entirely clear.  The HSU were pioneers, “conducting a reconnaissance survey which would be of future value, and erecting aids to navigation which would facilitate use of the charts we were making by ships to follow in later years”.

After successful completion of survey work in James Ross Strait, Capt. Wood and his team went on to survey Franklin Strait and the western approaches to Bellot Strait.  Their adventure at the top of the world continued.

August 17, 1957 – Phillies Hall-of-Famer Richie Ashburn’s Freak At-Bat

Phillie Richie Ashburn: Photo Source: Chuck Hofmann, Richie Ashburn Display at the Madison County Museum, Nebraska


On August 17, 1957, one of Philadelphia’s most loved baseball heroes fouled twice, striking the same spectator, in one at-bat.

Center-fielder Richie Ashburn, one of the 1950 National League Champion “Whiz Kids”, played outstanding ball for the Phillies from 1948 until 1959.  He led the league several times in batting and fielding statistics, retiring with a .308 lifetime batting average.  After his retirement from baseball in 1962, he joined the Phillies radio and TV broadcast team as a color commentator, a job he loved and held until his death in 1997.  A long campaign by Philadelphia fans resulted in his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995.  Over 25,000 local fans drove to Cooperstown for the ceremony – a day which must have meant much to the boy who grew up on a farm in Tilden, Nebraska, dreaming of his day in the big leagues.

But August 17th was not quite a day he had dreamed of.  In the second game of a four-game series against the New York Giants, (which the Phillies won, 3-1), Richie fouled twice into the stands, striking spectator Alice Roth.  Alice was married to Philadelphia Bulletin Sports Editor Earl Roth.  The first errant ball broke her nose; the second struck her as she was being carried out of the stands on a stretcher.  Alice was a good sport and she and Richie remained friends for many years.

The Philadelphia Phillies retired Ashburn’s #1 in 1979.  The center-field entertainment area of Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies current stadium, is named Ashburn Alley in honor of Richie’s 47 years of service to the Phillies organization.

August 16, 1957 – Buddy Holly & the Crickets at the Apollo Theater

Buddy Holly & the Crickets: L to R, Niki Sullivan, Jerry Allison, Holly, and Joe B. Mauldin: Photo cover art from “The Chirping Crickets”


On August 16, 1957, Buddy Holly and his band, the Crickets, opened their one-week gig at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City.  Holly made his start in the music business in 1955 opening for Elvis Presley.  His style included rockabilly and rhythm and blues, which he helped fuse and transform into early rock and roll.  Decca Records and two of its subsidiaries signed Holly to recording contracts in 1956 and 1957 and it was at this time that he formed the Crickets.  With Buddy as lead guitar and vocalist, Niki Sullivan on guitar, Joe B. Mauldin on bass, and Jerry Allison on drums, the Crickets pioneered the standard instrumentation pattern for other rock bands to follow.  Buddy Holly was also one of the first in rock and roll to write, produce, and perform his own songs.  His first big hit single, released in May of 1957, was “That’ll Be the Day”, which was sitting atop the best-seller charts by September.

Holly is recognized as a major force in bridging the racial divide in American music.  People had trouble telling, just by listening to their recordings, whether the Crickets were white or African-American.  Their national tour of August, 1957, included performances at African-American neighborhood theaters, like Harlem’s Apollo Theater – the only white band to do so at the time.  It is rumored that the promoter at the Apollo booked Holly and his band in the mistaken belief that they were African-American.

The Apollo Theater became a powerhouse club during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s.  At that time, Harlem was rapidly becoming a African-American enclave within New York City, and owners Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher featured the best new African-American talent emerging on the scene.  Ella Fitzgerald made her debut there, and the long list of artists who got their start at the Apollo includes Billie Holliday, James Brown, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and many, many more.

It took several performances for the Apollo’s clientele to take to this new white guy, with his big glasses and “hiccup” delivery.  But when the final curtain came down on Holly and his band, many in the audience may have known that they had seen, as critic Bruce Elder put it, “the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll”.

Apollo Theater

Photo Source: History of the Harlem Renaissance Website