According to Richard Winters, a decorated U.S. veteran of the Second World War, “War brings out the worst and the best in people.” Indeed, history confirms that violent conflicts do seem to drive responses that can be heroic or hideous in the extreme. The following 20 surprising WWII facts, therefore, illustrate alternating facets of virtue and villainy…
20. Dutch sailors duped the Japanese ingeniously
In 1942 the remaining Dutch survivors of the Battle of the Java Sea avoided capture by disguising their warship as a tropical island. And after covering the decks of the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen with jungle trees and foliage, the cunning sailors slipped past the Japanese under cover of darkness. During daylight hours, however, they kept deadly still. It took them eight long days to reach a safe port in Australia.
19. Crack shot Owen Baggett downed a Japanese plane with just a handgun
In 1943 U.S. Air Force Second Lieutenant Owen J. Baggett managed to take out an enemy plane using nothing more than a M1911 pistol. And his already astonishing feat is even more remarkable considering that he was parachuting to the ground at the time. Baggett and his comrades had bailed after their bomber plane was shot down over Burma. When a Japanese pilot began strafing them in mid-air, however, Baggett drew his handgun, fired four shots and killed him.
18. A Polish Catholic midwife delivered thousands of babies in Auschwitz
The grotesque Dr. Josef Mengele ordered Polish Catholic midwife Stanisława Leszczyńska to exterminate all the babies she delivered in Auschwitz concentration camp. But Stanisława, who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz for assisting ghettoized Jews in the Polish city of Lodz, disobeyed him. In fact, she delivered a total of 3,000 babies in the camp. However, horrifically, more than two-thirds of them were drowned in tubs by the Nazis.
17. One Nazi POW escapee fled halfway across the world
The award for the war’s most slippery POW must go to Franz von Werra. Indeed, after escaping his Allied captors in Canada, the Nazi pilot went on an epic journey across the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Spain and Italy before finally returning to Germany a hero. But after von Werra’s reinstatement in the Luftwaffe, his plane crashed in the ocean in 1941. He was never seen again.
16. A Japanese pilot waged solo war on one Hawaiian island
Eat your heart out, Rambo: in 1941 Japanese pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi became a real-life one-man war machine after crashing his plane on the Hawaiian island of Niʻihau. And after escaping imprisonment at the hands of the natives, he acquired weapons and hostages with the help of three Japanese-descended islanders. Ultimately, however, his solo conflict was doomed to failure, as he was killed by the locals.
15. Eighty per cent of Soviet males born in 1923 died before the end of the war
According to a widely circulated statistic, four out of five Soviet males born in 1923 did not endure the war. And although the exact figure is disputed – some say that two thirds is a more accurate approximation – the 1923 cohort does indeed appear to have been doomed. However, around 50 per cent of their deaths can be attributed to famine, disease and political violence, which actually occurred before the war even started.
14. According to their name, Nazis really are stupid
Like the intellectually feeble “alt-right,” Nazis deserve to be ridiculed for their hateful and implausible philosophy. And, appropriately, the word “Nazi” is not merely an abbreviation of “Nationalsozialist,” but a word derived from a Bavarian colloquialism meaning “simple-minded” or “backwards.” However, the Nazis hardly ever referred to themselves as such, preferring instead the terms “Nationalsozialisten” or “Parteigenosse.”
13. The Nazis stole their anthem from Harvard University
Adolf Hitler was far better at stealing art than creating it, so it’s not surprising that the musical score for the Nazi “Sieg Heil” march was also pilfered. Indeed, the tune was originally composed by Harvard University as a football song called “Fight Harvard! Fight! Fight! Fight!” Harvard graduate and Nazi collaborator Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl was the man responsible for giving the tune to the Third Reich.
12. Hitler’s nephew fought against him on the side of the Allies
Blood is not necessarily thicker than water, as William Hitler, a nephew of Adolf, proved. William was born in Liverpool, England in 1911, before moving to Germany in 1933 and trying to blackmail his uncle into giving him a high-ranking job. He was unsuccessful, however, and eventually fled. William later went on to become a U.S. citizen, joined the Navy and won a Purple Heart. What’s more, he understandably changed his name to Stuart-Houston.
11. Thousands of children were kidnapped by the Nazis and given new lives
The S.S.-led organization Lebensborn was involved in the kidnapping of thousands of European children for the purposes of Germanization. Those considered worthy of inclusion in the German “race”, moreover, were sent to foster parents in the country and given new German monikers. And unfortunately, since records were destroyed, the exact number of children snatched from their biological parents is unknown. Estimates range from anywhere from 10,000 to 200,000, however.
10. Madagascar was the proposed site of a massive program to relocate European Jews
In 1940, shortly before the surrender of France, the so-called “Madagascar Plan” was suggested by the German government. It advised that millions of European Jews be shifted to the French colony island of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa. However, British blockades meant that the plan could not be enacted, and in 1942 the Nazis opted for the Final Solution – the extermination of all Jews – instead.
9. The youngest U.S. serviceman in WWII wasn’t even a teen
Young Calvin Leon Graham lied about his age in order to enlist in the United States Navy. Indeed, this U.S. serviceman joined at just 12, becoming the youngest ever to battle in the Second World War. And Graham even won a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal before his real age was discovered. After being dismissed from the Navy in 1943, however, he went on to join the Marine Corps five years later.
8. U.S. troops received rations of toilet paper seven times greater than their British comrades
Stingy toilet paper rations can’t have done much for the morale of British soldiers, or their personal hygiene. After all, those troops were expected to make do with only three sheets a day. Their American counterparts, meanwhile, enjoyed the comparative luxury of 22. Pity the poor British soldier with a bad stomach!
7. Adolf Hitler’s racial theories were partly “inspired” by U.S. industrialist Henry Ford
Adolf Hitler was apparently very fond of Henry Ford. Indeed, aside from manufacturing automobiles, Ford was known for publishing reams of anti-Semitic propaganda in the United States through his newspaper. “You can tell Herr Ford that I am a great admirer of his,” Hitler is reported to have said. “I shall do my best to put his theories into practice in Germany… I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration.”
6. One Japanese officer kept fighting for decades after the end of the war
Hiroo Onoda, an intelligence officer with the Imperial Japanese Army, was isolated in a remote mountain range in the Philippines. And after refusing to believe the air-dropped leaflets that proclaimed the end of the war in 1945, he continued to wage skirmishes from his highland hold-out for nearly another 30 years. He finally surrendered in 1974 after receiving orders in person from his former commanding officer.
5. High-class prostitutes were enlisted for intelligence gathering by the SS
Salon Kitty was the name of a legendary Berlin brothel used for spying on foreign diplomats. Controlled by the S.S. – which monitored the bedrooms with hidden microphones – the brothel was upscale and lavish. Meanwhile, Kitty’s working girls were specifically trained to extract secrets from their visiting clients with the aid of wine and their natural feminine charms.
4. The board game Monopoly was instrumental in freeing thousands of POWs
Thousands of Allied POWs escaped German captivity thanks to a special edition of the board game Monopoly. Produced by British intelligence, this ingenious version of the game contained silk maps hidden inside playing pieces, a small compass disguised as a token, a metal file and a stash of local currencies hidden in the Monopoly money. The so-called “rigged sets” were distributed by the Red Cross.
3. London Zoo deliberately destroyed dozens of animals at the onset of the war
In the United Kingdom, some of the earliest casualties of the Second World War were animals at London Zoo. “All the Zoo’s venomous snakes, numbering 40, were removed from their cages this afternoon and destroyed,” began an article published by the Daily Telegraph in 1939. Fearing that Nazi bombing raids might result in dangerous animals escaping captivity, the zoo chose to destroy all of its poisonous specimens instead.
2. Hitler’s plan for Moscow would have left nothing but water
Moscow might be a very different place today if Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union had been successful. Indeed, according to the diaries of General Franz Halder, one of Hitler’s head honchos, “Fuhrer [was] firmly determined to level Moscow and Leningrad to the ground…” His ultimate objective, it seems, was to eliminate the city’s four million citizens and to transform the area into an enormous lake.
1. Crystal meth was given to pilots on suicide missions
The unpleasant effects of crystal meth abuse are well-documented: hallucinations, paranoia, aggression and psychosis, to name a few. That makes it even more disturbing to learn that during the war both sides of the conflict used the drug to keep their troops alert. However, only the Japanese gave it to their pilots before their legendary kamikaze missions. The doses, reportedly, were quite high.