World War II lasted six years, 1939-1945. It was not a lengthy war in terms of history, yet it was epic in its scale in that it not only involved almost the entire world, as the name would imply, but reshaped the world as we knew it for generations to come. It is a period in history that is still talked about today; debated and analyzed; still truly fascinating to young people, those who lived through it, and to historians, alike. There were so many incredible stories to arise out of the ashes of the devastation the war caused that many are just too inconceivable to be believed. There are tales of bravery, indomitable spirit, sheer luck, and incredible honor in the face of horrors beyond belief.
These stories include the Dutch minesweeper that evaded the Japanese fleet for eight days by disguising itself as an island. It’s true! The crew covered the decks in trees and painted surfaces to look like rocks. The ship remained anchored on a woody shoreline during the day and only travelled by night, eventually escaping to Australia, with the enemy never the wiser! Or, the story of Sergeant Leonard Funk who, when caught, was confronted by ninety German soldiers. In the face of hopeless odds, he began to laugh hysterically at them. The enemy soldiers seemed befuddled and soon began to laugh with him, until Funk stopped laughing and quickly opened fire with his machine gun, killing twenty-one and capturing the rest. You can’t make this stuff up!
There’s even the story of a British tail gunner who decided to jump out of his plane without a parachute rather than burn to death. He fell 18,000 feet to the ground and survived! German soldiers witnessed his fall, captured him, and turned him over to the Gestapo. Impressed with the airman’s ability to survive, they quickly issued him a document certifying his story as proof that it actually occurred. That’s just three of the many unbelievable stories that have come out of World War II; stories that continue to amaze us to this day. Join us as we reveal 25 more incredible and fascinating facts about that period in history.
25. The Most Decorated Soldier of WWII
The most decorated soldier of World War II is the U.S. Army’s Audie Murphy, a young Texas farm boy who was too short to be a marine and too frail to be a paratrooper. The Army eventually accepted him as an infantryman. He was assigned to the 15th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, and first saw combat in 1943, in the invasion of Sicily. He proved himself an able soldier and gifted marksman. Enlisting as a private, his bravery and skills quickly earned him advancements in rank, eventually accepting a battlefield promotion to second lieutenant. Murphy participated in a total of nine campaigns, including Naples, Anzio, Rome, Rhineland, and Central Europe. However, it was in the invasion of southern France, where he was to distinguish himself even beyond his already weighty reputation.
It was January 26, 1945, near Holtzwihr, in eastern France. Lt. Murphy’s unit came under attack by German forces. Up against six Panzer tanks and 250 infantrymen, Murphy ordered his men to retreat. He mounted a burning tank destroyer and held back the enemy’s advance with a single machine gun. Wounded by gunfire, Murphy held his position for almost an hour, single-handedly killing 50 enemy soldiers, coming at him from three sides. His dauntless actions stalled the enemy advance long enough for his unit to reorganize and mount a counterattack which eventually drove the enemy from Holtzwihr. For his actions, Audie Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for gallantry. By war’s end, still not even 21 years old, Lieutenant Audie Murphy had earned every medal for bravery his country could bestow, including the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, and three Purple Hearts. He was also decorated with the French Legion of Honor, two French Croix de Guerres, and the Belgian Croix de Guerre 1940 with Palm.
24. The Real Meaning of “Nazi”
They were the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), Nazi for short. However, did you know that the group did not refer to themselves as Nazis? No, they called themselves National Socialists, or Nasos. The term Nazi was coined by German-American journalist Konrad Heiden, as a way to belittle the political group. Nazi, you see, actually refers to the word Naczi, which was vernacular for “simple minded,” or a “foolish person.” The term was popularized abroad by German exiles and eventually spread back to Europe where opponents of National Socialism favored the disparaging term.
According to the 24th edition of Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (2002), Naczi is derived from the masculine proper name Ignatz, Germanic for Ignatius. Ignatz was popular as a name in Catholic Austria and was even used in World War I as a generic German term for soldiers of Austria-Hungary. Hitler’s Third Reich generally avoided the term. To avoid any sort of blemish to socialism, the Soviet Union banned the term Nazi, and national socialist, after 1932. Soviet literature refers to the Third Reich as fascists.
23. The Ace of Aces
“Ace” is a term given a military aviator credited with shooting down a number of enemy aircraft, normally at least five, during aerial combat. World War II produced several pilots who qualified for the status. The top United States ace of the war was Major Richard Ira Bong of the U.S. Army Air Forces. While serving in the Pacific Theater, Major Bong shot down a total of 40 enemy aircraft. The top ace of the United Kingdom was South African-born Squadron Leader Marmaduke “Pat” Pattle. Squadron Leader Pattle shot down a total of 40 enemy aircraft while serving in the Mediterranean Theater. Neither of these men is even close to the pilot who is referred to as “The Ace of Aces, “Major Erich Hartmann of the German Luftwaffe. Hartmann is credited with shooting down an astonishing 352 enemy aircraft while assigned along the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union. Hartmann is the greatest ace in the history of aviation warfare; however, if you asked Hartmann, he was more proud of the fact that in all of his aerial encounters, he never lost a wingman.
When the war ended, Hartmann surrendered near the Bavarian-Czech border, and was taken into custody by the Soviet Red Army. He was sentenced to 50 years of hard labor in Siberia. Despite refusing to aid in the build-up of the East German Air Force, Hartmann was eventually released and returned to West Germany in 1955. The following year, he joined the new West German Luftwaffe, where he commanded their first all-jet unit. As a result of often clashing with his superiors, Hartmann resigned in 1970, as a colonel. He spent the rest of his years as a flight instructor and even joined an aerobatics team with fellow Luftwaffe ace, Adolf Galland. Hartmann passed away on September 20, 1993.
22. The Academy Award-Winning General
Many Hollywood actors put their careers on hold and joined the U.S. military during World War II. Many were officers, some saw combat, but none achieved the military status of academy award-winner James Stewart. Nominated for an Academy Award no less than five times, winning one in 1941, for The Philadelphia Story. The previous year, Stewart had been drafted into the U.S. Army, but was rejected due to being underweight. In March 1941, after putting on a little extra weight, he applied to the Army Air Corps and was accepted. Enlisting at the rank of private, he quickly was advanced to a second lieutenant in 1942, due to his extensive flight experience, having already been a certified civilian pilot. Initially assigned as a trainer and to make promotional videos, he eventually got assigned overseas where he flew combat missions in a B-24 Bomber over Nazi-occupied Europe.
By 1944, Stewart was promoted to Colonel and appointed chief of staff of the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing of the 8th U.S. Air Force. He became one of only a few American soldiers to ever be promoted from private to colonel within four years! After World War II, Stewart remained active in the Air Force Reserve and, on July 24, 1959, attained the rank of brigadier general. During the Vietnam War, General Stewart quietly joined the crew of a B-52 on a bombing mission before retiring from the Air Force on May 31, 1968. For his distinguished service in combat, Stewart received two Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Air Medals, an Army Commendation Medal, and a French Croix de Guerre with Palm. On May 23, 1985, U.S. President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and promoted him to Major General on the U.S. Air Force Retired list.
21. Only American Executed for Desertion in WWII
Thousands of soldiers deserted during World War II. Most were caught and punished. Hitler alone executed 50,000 German soldiers for desertion or cowardice. Some sources say that there were over 50,000 American soldiers who deserted as well. The maximum punishment in many countries for desertion is death. Out of all the American desertions in World War II, only one was executed: Private Eddie Slovik. He was a 1944 draftee, shipped to France as part of the 28th Infantry Division. That division had already suffered massive casualties and Slovik was to be a replacement. On his way to the front lines, Slovik became lost in the bedlam of battle and came upon a Canadian unit. He remained with the Canadians for two months before being returned to his unit.
He wasn’t charged for being absent; however, one day later, Slovik claimed he was “too scared and too nervous” and would only run away if he faced combat. Soon, he made good on his promise and fled. He was immediately captured and returned to his unit, promising to run away again, even putting it in writing. After officers plead him to take his written confession back, Slovik refused and was confined to the stockade. He was tried for desertion and quickly convicted. The court issued a unanimous sentence of death by firing squad. Many soldiers were sentenced to death for desertion but all had their sentences commuted at the last minute. Slovik’s appeal was filed and sent to be reviewed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander. American forces were suffering heavy casualties in France and an example needed to be made; Eisenhower upheld the sentence. On January 31, 1945, Private Eddie Slovik was shot for desertion, the first American executed for the crime since the Civil War.
20. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team
The most decorated unit ever in U.S. military history is the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Altogether, members of the unit were awarded 4,695 major medals, awards, and citations. These decorations included two Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 588 Silver Stars, 4,000 Bronze Stars, along with 54 others medals. Members of the unit also received 9,486 Purple Hearts, 22 Legions of Merit, and 12 French Croix de Guerres. The unit held the distinction of having never had a single case of desertion. The unit was activated on February 1, 1943, at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. The enlisted personnel were composed entirely of Nisei volunteers. Nisei were Japanese-Americans born in the United States of Japanese immigrants. Most of them couldn’t speak Japanese and all considered themselves very thoroughly American, despite prejudices against them. All the Nisei were from the internment camps, Hawaii, as well as Japanese-American soldiers who were already serving in the U.S. Army when war broke out.
This distinguished unit fought in five major campaigns in the European and Mediterranean Theaters, including Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arno, Rhineland and the Northern Apennines, as well as some units participating in combat in Southern France and Central Europe. The unit received seven Distinguished Unit Citations, for extraordinary heroism in action against an enemy. When Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, despite opposition in Congress, the Texas Congressional Delegation of Jim Wright, Sam Rayburn, and Lyndon B. Johnson all cited the 442nd RCT’s rescue of the Texas “Lost Battalion” in France during the war as having heavily influenced their resolve to get Hawaii into the U.S.
19. The Happy Prisoners
During World War II, over 35,000 German prisoners were held in Canada at a series of prisoner of war camps. Out of all the German soldiers, sailors, and airmen held in those camps, many considered it, as one prisoner once remarked, “the best thing that happened to me,” with thousands wanting to stay after the war ended. In June 1940, Winston Churchill asked Canada to accept prisoners of war from British camps. Canadian camps were spread from Alberta to New Brunswick, with the largest being at Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, in Alberta. The largest two were built to house 12,500 prisoners each, containing 350-man dormitories, two 3,000 man recreation halls, six education buildings, six workshops, and six dining halls. Each camp had established sports and entertainment, including handball, boxing, wrestling, gymnastics, tennis, and skating. One camp had a 45-piece orchestra; another had a 55-piece band, as well as several smaller prisoner musical groups. The prisoners could find employment, usually on farms or logging camps. Many farmers housed the German workers off camp for days at a time. By 1945, over 11,000 prisoners were off at work, many becoming like family to the farmers. Some prisoners were avid hunters back in Germany and would occasionally even join their farm supervisors in short hunting excursions.
Finally, in 1946, the British government sent for all the German prisoners to be returned to Britain for processing back to Germany. Some were able to make their way back to Canada to make their home, many due to job opportunities, with others due to learning of the wartime atrocities committed by their fellow countrymen. Many didn’t relocate back to Canada, yet thousands did choose to return for visits to their former captors.
18. Hitler Joined the U.S. Navy?
Okay, maybe not really. It was Adolf Hitler’s nephew, William Hitler. William Hitler actually served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. It is easy to assume that all of Hitler’s family was Germanic. However, Adolf did have a half-brother, Alois Jr., who left Germany in the late 19th century and relocated to Ireland. He ended up settling in Liverpool having married Bridget Dowling in 1910, who subsequently gave birth to William Patrick Hitler in 1911. This young English Hitler would prove quite troublesome to Adolf later in life. In 1933, after Adolf had taken control of Germany, William went to his uncle and threatened to leak embarrassing family stories to the media, possibly even revealing alleged Jewish ancestors. Adolf was forced to accommodate his nephew by offering him a well-paying job in a bank and then in the automobile industry.
In 1938, William published an article for a British magazine entitled “Why I Hate My Uncle.” He was a thorn in Adolf’s side and William soon realized that he was in danger of being eliminated to prevent any scandal from threatening Adolf’s claim to power. In early 1939, William fled to the United States, joining the Navy in 1944, where he eagerly fought his uncle’s forces in World War II. After the war, William changed his surname to Stuart-Houston, and lived his remaining life quietly in New York, where he married and had four sons. While William Hitler’s impact on the war was minimal, his anti-Nazi attitudes highlight the fact that even those who were close to Adolf Hitler weren’t always captivated by his magnetism or ideology.
17. The Last Witch in Britain
World War II was a period of turmoil and tragedy throughout the world. It was even the period of time when the last witch trial in Great Britain occurred! In 1944, a Scottish medium named Helen Duncan became to last person to be tired under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Incredible to believe, but deep in the midst of World War II, the British government chose to prosecute a witch.
Helen Duncan was born in Callander, in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1897. She was a medium who travelled Britain, holding séances and spewing ectoplasm. She claimed the spirits would appear, talk, and even touch their relatives, and she was very well-known. On January 19, 1944, police arrested her during one of her séances in Portsmouth. Secretly preparing for D-Day, the Allied invasion of France, military leadership was in a heightened state and was afraid that Duncan might disclose sensitive information during her contact with the sprits. They were alarmed when they learned that Duncan had mentioned the sinking of two British battleships months before the tragedy had been made public. She had told the parents of a missing sailor that the HMS Barham had sunk which was true, but had not been released to save morale. After a seven-day trial at the Old Bailey in London, Duncan was sentenced to nine months imprisonment. She was released on September 22, 1944, but faced continued police harassment until her death on December 6, 1956. Ultimately the Witchcraft Acts were repealed in 1951, and spiritualism officially recognized as a religion by Parliament three years later.
16. The Koreans Who Couldn’t Catch A Break
For many years prior to World War II, Korea was under the heel of the Japanese Empire. Once war erupted, Korean men were conscripted to serve in the Japanese Imperial Army. There was a small group of these Korean soldiers in World War II who, after being forced into the Japanese Army, were subsequently captured and forced into the Soviet Army, then captured and forced to serve the German Army, and then ended up finally being captured by the American Army. These poor guys just couldn’t catch a break!
Yang Kyoungjong was one of these Korean soldiers. He was rounded up with many other young Korean men and forced into the Japanese Army in 1938. He then fought the Soviet Red Army at the Battle of Khalkhyn Gol, where he was captured and imprisoned by the Soviets. Once Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and the Soviets suffered from military labor shortages, captured Eastern Front soldiers were moved to the West and forced to fight the German Army. Wearing his new Red Army uniform, he fought at the Third Battle of Kharkov in the Ukraine. Again, he was captured. With the German Army now facing manpower shortages, Yang was taken from his prison camp and put in a German uniform. He was sent to France to face the Allied invasion. American paratroopers captured Yang in June 1944, at Utah Beach. Yang had mostly fought alongside fellow captured prisoners forced to fight for their captors. He, and his fellow prisoners, would finally be removed from the fighting when the Americans relocated them to prison camp to sit out the rest of World War II.
15. The First Conscientious Objector To Be Awarded a Medal of Honor
A conscientious objector is someone who is opposed to serving in the armed forces, or bearing arms, on the grounds that it violates their moral or religious convictions. The first conscientious objector to have ever been awarded the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest award for gallantry in combat, was Desmond T. Doss, an unarmed U.S. Army medic who saved the lives of many of his fellow soldiers on Okinawa. Doss was a devout Seventh-day Adventist. When Doss was drafted in April 1942, he was given conscientious objector status and became a medic, the only way he believed he could adhere to his principles and still serve his country. Though harassed by fellow soldiers for his beliefs, he still distinguished himself with the 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division, as a combat medic on Guam and at Leyte in the Philippines. He received the Bronze Star for meritorious combat service, before participating in the taking of Okinawa in the spring of 1945.
Private Doss was with his unit as they were taking the 400-foot-high Maeda Escarpment on Okinawa, in May 1945, when the Japanese launched a counterattack. The soldiers were driven back but many wounded remained stuck on the ridge. Private Doss remained at their side providing aid, refusing to seek cover, and carried them, one by one, under heavy enemy fire, out of harm’s way and then lowered each one to a safe location 35 feet below the ridge before coming down himself. President Harry S. Truman presented Doss with the Medal of Honor on October 12, 1945, for his courageous actions on Okinawa, crediting him with personally saving the lives of 75 soldiers. After the war, Doss devoted his life to working with the church. He passed away at his home in Piedmont, Alabama, on March 23, 2006.
14. Honor Among Pilots
It was 1943, just a few days before Christmas; Lieutenant Charlie Brown of the U.S. Army Air Force was piloting his B-17 Bomber back from a mission over Germany. His crew and his plane were badly shot up and were barely able to stay in the air. Soon, Lt. Brown sighted a German Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter closing in on him. He could do nothing but keep flying. The Bf-109 flew right up on him, visually inspecting the bomber from all angles. Lt. Brown expected the fighter to finish them off, but instead the German pilot issued a salute to the American flyer and escorted the bomber out to the North Sea and safely into English air space.
The German pilot, Lieutenant Franz Stigler was a fighter ace credited with shooting down 45 planes. His mission that day was to shoot down any and all Allied aircraft he encountered. Believing Brown’s bomber to no longer be a threat, due to its heavy damage, he couldn’t bring himself to shoot it down. Instead, he chose to escort the bomber out of the battle zone. This was very dangerous for Stigler, as he risked being shot at by the wary American bomber crew, or even turned in by his own air force for failing to engage the enemy. However, luckily, both pilots, Lt. Brown and Lt. Stigler, survived the war. Years later, in 1987, Charlie Brown attempted to locate the pilot that spared his life that day. He found Franz Stigler living in Canada. After years of phone conversations, the pair finally reunited in 1990, sparking a new friendship from a decades-long admiration.
13. The Final Cavalry Charge in Military History
It was early in the pre-dawn hours of August 24, 1942; the 2000-strong Siberian 812th Infantry Regiment had crushed opposition and was closing in their objective of Izbushensky. This was along the Eastern Front, as part of the Soviet Red Army’s counteroffensive against the invading Axis forces. Italy’s Savoia Cavalleria, a horse-mounted cavalry regiment, was called in as a relief force to close a gap near the Don River. With the Soviets approaching, Colonel Alessandro Bettoni Cazzago, having no other choice, ordered his Savoia Cavalleria to charge the enemy. With sabers drawn, the 600-man cavalry yelled out their traditional battle cry, “Savoia!” and charged headlong into battle with a modern infantry regiment armed with machine guns and mortars. With that battle cry began the final cavalry charge in military history. The Savoia Cavalleria charged in tight formation and tore into the left frank of the Soviets. Tossing grenades and slashing with their sabers, the Italians passed through the line and then back again breaking up the Soviet positions. Despite their superior numbers, the Soviet Red Army lost the battle, with 150 soldiers killed and 600 taken prisoner. The Italians suffered a loss of only 40 men and 100 horses.
Though many experts believe smaller and less-documented cavalry charges probably occurred elsewhere in World War II, this one is generally mentioned as the last major charge recorded. It had been believed that rapid-fire weapons had, for all intents and purposes, rendered cavalry charges obsolete; fortified positions, barbed wire, trenches, tanks, and automatic weapons seemed to be more than a match for any traditional cavalry unit. In modern warfare, horse cavalry had been replaced by helicopters and tanks. Yet, for one brief moment in 1942, the horse cavalry was redeemed as it proved triumphant over a “superior” enemy.
12. “Mad Jack” Churchill
Lieutenant Colonel “Mad Jack” Churchill was a true military legend! He retired from the British Army in 1936, spending his time working as a newspaper editor, movie extra, and a professional male model. He was a skilled bagpipe player and an accomplished archer, representing England in the 1939 Archery World Championships. In 1940, he rejoined the British Army. He proved himself to be a gallant and talented leader, if not a little eccentric. You see, “Mad Jack” was known for leading his men into battle with his signature cry, “Commando!” and his bagpipes and longbow on his back, wielding a broadsword in his hand. Churchill was trained to be a commando and led the Number 2 Commandos in operations in Norway, Italy, and Yugoslavia. During the British invasion of Salerno, Churchill single-handedly captured 42 German prisoners using only his broadsword. His sheer intensity and the imposing sword left the Germans stunned.
During a 1944 operation in Yugoslavia, most of his men had been either killed or badly wounded and Churchill had run out of ammunition. He began playing his bagpipes awaiting his inevitable death and was then knocked unconscious by a nearby grenade. He was captured and sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp; however, he promptly escaped. He was later captured again in 1945, and shipped off to a prison camp in Austria, where he once more proved too hard to hold, He escaped again, eventually making it back to England. When asked about his signature broadsword, Churchill remarked, “…any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.” Churchill is also credited with the last bow and arrow killing in military action when, in 1940, he killed a German sergeant in France with an arrow through the heart.
11. The Last Führer
Adolf Hitler had been Chancellor of Germany since 1933, head of the German government. The President of Germany, the head of state, had been the ageing, popular Field Marshal Paul Von Hindenburg. Upon Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler merged the two positions and began to refer to himself as Germany’s Führer (“leader”). On April 30, 1945, after the death of Adolf Hitler, in accordance with his last will and testament, his successor as head of state became Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander-in-chief of the German Navy. Though Hitler stipulated Dönitz title himself President of Germany and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, he was, in effect the last Führer of Germany’s Third Reich.
Dönitz quickly setup his government in Flensburg-Murwik, on the Danish border. There, the Flensburg Government ran for twenty days, while Dönitz orchestrated the surrender of Third Reich to Allied nations, which occurred on May 8, 1945. The Allies allowed Dönitz to conduct government business until May 23, when British forces arrested Donitz and dismantled his government. He stood trial at Nuremberg for war crimes, and received the sentence of ten years in Spandau Prison. He was released in 1956, living the remainder of his life near Hamburg, Germany. He published two memoirs, 1956 and 1966, maintaining that he had no knowledge of Hitler’s atrocities. Dönitz passed away on December 24, 1980. As the last German Grand Admiral, his funeral was attended by many former serviceman and foreign naval officers.
10. Germany’s Missed Chance
Many historians consider the turning point in the war with Germany was Hitler’s failed attempt at the invasion of the Soviet Union. His supply line was stretched too thin and his forces were ill-prepared for the harsh winters of the Soviet Union. It spelled the beginning of the end for Hitler’s Third Reich. What many don’t know is that Germany very nearly won the war against the Soviet Union. When Germany invaded in 1941, in Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s forces opened up a 1,500 mile (2,400 km) Eastern Front into the Soviet Union (that is longer than the entire eastern seaboard of the United States!). Soon after the June 1941 invasion, Bulgaria’s Ambassador to Moscow, basically Germany’s political representative to Moscow, Ivan Stamenov, met with a representative of Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, Soviet Minister of Internal Affairs and prominent Communist Party official. This representative, intelligence official Pavel Sudoplatov, relayed information that Stalin still wanted peace and was ready to make huge territorial concessions to end the invasion. This included ceding over the Ukraine as well much of the territory that Germany had already occupied by that time.
The overture was passed along by the Ambassador to officials in Berlin. This attempt at peace only strengthened Hitler’s resolve, believing it signalled the Soviet Union’s impending collapse, he chose to ignore their call for peace negotiations. This would ultimately prove Hitler’s undoing as Stalin’s seemingly unending supply of troops would go on to outlast Hitler’s dwindling supplies and weather-beaten troops. Some believe this call for peace was simply a stall by Stalin to gain the time needed to gather his forces and send them west. Others say it symbolized Stalin’s loss of a sense of reality, still trying to salvage his relationship with Germany.
9. Germany’s Secret Base in North America
It was called Wetter-Funkgerät Land-26, or Weather Station Kurt, and it was an automated weather station installed by a German U-boat crew in northern Labrador, in Newfoundland, in October 1943. This was the only known armed German military operation that occurred on land in North America during World War II, and no one found out about it until 1977!
It all started when the Germans began to send weather specialists to the Arctic north to set up bases and ascertain weather patterns that could affect Europe. This was a dangerous task and proved fatal for many of these weather crews, not only from the harsh weather but from Allied codebreakers who would discover their plans and send troops to intercept them. Soon, the Germans discovered that setting up an automated weather station could still get the necessary information back to Berlin without any risk to personnel. On October 22, 1943, the German submarine U-537 arrived at Martin’s Bay, on the coast of Labrador, today part of Canada. Within 48 hours, “Kurt,” built by Siemens, was installed and immediately began broadcasting eight times a day for a couple of minutes each time, sending invaluable information about wind direction and speed. There he remained for years without ever being discovered. In 1977, a geomorphologist named Peter Johnson came upon “Kurt,” but thought it was a Canadian military installation and dubbed it “Martin Bay 7,” giving it no more thought. That is until a retired Siemens engineer named Franz Selinger was looking over archival papers and learned of “Kurt.” He contacted officials in Canada who sent a team, discovering that Martin Bay 7 was in fact, Weather Station Kurt. What was perhaps Nazi Germany’s greatest spy was dismantled and reassembled, cleaned up, and put on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
8. The Longest Serving Soldier, 70 Years
When General of the Army Omar N. Bradley died in New York City, on April 8, 1981, so passed the nation’s last 5-star general. Born in 1893, and a 1915 graduate of U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Bradley went on to serve with distinction in World War II, commanding troops in both the Mediterranean and European Theaters. On August 1, 1944, he assumed command of the 12th Army Group, consisting of over 1 million troops, four armies, twelve corps, forty-eight divisions; it was the largest group of American soldiers to ever serve under one field commander! He served as U.S. Army Chief of Staff in February 1948, and in August 1949, President Truman appointed Bradley the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The following year, on September 22, 1950, Congress approved promoting Bradley to 5-star General of the Army.
He retired from active service in August 1953; however, by the nature of the law that created the five-star rank, officers holding it can never truly retire. They continue to draw full active duty pay for life, are afforded official military office space as well as a staff. As such, General Bradley remained busy, acting as an advisor to Presidents, representing the United States at military functions overseas, as well as serving as military advisor for the Academy Award – winning film, Patton (1970), where he was portrayed by actor Karl Malden. One of General Bradley’s final public appearances was the guest of honor at the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in January 1981. Since his death, no American soldier has held 5-star rank in any armed service. Since General Bradley could not officially retire, he served his nation a total of 70 years, making him the longest serving soldier.
7. The British Pet Holocaust
Did you know that some of the unsung British victims of World War II were the beloved pets? It wasn’t the German bombs that threatened the lives of the poor animals, but the lack of food. There was no allotment of food rations for pets. It was the summer of 1939, just after war broke out, the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC) drafted a notice to all pet owners. The notice read, “If at all possible, send or take your household animals into the country in advance of an emergency.” It continued, “If you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed.” The notice was printed in almost every newspaper and even announced on the BBC. After war was declared that September, veterinarians and pet shelters were inundated with people dropping of their pets by the thousands to be euthanized, which only increased after the first bombing of London the following year.
One pet shelter, at Battersea, managed to feed and care for 145,000 dogs during the war without having to put any to sleep, but they were the exception. The Royal Army Veterinary Corps, as well as the RSPCA, tried to stop the culling, particularly with dogs, as they were needed by the military for the war effort, but hysteria had caught on. It is a sad footnote to an already tragic war that 750,000 pets were killed by their British owners in just one week.
6. Last Japanese Soldier to Surrender
Did you know that the last Japanese soldier to surrender only did so a full 29 years after the war ended? It’s true! In 1944, Hiroo Onoda, an intelligence officer with the Imperial Japanese Army was stationed on a remote Philippines island with orders to carry out guerilla warfare against U.S. soldiers. His commanding officer ordered him to remain faithful to his duties and that he would return for him. When Japan surrendered in 1945, leaflets were dropped throughout the islands informing all Japanese soldiers to surrender. Onoda and his men believed it to be a trick and an attempt to flush out his position. Even after the rest of his unit passed away, Onoda remained in the jungle of Lubang Island for the next 29 years, eating bananas, coconuts, and whatever animals he could catch.
Finally, an explorer named Norio Suzuki heard of the reluctant soldier and went in search of him in order to convince him that the war was really over. He found Onoda in 1974, but Onoda refused to relinquish his position until he received orders from his commander. Suzuki searched and discovered that Onoda’s former commander was still alive and living in Japan. The former commanding officer journeyed with Onoda back to Lubang and personally issued official orders to Onoda that his mission was complete and that it was time to come home. Only then did World War II officially end for Lt. Hiroo Onoda. The Japanese government offered Onoda 30 years of back pay for his military service, which he refused. He retired quietly and became a successful entrepreneur and cattle rancher.
5. The Last Prisoner of War (POW)
At the end of World War II, the Allies immediately released most of their prisoners of war; those that weren’t being held for war crimes. The Soviet Union released most of their prisoners by the mid-1950s, at the latest. However, the last official prisoner of war from World War II to be repatriated was a Hungarian-born German soldier captured by the Red Army in 1945. He was discovered still being held at a Russian psychiatric hospital in 2014. He was 84-year old Reinhard Kunze, who was only 14 years old when he was captured by Soviet troops during the Battle of Berlin, in January 1945. He had been held in various labor camps for 69 years. In an “act of good will,” the Russian government announced that they would return Kunze home.
Kunze was recruited as part of the Hitler Youth into the 12th SS Panzer Division in 1943. When captured, the Red Army accused him of executing Yakov Dzhugashvili, the son of Josef Stalin, at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in April 1943. Stalin’s son had been captured during the Battle of Stalingrad and was executed after Stalin refused to accept him in exchange for the German Field Marshal Friedrich Von Paulus. Stalin had decreed that no matter when the other German POW’s were released, the murderer of his son would remain in forced labor camps until his death. Successive Soviet and Russian governments upheld Stalin’s wishes, even though there was no real legal legitimacy for his imprisonment. It is surprising the Russian government admitted that he was being held, as it constituted admittance that a German citizen had been illegally imprisoned for almost 70 years, who horrifyingly enough was taken into custody at the age of only 14!
4. 1942 Nazi Invasion of the United States
In 1942, in the midst of World War II, two German submarines stealthily landed men ashore at two locations along the Eastern coast of the United States. Their mission: sabotage. They were to strike at America’s industrial machine, disrupting hydroelectric plants, factories, railroads, bridges, and the water supply of New York City. These saboteurs were well-trained and well-equipped. Why haven’t you ever heard about it? Well, it all started shortly after Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. He was eager to prove that, despite its distance from Europe, the United States was still vulnerable. He ordered the German Military Intelligence Corps to recruit eight German expatriates who had returned from America and organize them into two teams.
One team leader was George Dasch, a World War I veteran who immigrated to America, joined by Ernest Burger, a Detroit machinist and American citizen. The teams shipped off for America, with Dasch’s team arriving near Long Island and the other team landing near Jacksonville, Florida. Dasch’s team went to Manhattan, where he and Burger disclosed to each other that they were planning to betray the mission and turn themselves in. Dasch contacted the FBI and gave up the entire mission. With the men’s help, the FBI rounded up both teams. A military tribunal was convened in July 1942. The saboteurs pleaded innocence, denounced Nazism and insisted that they all had no intention of actually engaging in sabotage. Six of the Germans were found guilty and executed. Burger was sentenced to life imprisonment, while Dasch was given 30 years. In 1948, the two men were released and deported to Germany, where they were maligned for causing the deaths of their fellow soldiers. Dash unsuccessfully tried to return to the United States, before disappearing from public life entirely.
3. The City That Stops For One Minute Every Year
Have you ever been to Warsaw, Poland? Have you ever noticed that on August 1st, for one minute, the entire city just stops in their tracks? This solemn moment occurs every year, for 60 seconds, at 5:00 P.M., on August 1, and has since 1944. Busses stop, people stop walking, everyone stops working, the city come to a standstill, no matter what they were doing to take a minute to remember.
It’s an annual tradition to honor the memory of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the failed effort to liberate the city from Nazi occupation. Now, at that same time every year, sirens sound off throughout the city and all movement ceases in a moment of remembrance. They remember the 200,000 killed in that 63-day long uprising where the Polish Army rose up against the Nazis. The Polish had hoped that their attack would correspond with the Soviet Red Army’s advance, leaving the German forces vulnerable but alas it was not to be. So now, every August 1, the entire city of Warsaw halts for a full minute to honor their dead.
2. The Polish Warrior Bear
World War II saw many different soldiers from many walks of life thrown into the war effort for their countries; none more different than Wojtek the Polish warrior bear. It all began when a small bear cub named Wojtek was sold to some Polish soldiers in Iran. He was adopted by the men of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. Wojtek went with them to Iraq and Egypt as a sort of mascot. The bond between the bear and the soldiers of the unit was strong. When they wanted to take him on board a ship bound for Italy, Wojtek had to be officially enlisted as a soldier. He was issued a pay book, though he received no money, he did receive double rations, and as such was officially a Polish soldier. When he was very small, the soldiers treated him like a baby, feeding him milk from a bottle, with Wojtek growing up believing these soldiers were his parents.
Wojtek would pass the time boxing with the soldiers, asking for unlit cigarettes, which he would eat, and he enjoyed drinking beer; standing at nearly 2 meters (6 feet) and weighing 200 kg (440 lbs), he never got drunk. Wojtek kept up the troops’ morale. During battles, Wojtek pulled his weight, carrying shells to soldiers needing ammunition. In fact, the company emblem was a picture of Wojtek carrying a shell. Wojtek continued on with the unit to Scotland. There, when the unit was demobilized, Wojtek took up residence at the Edinburgh Zoo, where he was often visited by his former comrades of the 22nd Artillery. Wojtek died in 1963, much to the sorrow of his old unit.
1. German POW’s in the U.S.
Just like Canada, the United States was home during the war to many German prisoners of war, though it was advertised publicly. Surprisingly, many of these German prisoners were allowed outside of their camps without guards and none of those were reported as having tried to escape. From 1942 to 1945, more than 400,000 German prisoners were detained in camps in rural America. Approximately 500 prison camps were built throughout the United States. While the camps were filling up, there was a labor shortage in farms and factories across the country. Thousands of German prisoners were assigned jobs at canneries, mills, farms, and just about any place there were needed. This was legal according to the Geneva Convention, as long the prisoners were paid.
At first civilian workers were apprehensive about having the enemy working alongside them. Many believed the POW’s were hardcore Nazis, but most of them had no political affiliation or sympathy with the Nazi Party. Many quickly overcame their uneasiness as they grew to know the German workers, many of whom were just happy to be out of the war. One former prisoner, Hans Waecker, who was held at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, returned to the United States after the war and later retired a medical doctor in Georgetown, Maine. He remarked, “Our treatment was excellent. Many POWs complained about being POWs – no girlfriends, no contact with family. But the food was excellent and clothing adequate.” They were allowed entertainment such as sports, theater, games, and books. After the war, the Germans were repatriated back home, some maintaining communications with their former American “foster” families, who would commonly mail care packages of food and clothing to them in Germany.