World War II completely reshaped our way of life, and while it has been the subject of countless books and movies, most of us know so little about the actual conflict. Far more than just a struggle between Axis and Allies, WWII was full of strange coincidences, heartbreaking stories, and colorful heroes and villains.
No American saw the attack on Pearl Harbor coming. That’s why when pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi crashed his plane in Hawaii following the raid, locals welcomed him to their town and celebrated his unexpected visit with a luau. Once officials learned of his role in the bombing, a firefight ensued that killed the Japanese airman.
People from all walks of life joined the fray — including Queen Elizabeth. Back when she was just a princess, Elizabeth enlisted as a driver and mechanic in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Reporters from the 1940s described, “One of her major joys was to get dirt under her nails and grease stains in her hands, and display these signs of labor to her friends.”
The atomic bomb ended World War II, but that wasn’t the only unusual weapon that government scientists were developing in the 1940s. Japan sought to build a “death ray” that would send out lethal electric waves at enemy forces. This sci-fi invention didn’t pan out — but it wasn’t the only unconventional idea on the Axis side.
Looking to cripple enemy supply lines, German officials considered infesting British farms with the invasive potato beetle. Scientists began breeding the pests, but later abandoned the project when they calculated they would need to somehow transport 40 million of the bugs across the sea.
It’s incredible how almost all American manufacturing turned to the war effort. In auto industry, for instance, companies pumped out 3 million cars in 1941. But while the United States fought in World War II, they only built 139 for domestic use!
In a modern-day David and Goliath twist, the tallest German soldier surrendered to one of the shortest British soldiers. Britain honored Bob Roberts, who reached only 5’3″, for capturing gunner and former circus performer Jakob Nacken, who at 7’3″ towered over everyone else on the battlefield.
World War II took a heavy toll on every nation involved, though many Westerners don’t realize that Russia made the biggest sacrifice of all. In the Battle of Stalingrad, 1.1 million Soviet soldiers and 40,000 civilians lost their lives. Those are more deaths in one battle than the United States or Britain suffered throughout the entire war.
American foodies thought it was unpatriotic to eat foods with German names during the war, so they coined some new terms. Chefs dubbed hamburgers and sauerkraut as “Liberty Steak” and Liberty Cabbage,” respectively. Meanwhile, another treat became viewed as quintessentially American during the war.
American servicemen fighting overseas couldn’t get by without their Coca-Cola. General Eisenhower worked with Coke executives to ensure that soldiers could buy one of their favorite beverages for as little as five cents, no matter the circumstances. As a result, Coke built bottling plants near the various fronts, which helped spread the drink’s popularity all over the world.
Surprisingly, dogfights and air raids were usually deadlier than battles on the ground. The typical life expectancy for a newly enlisted Spitfire pilot around the time of the Battle of Britain was just four weeks. Even on the American side, the Air Corps saw more casualties than the Marines.
The U.S. Navy awarded a Purple Heart to a British-born mate named William Hitler. Though his superiors initially thought it was a joke, he was actually the half-nephew of the German dictator and even worked for him in the 1930s. William wisely changed his last name following the end of the war.
Winston Churchill proved himself to be a brilliant wartime leader, though he wasn’t the easiest man to work with. The Prime Minister insisted on bathing twice a day — no matter how busy he was — and often consulted with close advisors and secretaries while in the nude. Fortunately, when it came to key meetings like the Yalta Conference, he made sure he was fully dressed.
Against the advice of her loved ones, American photographer Lee Miller left Vogue to become a war correspondent. She became one of the most celebrated journalists of her time, in no small part to her pictures of women contributing to the war effort. After the Allies took Berlin, Miller stuck it to the enemy by photographing and sleeping in Hitler’s bed.
Bombing raids often caused collateral damage that nobody could have planned for. The very first bomb that Allied forces dropped on Berlin, for example, didn’t serve much tactical purpose. That’s because it missed and killed the only elephant in the city’s zoo.
Although some historians dispute that he even existed, a Korean man named Yang Kyoungjong supposedly fought for three different armies throughout the war. Initially, the Japanese pressed him and many of his countrymen into service. After the Soviets captured him, they forced him to risk his life in the Red Army until the Germans captured him yet again and brought him into their own ranks.
War heroes weren’t just in the armed forced. Polish midwife Stanisława Leszczyńska found herself incarcerated in Auschwitz, where she personally delivered about 3,000 babies. Although the concentration camp guards killed most of the infants, Leszczyńska’s intervention likely saved the mothers’ lives. She survived Auschwitz and lived until 1974.
Lesley McNair got a promotion in the worst way possible. The American field general — along with 100 others — was killed by friendly fire in France when a group of errant bombers dropped their payload well short of the intended target. After his death, the U.S. government promoted him to general.
Japan formally surrendered after the United States detonated nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki — that’s common knowledge. But if the Asian nation had refused to give in, the American government secretly planned to nuke Tokyo as well.
The youngest service member in World War II was 12-year-old Calvin Graham. After lying about his age, Graham fought and was wounded in the Battle of Guadalcanal. He received multiple medals for his heroism, but these honors were revoked after his family revealed that he belonged in middle school, not on a battlefield.
As the Germans took over more and more of Europe, deciding whether to cooperate was a serious dilemma for many. On one hand, many resistance members were executed or imprisoned for their efforts. On the other, some who collaborated out of fear lost everything, including these French women. Their countrymen stripped off their clothes and shaved their heads in the town square.
In December 1943, American pilot Charlie Brown’s B-17 suffered significant damage from enemy fire. When German fighter pilot Franz Stigler spotted the wounded plane, he didn’t finish it off and instead led Brown towards Allied territory. Years later, Brown wanted to repay Stigler.
When WWll ended, Brown searched for Stigler using a newsletter for pilot veterans. It worked! When the two met, Stigler revealed that it would have been dishonorable to have shot down the damaged plane. The two remained friends until they passed away in 2008.
General Henning Von Tresckow had a simple request when Hitler’s plane landed at his headquarters in 1943: for an aide on Hitler’s staff to deliver liquor bottles to another officer in Berlin. He handed over towel-wrapped bottles that were not what they seemed.
The bottles were actually bombs, set to detonate midflight! Somehow, the plane landed without any explosions. Not to be defeated, Von Tresckow was involved in another failed assassination attempt, which was adapted into the 2008 film Valkyrie.
Georg Elser, a carpenter, was deeply angered with his country as he traveled to Munich in November of ’39. Wanting to make a difference, he planned to assassinate Hitler when the leader attended the celebration of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch.
At the event hall, Elser chiseled into a pillar and placed a timed explosive inside. But on the day, Hitler left early — 13 minutes before detonation. The bomb killed and injured everyone else. Elser was soon executed, leaving Hitler convinced it was an Allied plan.
After the horrors at Auschwitz, the Auschwitz Trials were to hold accountable some 40 prominent members of the Nazi party. But not every one on trial was treated equally. Dr. Hans Münch actually had former prisoners testified in his favor.
Münch saved prisoners from the gas chambers by means of fake experiments. He refused to choose who lived and who died. And as the war ended, he helped an inmate escape. Münch would be the only individual acquitted during the trials.
In the Netherlands, Han Van Meegeren was a frustrated artist, so, to mock the modern art world that he felt ignored him, he forged paintings by Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer. When he sold them, he earned the equivalent to $60 million — and found himself in a lot of trouble.
Trouble came after Van Meegeren, below, sold a painting to Hermann Goering of the Nazi party. It was considered a capital sentence. To save himself, he told the truth and was convicted of the lesser sentence of forgery. Before an appeal could be made, Van Meegeren succumbed to a heart attack.
Edward Slovik was drafted into the US army in 1944. Deployed in France, he deserted two times, afraid of serving along the front lines. He was placed in the stocks and told charges against him would be dismissed if he went back to his unit.
But he didn’t want to fight. Figuring he’d get a short prison sentence, he refused to return to the fighting. General Eisenhower punished him severely, making Slovik the only US soldier to be executed for desertion.
Juan Pujol, a Spaniard, gained the trust of the German intelligence service, Abwehr, by sending intelligence he had collected in Britain. But unbeknownst to them, Pujol had never been to Britain. He created the “intelligence” with the help of films, newspapers, and pure imagination.
Pujol soon talked his way into MI5 and became the spy he always wanted to be. His most important deception involved diverting the German high command away from the true location of the D-Day landing. Oblivious to it all, the Nazis awarded Pujol with their highest honor, the Iron Cross.
Milwaukee-born Mildred Fish and her husband, Arvid Harnack, were in Germany as Hitler rose to power. The couple and close associates believed the Soviet Union would be the last obstacle stopping complete Nazi tyranny in Europe. They wanted to do something.
So, the couple joined a communist espionage network called The Red Orchestra, which provided intelligence to the USSR. The group, however, was compromised, and a betrayal led to Arvid’s execution. Mildred faced the guillotine. She was the only American woman executed by Hitler.
In 1945, the German ocean liner, Cap Arcona, was transporting concentration camp prisoners. The British believed it was carrying escaping members of the SS and attacked the vessel. The results were catostrophic.
In what is considered one of the worst maritime disasters in history, the British fired on the ship, not realizing the ship carried prisoners as well, and killed all but 50 of the 5,000 passengers!
In Papago Park, Arizona, a prison camp held German POWs. Among them, 25 were determined to return to their home country. They got cash, some phony IDs, and even made a raft to sail the Gila River. And in December of 1944, they escaped through a tunnel they made.
The FBI and Native American scouts went after them. Several POWs were stranded in bad weather and turned themselves in. The raft proved useless, so the rafters were caught. By January, the last prisoner was captured at a railway station in Phoenix.