World War II was a tragedy filled mass conflict with numerous strategic mistakes, violations of international law and general military weight-throwing. But amongst the fighting were many bizarre military actions, seemingly outlandish but well documented family connections and twists and turns that are sure to surprise the history buff.
10. Hitler’s Blood Nephew serves in the US Navy
Yes, it happened. One Hitler led the Nazis but simultaneously, another Hitler family member, Adolf Hitler’s nephew William served in the World War Two on the side of the United States after immigrating to the United States from Europe. In a bizarre historical twist, Adolf Hitler’s nephew William Patrick Hitler, later William Patrick Stuart-Houston (who was Adolf Hitler’s half-brother’s son) successfully joined the US Navy and assisted in the war effort against the Nazis. Born in England, his mother was the English wife of Alois Hitler, Jr., who failed to return after a time of separation resulting from the outbreak of WWI.
The young William saw his uncle at a rally and later met him in person, eventually meeting with him and arranging to get work in Germany. He later returned to England, but when he could not get work, traveled to the US and attempted to get into the US Navy. In the United States, he authored a six page long article titled “Why I hate my Uncle” in which he described an abusive personality held by Adolf Hitler that scared him during personal contact with his uncle. He was finally admitted sometime after writing directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and succeeded in being sworn into the Navy on March 6, 1944. He served as a medic and after being wounded, he received the Purple Heart in recognition of the sacrifice in battle and continued to serve after the end of WWII before his discharge.
9. King Edward the VIII
England stands out as a beacon of resistance to Nazi Germany, but some complexities existed involving British Royalty that the Nazis sought to exploit. Prior to WWII, the King of England, King Edward VIII abdicated after marrying an American woman and was restyled as the Duke of Windsor. Following a visit to Nazi Germany 1937, where the couple even had tea with Hitler and spent time with Joseph Goebbels, the Duke, who had felt snubbed by the Royal family, was targeted by a accusations of being a Nazi sympathizer.
Possibly stemming from his visit to Nazi Germany and the familiarity of Nazi officials with the effectively exiled former royal and his wife, a plot was cooked up by the Nazi regime and reflected in telegrams which Churchill wanted destroyed on the basis that they could create an impression of disloyalty. The captured Nazi telegram outlined plans to kidnap the Duke of Windsor in Portugal, together with his wife following their escape from Paris, and install him as a puppet King of England in the event of a Nazi conquest of the British Isles. Fortunately, this event never took place, but the existence of the plan has cast a shadow of suspicion and curiosity around the life and beliefs of King Edward VIII. The fear that the telegrams would cause people to believe there was good reason for the Nazi regime to look to the Duke as a puppet dictator candidate motivated Churchill to try hard to suppress the telegram content and continue his efforts for many years after the war ended.
8. Japanese Balloons Strike the US Mainland
While an enemy aircraft invasion never caused fatalities on the mainland United States State in WWII, around 9,000 incendiary bomb and anti-personnel bomb carrying balloons were produced in Japan and released from the Japanese islands to float across the Pacific and drop bombs on the mainland United States. Measuring 33 feet wide and 70 feet tall, the terrifying and ghostly flying machines were enormous in size for what they were and nearly miraculous in their ability to float across the Pacific Ocean all the way from Japan. The Fugu or “wind ship weapons” went as far across the US as Michigan and were the world’s first intercontinental weapon. A 15 kilogram anti-personnel bomb, four separate 4.5 kilogram incendiary bombs, and a flash bomb to annihilate any record of the balloon existing were incorporated into its design.
Despite their range, the actual amount of damage inflicted by these balloons was fortunately far less than might have been predicted. The balloons themselves were shrouded in secrecy due to their self-destructing design, frequent loss to remote areas, and deliberate suppression of information about their existence to prevent Japan receiving any encouragement through knowledge of any success in hitting the United States. Sadly, that secrecy proved fatal and had to be ended after a pregnant Reverend’s wife and five church children were killed on a church picnic in Oregon on May 5, 1945. Years after the end of World War II, a group of Japanese citizens who had participated in making the balloons as schoolchildren later sent apology messages and paper cranes when they learned of the tragedy the project had supported.
7. Denmark Saves the Majority of Jewish Citizens
During World War Two, it was not only deliberate acts constituting crimes against humanity that contributed to the tragedy of the Holocaust, but a failure by many to oppose the persecution. In contrast, Denmark showed a greater measure of bravery and foresight overall compared to the situation in other countries such as the Netherlands and, of course, Germany. In dealing with the German invasion, Danish citizens and officials resisted the German massacre of Jewish citizens by regarding them as countrymen, part of Danish Society by existence, marriage, and rights.
By seeing attacks against their Jewish population as an attack on Denmark itself, Danish opposition to the Holocaust was strong. World War II was not only a time defined by aggression, it was also a time of great complicity and cowardice. Denmark had a remarkably different view and found a variety of clever ways to forestall Nazi attacks on the Jewish population. Cooperating rather than collaborating with Germany, the King of Denmark declared that any attempt to harm Jewish people would bring an end to assistance that the Germans wanted and threatened to wear a yellow star himself if pushed. The result of the resistance included a backing off by German forces and a fudged Nazi roundup that was enacted only after the Jewish community was given a chance to escape.
6. Battle for Itter Castle
In World War II, the “Battle of Schloss Itter” was the only time German and American troops fought as allies. In May 1945, Bavarian borne German Wehrmacht Major Sepp Gangl, who had grown to dislike the Nazis, joined the Austrian Anti-Nazi Resistance and dedicated his efforts to opposing Nazism and needless loss of life. On May 5, 1945, five days after the suicide of Hitler, Major Gangl and men following him approached American troops of the 23rd Tank Battalion of the US 12th Armored Division under Captain Jack Lee with a white flag, desperately seeking their help to hold off a bid by the SS to execute high status prisoners who were held at Itter Castle (Schloss Itter) in Austria like hostages to provide leverage in military bargaining.
VIP prisoners held in the castle, including two former French Presidents, were under siege by SS troops who had decided to execute all the prisoners as the final moments of the war unfolded. In contrast, Gangl wanted to save the prisoners of Schloss Itter from Nazi forces who would otherwise have killed them. Gangl successfully secured American assistance required to hold off the SS attack, saving the prisoners in the castle from execution. In the midst of fighting the SS alongside the American battalion, Gangl himself lost his life after his “defection” to the anti-Nazi position, fatally shot by an SS Sniper.
5. Nobuo Fujita the Air Raid Apologizer
Despite fears of an aerial attack on the mainland United States that were brought to the forefront of public thought by the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, the event never materialized in the form of a manned aircraft bombing run. That is, except for the almost unbelievably daring yet cautiously completed missions carried out by just one Japanese Navy aviator in 1942. Japanese pilot Nobuo Fujita, who was the only enemy pilot in WWII to bomb the contiguous United States, set out in a bid to start forest fires near Bookings, Oregon in a carefully planned mission intended to serve as revenge for an American air raid on Tokyo. The way the attack unfolded was admittedly creepy in its intent and methodology.
The brainchild of Fujita himself, the attack involved launching a Yokosuka E14Y “Glen” floatplane from the deck of a submarine stationed offshore, carrying out the attack, and returning. The aircraft would then be disassembled and placed back into the submarine. A large submarine fitted with a waterproof hanger approached the Oregon coast on September 9, 1942 and launched Fujita’s plane by catapult. The attack was a success in that the bombs were dropped, but the wet weather of the Oregon coast prevented the catastrophic forest fires that the raid was intended to trigger. After the war’s end, Fujita was invited to return by community leaders, and he returned to apologize and offer a family heirloom samurai sword as a gift. He had planned to commit Seppuku, a ritual suicide, if he was not received well by the community. Despite initial controversy over his visit, he was largely welcomed with acceptance, and he made multiple subsequent returns and planted a tree at the site of the bombing.
4. Joseph Goebbels Served as Chancellor for a Day
Adolf Hitler remains at the highest levels of notoriety for his orchestration of war crimes as the Austrian immigrant turned German Chancellor who led the German nation throughout the course of World War II. However, it is a far lesser known yet very historically and technically important fact that Joseph Goebbels served as Chancellor at the end of the Second World War. Hitler’s suicide left Germany without a Chancellor in the last moments of World War 2, as his death took place technically before the global conflict ended and prior to the German surrender. Upon Hitler’s demise, the role of Chancellor had to be filled and the one to take it was none other than the much-hated Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich Propaganda Minister.
His background in German philosophy, writing and literature studies, and fanatical dedication to promoting Hitler caused him to be greatly favored by Hitler, who preferred and trusted him compared to other Nazi leaders, many of whom had greatly displeased him in the end. On April 30, one day after marrying his mistress, Eva Braun, Hitler committed suicide, leaving Goebbels as Chancellor of the German Reich. In his will, Hitler appointed Goebbels as Chancellor, also abolishing the position of Führer. Goebbels carried out a single act as Chancellor, unsuccessfully trying to request a ceasefire from Soviet forces in the Battle of Berlin. Later that day, on May 1, 1945, Goebbels commited suicide in a bunker, along with his wife Magda, after having their six children poisoned by a dentist from the SS.
3. Italy Fought on Both Sides in WWII
Fascist Italy is notorious in history as the birthplace of Mussolini’s Fascism, viewed by the less informed as the smaller ally of Nazi Germany in WWII and by the better informed as part of the inspiration for the virulent philosophies and crimes of Hitler’s Nazi party. What is less known, and highly significant in the outcome of World War Two history is the fact that Italy fought on both sides in the war, fighting firstly for the Axis as one of the big three Axis players, namely Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan, then fighting for the Allies as the Italian Social Republic.
As the war progressed, Mussolini was receiving lower and lower levels of approval and was ousted by a Grand Council of Fascism vote and subsequently arrested upon the orders of King Victor Immanuel. On the fateful day of October 13, 1943, one month after General Pietro Badoglio surrendered the Kingdom of Italy to Allied interests, the Kingdom of Italy declared war on Nazi Germany. The Nazi interests and Fascist leadership were less than keen to give up, leading to the Italian Civil War between the Kingdom of Italy, the new Italian Co-belligerent army, and Italian Resistance on one side, and the Fascist puppet-state Italian Social Republic, which reinstated Mussolini after his capture by the Allies and subsequent extraction from captivity by German operatives on September 12, 1943.
2. North America Failed to Protect Jewish Refugees
The United States and Canada have a well-earned modern reputation for taking in refugees and making some very progressive immigration and refugee accommodation decisions. However, it is not only the historic abuses of First Nations in North America that have drawn the ire of historians and human rights advocates. It is a little-known fact that Canada’s WWII era wartime Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King brought a strange mix of perspectives to the war, discouraging involvement in the conflict at first and later refusing to accept a ship with over 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany that departed on May 13, 1939.
The SS St Louis had come to Canada under the command of a German captain named Gustav Schroeder, who sought refuge for the refugees in Cuba, the United States, being turned away by both, and apparently knew that Canada was not an option. Prime Minister King debated the matter, but ultimately, upon the advice of his incredibly strict immigration minister, Frederick Blair, the refuges were never invited into Canada. Under Blair, racially biased immigration policies in effect led to a mere 5,000 Jewish refugees being accepted into Canada, compared to 200,000 that were allowed into the United States. Still, the American authorities refused to allow the ship of Jewish refugees into the United States. Finally, a deal was made where the refugees would be accepted in Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and France. Many survived the war, but over 254 died in the Nazi invasion. Captain Schroeder was demoted by the Nazi regime, but later received a post-humous medal from the German government for his efforts.
1. The Holdout Soldiers of Imperial Japan
The end of World War II hostilities came cleanly and quickly once the Japanese surrender was finalized on September 2, 1945. Yet at the scale of the individual, some of the most remarkable, lonely, and in fact creepy extensions of WWII hostilities occurred through rogue “stalwart” Japanese soldiers who did not get that the war was over and continued hostile acts, living in a time warp as active soldiers on patrol for years, even decades after the war’s official end. In the case of Hiroo Onoda (pictured above), who was cut off from his unit by an American advance on February 28, 1945, he believed news of surrender was mere propaganda. In an admittedly eerie turn of events, he proceeded to live on Lubang Island, Philippines for the next 30 years.
Subsequently, he believed that villagers on the island were guerrilla fighters and actually proceeded to kill several over the years in what to him were simply acts of warfare. 30 years later, he was discovered by the Japanese explorer Norio Suzuki, who introduced himself, and then when Onoda refused to come home, returned and presented papers to officially relieve him of his duties, allowing him to return to Japan. There, Onodo authored his book No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War. Despite the violence enacted during his solitary war in which he kept his rifle well maintained, he was pardoned by the Philippine President and peacefully received after laying down his arms.