World War II Facts That Left Readers Speechless
World War II was the most devastating conflict in the history of mankind. It spread across multiple continents and cost millions of lives.
Here are some rare and frightening facts about this most tragic of wars.
Image: Jerry J. Jostwick
First American Killed
The first American serviceman killed in the war was Captain Robert M. Losey. He was serving as a military attache and was killed in Norway on April 21, 1940 when German aircraft bombed the Dombås railway station where he and others were awaiting transportation.
(Dombås Station, Norway; photo by Anders Beer Wilse)
First German Killed
The first German soldier killed in World War II was Lieutenant von Schmeling, who was a military advisor to the Nationalist Chinese (China had been at war with Japan since 1931). He was killed while leading a Chinese infantry Battalion of the 88th Division of Shanghai in 1937.
(German-equipped Chinese troops; photo by Cecil Beaton)
Japan employed multiple types of suicide attacks during the war, including suicide submarines called Kaiten (“the turn toward heaven”). Approximately 100 of these were used, the most famous of which was used in the sinking of the USS Underhill.
Image: Imperial Japanese Navy
Finnish snipers were some of the deadliest in the world. During the Winter War (November 1939 – March 1940), the Soviet Union invaded Finland hoping to gain Finnish territory and create a buffer zone for Leningrad. Because of the inexperience of Soviet troops and the incredible effectiveness of Finnish snipers, the USSR lost 40 men to every Finn that was killed.
In 2005, dive researchers from the University of Hawaii discovered the remains of a massive Japanese submarine, I-401. This behemoth was basically an underwater aircraft carrier and was built to bomb the Panama Canal–it carried three folded up bombers inside its watertight hangar.
The huge submarine could sail 37,000 miles, or one and a half times around the world. Three of these subs were captured at the end of the war. They measured 400 feet long and 39 feet high, and could carry a crew of 144 men.
Image: Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory
According to the AAF Statistical Digest, the U.S. Army Air Forces lost 14,903 pilots and crew…in the United States. These men died as a result of more than 50,000 accidents during the course of the war. Another 1,000 planes disappeared en route from the U.S. to foreign countries.
Image: U.S. Air Force
Air losses were so staggering during 1942-43 that it was statistically impossible for bomber crews to complete a 25-mission tour in Europe.
Image: Jerry J. Jostwick
More than 41,000 American servicemen were captured during the war. Of the 5,400 captured by the Japanese, half died. About 10% of those captured by Germans died.
The youngest U.S. serviceman was just 12 years old. Calvin Graham lied about his age to get into the service and was later wounded at the Battle of Guadalcanal. He was given a Dishonorable Discharge for lying about his age, though his benefits were later restored by act of Congress.
Image: U.S. Navy
Some baffling bits of irony:
- The insignia of the U.S. Army’s 45th Infantry division was the swastika (the 45th was part of the Oklahoma Army National Guard and the swastika was a tribute to the large Native American population in the southwest)
- Hitler’s private train at the start of the war was named “Amerika”
- At the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, the top U.S. Navy command was called CINCUS (pronounced “sink us”)
Image: U.S. Army
793 German U-boats were lost in World War II. Of the nearly 40,000 men onboard those subs, 75% died at sea.
Image: Darkone, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. Aircorp Deaths
More men died in the U.S. Air Corps than the U.S. Marine Corps. It is estimated that while completing your required 30 air missions, your odds of being killed were 71%. And fact #30 about U.S. troops is even more sobering.
Image: AP Photo
The power grid in Germany was more vulnerable than the Allies realized during the war. Some experts speculate that if Allied bombers had dropped just 1% of their bombs on power plants instead of industrial factories and targets, the whole of Germany’s infrastructure likely would have collapsed.
Russian pilots destroyed hundreds of German aircraft by ramming them in midair. A few famous Russian pilots were able to eject after ramming enemy planes and survived to fight in future battles. Germany also began using aerial ramming near the end of the war.
Image: Helmuth Ellgaard
U.S. Army Boats
Because of its massive number of troop transports, the U.S. Army actually had more ships than the U.S. Navy.
When the U.S. Army landed in North Africa, they brought along more than troops and equipment: they also set up three complete Coca-Cola bottling plants to keep troops well supplied.
Coca-Cola bottling plant in Saipan (Image: The National WWII Museum)
During World War II, Japan bombed China with fleas infected with Bubonic plague, causing epidemic plague outbreaks.
Germany Declares War
Germany officially declared war on just one nation in World War II: The United States of America.
The Dachau concentration camp first opened in 1933, six years before the start of World War II. The Dachau camp system grew to include nearly 100 sub-camps.
Image: Robinson Library
20% of Poland’s population died during World War II, the highest percentage of any nation.
Japan occupied U.S. territory for more than a year, invading and holding two islands in the Aleutian Island chain, which is part of Alaska. Nearly 1,500 American troops were killed in 13 months of fighting to retake the islands.
Polish Catholic midwife Stanisława Leszczyńska delivered 3,000 babies at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust in occupied Poland.
Only 20% of the males born in the Soviet Union in 1923 survived the war.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Adolf Hitler’s nephew, William Hitler, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Image: Finger Lake Times
Hiroo Onoda, an Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer who fought in World War II, held his position in the Philippines and refused to surrender until 1974. His former commander traveled from Japan to personally issue orders relieving him from duty.
Image: Samui Times
More than 16,000,000 American troops served in World War II. Of these, 405,000 were killed during the war.
50 Million Dead
Total casualties for World War II are estimated between 50 and 70 million people. 80% of those came from just four countries: Russia, China, Germany, and Poland.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Believe it or not, France had more machine-powered divisions than Germany in 1940.
When the Germans invaded France in 1940, only 16 of their 135 divisions were equipped with motorized transport. The rest depended on horses or simply marched in. In contrast, France had 117 mechanized divisions.
France also had more guns and tanks than Germany in 1940.
Germany claimed just over 7,000 artillery pieces and France had 10,000. The Germans rolled in with 2,500 tanks while the French had over 3,000, most of which were larger and better armed than the German panzers.
On March 4, 1942, two Kawanishi H8K “Emily” flying boats embarked on Operation K, flying the longest distance ever undertaken by a two-plane bombing mission to that point.
The planes refueled at an atoll 500 miles from Hawaii, and then launched to drop their bombs on Pearl Harbor. Due to extensive cloud cover and confusion between the two pilots, one plane dropped its bombs on an uninhabited mountainside and the other dropped its bombs in the ocean. There were no American casualties.
In a repeat of events just prior to the December 7 attack, American codebreakers warned that the Japanese were preparing for reconnaissance and disruption raids, refueling at French Frigate Shoals, and again were largely ignored by their superiors.
The Allies certainly lost many merchant ships during the war, but maybe not as many as you think.
Overall, there were 323,090 individual sailings, of which 4,786 were sunk (about 1.5%). Of these, 2,562 were British, but on average, there were around 2,000 British ships sailing somewhere around the world on any given day.
Britain began the war without rationing and only modestly introduced it in January 1940. In contrast, Germany began rationing at the war’s onset and struggled to feed its armed forces and the wider population from start to finish.
The country’s demand for food from occupied territories led to a lot of hunger for a lot of people. British people rarely had to go hungry and, although a number of foods were rationed, there were many that were not.
It was not only the Germans who put rocket-power aircraft into the air in the Second World War. After their initial victories, the Japanese struggled to pace with US and British technology, but they did develop the Ohka – or ‘Cherry Blossom’, a rocket-power human-guided anti-shipping missile, which was used at the end of the war as a kamikaze weapon.
It had to be carried by a ‘mother’ plane to get within range, then once released would glide towards the target – usually a ship – before the pilot would fire the rockets and hurtle in at up to 600 mph. Ohka pilots were called Jinrai Butai – ‘thunder gods’ – but only managed to sink three Allied ships.
The Luftwaffe had an entirely different approach to their ‘aces.’ Not only were pilots expected to fly on operations longer without breaks, they also actively helped their leading shots get big scores with lesser mortals protecting them while the ‘experten’ did the shooting.
On the Eastern Front they came up against badly armed and trained Soviet aircraft and soon the leading pilots began amassing huge scores. Bibi Hartmann was the leading ace of all time with 352 ‘kills’. The leading Allied ace of the entire war was RAF ace, James ‘Johnnie’ Johnson with 38 kills.
German wartime propaganda that the Third Reich had a highly mechanized and modern army is still widely believed, but actually, in 1939, Germany was one of the least automotive societies in the western world, despite the autobahns and Grand Prix victories of Mercedes.
At the war’s start, there were 47 people for every motor vehicle in Germany. In Britain, that figure was 14, in France it was eight, and in the USA it was four.
Germany had total military casualties of 4,429,875 men during WW2. Nearly 80% of these casualties were lost to Russia.
More than 300,000 Russian soldiers died during the German siege of the city of Leningrad. That means in just one city, Russia lost 75% of the number of troops lost for the U.S. during the entire war.
Stalin killed more people than Hitler during purges of “undesirables”. Stalin killed an estimated total of 25 million people versus Hitler’s 12 million.
In 1918, Henry Ford purchased his hometown newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. A year and a half later, he began publishing a series of articles that claimed a vast Jewish conspiracy was infecting America. The series ran in the following 91 issues. Ford bound the articles into four volumes titled “The International Jew,” and distributed half a million copies to his vast network of dealerships and subscribers. As one of the most famous men in America, Henry Ford legitimized ideas that otherwise may have been given little authority.
Ford was also awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle from Nazi officials in 1938, ostensibly for their admiration of Ford’s pioneering work in the auto industry.
When the US declared war on Japan in 1941, there were a total of 1,000 nurses in the Army Corps. By the end of the war there were more than 60,000.
Germany nearly won the war against the USSR. In late 1941, the USSR sent a feeler committee (Beria) to Germany. Stalin was willing to hand over Ukraine along with much of the won territory the German army was occupying in late 1941. The feeler committee stated that the Germans believed that the USSR was near collapse and did not want to negotiate terms of peace.
The United States is estimated to have fed 6 million Soviet citizens continually during World War II. In addition to this, the U.S. military fed up to 11 million American military personnel during the war along with additional citizens in Hawaii and the Philippines.
During the war, there were two aircraft carriers stationed on the Great Lakes near Michigan. They were used exclusively to train naval pilots on how to land on moving carriers. These carriers were hidden with great secrecy and most people did not know of their existence until after the war was over.
Nickel was so valuable in the United States that the metal was actually removed from the 5-cent piece during the war. It was substituted with silver, which was considered less valuable for war. If you happen to find a nickel minted between 1942 and 1945, it most likely contains 35% silver content, which is worth anywhere between $1 and $2 depending on market prices. Pennies in Canada and the United States were also stripped of their copper content and replaced with galvanized steel.
Some of the first Germans captured during the invasion of Normandy weren’t German at all, they were Korean. These soldiers had been forced to fight for the Japanese army until they were captured by the Russians, who forced them to fight for the Russian army. They were later captured by the Germans and forced to fight as German troops.
Image: U.S. National Archives
In their guns, fighter planes loaded every fifth round with a glowing tracer to help them aim correctly. This turned out to be a big mistake, since tracers took a different flight path than regular bullets–if your tracers were hitting their target, odds are 80% of your regular rounds were missing.
Image: U.S. Air Force
To make things worse, including tracer rounds immediately told your enemy he was under attack, and it let him know which direction you were coming from.
Image: U.S. Air Force
Perhaps worst of all, pilots would load a string of tracer rounds at the end of ammunition belt to let them know when they’d run out of ammo. Unfortunately, this also let the enemy know they were out of ammunition. It is said that pilots who stopped using tracers saw their hit rates nearly double and suffered less casualties.
Image: U.S. Air Force
There was really no such thing as an average fighter pilot–you were either an ace or machine gun fodder. One of Japan’s top fighter pilots, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, shot down over 80 planes during the war but died while a passenger on a cargo plane. One of Germany’s top aces, Oberst Werner Mölders, died as a passenger on a plane that crashed.
Image of Werner Mölders, Bundesarchiv
We are now further away from the outbreak of World War II (77 years) than the outbreak of World War II was from the American Civil War (74 years).
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