From the twelve year old American child soldier who became a war hero, to the crazy pilot who flew around with bazookas strapped to his wings, to the US Navy sailors who spent their last moments aboard a sinking ship scarfing down ice cream, history is full of details that are seldom taught in school. Following are twenty fascinating historical facts that you probably won’t find in history textbooks:
20. French Royals Had No Privacy When Boning
Today, having sex is seen as a highly intimate and private event. For French Royals of the Ancien Regime, however, sex was often a public and political affair, and across Europe in general, the sex lives of royals were matters of state. Since the future of the dynasty and the realm depended on lineage, providing as much information as possible about how that lineage came about and was perpetuated for future generations was seen as a political necessity.
Thus, several attendants were usually present in the royal bedroom on wedding nights, to witness that things had gone the way they should. If and when the royal coitus produced the desired result and the queen got pregnant, she could wave goodbye to whatever little privacy she had for the next nine months. When queen Marie Antoinette got pregnant, her chambers were shared not only by the king and a medical staff, but also by just about every court favorite. When she gave birth, the room was packed with so many spectators, that she passed out from the heat.
19. Sailors of the Sinking USS Lexington Gorged on Ice Cream Before Abandoning Ship
The USS Lexington (CV-2), nicknamed “Lady Lex”, was an early US Navy aircraft carrier. Commissioned in 1927, the Lady Lex joined the Pacific Fleet, with which she spent her entire career. Along with her sister ship, the USS Saratoga, the Lexington was used to develop and refine the Navy’s carrier doctrine and tactics before WWII. Luckily for the Lexington, she and the other Pacific Fleet carriers were at sea when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, and so escaped damage.
Lady Lex’s luck ran out on May 7th, 1942, when she was crippled by Japanese carrier planes during the Battle of the Coral Sea, then caught fire. In the ship’s dying moments, a warrant officer broke the lock on a freezer, and started handing out ice cream. As an eyewitness recalled: “He didn’t think anything of it because we were abandoning ship. We just figured we might as well do it“. Sailors in the vicinity gorged on vanilla ice cream, polishing off entire containers, before heeding the order to abandon ship and lowering themselves into the water.
18. The Pilot Who Took Out Tanks by Strapping Bazookas to His Plane
During WWII, US Army Major Charles Carpenter, also known as “Bazooka Charlie” and the “Mad Major”, was assigned to the 4th Armored Division in France as an artillery observer. Flying a military variant of the Piper Cub, the L-4H Grasshopper, Carpenter’s job was to spot German artillery positions, then fly back to base – his plane had no radio – and report the position. Carpenter wanted more excitement, however, so he decided to take out the enemy himself. As he would later tell a reporter, Carpenter’s idea of war was to “attack, attack, and then attack again“.
The L-4H carried no weapons, and had a combined pilot and cargo capacity of only 232 pounds. That was enough for Carpenter, who strapped six bazookas to his airplane, three beneath each wing, and went Nazi hunting. Within a few weeks, Bazooka Charlie, flying his modified plane, now nicknamed Rosie the Rocketer, took out four German tanks and an armored car. By war’s end, Carpenter’s toll had risen to six tanks, several other armored cars, and assorted vehicles.
17. John Lincoln Clem Enlisted When He Was Nine, Became a War Hero When He Was Twelve
In 1861, 9 year old John Lincoln Clem ran away to enlist in the Union Army. Rejected by various units, he latched on to the 22nd Michigan Infantry regiment when it mustered in 1862, and followed them around. The Michaganders eventually accepted him as a mascot and drummer boy, and raised money to pay him the $13 monthly wage of a Union private. In 1863, he was finally allowed to officially enlist. At the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, John Clem, by then twelve years old, became a Civil War legend by displaying conspicuous courage after riding to the front atop an artillery caisson, and fighting with his signature weapon, a sawed off rifle, trimmed for his small stature
The Union lost the battle, however, and Clem became one of thousands of soldiers separated from their units during a hurried retreat. He heard a horse approaching from behind, and looking back, he was confronted by a Confederate colonel riding ahead of his men and spurring their pursuit. Seeing a little boy in Union blue toting a rifle, the colonel ordered Clem to “Drop that gun!” Johnny turned around, coolly raised his rifle, shot the colonel off his horse, then sprinted to the safety of Union lines. After the battle, 12 year old Clem was officially promoted to sergeant, making him the youngest noncommissioned officer in US Army history.
16. The Often Overlooked Soviet Yakovlev Yak-9 Was as Good as the Best German Fighters of WWII
Soviet WWII tanks usually get their props, but Soviet aircraft are often overlooked. The Red Air Force began the conflict with substandard airplanes and poorly trained pilots, leading to horrific casualties in the war’s first year. By 1942, however, the quality of both Soviet aircraft and pilots began to rise, allowing the Red Air Force to claw its way to parity with the Luftwaffe, then superiority, and finally, supremacy. That turnaround began with the Yakovlev Yak-9 fighter, which Soviet pilots deemed the equal of the German Bf 109 and FW-190 fighters, especially at lower altitudes. While lightly armed compared to German fighters, the Yak-9 was their superior in speed, maneuverability, and rate of climb, allowing it to excel in low level dogfighting.
That helped restore Soviet pilots’ confidence. After its successful introduction over the skies of Stalingrad, the Yak-9 became the Soviet Union’s main fighter, and by 1944, there were more Yak-9s in service than all other Soviet fighters combined. The adaptable Yak-9s were also used in reconnaissance, long range bomber escorts, nighttime fighters, armed with 37mm or 45mm cannons and used as tank busters, general ground attacks. When equipped with bomb loads of up to 1000 pounds, the planes also served as light bombers. Over 16,000 were built, making it the most produced fighter in Soviet history.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928 – 1967) rose to prominence during the Cuban Revolution, and gained international fame thereafter as a guerrilla warfare innovator, author, and diplomat. His image became a romantic icon of anti imperialism, and after his death, he was regarded as a martyr by leftists worldwide. He was instrumental in defeating the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, was a key player during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, travelled the world as a diplomat, and gave a notable speech before the UN in 1964, condemning US foreign policy, and apartheid in South Africa.
In 1965, he left Cuba to fight in revolutions around the world, going first to the Congo, where he trained guerrillas, then to Bolivia in 1966, aiming to start a revolution there. Things did not work out in Bolivia, however. Guevara was captured in 1967, and the Bolivian president ordered his execution. When his designated shooter entered Guevara’s room, Che noticed that he appeared jittery and nervous. He scornfully uttered what would be his last words: “I know you have come to kill me. Shoot, coward! You are only going to kill a man!”
14. Ottoman Sultan Bayezid Talked Smack to Tamerlane, Got Smacked Down Hard
Steppe warlord Tamerlane (1336 – 1405) was a Muslim Turko-Mongol, who claimed descent from Genghis Khan. The claim was dubious, but Tamerlane justified his conquests as a restoration of the Mongol Empire and re-imposition of legitimate Mongol rule over lands seized by usurpers. He then spent 35 years earning a reputation for savagery while bringing fire and sword to the lands between the Indus and the Volga, the Himalayas and the Mediterranean. In addition to destroying cities and massacring people by the hundreds of thousands at a go, Tamerlane was into piling up pyramids of severed heads, cementing live prisoners into the walls of captured cities, and erecting towers of his victims’ skulls.
Not provoking such a figure seems like common sense. However, Ottoman sultan Bayezid seemingly abandoning his senses, got into a flame war with Tamerlane, swapping insulting letters with him for years. It ended when Tamerlane finally showed up in 1402, defeated Bayezid, and took him captive. The Ottoman sultan was then humiliated by being in kept in a cage at his conqueror’s court, while Bayezid’s favorite wife was made to serve Tamerlane and his courtiers, naked.
13. Winston Churchill Wanted to Attack the Soviets Soon as WWII Ended
As WWII drew to a close, Winston Churchill grew exasperated by Stalin’s intentions to subjugate Eastern Europe. Britain had joined the war to defend Polish independence, but here was Stalin, riding roughshod over the Poles, reducing them to Soviet clients, and extinguishing their freedom and independence. Churchill saw it as a matter touching British honor, so he ordered his generals to draw up plans for an attack on the Soviets soon as Germany surrendered, with the nebulous aim of pushing them back to the USSR’s borders, or at least forcing them to treat Poland fairly.
The generals presented him with Operation Unthinkable, whose title indicates what they thought of the idea. An offensive version envisaged a surprise attack on the soviets in July, 1945, intended to force Stalin to give Poland a “fair deal”. A defensive version envisaged a British defense of Western Europe after America withdrew from the continent. In either scenario, Churchill was told, it would probably end with the Red Army conquering all of continental Europe, instead of getting chased back to the USSR. The prime minister grudgingly let the matter drop, and Operation Unthinkable was archived.
12. The British Bluffed an American General Into Surrendering Detroit to a Force Half the Size of His Own
Early in the War of 1812, British general Isaac Brock marched on Fort Detroit with a force of 1330 men, comprised of 330 Redcoats, 400 Canadian militia, and 600 Native Americans, supported by 3 lights guns, 5 heavy guns, 2 mortars, and 2 warships. Brock’s target was garrisoned by 600 US Army regulars and nearly 2000 militia, sheltered within the protective walls of a fortress bristling with over 36 cannons, commanded by an American Revolutionary War veteran and hero, general William Hull.
Brock learned that American morale was low, and that his enemies feared his Native American allies. So Brock arranged for a misleading letter to fall into American hands, that greatly exaggerated the number of his native allies from an actual 600, to a fanciful 5000. He also convinced the Americans that he had more regulars, by dressing up his Canadian militia in castoff British regimental uniforms. Outside Detroit, he had the same troops march in a loop within eyesight of the garrison, ducking out of sight, then returning to march anew as if they were fresh reinforcements. General Hull’s confidence collapsed, and he agreed to surrender. Upon his release from captivity, Hull was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be shot, but his life was eventually spared out of consideration for his heroism during the American Revolution.
11. The Sticky Bomb Was One of History’s Worst Weapons
When the British were forced to hurriedly evacuate France in 1940, they left most of their antitank weapons behind. Faced with the threat of a German invasion, the Brits hurriedly designed and produced The Sticky Grenade, or Sticky Bomb, for use against tanks. Formally designated the Anti Tank Hand Grenade #74, it had an outer metal shell, covering a bomb coated with an adhesive. The user would pull a pin to remove the outer layer and expose the sticky bomb, run up to a tank, stick the bomb to it, activate a five second fuse, then skedaddle. Alternatively, the user could throw the bomb at the tank, and hope it stuck.
Unfortunately, the adhesive had trouble sticking to dusty, muddy, or wet surfaces – “a customary condition of tanks”, as Churchill’s chief military adviser pointed out. Worse, the Sticky Bomb often stuck to its user, because the adhesive tended to leak and glue the bomb to its thrower’s hand or uniform. It is likely that on more than one occasion, an unlucky soldier pulled the pin to arm the fuse, tried to stick the bomb to a tank or throw it at one, only to discover that it was stuck to his hand instead, and spent his last moments frantically shaking his hand like Wile E. Coyote with a stick of TNT glued to his paw.
10. WWII’s Most Successful Ground Attack Airplane Was Not the Stuka, But the Sturmovik
The Soviet Il-2 Sturmovik ground attack bomber’s most distinguishing feature was a 1500 lbs armored tub that protected the pilot, engine, fuel tank, and radiator. That made it one of the toughest airplanes of its day, nearly impervious to bullets and 20 mm cannon fire from below. Armed with two 23mm cannons, two machine guns, and loaded with up to 1300 lbs of bombs plus 12 rockets, the Sturmovik carried a devastating punch. A punch that became stronger in 1943, with the introduction of shaped charge bomblets weighing 3.3 lbs, capable of penetrating the thinner armor atop German tanks, and which the Il-2s carried in clusters of 192 to shower on enemy columns.
Germans came to dread the Sturmovik’s “Circle of Death”, in which groups of 8 or more Il-2s circled a ground target, each protecting the one ahead with its forward firing machine guns and cannons from enemy fighters, taking turns to dive and attack, then rejoin the circle to allow another Il-2 its turn. When production numbers dipped, Stalin wrote those responsible ” Our Red Army now needs IL-2 aircraft like the air it breathes, like the bread it eats. … I ask you not to try the government’s patience, and demand that you manufacture more ILs. This is my final warning.” Production increased sharply, and with 36,000 units built, the Sturmovik became the most produced military aircraft in history.
9. Heraclitus the Philosopher Covered Himself in Poop, and Was Eaten Alive by Dogs
Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) was a pioneering Ancient Greek philosopher who advanced the notion that the essence of the universe is constant change, and coined the phrase “no man ever steps into the same river twice“. He also advanced the notion of a “unity of opposites”, whereby the universe is a system of balanced exchanges in which all things are paired in a relationship with those things exhibiting contrary properties. On the downside, Heraclitus was a misanthrope, and his misanthropy led him to avoid contact with other people for long stretches, during which he wandered alone through mountains and wilderness, surviving on plants and what he could scavenge.
When he came down with dropsy – a painful accumulation of fluids beneath the skin – doctors could offer no relief. So Heraclities decided on a self-cure, by covering himself in cow dung. He reasoned that the warmth of the manure would dry and draw out of him the “noxious damp humor”, or the fluids accumulated beneath his skin. Covered in cow dung, Heraclitus lay out in the sun to dry, only to get immobilized when the dun dried the dung around him into a body cast. He was thus unable to shoo off a pack of dogs, which came upon him and ate him alive.
8. A Chinese Sword Was Entombed Under Water for Over 2000 Years, Yet Resisted Corrosion and Kept its Sharp Edge
The Chinese jian sword has been in use for at least 2600 years, with the earliest recorded mention of it dating back to the Spring and Autum Period (771 – 476 BC). It is a double edged, straight sword, that usually features a guard in the shape of a stingray. Grips are typically made of fluted wood or covered in rayskin, and the handle features a pommel for balance, for trapping or striking an opponent, and to prevent slipping through the user’s hand.
By the 6th century BC, Chinese bronze sword production techniques had reached an advanced stage, and laminated bronze jians with copper sulphide and chromium oxide coatings to resist correction were common. The effectiveness of such anti corrosive techniques can be seen in the Goujian Sword, roughly 2600 years old, which was recovered from a tomb in 1965. Although the tomb had been soaked in underground water for over 2000 years, the Goujian Sword had resisted tarnish, and kept its sharp edge after all that time.
During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy’s Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed that a full-scale invasion was necessary to remove Soviet missiles from the island. They presented JFK with two versions: Oplan 316 for a full invasion, and Oplan 312 for aerial strikes to take out the missiles, followed by an invasion if necessary. The hawks, led by Air Force general Curtis LeMay, preferred Oplan 316, as they contended that there was no guarantee that air strikes alone would take out all the missiles.
Planners expected 18,500 US casualties in the first ten days of the invasion, assuming no nuclear explosions. However, unbeknownst to planners, Soviet forces in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had preauthorized their commander to use them at his discretion. If the Soviets used nukes in Cuba, the US intended an overwhelming nuclear response. Things could easily have escalated from there to a full blown nuclear exchange that would have devastated the planet. Luckily, President Kennedy resisted the pressure from his military advisers, and relying on diplomacy, back channels, and blockade, successfully diffused the crisis without triggering WWIII.
Beatrice “Bea” Arthur (1922 – 2009), the comedian, actress, and singer, had a rich career in entertainment that spanned seven decades. She became famous for her signature sitcom roles as Maude Findley in All in the Family and its spinoff Maude, and as Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls. Before that, however, she had been a WWII US Marine – something she downplayed, often denying that she had served, and steering questioners away by pointing out that others had done far more during the war.
However, records show that in 1943, aged 21, she had enlisted in the United States Marine Corps under her birth name, Bernice Frankel. Working as a typist and truck driver, she moved up the ranks from private to staff sergeant, before her honorable discharge in 1945. It was while serving in the Marines that she met and married her husband, Robert Arthur. The marriage was short lived, but she kept the name and became Beatrice “Bea” Arthur. In hindsight, admirers of her no-nonsense characters would probably agree how apt it is that Maud or Dorothy Zbornak had been a Marine sergeant.
On the night of November 17-18, 1941, British Commandos carried out Operation Flipper, a daring raid to try and capture or kill Erwin Rommel. The raid sought to disrupt the Axis command on the eve of Operation Crusader, an ambitious British offensive intended to lift the siege of Tobruk and relieve a mostly-Australian garrison that had been cutoff and surrounded there during a British retreat. Had it succeeded, Operation Flipper would have nipped the career of the “Desert Fox” in the bud, and reduced him to a historic footnote, before he had established himself as a warfare legend.
59 Commandos set out from Alexandria in two submarines on November 10th, 1941, but one submarine ran aground, and the other encountered such rough seas that only 7 raiders made it ashore. They met up with an advance team that had been parachuted in earlier, and pressed on to Rommel’s HQ, a villa in the Libyan town of Bayda. They struck at midnight, August 17th, in a perfectly executed attack, only to discover that they had been fed bad intelligence: Rommel was not at the HQ, but in Italy, where he had been since November 1st. He would not return until November 18th – the day after the raid. Only 3 German supply officers and an enlisted soldier were killed, and a fuel depot was destroyed. In exchange, the raiders were wiped out, with only two managing to evade pursuit and reach British lines 37 days later. All the rest were either killed or captured.
4. The Great Logician Who Starved Himself to Death
Austrian-American philosopher and mathematician Kurt Godel (1906 – 1978) is considered to be in Aristotle’s league, as one of history’s greatest logicians. He is best known for his Incompleteness Theorem, one of the 20th century’s most significant mathematical results, which posits that within any axiomatic mathematical system, there are propositions which can be neither proved nor disproved based on that system’s axioms. It made him an intellectual celebrity, and he befriended Einsten, and taught at Princeton. Unfortunately, Godel’s brilliance was marred by a severe paranoia that wrecked his life, and eventually caused his death.
At age 6, he came down with rheumatic fever, which left him sickly for the remainder of his childhood, and with a lifelong preoccupation with his health that grew into hypochondria, and eventually, full blown paranoia. He eventually came to suffer from persecutory delusion that left him with an irrational fear of getting poisoned. Thus, he would only eat food that his wife had prepared for him and then tasted first. When his wife was hospitalized for six months in 1977 and was unable to prepare his food, he refused to eat and starved to death – he was down to 65 pounds by the time he died.
3. The English Commander Who Was Beaten To Death With His Prosthetic Leg
Sir Arthur Aston (1590 – 1649) was born into a prominent Catholic family from Cheshire, with a tradition of professional military service. Following in his father’s footsteps and continuing the family’s heritage, Aston became a professional soldier, and served as a mercenary commander in the European mainland during the Thirty Years War. By the time he returned to England in 1640, Aston was a grizzled and highly experienced officer. When the English Civil War erupted in 1642, Aston fought for king Charles I against the forces of Parliament.
In 1648, he was made commander of the Irish port town of Drogheda. There, he was besieged the following year Parliamentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell, who stormed and seized Drogheda on September 11th, 1649. Aston was captured, and Cromwell’s soldiers, convinced that his prosthetic leg must contain hidden gold, demanded that he show them how to access its secret hidden compartment. They refused to believe his denials, and frustrated at his perceived obstinacy, beat him to death with his wooden leg.
French king Charles VI (1368 – 1422) started his reign well, and was known as “Charles the Well-Loved”. By the time he died over four decades later, he had earned the nickname by which he is best known to history: “Charles the Mad”. His crazy episodes included hacking and killing his knights in a manic fit, imagining that he was Saint George, and going into prolonged bouts of amnesia in which he was able to recognize his courtiers, but not his wife and children.
The weirdest manifestation of his mental illness might have been his delusion that he was made of glass. It made him extremely frightened of shattering if he fell or was jostled, so he tried to avert the danger by inserting iron rods in his clothes. Going to the opposite extreme, he would abandon all fears of fragility, and run wildly at top speed on the streets or in the halls of his palace. It got so bad, that to keep him inside his Parisian residence, its entrances were bricked up. The unfortunate king kept slipping in and out of insanity until his death in 1422.
1. Charlie Chaplin Got Off on Throwing Pies at Naked Women
Charlie Chaplin (1889 – 1977) was the silent film era’s most famous star and one of the silver screen’s all time greats. He also seems to have been Harvey Weinstein before there was a Harvey Weinstein, and is credited within pioneering the “casting couch”, whereby powerful Hollywood figures extracted sexual favors from actresses during auditions. Reportedly, Chaplin used caption cards during auditions to prompt aspiring actresses into increasingly suggestive acts and poses, until they stood before him naked or semi-naked.
It went beyond run of the mill quid pro quo sexual harassment, however. It seems that Charlie Chaplin was into some weird stuff, revolving around pies – and not just as comedic props and gags. After getting actresses to disrobe before him during auditions, Chaplin would grope them in exaggerated ways. Then, having worked himself up by getting them to do a strip tease on demand, followed by a groping session on the couch, Chaplin would climax by standing them naked against a wall, and throwing pies at them.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading