Lesser Known Facts About World War II

Lesser Known Facts About World War II

Khalid Elhassan - November 4, 2019

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Yogi Berra in the US Navy. Bronx Pinstripes

4. Yogi Berra Quit Baseball to Join the Navy

An 18-time All-Star and 10-time World Series winner (more than any other player in MLB history), Yogi Berra is one of only five players to have ever won the American League MVP three times. After his playing days were over, Berra went into coaching and managing. Between 1947 and 1981, Berra was a player, coach, or manager, in every New York team that made it to the World Series. All in all, he appeared in 22 World Series, and won 13 of them. Less known about Yogi Berra is that he took a break from baseball to fight in WWII.

The New York Yankees signed up Yogi Berra in 1942, but he decided to trade in the white jersey with blue pinstripes for navy blue, and joined the US Navy. He ended up serving as a gunner’s mate aboard the USS Bayfield, an attack transport. On D-Day, June 6th, 1944, Berra served on detached duty aboard a Navy rocket boat, lobbing missiles and firing machine guns at German positions on Omaha Beach. He was also sent to Utah Beach, to support the GIs there. Berra’s craft came under enemy fire, but luckily for him and for baseball, he escaped injury.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Yogi Berra’s D-Day rocket boat. Yogi Berra Museum

3. Yogi Berra Shot Down an Airplane on D-Day. Unfortunately, It Was American

D-Day was quite the thrill for Yogi Berra, who was 19 at the time, and relished every moment of what he saw as an exciting adventure. As he described it decades later: “Being a young guy, you didn’t think nothing of it until you got in it. And so we went off 300 yards off beach. We protect the troops. If they ran into any trouble, we would fire the rockets over. We had a lead boat that would fire one rocket. If it hits the beach, then everybody opens up. We could fire one rocket if we wanted to, or we could fire off 24 or them, 12 on each side. We stretched out 50 yards apart. And that was the invasion. Nothing happened to us. That’s one good thing. Our boat could go anywhere, though. We were pretty good, flat bottom, 36-footer“.

Yogi Berra’s craft lingered off Normandy after D-Day, furnishing further support to the expanding Allied beachhead there. The Luftwaffe could do little to disrupt the Allied effort, but what little it did was enough to make people jumpy. Naval vessels off the beachhead were instructed to fire on any airplane that flew below a certain height, so Berra and his crew mates shot down a plane that appeared suddenly below the clouds. Unfortunately, it turned out to be American. Luckily for the pilot, he managed to bail out, and was fished out of the water by Berra’s boat.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Kirk Douglas. Wikimedia

2. Spartacus Almost Got Killed in WWII

Kirk Douglas caught the acting bug in kindergarten when he recited a poem, and reveled in the audience’s applause. He was unable to afford college, so he talked the dean of St. Lawrence University’s drama program into letting him attend in exchange for working on campus as a janitor and gardener. After graduation, Douglas got into stage acting, and had barely started getting himself established in the theater, when WWII broke out. He tried to join the Army Air Forces, but when the airmen turned him down, he joined the Navy in late 1941.

Douglas attended the US Navy’s midshipman school in Notre Dame, and upon graduation, he was commissioned an ensign. He was sent to the Pacific Theater, where he served as a communications officer aboard USS PC-1137, a submarine chaser. He spent most of 1942 and 1943 hunting Japanese submarines, and while doing that, Douglas suffered severe internal injuries when a depth charge exploded prematurely. He spent months in a hospital, before he was medically discharged in 1944.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Units of the 14th Armored Division liberating a POW camp, a few weeks after the Task Force Baum fiasco. US National Archives

1. Patton Did Worse Than Slap His Soldiers Around

The brown stuff hit the fan for General George S. Patton during the Sicilian Campaign, when he accused a PTSD-suffering soldier in a hospital of cowardice, slapped him around, and threatened to shoot him. He repeated the disgraceful performance a few days later in another hospital. When the scandal broke, it nearly got Patton cashiered. He survived, and went on to perform superbly a year later in France and Germany. However, towards war’s end, Patton had an even worse, but lesser-known scandal, in which he got dozens of GIs killed for personal reasons. It happened in late March of 1945, when Patton ordered Task Force Baum, comprised of 314 men, 16 tanks, and dozens of other vehicles, to penetrate 50 miles behind German lines. Their task: liberate a POW camp that housed Patton’s son-in-law.

Task Force Baum’s raid ended catastrophically: all tanks and vehicles were lost, and only 35 men made it back, with the rest being killed or captured. Eisenhower was furious at Patton’s misuse of military personnel and assets for personal reasons, and reprimanded him. In light of his valuable services, however, Eisenhower declined to punish Patton beyond the reprimand. A reporter got wind of the scandal, and when the story first broke in a major publication on April 12th, 1945, it would have wrecked Patton under normal circumstances. However, FDR died that same day, and his demise eclipsed all other news. The scandal got little traction, and when Patton died a few months later, the story became a mere historic footnote.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Bronx Pinstripes – On This Day in History: Yogi Berra Takes Part in D-Day

Brown, Anthony Cave – Bodyguard of Lies (1975)

Combined Ops – Operation Chariot: St. Nazaire, 28th March, 1942

Daily Beast – D-Day’s Forgotten African American Heroes: One

Daily Beast – These Black Soldier Fought For America. It Didn’t Protect Them From Jim Crow

Daily Beast – The Black Heroes Who Protected US Troops on D-Day

Defense Media Network – Decima Flottiglia Mas and Operazione EA3: The Raid on Alexandria

Hervieux, Linda – Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, At Home and At War (2015)

Imperial War Museum – The Incredible Story of the Dambusters Raid

MacIntyre, Ben – Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman, Lover, Betrayer, Hero, Spy (2007)

Mortimer, Gavin – Kill Rommel! Operation Flipper 1941 (2014)

Mountbatten, Louis – Combined Operations: The Official History of the Commandos (2018)

New Scientist, November 3rd, 2014 – Myths and Reality of the Nazi Space Rocket

Patton, George S. – War as I Knew It (1995 Edition)

Reel Rundown – Kirk Douglas: 9 Amazing Things About Hollywood’s Favorite ‘Spartacus’

Task and Purpose – Balloon Bombs: How Japan Killed Americans at Home In WWII

Vintage News – Eiffel Tower’s Cables Were Cut So That Hitler Would Have to Climb the Steps to the Top

Warfare History Network – Operation Jericho: Mosquito Raid on Amiens Prison

We Are the Mighty – Patton Once Sent 300 Men to Rescue His Son-in-Law From a Nazi Prison

Wikipedia – Mitsubishi G4M

Wikipedia – Raid on Bardia