17. Yogi Berra Shot Down an Airplane on D-Day. Unfortunately, It Was American
Nineteen-year-old Yogi Berra enjoyed D-Day. As he put it: “Being a young guy, you didn’t think nothing of it until you got in it. And so we went off 300 yards off the 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 an airplane that flew below a certain height, so Berra and his crewmates shot down a plane that appeared suddenly below the clouds. Unfortunately, it turned out to be American. Fortunately for the pilot, he bailed out, and was fished out of the water by Berra’s boat.
Leonard Alfred Schneider, stage name Lenny Bruce (1925 -1966), was an edgy standup comedian whose routines combined satire, politics, religion, sex, and vulgarity. Born in Mineola, NY, to Jewish parents, Lenny lived a chaotic childhood after his parents divorced. Raised in the homes of various relatives after the divorce, he saw little of his father, but was strongly influenced by his mother, a stage performer. He became a poster boy for freedom of speech after prosecutors persecuted him with obscenity charges, of which he was convicted in 1964.
However, before his meteoric career, Lenny Bruce had turned serious after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and hurried to serve his country in WWII. Early in 1942, soon after America joined the war, sixteen-year-old Lenny lied about his age in order to enlist in the US Navy. He was assigned to the light cruiser USS Brooklyn. Lenny saw combat in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as the Brooklyn was tasked with convoy escort and fire support for amphibious landings.
15. Acting “Strange” – Which in WWII Meant Acting Gay – to Get Out of the Military
Lenny Bruce’s combat experiences aboard the USS Brooklyn included the Torch landings in North Africa, the invasion of Sicily, the Anzio landing, and Operation Dragoon, the Allied landings in southern France. However, as the war drew to a close, Lenny grew bored with the Navy. Having lied to get in, he lied to get out. A slapstick performance in which Lenny had dressed in drag had upset his officers, and got him thinking. So after 30 months of service, he checked into the Brooklyn’s sickbay to report that he was feeling gay.
In a handwritten letter, Lenny wrote that he had been normal when he joined the Navy, but then his shipmates gave him “abnormal attention”. Such attentions included feeling his body and kissing him – so much that after fifteen months aboard ship, he became attracted to some of his comrades. The strange scheme worked. The medical officer reported to the captain that the by-then-nineteen-year-old Lenny was suppressing homosexual tendencies, but the desire and temptation were getting stronger. The Navy sent him for a psychiatric evaluation, because he had “a tremendous amount of homosexual drive“.
14. Before M*A*S*H and Corporal Klinger, There Was Real-Life Lenny Bruce
The US Navy’s psychiatric evaluation of Lenny Bruce noted that he was the kind of homosexual who could adjust to heterosexual relations if given the opportunity. However, the evaluators concluded that if he remained aboard a ship filled with men, Lenny would “eventually give way to the performance of homosexual acts“. The Brooklyn’s captain agreed, and wrote that Lenny might give in to his gay urges at any moment with an explosion of homosexuality that was “potentially dangerous socially” to his ship. He recommended that the young sailor should either be separated from the Navy, or be assigned to a shore installment with access to heterosexual relations.
The Brooklyn’s captain urged prompt action, before Lenny engaged in “scandalous action [causing] discredit to the ship in particular and to the naval service in general“. The Navy quickly gave Bruce a dishonorable discharge, but he successfully appealed to have it altered to a discharge under honorable conditions for unsuitability to serve in the Navy. His ruse to get out of the Navy became the inspiration for TV’s Corporal Klinger, the cross-dressing M*A*S*H character desperate to get kicked out of the US Army for being gay.
13. Hitler’s Strange Fixation on Super Weapons Led to a Gun That Could Hit London From Europe
Hitler had a strange obsession with superweapons. In May, 1943, Albert Speer, the Reich Minister for Armaments and War Production, informed the Fuhrer of a new supergun, capable of firing hundreds of rounds an hour over an extremely long distance. The weapon was given the appropriately villainous appellation of Vergetlungswaffe 3 (“Vengeance Weapon 3”). The weapon, whose name was shortened to the V-3 Cannon, was intended for London, which the Nazis hoped to destroy. A vast underground complex was dug in the Pas de Calais in northern France, across the narrowest stretch of the English Channel separating Nazi-occupied Europe from England.
The underground V-3 complex was to include over 165 kilometers of tunnels, dug by German workers and slave laborers. The tunnel network was to be linked to 5 inclined shafts, in which 25 huge gun tubes were to be laid, all aimed at central London. As designed, the V-3s were to fire 10 explosive projectiles a minute, 600 rounds per hour, 24 hours a day, raining devastation down upon and wrecking London. As Winston Churchill later commented, if the Nazis had managed to pull it off, it would have been history’s most destructive conventional attack ever launched against a city.
12. The Allies Spotted the Super Gun’s Construction But Did Not Know What it Was. Luckily for London, they Destroyed it Anyhow
The Allies were completely in the dark about the V-3 Cannon program. Aerial reconnaissance flights did spot the strange new construction activity surrounding the Pas de Calais complex. However, analysts assumed that the photos depicted a potential launching base for the V-2 rockets. V-2s were worrisome in of themselves, so the site was subjected to frequent Allied bombing starting from late 1943 onwards. The raids seriously disrupted construction and forced the Germans to abandon parts of the V-3 Cannon complex.
The remainder of the site was seriously damaged in July 1944, in a raid that used heavy ground-penetrating bombs, which burrowed deep beneath the surface before detonating. The underground explosions wrecked and collapsed the tunnel system, and buried hundreds of workers and technicians. Construction was halted as the Allies advanced up the coast from Normandy to the Pas de Calais, and the abandoned V-3 complex fell to advancing Canadian troops in September 1944. It was only then that the Allies discovered just how big a threat the complex had actually posed, and just how lucky London had been to dodge that menace.
11. Falling Out of an Airplane Without a Parachute – and Surviving
Serving in a bomber during WWII was as dangerous a job as it got for the Western Allies’ fighting men in Europe. Especially in the days before Allied fighters secured aerial supremacy, and bomber losses were horrific. In 1943, for example, some American Eighth Air Force bomber groups recorded a 400 percent turnover in personnel in just three months. At the time, bomber crews were tasked with a 25-mission tour of duty. However, most never made it past their fifth mission.
Things were even more horrendous for British bomber crews. Out of a total of 125,000 aircrews who flew for the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, over 55,000 were killed – a 44.4% death rate. Another 8400 were wounded in action, and nearly 10,000 were taken prisoner, for a total loss rate of 58%. However, amidst that carnage, there were some amazingly strange survival stories – such as those of airmen who somehow survived falling without a parachute from miles up in the air.
10. The Strange Survival of Flight Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade
A gallows humor joke often told by parachutists is that it is not the falling from high up that kills you. It is the sudden stop at the end that does you in. The preceding is a good rule of thumb, but like most rules, it has some exceptions. One such was RAF Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade (1922 – 1987), who on the night of March 24th, 1944, was serving as a rear gunner in an Avro Lancaster heavy bomber.
Alkemade’s Lancaster, part of No. 115 Squadron RAF, was returning from a nighttime raid that had bombed Berlin when it was attacked by a Ju 88 night fighter. The attack set Alkemade’s bomber aflame, and it began to spiral out of control. Unfortunately, his parachute was burned in the fire. With the flames licking towards him, Alkemade jumped out of the bomber, preferring to die by impact rather than get burned to death. He fell 18,000 feet to the ground, but as seen below, by some strange twist of fate, he survived.
9. Falling Three Miles to the Ground – and Living to Tell the Tale
Flight Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade should have died when he jumped without a parachute out of his burning bomber, three miles above ground. However, somebody was watching out for him. Alkemade fell into a stand of pine trees, then onto soft snow covering the ground. Trees and snow broke and cushioned his fall. He discovered that he was alive, that he could move his arms and legs, that nothing was broken, and that the only injury he suffered was a strained leg.
Alkemade was captured, and the Gestapo interrogated him. They disbelieved his claims, until they found and investigated his bomber’s wreckage. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, where his survival story made him a celebrity. After the war, Alkemade made a living in the chemical industry, and was featured on Just Amazing, a British TV series about people who pulled off extraordinary feats of daring or survived against incredible odds. Strange as it sounds, others managed to survive falling from even greater heights without a parachute.
8. Equally Strange Was the Tale of Alan Magee, Who Fell 22,000 Feet Without a Parachute and Survived
Immediately after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Alan Eugene Magee (1919 – 2003) joined the United States Army Air Forces. He was trained in aerial gunnery, became a B-17 ball turret gunner, and was sent to the Eighth Air Force in Britain. He joined the crew of a Flying Fortress nicknamed Snap! Crackle! Pop! that was part of the 303rd Bomb Group’s 360th Bomb Squadron. Magee’s seventh mission, on January 3rd, 1943, was a daylight raid against Saint-Nazaire in France. It ended with him falling over 22,000 feet from his B-17, without a parachute.
While bombing U-boat pens, Alan Magee’s ball turret took a flak hit that made it inoperative. He got out of the turret, and discovered that the flak hit had also shredded his parachute. Before he had time to contemplate the implications, another flak hit destroyed the B-17’s right-wing, started an uncontrollable fire, and set the plane spinning towards earth. While crawling towards the plane’s front, Magee blacked out from lack of oxygen. Unconscious, he fell out of the burning bomber. As with the miraculously strange survival of Nicholas Alkemade, Alan Magee also lived to tell the tale.
7. Alan Magee’s Was Not the Highest Fall Without a Parachute Survived During WWII
Alan Magee plummeted for four miles without a parachute. He crashed through the glass roof of Saint-Nazaire’s train station, which shattered and absorbed some of the impact, then slammed into the station’s floor. He was injured, but alive. Magee’s fall left him a bloody mess. In addition to 28 shrapnel wounds that he had taken while still in his B-17, he sustained damage to his lung, kidney, nose, and eye, had several broken bones, plus a nearly severed right arm. Nonetheless, he had miraculously survived.
Magee spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, until he was liberated in 1945. In 1993, on the 50th anniversary of his fall, Saint-Nazaire erected a monument in honor of Magee and the crew of Snap! Crackle! Pop! As seen above, British airman Nicholas Alkemade survived a fall without a parachute from 18,000 feet, and American airman Alan Magee survived one from 22,000 feet. Soviet airman Ivan Mikhailovich Chisov (1916 – 1986) topped both records by surviving a fall without a parachute from 23,000 feet.
6. The Strange Survival of Ivan Chisov Who Fell 23,000 Feet Without a Parachute, Suffered Serious Injuries, Then Went Back to Fighting the Nazis Three Months Later
In January, 1942, Red Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Chisov was serving as a navigator in an Ilyushin Il-4 bomber, when it was jumped by German fighters. The bomber was wrecked and spun out of control, so Chisov bailed out at a height of 23,000 feet. He had a parachute, but fearing that the nearby German fighters would shoot him, he decided to refrain from opening it until he got close to the ground. However, lack of oxygen in the thin air so high up caused him to blackout. Unconscious, he continued all the way down without deploying his parachute.
Chisov plummeted 23,000 feet from his stricken Il-4, before hitting the ground at an estimated 120 to 150 miles per hour. Luckily, he hit the edge of a snowy ravine, whose snow absorbed and dissipated enough impact energy to keep him alive. Chisov bounced from the ravine’s edge and slid, rolled, and plowed his way to the bottom. He suffered spinal injuries and a broken pelvis, but lived. Chisov underwent surgery, and spent a month hospitalized in critical care. He was a tough Russian, however, and three months after his dramatic fall, Chisov was back in the air, flying more bombing missions against the Nazis.
5. The Need to Overcome German Defenses at D-Day Taxed Allied Planners and Weapons Designers
In 1944, as the Western Allies geared up to invade France, the formidable German defenses on the landing beaches and how to overcome them was front and center in the minds of planners and weapons designers. The British came up with an innovative – as it turned out farcically innovative weapon to clear expected obstacles ahead of the D-Day landings: The Great Panjandrum. The strange device consisted of a large drum stuffed with a ton of explosives, and affixed to rocket-propelled wheels.
The idea was to ignite the rockets from a platform at sea, and the angled rockets affixed to the wheels would cause them to rotate rapidly. That rapid rotation would launch the contraption at targets and obstacles on shore, blowing them up and clearing the way for follow-on troops who would land hot on the Great Panjandrum’s heels. That was how it was supposed to work in theory. In practice, the device turned out to be one of the most cartoonishly farcical weapons ever developed.
The Great Panjandrum was supposed to be developed in secrecy in order to spring it as a surprise on the Germans. However, testing was conducted on a popular beach, so huge crowds gathered to gawk at the strange device. The design’s flaws emerged at the first trial run in 1943. When the rockets were ignited and the device was launched, it made its way up the beach before rockets on one of the wheels malfunctioned, causing the Great Panjandrum to careen wildly off course. The problem persisted in additional trials: it was impossible to get the rockets on both sides to ignite simultaneously or to keep firing simultaneously.
After weeks of troubleshooting, the developers returned to the beach, this time with a third wheel affixed to the device to increase its stability. That test proved more embarrassing yet, as the device hurtled toward the beach, only to double back and turn back to sea towards the launching craft. In the meantime, some of the rockets had detached from the Great Panjandrum’s wheels to launch themselves at the observers on the beach, whistling over their heads or exploding underwater nearby.
3. An Innovative Weapon Straight Out of Looney Tunes
The Great Panjandrum’s designers returned to the drawing board to work out the bugs. When they figured that they finally had it under control, they conducted a final demonstration in front of a gathering of admirals and generals. As described in a BBC documentary: “At first all went well. Panjandrum rolled into the sea and began to head for the shore, the Brass Hats watching through binoculars from the top of a pebble ridge […] Then a clamp gave: first one, then two more rockets broke free: Panjandrum began to lurch ominously. It hit a line of small craters in the sand and began to turn to starboard, careering towards Klemantaski, who, viewing events through a telescopic lens, misjudged the distance and continued filming.
Hearing the approaching roar he looked up from his viewfinder to see Panjandrum, shedding live rockets in all directions, heading straight for him. As he ran for his life, he glimpsed the assembled admirals and generals diving for cover behind the pebble ridge into barbed-wire entanglements. Panjandrum was now heading back to the sea but crashed on to the sand where it disintegrated in violent explosions, rockets tearing across the beach at great speed.” Unsurprisingly, the project was immediately scrapped over safety concerns.
2. The Most Farcical Battle in the History of Warfare?
Among all the strange events in the history of war, few are more strange than the Battle of Karansebes, which took place in 1788. The battle – to the extent that it could be called that – was a farcical debacle in which an army killed up to 10,000 of its own ranks, routed itself, and scattered in panicked flight without an enemy present. It occurred during the Austro-Turkish War of 1787-1791, and was fought between an Austrian army of 100,000, and itself.
Austria ruled a diverse multiethnic empire, and its army was correspondingly diverse and multiethnic. Units were drawn from various ethnic groups, most of whom could not understand each others’ languages. During the night of September 21-22, 1788, Austrian hussars crossed a river to scout for the enemy. According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word hussar stems from the Hungarian huszár, which in turn originates from the medieval Serbian Husar, meaning brigand. They found no Turks, but found some Gypsies who sold them schnapps. Soon, the hussars were uproariously drunk. Back in the camp, the Austrian commander grew worried by the hussars taking so long to return. So he sent some infantry across the river to check. It was the start of a farcical chain of events that would end in disaster.
1. The Strange Battle That Was Fought – and Lost – Without an Enemy in Sight
The infantry found the missing hussars and demanded a share of their schnapps. The hussars refused, resulting in a brawl that escalated into an exchange of gunfire. During the fight, an infantryman pranked the hussars by shouting “Turci! Turci!” (“Turks! Turks!”). That caused the drunken hussars to flee in terror. However, they were accompanied in their panicked flight by many infantrymen, unaware that the alarm was a trick by a comrade. Across the river, the Austrian camp stirred uneasily at the sounds of distant gunfire and screams. When the panicked hussars and infantry neared the camp, shouting “Turci! Turci!“, they were challenged by sentries who shouted “Halt! Halt!”
That was misheard by non-German speaking soldiers as “Allah! Allah!” In the confusion, an artillery officer thought that the camp was under attack, and ordered his cannons to open fire. As startled and confused soldiers woke up to the sounds of combat, some began firing wildly. Within minutes, the panic and wild firing spread had engulfed the camp. Soon, entire regiments were firing volleys at each other, before the entire army dissolved and scattered in panicked flight. The Turks arrived two days later and captured the Austrian camp, where they found 10,000 dead and wounded.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading