Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs

Khalid Elhassan - February 15, 2021

In 1941, Poland declared war against Japan. In a strange twist, the Japanese government refused to accept the Polish declaration of war. Not only that, but the Japanese helped the Poles spy on Japan’s ally, Germany, and cooperated with Polish intelligence throughout the war. Following are thirty things about that and other strange war facts from history.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan Times

30. The Strange Japanese-Polish Relationship During WWII

In December of 1941, Japan kicked off WWII in earnest in the Pacific by attacking the US at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, and British and Dutch possessions in Asia and the Pacific. That triggered declarations of war against Japan not only from the attacked countries but also from a slew of allied countries that were already at war with Germany. In demonstrations of solidarity with America and Britain, they rushed to add Japan to their list of formal enemies.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Japan and Poland have been more simpatico than most people know. Wikimedia

Many war declarations against Japan came from governments in exile, representing countries that had been conquered by Germany earlier in WWII. The declaration of one exiled government, however, elicited a strange reaction: when Poland declared war against Japan, the Japanese refused to accept it. As Japan’s Prime Minister Hideki Tojo put it: “We do not accept Poland’s challenge. The Poles, fighting for their freedom, only declared war on us under pressure from the United Kingdom“. Despite the war declaration, Japanese-Polish ties continued, with Japan going so far as to help the Poles against Japan’s Axis ally, Germany.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Major Yasumas Fukushima kicked off a trend of Japanese affection for Poland and the Poles. The First News

29. The Nineteenth Century Song That Aroused Japanese Sympathy for Poland

Japan and Poland are not exactly peas in a pod, but the Poles and Japanese had a common enemy: Russia. Russia had participated in repeated partitions of Poland that erased it as an independent country in the eighteenth century. For generations thereafter, Russia suppressed repeated uprisings by Polish nationalists seeking to revive and free Poland. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Japan emerged as a rising power in the Far East, whose ambitions in the region clashed with Russia’s. Mutual antipathy towards the Russians thus drew the Poles and Japanese together.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Japanese assaulting entrenched Russians during the Russo-Japanese War – a war in which Polish sympathies lay with Japan. Le Patriote Illustre

In the late nineteenth century, Japanese officer Yasumas Fukushima traveled through Poland. He liked the Poles, and was moved by the tragedy of the partitions that had extinguished Poland. When he returned to Japan, Fukushima’s writings struck a chord, and inspired “The Memory of Poland”, a poem about a country that had lost its freedom. When it was set to music, “The Memory of Poland” became a smash hit that took Japan by storm and aroused sympathy for Poles. When Poland regained her independence after World War I, Japan supported her admission to the League of Nations. In the interwar years, the two countries cooperated, especially in espionage against Russia’s successor state, the Soviet Union.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Passport issued by the Polish embassy in Tokyo, which continued to function for more than two years after Poland was conquered by Japan’s ally, Germany. Our Passports

28. The Strange War Between Poland and Japan Lasted for Sixteen Years

Japanese-Polish cooperation continued even after WWII began with Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland. Despite close German-Japanese ties, the fact that they were both signatories of the anticommunist Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936 and the Tripartite Pact of 1940, Poland’s embassy continued to function in Tokyo. That strange situation lasted until German pressure forced its closure in October 1941. A Polish espionage network functioned out of the Japanese embassy in Berlin, and Polish agents were supplied with Japanese passports – including diplomatic passports – that allowed them to move freely throughout German-occupied Europe.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
The Japanese embassy in Berlin during WWII, which helped Polish spies against Germany and furnished them with Japanese passports to facilitate their movement throughout Europe. Bundesarchiv Bild

Odder still was that, even after Poland had declared war against Japan, Japan continued to cooperate with the Poles. Polish agents continued to move throughout German-occupied Europe with passports provided by the Japanese government. Japanese and Polish intelligence services continued to exchange information about Germany and the USSR throughout the war. It took sixteen years for the strange Polish-Japanese War to come to a formal end, when the People’s Republic of Poland finally signed an agreement with Japan to restore formal relations.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
FDR delivering his Day of Infamy speech to Congress, shortly before it declared war against Japan. YouTube

27. The Strange Belief That FDR Knew of Japan’s Plan to Attack Pearl Harbor in Advance and Allowed it to Happen

A strange WWII myth claims that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew in advance of the Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbor. He supposedly allowed it to happen in order to bring America into the war on Britain’s side against Germany. The myth stems from the fact that American cryptanalysts had cracked Japanese codes and gleaned messages indicative of hostile intent. However, the messages did not specify when and where Japan planned to attack. Warnings were issued to American commanders throughout the Pacific. However, the ones in Pearl Harbor failed to take adequate precautions – as did Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, who was also caught unprepared despite the warnings.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
A burning USS Arizona, sunk during the Pearl Harbor attack. History Channel

The strange myth, which began during the 1944 presidential campaign, is also illogical. FDR did see Nazi Germany as the world’s greatest menace and was busily rearming and preparing America for what he deemed the inevitability of war against fascism. However, there is no causal nexus between allowing the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor and the US going to war against Nazi Germany. It was Germany that FDR wanted to fight, not Japan. The Japanese attacking the US would have resulted in a war against Japan, which FDR did not want, not in a war against Germany, which FDR wanted.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Hitler in the Reichstag on December 11th, 1941, declaring war on the US. Wikimedia

26. Like Many Strange Conspiracies, This One is Illogical

The only reason the US ended up in a war against Germany was because of one of Hitler’s greatest missteps. To the consternation of his generals, the Fuhrer declared war on America when he had nothing to gain, and everything to lose from gratuitously adding to his enemies the world’s wealthiest country and greatest industrial powerhouse. Without that irrational decision by Hitler, there is little reason to think that Congress would have declared war against Germany, which had not attacked America.

Even if a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor could have led to war against Germany, FDR’s alleged goal of getting America into the war would have been accomplished just as well if US forces had been prepared. A Japanese attack defeated by alert Americans would have still been an act of war by Japan. Roosevelt would still have gotten the war he supposedly sought, without thousands of American servicemen and civilians getting slaughtered. The US Navy could have ambushed the Japanese and sunk their fleet before it launched a single plane against Pearl Harbor, and its mere presence near Hawaii would have offered enough evidence of Japan’s hostile intent to justify war.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Japan’s foreign minister signing his country’s surrender aboard the USS Missouri on September 2nd, 1945. Wikimedia

25. The Strange Phenomenon of Japanese Who Kept Fighting After WWII Ended

When Japan surrendered in August of 1945, millions of Japanese military personnel were spread across vast swathes of Asia and the Pacific. Most of them overcame the shock of defeat and duly obeyed the orders to surrender, broadcast by Japan’s emperor and relayed through their chain of command. However, for a variety of reasons, a stubborn minority did not surrender. Some had no communication with their chain of command. As such, they did not receive official notice that the war was over and that they should surrender to the Allies.

Others received the orders to surrender, but dismissed them as “fake news”. They had been indoctrinated with the Japanese military’s bushido-based ethos of fighting unto death and avoiding the ignominy and dishonor of surrender. As they saw it, it was inconceivable that their leaders had actually gone ahead and accepted the ignominy and dishonor of surrender. That meant that the orders instructing them to surrender could not have possibly come from their government, but were an enemy trick or ruse of war. Thus was born the strange phenomenon of Japanese holdouts.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Thousands of Japanese soldier in a POW stockade after Japan surrendered. Associated Press

24. Japanese Holdouts Held Out For a Variety of Reasons, Ranging From the Innocent and Noble to the Ignoble

Some Japanese holdouts were true believers in Japan’s claims that the war had been fought to free fellow Asians from European colonialism. So when their comrades marched off to POW camps, they stayed behind and joined forces with nationalist anti-colonial movements such as the Viet Minh. Others had snapped, suffering what modern psychology would describe as post-traumatic stress. They acted in strange and irrational ways because of mental instability. Others were simply jerks. They could not or would not swallow their pride and admit that all the wartime suffering and sacrifice had been for nothing, and face up to the fact that they had lost.

Most holdouts did not hold out for long. Within a few months, most were convinced that the war had ended. So they stacked their arms and turned themselves in to the nearest Allied forces, or if unable to face the humiliation of surrender, committed suicide. Others, were cut off from supplies of food and medicine, starved to death or succumbed to illness. Others were tracked down by Allied or native forces and killed. However, a tiny minority held out for far longer, continuing the war and eluding capture or death for months or for years. The first famous holdout was Sakae Oba, below.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
US Marines in Saipan. WW2 Wrecks

23. The Japanese Who Survived WWII’s Biggest Banzai Charge

Compared to some, Captain Sakae Oba’s holdout was relatively brief. However, his was the first holdout that captured widespread media and public attention, and thus introduced the strange trope of Japanese holdouts to popular culture. Born in 1914, Sakae Oba joined the Imperial Japanese Army in 1934. After years of service in Manchuria and China, he ended up in Saipan, three months before US Marines invaded in June, 1944. Overcoming fierce resistance, the Marines gradually beat back the Japanese defenders.

At the end of their tether, the Japanese higher-ups in charge of defending Saipan decided that they and what was left of their command should go out in a final blaze of glory, and die fighting. So they ordered a massive banzai charge – the largest such charge of the entire war. Captain Oba was among the few Japanese survivors. Rounding up and taking command of 46 other Japanese soldiers, along with 160 civilians, he plunged into the island’s jungles.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Sakae Oba. Wikimedia

22. The Fox of Saipan Had a Strange and Inexplicable Ability to Avoid Detection and Capture

Captain Sakae Oba hid the civilians who had accompanied him and other Japanese military survivors into Saipan’s jungles, by concealing them in caves and remote villages in Saipan’s interior. He then led his men in a guerrilla campaign against the US military. Oba led his men in raiding American outposts and supplies, ambushing patrols, and taking potshots at sentries. US commanders had assumed that the island was wholly pacified, but Oba’s pinprick attacks gave the lie to that assumption.

Numerous patrols were sent to track down and finish off Oba’s force, but to no avail. Plans were drawn for a massive dragnet in which American military personnel would line up across the entire island. Separated from each other by only two meters, the dragnet swept Saipan from end to end. However, the holdouts managed to avoid detection, leading to the reassignment of the chagrined officer in charge of the operation. Oba’s strange and inexplicable ability to avoid detection and elude capture led the Marines in Saipan to nickname him “The Fox”.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Sakae Oba surrendering. Japan Times

21. Sakae Oba’s Holdout Finally Ended When the Americans Sent a Japanese General Into the Jungle to Reason With Him

Captain Sakae Oba was still fighting when Japan threw in the towel in August, 1945, and he kept fighting after WWII ended. News of Japan’s surrender was blared via loudspeakers and was described in leaflets that were airdropped over Saipan’s jungles. Oba and his followers dismissed it as enemy propaganda. Oba held out for sixteen months after Saipan had fallen, and for three months after the war had ended. Eventually, American authorities brought in a Japanese general who had commanded a brigade in Saipan, and sent him in to try and find and reason with Oba.

Tramping through the jungle while whistling Japanese military tunes, the general drew out some of the holdouts, who took him to their commander. After presenting Oba with official documents from Imperial General Headquarters ordering him to surrender, the strange holdout ended. On December 1st, 1945, Oba marched his charges out of their jungle hideouts, and in a dignified ceremony, surrendered his sword and his command. Upon repatriation to Japan, Sakae Oba led a productive life, working in the private sector, before turning to politics and getting elected to his city’s council. He died in 1992, aged 78.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Raising the American flag over Iwo Jima. Time Magazine

20. The Holdouts Who Lasted For Years on Barren Iwo Jima

Yamakage Kufuku and Matsudo Linsoki were two Japanese machine gunners assigned to defend Iwo Jima, when the island was invaded by American forces in February, 1945. Some of the fiercest and bloodiest combat of the Pacific War ensued. The defenders fought fanatically, almost to the last man: out of a garrison of 21,000 Japanese, nearly 20,000 died before the island was declared secured. Kufuku and Linsoki were among the few Japanese who neither died fighting, nor committed suicide. Believing their government’s propaganda that Americans tortured and killed prisoners, they were too afraid to surrender. So they went to the ground – literally.

The former machine gunners hid during the day in the warren of tunnels that honeycombed the rocky island, and emerged at night to steal food and other necessaries from the American garrison’s supply and trash dumps. Through such means, Kufuku and Linoski managed to survive for a long time in a barren and inhospitable island bereft of vegetation and game. The American garrison’s lack of interest in scouring Iwo Jima’s hard landscape enabled the Japanese duo to go unnoticed for years.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Matusodo Linoski and Yamakage Kifuku. Wanpela

19. American Corporals Pick Up Strange Hitchhikers in Iwo Jima

The holdout of Yamakage Kufuku and Matsudo Linsoki lasted until January 6th, 1949. That day, a pair of US Air Force corporals in a Jeep spotted two pedestrians in uniforms a few sizes too big, walking alongside a road. They took them for Chinese laborers, and although they spoke no English and were uncommunicative, the American airmen assumed they were hitchhiking to the island’s main base. So they kindly gave them a lift, and dropped them off in front of the garrison’s headquarters building.

From there, Kufuku and Linoski wandered around the base for hours. Eventually, a passing American sergeant thought there was something strange about the duo. He took a closer look, realized that they were Japanese, and took them in. After an initial interrogation, the duo took their captors to their hideout. There, the Americans found a cave richly stocked with canned foods, flashlights, batteries, uniforms, boots and shoes and socks, and sundry goods that the pair had pilfered over the years.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Yogi Berra, left, with Hank Bauer and Mickey Mantle in 1953. Vintage Cards

18. A Baseball Icon at War

Yogi Berra, one of only five players to have ever won the American League MVP three times, was also an 18-time All-Star who won 10 World Series – more than any other player in MLB history. After his playing days were over, Berra went into coaching and managing. Between 1947 and 1981, he 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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Yogi Berra in 2007. Wikimedia

The Yankees signed Yogi Berra in 1942, but he interrupted his career to serve in the US Navy. He wound up 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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Yogi Berra in the US Navy. Bronx Pinstripes

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“.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Yogi Berra’s D-Day rocket boat. The Yogi Berra Museum

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Lenny Bruce. Santa Monica Daily Press

16. A Comedian in WWII’s US Navy

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Lenny Bruce’s mugshots after one of his arrests. National Public Radio

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Lenny Bruce’s US Navy ID card. University of Missouri Kansas City School of Law

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Lenny Bruce’s handwritten letter to the Navy, announcing that he was feeling gay. The Smoking Gun

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“.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Corporal Klinger. Reddit

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
A prototype V-3 Cannon in 1942. Bunesarchiv Bild

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
The V-3 Cannon. History Net

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Reconstructed plan of the V-3 site. Wikimedia

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
GIs posing with a captured V-3 projectile, ten of which would have been fired at London every minute. US Army Military Historical Institute

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
A burning US Army Air Forces B-24 Liberator during WWII. Pintrest

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
A burning British Royal Air Force Lancaster during WWII. Pitor Forkasiewicz

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Nicholas Alkemade. Aviation Trails

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Nicholas Alkemade’s fall. La Bruja la Verde

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Nicholas Alkemade with his son after the war. Leicester Mercury

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
B-17 crew positions. Old Roads Once Traveled

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Staff Sgt. Alan E. Magee poses for the camera halfway into his ball turret. Historic Wings

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Saint Nazaire’s railway station. Historic Wings

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Ilyushin Il-4 bomber. Asis Biz

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Ivan Chisov. Wikimedia

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
How the Great Panjandrum was supposed to work. Look and Learn

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
The Great Panjandrum. War History Online

4. The Strange Great Panjandrum

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
An out of control Great Panjandrum veering off course and towards the cameramen. Benedante

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Austrian army during the Austro-Turkish War of 1788 – 1791. Wikimedia

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Turkish army marching out at the start of the Austro-Turkish War in 1788. History Is Now Magazine

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.

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
Eighteenth-century Austrian hussars. Xenophon Group

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!

Offbeat Warfare Facts that Will Confound History Buffs
The Battle of Karansebes. Lock, Stock, and History

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

Albuquerque Journal, February 3rd, 2004 – Man Survived 22,000 Foot Fall From Bomber

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

First News, The – Strangest War in History? Seventy-One Years Ago Today, Poland Declared War on its Old Friend Japan, and it Lasted for 16 Years

Historic Wings – The Miracle of Saint Nazaire

Hogg, Ian V. – German Artillery of World War II (2002)

Imperial War Museum – Life and Death in Bomber Command

Intelligence and National Security Journal, Vol 17, No. 2, Summer 2002 – Pearl Harbor Revisionism: Robert Stinnett’s Day of Deceit

Johnson, Brian – The Secret War (2004)

Jones, Don – Oba, the Last Samurai: Saipan 1944-1945 (1986)

La Brujala Verde – The World War II Airmen Who Survived Falls From Thousands of Feet High

History Collection – Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes

Pearl Harbor History Associates – The Myths of Pearl Harbor

Smoking Gun – Lenny Bruce’s Gay Naval Ruse

Times, The, June 5th, 2009 – Replica of the Great Panjandrum, 1944 Super Weapon, to be Tested

Wanpela – Yamakage Kufuku

Wikipedia – Battle of Karansebes

Wikipedia – Sakae Oba

WW2 Wrecks – The Last Samurai: Sakae Oba and the Largest Banzai Charge of the War in the Pacific