29. The Need to Silently Take Out a German Sentry Required an Extraordinary Feat of Skill
Born in 1922, George “Skeeter” Vaughan enlisted in the US Army in 1942 when he was nineteen, and landed with his unit on Omaha Beach two days after D-Day in June 1944. A few weeks afterward, he ended up in a fifteen-man scouting outfit named the Moccasin Rangers, all of them are Native Americans with great night sight. On one snowy night in November 1944, Skeeter, by then a sergeant, led a six-man patrol of Moccasin Rangers to take out a German bunker on the Siegfried Line, to clear a path for an American advance.
The men crawled on their bellies through the snow until they reached a timber stand on a hill, a few dozen yards above and behind the enemy bunker. The hiccup was how to cross that distance, as there was a German sentry outside the bunker with his back to them. He had to be eliminated and eliminated silently, so shooting him was not an option. There was too much open ground between the Moccasin Rangers and the Nazi for one of them to cross without alerting him. Then one of the men whispered to ask whether their sergeant could take out the sentry with a bayonet knife throw. To pull it off would be an extraordinary feat, but Skeeter was game.
28. Skeeter Vaughan’s Feat Has No Known Equal in Combat
Skeeter Vaughan slowly crawled out of the timber stand that concealed the Moccasin Rangers, then stood up, bayonet in hand. With the German sentry’s back still towards him, Skeeter drew a beat on a spot three feet above the enemy soldier’s head, and threw the bayonet in a high trajectory. As he and his men held their breath, the bayonet silently turned over and over in its long downhill flight, before it finally buried itself in the back of the German’s skull. He fell without a peep, face down in the snow.
Their path now clear, Skeeter and the rest of the Moccasin Ranger silently made it to the rear of the German bunker, surprised the enemy soldiers within, eliminated it and accomplished their mission. Later, his comrades measured the distance of the bayonet throw, and it turned out to be 87 feet. It was a feat of knife-throwing skill that has no known equal in combat. Skeeter Vaughan attributed the accuracy of the throw to luck and prayer. They might have played a role, but still: a skillful man is more likely to get lucky and have his prayers answered than an unskilled one.
America was shocked to its core by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. In just a few hours on a quiet Sunday morning, hundreds of Japanese warplanes in a stunning feat had devastated the US Pacific Fleet as it lay at anchor. All eight battleships at Pearl, plus three cruisers, three destroyers, and five other ships were sunk or seriously damaged, and hundreds of airplanes were destroyed. About 2400 US servicemen and civilians were killed, and another 1200 were wounded. The country was catapulted into World War II in the rudest way possible, and to say that Americans were hopping mad and itching for payback would be an understatement.
However, in the months after the attack, there was a huge gap between the desire to hit back and the ability to do so. Indeed, instead of hit back, America and her allies got hit repeatedly by the rampaging Japanese. In short order, the forces of Japan conquered Hong Kong, overran the Philippines, seized the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, took the Dutch East Indies, forced the surrender of the US Marine garrison at Wake Island, and chased the British out of Burma. At sea, they shocked the British Royal Navy by effortlessly sinking the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battle cruiser HMS Repulse, and dealt an allied fleet a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Java Sea.
The string of Japanese victories after Pearl Harbor made America seem helpless. Until December 7, 1941, the Japanese were seen as mediocrities who would never dare take on America, which would thrash them in short order if they dared to try. Yet, here they were, dishing blow after unanswered blow, and making the US look impotent. America’s leadership realized that it was vital to hit back – and be seen to hit back – and soon. It would take time before sufficient forces were gathered to take the offensive. Until then, however, couldn’t American airplanes at least bomb Japan?
On December 21st, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Japan should be bombed as soon as possible to boost public morale. The problem though was just how to accomplish that feat? The US Navy had bombers that could be launched from aircraft carriers, but their range was short. So carriers would have to come within about two hundred miles of Japan, which would put them within range of Japanese land-based bombers. The risk to America’s precious carriers was too high for what was ultimately a symbolic strike. The US Army Air Forces had long-range twin and four-engine bombers, but it had no airbases close enough for them to take off, bomb Japan, and return.
25. A Sailor’s Brainstorm Kicks Off a Great Feat of Arms
Striking back at Japan seemed beyond reach until US Navy Captain Francis Stuart Low happened to look down as he flew over Chambers Field at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia. Below was a runway painted with the outline of an aircraft carrier’s deck. That was not unusual in itself: carrier pilots routinely practiced takeoffs and landings on such simulated decks on the ground. That day, however, there were some twin-engine Army bombers parked nearby. In one of those sudden insights that occasionally strike gifted military men, Low linked the Army bombers to the adjacent painted carrier deck outline. Why, he thought, not meld the assets of two services to launch long-range Army bombers from a Navy carrier’s deck?
On January 10, 1942, Captain Low, Assistant Chief of Staff for antisubmarine warfare, took his idea to Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief of the US Fleet. King thought the idea had potential, so he ran it by Henry “Hap” Arnold, the US Army Air Forces head honcho. Arnold liked the idea, and planning began for a top-secret mission to launch long-range Army bombers from an aircraft carrier to hit Japan. To organize the raid, Arnold picked Lieutenant Colonel James Harold “Jimmy” Doolittle, who had been a famous airplane racer, test pilot, and aeronautical engineer who had pulled off many an extraordinary aviation feat before the war.
Jimmy Doolittle had revolutionized aviation by pioneering instrument flying, which allowed pilots to take off, fly, and land airplanes regardless of visibility. However, in addition to being a reservist rather than an active-duty officer, Doolittle had no combat experience – during World War I, he served in the US as a flight instructor. That Hap Arnold chose him to organize such a vital mission despite such perceived drawbacks bespoke high confidence. Doolittle immediately set out to demonstrate that the trust of the USAAF’s commanding general in him was not misplaced.
His first task was to pick the right bomber. It needed to have a range of roughly 2400 nautical miles, while carrying a 2000-pound bomb load. The options included the Douglas B-18 Bolo, the Douglas B-23 Dragon, and the Martin B-26 Marauder. However, the B-18 and B-23 had great wingspans, which was problematic for carrier operation. The risk of hitting the superstructure was high, and they took up a lot of space, so the number that could be taken aboard a carrier was low. The B-26 did not have that problem, but its takeoff characteristics were not well suited for a carrier deck. So Doolittle considered an untested airplane, the North American B-25 Mitchell.
23. The B-25 Turned Out to be the Right Plane to Accomplish an Extraordinary Feat
The B-25 had been designed in response to a 1939 Air Corps solicitation for an airplane that could carry a 2400-pound bomb load for 1200 miles, at a speed of 300 miles per hour. North American Aviation came back with a plane that exceeded the bomb load and range requirements, with 3000 pounds for 1350 miles, and came close to the solicited speed at 272 miles per hour. It first flew in 1940 and entered service in 1941. B-25s had not been tested in combat, but on paper, they seemed like they just might suit Doolittle’s needs. So he tested the bomber to find out whether it was as good in practice for the mission as it seemed to be in theory.
Two B-25s were loaded aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, and flew off its deck on February 3rd, 1942, without a problem. With proof of concept out of the way, Doolittle set out to find and train aircrews for the raid. He found them in the 17th Bombardment Group, which was flying B-25Bs on antisubmarine patrols off Oregon’s coast. The 17th was transferred to South Carolina, under cover of flying similar missions on the East Coast. When they arrived, Doolittle asked for volunteers for an “extremely hazardous” mission. Nearly the entire group stepped forward.
Jimmy Doolittle picked 24 volunteer crews, and two dozen of the 17th Bombardment’s Group B-25s were sent to a modification center in Minneapolis to make some changes. Chief among them was the addition of auxiliary fuel tanks and cells to increase capacity from 646 to 1,141 gallons. To make space and compensate for the added fuel weight, the lower gun turret and radio were removed, while the standard Norden bomb sight was replaced with an improvised and lighter makeshift. When the planes were ready, the crews were sent to pick them up and fly to Eglin Field in western Florida.
There, starting on March 1st, 1942, Doolittle put the volunteers through an intense three-week crash course to prepare them for the raid. Emphasis was placed on low-level and night flying, low-level bombing, ocean navigation, and simulated aircraft carrier deck takeoffs. Two B-25s were wrecked in accidents, and a third was written off because of mechanical troubles. The remaining bombers flew to California and arrived at Sacramento Air Depot on March 27th. There, they were subjected to final modifications and inspections, and the best sixteen bombers were flown to Alameda Naval Air Station on March 31st.
On April 1st, 1942, Doolittle’s B-25s, each with four 500-pound bombs, three high explosives and one incendiary, along with their five-man crews and maintenance personnel, were loaded aboard the carrier USS Hornet. The Hornet and her escorts, Task Force 18, sailed from San Francisco on April 2nd. North of Hawaii on the 12th, they linked up with the carrier USS Enterprise and Task Force 16, commanded by Vice Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey. At first, the Hornet’s crew had resented their USAAF passengers, assuming that they were just ferrying them and their bombers. But when Halsey finally informed the sailors that they were headed to Tokyo, their cheers shook the deck, and the airmen immediately went from zeroes to heroes.
Trouble cropped up on the morning of April 18th, 1942, when the task force was sighted by an enemy picket boat 750 miles from Japan. It was quickly sunk, but by then it had sent a radio message. Fearing loss of the element of the surprise, it was decided to launch the bombers immediately, 10 hours earlier and 170 miles further from Japan than initially planned. At 08:20, Doolittle flew the first B-25 off the Hornet’s deck, and by 09:19, the other 15 bombers had followed him into the air. Flying low to avoid detection, they winged their way to Japan. They arrived around noon and bombed targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Osaka, Nagoya, and Yokosuka.
20. Jimmy Doolittle’s Feat Shaped the Course of World War II in the Pacific
Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25s could take off from a carrier, but could not land on one. So according to plan, 15 bombers continued westward and made it to China, where they crash-landed. Another made its way to Vladivostok, where it and its crew were interred by the Soviets. Three of eighty crewmen were killed. Eight were captured by the Japanese, of whom three were executed, and one died in captivity. The raid’s physical damage was slight, but the psychological impact was huge. The daring feat boosted American morale by demonstrating the country’s ability to hit back, and Doolittle received a well-deserved Medal of Honor.
Simultaneously, the Japanese high command lost considerable face. They worked off their frustration with a collective punishment campaign against the part of China where the B-25s had crash-landed and the crews had been helped by the locals. In an orgy of rapine and murder known as Operation Sei-Go, the Japanese killed an estimated quarter-million Chinese. They also sought to regain face with an attempt to capture Midway Island a few weeks later. It backfired spectacularly and ended in a catastrophic Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway, which turned the tide of war in the Pacific.
19. The Stunning Feat of a World War II French Resistance Fighter
Georges Charles Louis Blind (1904 – 1944) was a French fireman, ambulance driver, and French Resistance member from Belfort. He became famous in 1984 when a photograph was published in an attempt to identify an anonymous man who had pulled off a feat of extraordinary courage in the face of mortal danger. It depicted a man with his back to a wall, identified as near a moat in the Belfort Citadel, and a wide smile across his face as he faced a German firing squad with its raised rifles aimed at him. A Belfortian stepped forward and identified the man in the picture as Georges Blind, his father, who had died in Nazi custody.
Blind, a blacksmith, had become a fireman in 1929. He took his first steps towards joining the Resistance just a few months into the German occupation of France when he and others sheltered a statue of Edith Cavell, a WWI heroine who had been executed by the Germans. As a fireman, he had a pass that allowed him to drive fire brigade trucks and ambulances between the Belfort region and Alsace. He eventually became a resistance courier and used his ambulance to transport fugitives on the run from the Nazis, weapons, information, and clandestine publications. He was arrested by the Germans on October 14th, 1944, and jailed.
At some point between October 15th and 23rd, Georges Blind was placed before a German firing squad, and somebody took a photo that captured his feat of courage in the face of death. It immortalized him as an anti-fascist symbol of the Resistance. In it, Blind can be seen smiling in the face of his executioners, as German soldiers aim their rifles at him. Literally smiling in the face of death has to be one of the manliest ways to shuffle off the mortal coil. However, unbeknownst to Blind, he was not to die that day.
It was a mock execution, used as psychological torture in an attempt to scare him into snitching on his Resistance comrades. Blind refused to snitch, so on October 24th, 1944, he was sent to Dachau concentration camp, where he arrived on the 29th. From Dachau, he was sent to Auschwitz, where he arrived on November 24th. There, he was killed by lethal injection on November 30th, 1944. Georges Blind was posthumously promoted to sergeant in the French Forces of the Interior. He was also posthumously awarded a Croix de Guerre, a Medaille Militaire, a Resistance Medal, and an Honor Medal for Fighters for exceptional services.
Once the US joined World War II, everybody knew that, sooner or later, American and British forces were bound to launch an invasion of Europe to free it from Nazi tyranny. What mattered most to the Germans was to find out just where the invasion would occur, so they could mass sufficient forces to throw it back into the sea. To prevent that from happening, the Allies turned to Operation Bodyguard, a multifaceted and complex plan to deceive the Nazis about the time and location of the Western Allies’ intended invasion of Europe in 1944.
Operation Bodyguard had three goals. First, was to conceal the actual time and date of the planned invasion. Second, was to convince the Germans that the main invasion would land in the Pas de Calais, instead of Normandy. Third, to convince the Germans after the Allies had invaded Normandy to nonetheless maintain a strong concentration of military forces in the Pas de Calais region for at least two weeks, rather than send its defenders to reinforce Normandy. In a great feat of deception, as seen below, the Allies succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
A sub-plan of Operation Bodyguard was Operation Fortitude, which created a fictitious “First US Army Group” (FUSAG) in southeast England under the command of General George S. Patton. Allied intelligence used a variety of ruses to sell the existence of Patton’s nonexistent army group to the Germans. Radio operators carried on a large volume of fake radio traffic between fictitious FUSAG units. Allied air forces, who had aerial supremacy over the British Isles, allowed German air reconnaissance to fly over and photograph concentrations of FUSAG tanks and transports.
In reality, what the German overflights filmed were not actual tanks and transports, but inflatable dummies. German intelligence was also fed fake reports via double agents and turned spies about FUSAG’s intentions to invade the Pas de Calais so as to tie down the German defenders there. A subsidiary plan, Fortitude North, created a fictitious British Fourth Army in Scotland and convinced the Germans that it planned to invade Norway so as to tie down the German divisions posted there.
Much of the success of Operation Bodyguard is owed to one man: Juan Pujol Garcia (1912 – 1988), an adventurer who pulled off a feat of deception that has no parallels in history. Pujol was an eccentric Spaniard who, out of a sheer desire for adventure and excitement, hoaxed the Nazis with fictional espionage. The hoax grew into the greatest double-cross operation of World War II and played a significant role in ensuring Allied victory on D-Day and in the subsequent Normandy Campaign.
Pujol hated fascists, and when World War II began, he took it upon himself to help the Allies “for the good of humanity”. However, when he offered his services to British intelligence, he was rejected. Undeterred, he posed as Spanish government officer who sympathized with the Nazi cause and offered his services to the Germans. They accepted the offer and ordered him to Britain, where he was to recruit a spy network. Instead, Pujol went to Lisbon, and from there, simply wrote made-up reports.
In Lisbon, Juan Pujol Garcia used content that he culled from public sources, embellished and seasoned it with his own active imagination, then sent that to his German handlers as if he was writing from Britain. The Germans, who gave him the codename ALARIC, swallowed Pujol’s reports and begged for more. So he invented fictional sub-agents and used them as sources for additional fictional reports. The British, who were intercepting and decoding secret German messages, realized that somebody was hoaxing the Germans.
When they discovered that it was Pujol, the British belatedly accepted his offer of services. They gave him the codename GARBO, and whisked him to Britain, where they built upon his imaginary network. His ad hoc fake reports became the centerpiece of an elaborate double-cross operation that carefully fed the Germans a massive amount of often true but useless information, mixed in with half-truths and lies. The flood of reports from Pujol and his steadily growing network of fictional sub-agents transformed him, in German eyes, into their best spy in Britain.
13. In a Calculated Gamble, Allied Intelligence Had This Spy Warn the Germans of the D-Day Invasion Hours in Advance
The moment to cash in on the Germans’ faith in Juan Pujol Garcia and his extraordinary feat of deception came during the buildup to D-Day and the subsequent Normandy campaign. The ultimate aim of the Allies’ intelligence services was to convince the Germans that the Normandy landings were just the first in a series of planned invasions. They wanted the Germans to believe that D-Day was just a diversion to draw away German forces and that the real invasion – a far bigger affair – was planned against the Pas de Calais.
To cement Pujol’s credibility with the Germans, British intelligence made a calculated gamble and had him send a message that actually alerted the Germans to the D-Day invasion a few hours before it began. They knew that by the time that Pujol’s warning had worked its way from German intelligence to commanders in the field, the invasion would have already taken place and the warning would have done the Germans no good. However, it would serve to enhance Pujol’s reputation in the eyes of his German handlers.
12. The Feat of Deception That Secured the Success of D-Day
With German military intelligence’s faith in Juan Pujol Garcia at an all-time high, Allied intelligence went in for the kill. The Spanish double agent cashed in upon the years of built-up trust and falsely informed the Nazis that the Normandy landings were mere diversions, intended to draw away German military reinforcements from the Allies’ real target. That was the Pas de Calais, which lay at the shortest distance across the English Channel from occupied France, and which the Allies intended to invade a few weeks after the Normandy invasion.
That, coupled with other measures whereby a fictional First US Army Group, under the command of George Patton, was massed across the English Channel opposite the Pas de Calais, worked. Pujol’s feat of deception convinced the Germans during the most crucial weeks in June of 1944 to keep powerful formations in the Pas de Calais region. They would have done the Germans more good – and the Allied incalculable harm – if they had been rushed instead to Normandy, to help destroy the vulnerable beachhead. By the time the Pas de Calais formations were finally released, it was too late.
11. Rather Than Reinforce the Critical Normandy Front, the Germans Held Military Forces Back to Guard Against an Invasion That Never Came
In the weeks that Juan Pujol Garcia’s extraordinary feat of deception had bought them, the Allies amassed sufficient forces in Normandy to defeat German counterattacks. Then they went on the offensive, broke out of the beachhead, and swept across and liberated France within a few months. After D-Day, Pujol and Operation Bodyguard prevented the Germans from committing fully to a counter-attack by convincing them that the Normandy landings were not the main event, but the first in a series of landings.
The false information fed the German high command thus led it to keep powerful military formations away from the critical Normandy front. Instead, they were left to guard other potential landing sites, mainly the Pas de Calais, which was threatened by the fictitious FUSAG under Patton, rather than sent to reinforce the defenders in Normandy. Bodyguard had hoped to convince the Germans to stay put in the Pas de Calais for two weeks after D-Day, instead of immediately sending the units there to reinforce Normandy. They got far more than they had hoped for.
10. This Double Agent’s Extraordinary Feat of Deception Earned Him Medals From Both Sides
Operation Bodyguard and Juan Pujol Garcia’s double-cross and feat of deception worked so well that the Germans stayed put in the Pas de Calais for seven weeks instead of the two weeks that the Allies had hoped for as a best-case scenario. That bought the Allies the necessary time to secure their beachhead in Normandy, then use it as a springboard from which to breakout and liberate France and Western Europe. As to Pujol, he gained the distinction of receiving an Iron Cross from Germany, plus a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) from Britain.
After the war, Pujol feared reprisals from the Nazis, so he faked his death in Angola in 1949, then moved to Venezuela, where he ran a gift shop and book store. He led an anonymous life until 1984 when he agreed to be interviewed for a book about agent GARBO. Afterward, he was received at Buckingham Palace, was lionized in Britain, and on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, he traveled to Normandy to pay his respects to the dead. He died in Caracas four years later.
Ballerina Franceska Manheimer-Rosenberg, better known as Franceska Mann, was born in 1917 into a Jewish family in Poland. She exhibited a talent for dance from early on and studied it as she grew up. By her early twenties, she had become one of the most accomplished dancers in Poland and was a rising star in Europe’s dance scene. Then the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 derailed her promising career. She ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto and survived its liquidation by the Nazis in 1943.
Soon thereafter, however, she and thousands of other Jews who had managed to hide in Warsaw fell for a Nazi scheme designed to capture Jewish survivors. A ruse got them to buy neutral country passports on the black market, on the assumption that it would legally transform them into foreign citizens eligible to leave Nazi-occupied Europe. Franceska was among 2500 Jews who boarded trains that were supposed to take them to neutral Switzerland. Instead, they were taken to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp.
Once she got to Auschwitz, the doomed Franceska Mann pulled off a feat of incredible – and inventive – defiance that earned her a place in history. On October 23rd, 1943, 1700 Jews boarded passenger trains headed to what they believed was a transfer camp near Dresden. They were told that they would get off the trains there, then go through bureaucratic formalities and health checks, preparatory to getting sent to Switzerland in exchange for German POWs. Instead, the trains stopped at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
Mann was one of the passengers who got off the trains. She and the other women were told that the Swiss authorities required that immigrants be disinfected before they could cross the border into Switzerland. Instead of a disinfection station, they were taken to an undressing room next to the gas chambers and told to undress. It was in that room, as other women disrobed, that Mann suspected what was in store, and decided to become a one-woman resistance movement.
The recently arrived women who were first to undress in the Auschwitz showers were hurried into the gas chamber. However, Franceska Mann hesitated to disrobe. That was when a group of irritated SS camp guards entered the room, and ordered her and the other women who had not yet undressed to hurry up. Mann refused, and in that instance, became a one-woman resistance cell. Until then, she had not been a member of any resistance group. However, in a split second, a few feet from a gas chamber, she decided to stand up and defy her oppressors.
In the most popular version of Franceska Mann’s heroic feat – although it is a version that has never been verified – she reportedly performed a striptease for the SS guards. As they ogled the beauty before them, they let their guard down. That was when Mann struck. Whether she had or had not performed a striptease, what is known is that she took off a high heel shoe, and used its heel to stab an SS guard named Walter Quakernack in the face.
6. The Ballerina Who Led a World War II Death Camp Revolt
As SS guard Walter Quakernack clutched at his face, Franceska Mann seized his pistol, and opened fire on the other guards. She shot two of them, Josef Shillinger, and Wilhelm Emmerich. Shillinger died of his wounds a few hours later, while Emmerich was left with a permanent limp. As the stunned SS men tried to process what had just happened, a dam of mounting tensions in the undressing room broke. Mann’s feat of defiance triggered the remaining women into attacking the SS guards with whatever lay at hand, and with their bare hands and teeth if they could not get a hold of anything else.
One SS man was scalped, while another had his nose torn off before the guards fled the room. As the women barricaded themselves, SS reinforcements arrived to put down the uprising. Using grenades and submachine guns, the Germans eventually killed everybody in the undressing room, including Mann. Some accounts have it that some survived, to be taken out and executed. What is certain is that SS guard Josef Shillinger was killed, Wilhelm Emmerich was shot and lived, while Walter Quakernack and other SS men were wounded. After the war, Quakernack was tried for war crimes and executed.
5. Japan’s Surrender Left Many Japanese Soldiers Confused
When Japan threw in the towel in 1945, millions of Japanese military personnel were spread across East Asia and the Pacific. Most overcame the shock of defeat and duly obeyed the orders to surrender, broadcast by their emperor and relayed through their superiors. However, a minority did not. Their motives varied. Some had been cut off from communications with their chain of command, and so never received notice that the war was over and that they should surrender to Allied military personnel.
Others received the orders to surrender but did not trust their veracity because they had been strongly indoctrinated with their military’s bushido-based ethos. The duty to fight to the death and avoid the ignominy and dishonor of surrender had been drilled into them so often by their leaders, that it was inconceivable that those same leaders had actually gone ahead and accepted the ignominy and dishonor of surrender. That being so, it followed that the orders instructing them to surrender could not have possibly come from their government, but were an enemy trick or ruse of war.
4. The Men Who Kept Up the Fight After World War II Had Ended
Some Japanese military personnel were true believers in their country’s claims that the war was fought to free fellow Asians from European colonialism. So they stayed behind when their comrades marched off to internment camps, and joined nationalist anticolonial movements such as the Viet Minh. Others suffered what would be diagnosed today as a post-traumatic stress disorder, snapped, and acted irrationally due to mental instability. And some were simply jerks, who could not swallow their pride and admit that all the wartime suffering and sacrifice had been for nothing, and accept the fact that they had been beaten. Whatever their motives, thousands of Japanese failed to surrender after the war had officially ended.
The majority of 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 into 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, continued the war and eluded capture or death for years – in some cases, for decades. As seen below, the first remarkable holdout feat took place in Saipan.
3. A Japanese Captain’s Incredible Feat Popularized the Trope of Japanese Holdouts
The holdout of Captain Sakae Oba was relatively brief compared to others, but it was the first that captured widespread media and public attention, and his feat thus introduced the trope of Japanese holdouts to popular culture. Born in 1914, Oba joined the Imperial Japanese Army in 1934. After years of service in Manchukuo and China, he ended up in Saipan, three months before the US Marines invaded in June 1944. Despite fierce Japanese resistance, the Marines gradually beat back the island’s defenders.
At the end of their tether, Japanese commanders decided to go out in a final blaze of glory and ordered a massive banzai charge – the largest such charge of the entire war. Captain Oba was among the few Japanese survivors. He rounded up and took command of 46 other Japanese soldiers, along with 160 civilians, then struck off into the island’s jungles. After he hid the civilians in concealed caves and remote villages, Oba led his men in a guerrilla campaign.
Captain Sakae Oba and his men caused the Americans on Saipan no end of trouble. They raided outposts and supply dumps, ambushed patrols, and took potshots at sentries. The US command sent out numerous patrols to track down and finish off the holdouts 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, then sweep Saipan from end to end.
In a masterful feat of evasiveness, the holdouts avoided detection, and the dragnet turned into a debacle that led to the reassignment of the chagrined officer in charge of the operation. Oba’s elusiveness led the Marines in Saipan to nickname him “The Fox”. Captain Oba and his men continued the fight after the war had ended. They dismissed as “fake news” and enemy propaganda the news of Japan’s surrender that were blared via loudspeakers and contained in leaflets airdropped over the jungle.
1. The End of a Remarkable World War II Holdout Feat
All in all, Captain Sakae Oba and his men held out in the jungles of Saipan for sixteen months after the island had fallen, and for three months after World War II had ended with Japan’s surrender. Eventually, US authorities brought in a Japanese general who had commanded a brigade in Saipan and sent him in to 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 Captain Oba was presented with official documents from the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters that ordered him to lay down his arms, his 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, and brought to an end a remarkable feat of elusiveness. Upon repatriation to Japan, Sakae Oba led a productive life, worked in the private sector, then turned to politics and got elected to his city’s council. He died in 1992, aged 78.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading