World War II was a grim affair filled with stories of sacrifice, heroism, and misanthropy. But a few WWII stories are just plain weird. Here are five of the weirdest.
1) Going Into Battle? Wear Your Necktie
General George Patton was known as a stickler for small details. He believed that if a soldier paid attention to the small stuff he would also do a good job on the big stuff. One of the things General Patton was very strict on was the proper wearing of uniforms. When he arrived in North Africa to take over command of the II Corps from Gen. Lloyd Fredenhall after the latter’s troops were badly mauled at the Battle of Kasserine Pass, Patton found II Corps in a state of utter decay. He wrote in his diary that he saw, “No salutes. Any sort of clothes and general hell.”
Patton issued orders immediately to turn things around beginning with the uniforms, writing “How can we trust soldiers to fight when we can’t trust them to wear their uniforms properly?”
All soldiers would be ordered on the threat of a $25 fine (half a month’s pay for a private) to wear their leggings, unrolled sleeves, have all buttons buttoned and their steel helmets strapped, even when using the latrines. Officers were ordered to wear their neckties, even in combat.
The result of these orders was predictable, the troops were mad as hell at Patton. This did not bother Patton in the least. After the crushing U.S. defeat at Kasserine, the British had a very low opinion of the fighting ability of U.S. troops, which Patton took very personally. It may have been well-meaning but it was deeply insulting that the British had set up battle schools for U.S. troops, assigned British officers to U.S. units, and sent tediously detailed operational orders to American units.
But Patton turned the II Corps around and in his first battle as the commander mauled the German Afrika Korps. This wiped away not only the notion that American troops were of poor quality, but that the Nazis were 10 feet tall supermen. The Afrika Korps had been bloodied badly by guys wearing neckties into battle.
While General Patton had pretty strict rules about how their uniforms should be worn, they really didn’t apply to him. At the time, as one of the privileges of rank, U.S. general officers enjoyed pretty wide latitude in terms of how they wore their own uniforms. Patton himself favored a non-regulation “Eisenhower” waist cut jacket, riding jodhpurs, a polished helmet, Cavalry boots, and an ivory-handled Colt six-shooter on his belt. But of course, he still wore a necktie.
2) The Korean Who Fought for the Japanese, Soviets, and Nazis
Drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army in 1938 at the age of 18, Korean Yang Kyoungjong found himself fighting against the Red Army in Mongolia. There he was captured by the Soviets. Yang survived being a POW for almost three years, which is a feat in itself.
The Red Army had a rather severe shortage of manpower by 1942 and Yang soon found himself in its ranks, but rather than remain in Asia guarding the Soviet border against Japan, he was sent west to fight the Nazis.
At the third battle of Kharkov in 1943, he was captured by the Wehrmacht. The Germans were having their own manpower problems so Yang was pressed into serving in the East Battalions of the Third Reich and sent west again, this time to France.
In 1944, Yang was captured again, this time by Paratroopers of the 101st Airborn Division, most likely by Easy Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 506th. (Yeah, that “Easy Company” of Band of Brother’s fame).
Yang was sent to a British POW camp and then to an American in the United States. When the war ended, Yang was released. But rather than return home to South Korea and face some very awkward questions from the newly formed Republic of South Korea, which could have rejected him for citizenship given his service in foreign armies, he was allowed to remain in the United States and settled in Illinois. There, he apparently lived very quietly until his death in 1992 at the age of 72. In 2011, the South Korean movie My Way attempted to tell the extraordinary story of Yang Kyoungjong.
3) The Longest Battle of WWII
WWII was marked by some incredibly long battles. Battles could last weeks or even months. But the longest battle of WWII was something else entirely lasting five years, eight months, and five days.
Of course, this was the Battle of the Atlantic.
It was also the battle that included the greatest number of allied nations participating. Even Cuba got in on the fighting. It also featured the internecine conflict of Free and Vichy French forces.
On the Allied side, 36,000 civilian seamen died and some 175 warships were lost, along with 741 aircraft. The Axis lost 30,000 servicemembers, 850 warships, and an unknown number of aircraft.
The Battle of the Atlantic began within hours of Germany invading Poland in September of 1939. It did not end until just hours before Germany’s surrender in May 1945 when U-boats sank a Norwegian minesweeper and two freighters.
The Battle of the Atlantic changed the face of naval warfare. When the war began, most of the world’s navies viewed submarines as scouting forces for surface fleets of battleships seeking to engage each other in large-caliber gun duels. Even after U-boats began sinking merchant vessels in the first months of the war, the British believed the greater threat to their shipping was by surface ships raiding their convoys.
The plain facts though are that the submarines of the world’s navies sunk most of the ships in WWII by an overwhelming margin. U-boats would sink more than 1,200 ships totaling 13 million tons of shipping. The Allied ships lost from all causes would exceed 5,000 vessels and more than 21 million tons.
Submarines were excellent scouts and did intelligence gathering, convert troop insertions, and rescues of downed pilots. When WWII was over and the numbers were tallied it became apparent that the battleship and heavy cruiser were finished as weapons platforms and the lowly submarine and aircraft carrier had emerged as the most important strategic naval weapons of the future. It should be remembered that the first nuclear-powered warship in the navy was a submarine, the USS Nautilus.
4) The American Cigarette Was Victorious in WWII
In 1900 cigarettes in the U.S. were considered a fad, derided as being something for immigrants and kids. The upper and middle classes smoked pipes and cigars and preferred Turkish and Greek tobacco over flue-cured tobacco from the South.
In WWI however, the U.S. government began appropriating money to put American cigarettes into the rations of U.S. troops in the hopes that cigarettes would beguile Doughboys away from more serious vices like opium, which was widely available in Europe.
By 1920, cigarette use in the U.S. had nearly tripled from seven percent before the war to 20 percent.
The government considered tobacco such an important commodity that it created a farm program that paid farmers not to grow tobacco and keep the price stable. Movies in the 1930s glamorized cigarettes and the pipe and cigar were portrayed now as something for snobs or gangsters.
When WWII broke out, the government again partnered with cigarette makers to include smokes in the rations of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Officers were given Camels and Lucky Strikes while enlisted men were limited to Rolled Gold, Chesterfields, and Pall Mall.
And that was resented by the enlisted men.
While billions of cigarettes were donated to the war effort by tobacco companies, Uncle Sam bought billions more of them as well. Precise numbers are not known but it’s estimated that the government bought 55 billion cigarettes for the military, just in 1944.
Overseas, American cigarettes could be traded by a U.S. serviceman for food, booze, intelligence from prisoners, and even sex. And a soldier who didn’t smoke could sell his cigarettes to his squadmates for cold hard cash. Cigarettes were also used for gambling. In Europe, there were military rest camps called “Camp Camel,” “Camp Lucky Strike” and other brand-named camps that probably took their names from the cigarettes available there.
After the war was over, the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe included one billion dollars in American tobacco and cigarettes. That’s over $15 billion in today’s money.
By 1949, U.S. flue-cured type tobacco had conquered Europe. Surveys had 85-90 percent of German preferring American tobacco to the Turkish or Greek varieties they knew before the war. Even into the 1980s, a carton of genuine, American-made Marlboros was a highly coveted prize to get your hands on in Europe. So, U.S. bases overseas limited how many cigarettes American troops could buy because they could sell them to civilians at exorbitant prices.
Which explains George Washington’s famous saying “If you can’t send money, send tobacco.”
5) The Last Naval Battle of WWII Was Fought by Sailing Ships
On August 21, 1945, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Livingston Swentzel and Marine 1st Lieutenant Stuart Pittman, five other Americans, and 20 Chinese soldiers departed Haimen on the Yangtse River for Shangai aboard two Chinese Junks.
Japan had surrendered on August 14 and Swentzel and Pittman had been ordered to Shanghai to assist in the release of Allied prisoners held in Shanghai by the Japanese. As they approached a small island a large black junk appeared from behind the island on a converging course. Livingston and Pittman were both able to make out that the crew were Japanese soldiers, not Chinese fishermen.
The Japanese junk held 79 men from an air detachment that had left Hainan island for Shanghai perhaps to avoid capture by the Americans and rejoin the Japanese Army in China. The vessel was overcrowded so the Japanese major in charge wanted to capture the two American junks and provide additional space, and most likely food and water as well, to his troops.
The Japanese had a 75mm howitzer, four machine guns, and one hundred rifles. Although outnumbered three to one, the Americans had a .50 machine gun, a .30 cal machine gun, two bazookas, Thomson submachine guns, grenades, and rifles.
Lt. Pittman hailed the Japanese vessel telling its crew that the war was over and to surrender themselves. The answer they received from the Japanese junk was a 75mm howitzer round.
The first round missed but the second splintered the mast of Swentzel’s junk killing two of his crew. Then the four machine guns opened up on Pittman’s junk riddling it with holes and killing three men. Pittman’s junk returned fire with the .50 cal machine gun. The .50 cal ripped through the Japanese junk and disabled the howitzer. Its rounds mowed down the Japanese on deck who were riddled with wood splinters and bullets.
Aboard Swentzel’s junk, Seaman 2nd class John Reid took up a bazooka and put three rounds into the side of the enemy junk in quick succession while an Army officer opened up with a .30 cal Lewis machine gun raking the deck of the Japanese vessel. Lt Swentzel fished out an American flag from his pack and ran it up on the stern of his junk and maneuvered between Pittman’s junk, which was taking the worst beating, and the Japanese vessel. Lt. Swentzel was now commanding an American warship. As he raised his battle ensign, seaman Reid hurled a grenade onto the Japanese junk which ended up going down its main hatch. The explosion sent up a column of smoke and dust and when it cleared several of the Japanese still alive stood up and waived a white shirt at them in a gesture of surrender.
After 20 minutes, the action was over. The Japanese junk was smoking and her decks were littered with the dead and dying.
The Americans were still unaware of just how big a force they had been up against, only realizing it after boarding and searching the Japanese junk.
1Lt Pittman found dozens of dead and wounded Japanese in the hold of the vessel, badly shot up by fire from the .50 cal, bazooka rounds, and hand grenades that had been fired into her. Just then, one of his boarding party opened up with a Thompson submachine gun into the dark hold, cutting down the Japanese major as he raised a pistol to fire at Pittman in a final act of defiance. Of the 79 Japanese troops on board, 39 were dead and another 36 wounded. Only four of the Japanese were uninjured.
From the American side, four Chinese were dead, and five Chinese and one American wounded.
Recalling the practice of the Age of Fighting Sail, Lt. Swentzel put a “Prize Crew” aboard the Japanese junk and sailed her down to Shanghai with his other two ships, where he turned over the Japanese to a unit of the Chinese Nationalist Army.
Lt. Swentzel would receive the Navy Cross for his actions that day. 1Lt. Pittman was awarded a Silver Star. They share the unique distinction in American military history of having fought not only the last naval battle of WWII but also the last battle by a U.S.-flagged sailing ship.