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6 little known facts about WWII 

Wojtek the bear with a Polish soldier
Image: Wojtek the bear | Public Domain

Many people study World War II in school as part of their history lessons, but it’s not uncommon for them to forget everything they learned once those classes end.

Instead, a lot of the knowledge and understanding we have of the war comes from different kinds of media. Whether it’s the iconic movie Saving Private Ryan or the infamous video game series Call of Duty, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen something about World War II outside of your history classes.

However, there are quite a few weird facts and stories that people just don’t talk about. Here are six of the most interesting, little-known facts about World War II.

1. The last Japanese soldier finally surrendered in 1974

It’s not unusual for soldiers to continue fighting for a cause once their nation has surrendered. This is just the reality of what it’s like to fight a conflict across multiple continents and countries. But when the last fighting soldier surrenders almost thirty years after the conflict ends, there’s something awfully strange about the whole situation.

This is what happened to Teruo Nakamura, an indigenous Taiwanese soldier that joined the Japanese military at the beginning of the war. He assumed the war was still raging on while his unit fled into a jungle in Indonesia. He survived on his own, foraging for whatever food he could until he was finally found in December 1974.

2. An astonishing number of soldiers died during pilot training

WWII was one of the first major conflicts to make use of aviation. There was a massive rush to train new pilots so many of the aviation programs weren’t thought out correctly or had enough safety measures in place.

As a result, over 15,000 deaths occurred during pilot training. These were mostly due to pilot error or mechanical failure. It was such a problem that the B-24 bomber was known as the most dangerous plane in the war, receiving the nickname ‘the flying coffin’.

To put this into perspective, around 52,000 American flight crew members died in WWII, meaning almost 30% of pilot deaths occurred outside of conflict.

3. WWII had bizarre weapons, such as the German cannon that could shoot across the sea

WWII is known as a conflict with some very unique weaponry. However, one of the most ambitious projects was the V-3 cannon, a gigantic machine that could hurl projectiles from Germany across the sea into England.

Instead of using rockets like the V-2, the V-3 would be a stationary cannon that could shoot projectiles at distances of up to 100 miles across the sea from mainland Europe into the United Kingdom. Luckily, the cannon was never completed due to bombing runs destroying it before completion.

4. Poland had a bear that served in the military

In 1942, a company of Polish troops was evacuated from the Soviet Union and found their way to Iran. Along the way, they befriended a Syrian brown bear that they named Wojtek. They officially enlisted him as a private in the unit. The men ended up in Italy from 1943-4, bringing the bear along with them. It helped to carry heavy ammunition and quickly became a celebrity among the troops.

Wojtek was eventually discharged after the war and lived peacefully in Edinburgh Zoo until he passed away in 1963.

5. Gandhi tried to send a message of peace to Hitler

Mahatma Gandhi was one of the greatest peacemakers in the world, but most people are unaware that he was still alive during WWII. Gandhi was so committed to peace that he tried to write a letter to Hitler, referring to him as a ‘dear friend’ and pleading for him to stop the war. However, it’s unclear whether or not the messages reached Hitler.

6. A German commander was so stressed he abandoned his post and went to a spa

Heinrich Himmler was one of Hitler’s first supporters, becoming the head of the Schutzstaffel (SS) and eventually being put in charge of Army Group Vistula, a group of 500,000 soldiers that were assigned to protect Berlin.

Unfortunately, this task was far too much for Himmler who required daily naps and massages, and only worked a few hours a day. Eventually, Army Group Vistula was overrun and Himmler abandoned his post. He fled to the Hohenlychen Sanatorium spa to deal with his stress and even tried to negotiate a peace treaty with the advancing Allied forces.