WWII Facts We Learned In 2021 That Made Us Say 'Really?'

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Vote up the WWII facts you're learning for the first time.

The second World War is one of those historical events about which it's impossible to learn everything. In fact, even after a lifetime of study, one might barely have scraped the surface – whole theaters might have been neglected, to say nothing of the individual experiences of the millions who took part. With more than 70,000 books on the topic listed on Amazon alone, it's safe to say that the subject can be a never-ending fount of new information.

Here are a few facts about WWII that we explored in 2021, to shed a tiny bit more light on the largest conflict in world history. Vote up the ones that you found to be eye-openers, too.


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    Duct Tape's Inventor Wrote Directly To FDR To Get Her Idea Adopted

    Before the advent of duct tape, ammunition boxes were dipped in wax and sealed with thin paper tape with an exposed tab intended for easy opening. The tape's lack of strength meant these tabs frequently tore off and left soldiers desperately scrambling to open the boxes under fire. 

    An Illinois ordnance plant worker named Vesta Stoudt had the answer - a durable waterproof tape to seal the ammunition boxes. But her attempts to have the right tape used fell flat, so she took her concerns up the chain of command. All the way up

    You have sons in the service also. We can’t let them down by giving them a box of cartridges that takes a minute or more to open, the enemy taking their lives, that could have been saved... I didn’t know who to write to Mr. President, so have written you hoping for your boys, my boys, and every man that uses the rifle grenade, that this package of rifle cartridges may be taped with the correct tape.

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt was suitably impressed and ordered the production of “duck tape” to begin immediately. The tape’s original name came from it being waterproof like the feathers of a duck and made with cotton duck fabric.

    Read about more innovations from times of conflict here.

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  • Japan Had A Plan To Attack San Diego With The Plague
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    Japan Had A Plan To Attack San Diego With The Plague

    The infamous Unit 731 was a top-secret Japanese project that conducted horrifying experiments upon civilians in WWII. In the summer of 1945, with Japan in dire straits, a plan by Unit 731's commander Shiro Ishii was hatched to bring the conflict to California.

    Two previous attempts to wage biological warfare had already been foiled. One was during the Battle of Saipan, when a Japanese submarine carrying pathogens was sunk by an American submarine. The second was during the bloody struggle for Iwo Jima, when two gliders took off loaded with canisters of plague-infected fleas, but never made it to their destinations.

    The third plan, Operation Cherry Blossoms At Night, was intended as a kamikaze mission, as it was extremely unlikely the crews tasked with the plan had much hope of returning alive. The long-range submarines carried light aircraft intended to drop the plague upon the unsuspecting population of San Diego. The initial plan was quashed when the resources were needed to defend the home islands from invasion, but then reinstated for September 22, 1945.

    Fortunately for the citizens of San Diego, the war ended before the plan was carried out.

    Read about more little-known stories from WWII here.

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  • World War II Was Being Called By That Name Within 10 Days Of Starting
    Photo: Casablanca / Warner Bros.
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    World War II Was Being Called By That Name Within 10 Days Of Starting

    Wars are named for all sorts of reasons, and often the names contain embedded political assumptions. (For example, it makes a big difference in the United States whether you’re talking about the "Civil War," "The War Between the States," or "The War of Northern Aggression.") In the case of WWII, its predecessor - the global conflict from 1914-1918 - was originally known as the Great War (but sometimes also the World War). But when the new conflict began in 1939, it was obvious that it was closely related to the old one, and they became linked.

    An October 1939 issue of Life magazine refers to it as “The European war” (p. 16) - which may indicate that, at that time, it was still seen (at least by some) as a rather localized affair involving England, Germany, France, Poland, and the Soviet Union (which had signed a peace treaty with Germany and was attacking Poland from the east). Japan’s incursion in China had already been going on for years, but it was not until America and England were drawn into the Pacific War in 1941 that the conflicts were seen as fully joined.

    However, others were not hesitant to apply a global perspective from the very beginning. Indeed, a September 11, 1939 article in Time magazine - published just 10 days after the conflict started - began thus:

    World War II began last week at 5:20 a.m. (Polish time) Friday, September 1, when a German bombing plane dropped a projectile on Puck, fishing village and air base in the armpit of the Hel Peninsula. At 5:45 a.m. the German training ship Schleswig-Holstein lying off Danzig fired what was believed to be the first shell: a direct hit on the Polish underground ammunition dump at Westerplatte. It was a grey day, with gentle rain.

    President Frankling Roosevelt popularized the term "Second World War" in 1941, although he personally would have preferred that it be called "The Survival War."

    In 1942, the film Casablanca opened with the words, “With the coming of the Second World War,” indicating that the usage was well cemented by the conflict's fourth year.

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  • German Forces Besieging Leningrad Were Forbidden To Accept The City's Surrender
    Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #5634 / David Trahtenberg / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
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    German Forces Besieging Leningrad Were Forbidden To Accept The City's Surrender

    In calculations made by German scientists before the Soviet Union invasion was launched, estimates showed that as many as 30 million Russian civilians would succumb to starvation. The plan was to annihilate the Russian population and establish new German colonies in Eastern Europe.

    Leningrad would experience this cold German indifference to suffering firsthand. When the city was surrounded by September 1941, the Axis forces chose not to close in and engage in costly urban fighting, but to pound Leningrad from a safe distance and let hunger do the rest. 

    Surrender was not an option for Leningrad - quite literally, as Adolf Hitler directly ordered any surrender to be ignored:

    Requests for surrender resulting from the city’s encirclement will be denied, since the problem of relocating and feeding the population cannot and should not be solved by us.

    Read firsthand accounts of the siege of Leningrad here.

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  • The Insignia Of A Polish Artillery Company Featured A Bear Who Was A Corporal In The Company
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    The Insignia Of A Polish Artillery Company Featured A Bear Who Was A Corporal In The Company

    The Polish 22nd Artillery Support Company's unique emblem comes from a Syrian brown bear cub the company adopted while stationed in Iran. Named Wojtek, the bear was more than just an unusual mascot; he learned to carry crates of artillery shells while the unit was on duty in Italy.

    After an exemplary military career, which included a promotion to corporal, Wojtek took a well-earned retirement at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland.

    See more noteworthy WWII insignias here.

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  • General Eisehower Had To Pull Rank On An Unruly Bernard Montgomery
    Photo: British Official Photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    General Eisehower Had To Pull Rank On An Unruly Bernard Montgomery

    In WWII, the Allied incursion of France was organized by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, a multinational military partnership headed by the US and UK. As its commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower outranked the field commanders from his own country and others - including British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The famously egotistical Monty chafed under Eisenhower's command, and their relationship was often tense.

    This tension came to a head in September 1944, during the preparations for Operation Market Garden, Montgomery's ambitious plan to establish a bridgehead onto the Rhine via the Netherlands with a vanguard of paratroopers. Montgomery hoped the operation could carry him all the way to Berlin, but Eisenhower ordered more limited strategic objectives. General Omar Bradley described a meeting in Brussels between the two men a week before the operation kicked off:

    Monty, waving a sheaf of their latest messages, began denouncing Ike's strategic decisions and directives in the strongest possible terms. His language was so insubordinate that Ike was compelled to interrupt. He leaned forward, put his hand on Monty's knee and said, "Steady, Monty! You can't speak to me like that. I'm your boss." Monty cooled and said, "I'm sorry, Ike."

    As it turned out, Operation Market Garden was not even able to achieve the more modest goals set for it, much less a strike against Berlin before the end of 1944. The conflict would go on for another seven months.

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