No matter how you look at it, war is a confusing event. From the sheer chaos of a fierce enemy encounter to the fact that hundreds of units are often moving, shooting and communicating in different directions, there is surprisingly plenty of room for error once so many people get involved in something so far detached from normal life.
Be it military blunders, phenomena or just the kind of events that leaves witnesses scratching their heads. Here are some instances that caught our attention here at Popular Military.
World War II: Aleutian Islands Campaign (Operation Cottage)
Though it is generally forgotten to the annals of history, the Japanese were a lot closer to the American mainland than you would think. In fact, they were well within range of America’s second-youngest state, Alaska.
Occupying the Aleutian Islands, the Japanese Imperial Army set up shop on the sparsely populated and largely undefended islands off the coast of Alaska, killing two American sailors while capturing a US Navy weather station manned by a handful of sailors and a few dogs. Not one to allow squatters within their territory, the United States and Canada set out to take back the islands.
Unfortunately, the operations took months to plan. Using resources that were available during a time when commodities were limited, Americans and Canadians tried to piece together enough ground, air and naval forces.
Meanwhile, the Japanese were not faring much better. Completely ill-equipped for cold weather operations in the cold region, the Japanese found themselves constantly bombarded by US ships and aircraft while simultaneously trying not to starve or freeze to death.
When the Allies began their invasion of the Aleutians, they had a fairly successful time, hopping the islands and driving the Japanese away. Shortly, the Allies began to set their sights on the island of Kiska.
When the 30,000 strong American-Canadian force invaded Kiska, they found the island rather silent, short of booby-traps, mines and unexploded ordnance. Despite the fact that 300 American and Canadian troops were killed by traps, friendly fire and cold weather, the Japanese -who had quietly slipped off the island unnoticed- were nowhere to be found.
Admiral Ernest King later told Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox that the only things that remained on the island were dogs and fresh brewed coffee. When Knox asked for an explanation, King responded that “the Japanese are very clever. Their dogs can brew coffee.”
American Civil War: Glowing Soldiers (Battle of Shiloh)
One of the most important conflicts in American history, the Civil War was the bloody struggle between the desire for independence over states’ rights and the demand to keep the Republic intact. Never before in American history had brother been pitted against brother with such intensity.
Considered one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Shiloh took place in Hardin County, Tennessee in the spring of 1862. The roughly 48-hour battle cost over 3,482 Union and Confederate lives- only around 1,000 short of the total number of American lives lost to date in the entire Iraq War.
While the battle was in itself an insane affair, an even more insane phenomena occurred during the night. As light faded and temperatures dropped, men were forced to lie in cold, wet conditions along the swampy terrain.
As men lay wounded in the fields and ditches of “no-man’s land”, many of their wounds began to glow a luminescent bluish-green color. Soldiers who had been hit or peppered with shrapnel earlier in the day looked in horror as the glowing Predator blood oozed from their injuries.
However, the men who were glowing that managed to be taken to field hospitals seemed to recover faster than their more dimly-lit comrades. Soon, the odd affliction took on the name “Angel’s Glow”.
It wasn’t until 2001 that two high school students figured out that a type of bacteria called P. luminescens that naturally occurs in nematodes. The parasitic nematodes would burrow in insects, who would in turn bite or feast on the wounds of people. While the human body normally runs at a temperature that is too hot for the bacteria to live in, wet and cold soldiers with lower body temperatures were prime hosts and the P. luminescens would thrive by eating the “bad” bacteria that would generally kill soldiers in that era.
World War II: The Bombing of Chichijima (How President George Bush escaped cannibalism)
One of the lesser-known but absurdly horrifying incidents of World War II, the bombing of the Bonin Islands in the Pacific involved the American President who got us through the Gulf War.
In September of 1944, 20-year-old Lieutenant J.G. Bush was flying a bombing mission over the island of Chichijima with his torpedo bomber squadron when they encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire. Taking several hits to his aircraft, the future President bailed out with his crewmate, though only Bush survived. With several aircraft shot out of the sky, Bush laid low in a life raft for several hours until he was rescued by an American submarine.
It wasn’t until 2003 that Bush learned the horrific fates of eight of his squadron mates that were shot down over the island.
Four out of the eight Naval Aviators were tortured and beheaded by the Japanese, who later decided to cut up the Americans and use them as food in a sake-fueled feast for Japanese officers. Even worse- some of the body parts were harvested while the Americans were still alive and then served to the other American Prisoners of War.
When Bush heard of the fate of his men, he was reported to have said nothing- only shaking his head in quiet, tortured silence.
Korean War: Battle of Chosin Reservoir (Tootsie roll supply drop)
The legendary engagement known to most as “Chosin” is generally regarded as a Chinese victory over the United Nations’ troops, who were forced to pull out of North Korea. Despite the defeat, one American unit got to savor the fight for at least a little while due to a bit of miscommunication.
Running low on ammunition, a US Marine heavy weapons unit found themselves unable to continue the fight for long with a quickly-depleting supply of mortar rounds, referred to as “Tootsie Rolls.” With the only available method of resupply being paradrop, they requested that more ammunition be dropped to them.
Unfortunately for the mortar crews, supply planes ended up dropping crates of actual Tootsie Rolls, not realizing that the request was for mortar rounds.
While the situation seemed less than ideal, US Marines made the best of the situation, utilizing the toffee candy in ways that the creator of the sugary confection likely never dreamed up. With below freezing temperatures and rations frozen, Marines found that they could heat the candy with their body heat, giving them precious calories. Others noticed that a pliable warm Tootsie Roll would harden when cold, prompting them to use the candy as a type of weld that could be used to plug holes in everything from shot up vehicles to hoses and tents.
While the Marines were eventually forced to fall back, they certainly found a way to sweeten a desperate situation. Whether or not this is the reason that Tootsie Rolls are still in US military rations, the world may never know.
World War II: The Battle for Castle Itter (The “strangest” battle of WWII)
Quite possibly one of the most bizarre battles of World War II, this legendary battle involved fourteen American soldiers, a Yugoslavian resistance member, ten German Wehrmacht troops, an SS Officer, one tank and a handful of French prisoners working together to fight off roughly 150 Nazi SS soldiers from taking over a recently-liberated castle in Austria.
On May 3rd of 1945, a Yugoslav resistance member was handed a letter written in English and told to hand it to the first American he saw. Covering over forty miles, he ran into the American 409th Infantry Regiment, who organized a rescue party to go take the castle and liberate the French prisoners inside.
While an entire unit of armor was supposed to go on the operation, artillery fire held back all but two jeeps of infantrymen, which made their way to the castle. Before their arrival, the German skeleton crew that were tasked with guarding the castle fled, leaving the French prisoners -including Charles de Gaulle’s sister and a French tennis star- to gather up whatever weapons remained and defend their “accommodations” until Allied forces arrived.
In addition to the two jeeps of American troops, a small group of German soldiers who pledged to protect a nearby village against brutal SS reprisals heard about what was happening at the castle and moved in to assist. At the same time, a single Sherman tank of the 12th Armored Division under the command of Captain “Jack” Lee heard about the castle as well, darting off to make history or get blown up, whichever came first.
Angry about losing face and still fanatically dedicated to the Nazi cause, SS units moved in to take the castle back. Left with no option but to defend, the ragtag band of castle defenders fought viciously through the night to drive off the SS. During the battle, the American tank was taken out by an 88mm gun, though none of the Sherman crew were killed.
By early afternoon of the second day, word of some crazy stuff going down at ol’ Itter reached the 142nd, prompting the unit to race to the Austrian castle. En-route, they ran into the French tennis star Jean Borotra, who had bravely vaulted the castle wall and dashed through SS troops to relay the situation to the Americans. His task complete, he requested a uniform and joined the 142nd in backing up the besieged coalition at Itter.
Arriving around 4PM, the Americans swiftly defeated the SS, taking around a hundred prisoners. Two days later, Germany surrendered.
While we were only able to provide five examples of absolute oddity in American military history, one doesn’t have to dig too deeply into a book or the internet to find more. As long as there are humans fighting in wars, there will always be a creased page or bookmark denoting where the brutalities of man took a strange and unexpected tangent.