Fools of the world unite! This is our day!
I was going to write on some other topic in the news when I happened to glance at the calendar. I noticed that my biweekly musings on this page would chance to fall on the first of April. While the origins seem obscure, at least since the middle ages April 1st has been reserved for practical jokes, good-natured tricks and general tomfoolery.
April 1 also happens to be my late grandfather’s birthday. We share a middle name — it was inflicted upon me at birth; a name so wretched that I’ve often wondered if he originally received it as an April Fool’s joke.
Anyway, to honor the day and my grandfather, a U.S. army veteran, I’ll throw out some odd statements about World War II. Can you guess which are true and which are April’s Fools hoaxes?
At least one British officer claimed to have killed an enemy soldier with a medieval long bow. Survival training for Americans in the Pacific included these tasty tidbits: if you see a monkey eating something, it’s edible for humans ,too. In a pinch, so is the monkey. U.S. personnel stationed in Britain were advised that “the British don’t know how to make a good cup of coffee. You don’t know how to make a good cup of tea. It’s an even swap.”
Actress Hedy Lamarr helped invent a technology for radio guidance of U.S. torpedoes. That technology became the basis for your Bluetooth and Wifi devices. The last confirmed Japanese soldier to surrender did so in 1974. The last escaped German prisoner of war in the U.S. surrendered in 1984 —on the Today Show.
The U.S. military experimented with “bat bombs” during the war, attaching small incendiary charges to bats, to be released over enemy cities. Japan attempted to start fires in the U.S. with balloon bombs. The Germans employed falconers in Europe to intercept Allied carrier pigeons. At least one dog was killed in the Normandy invasion parachuting into France. While we think of WWII as the first mechanized war, in fact most armies were essentially horse-drawn. Germany’s vaunted Blitzkrieg army employed millions of horses behind the frontlines.
James Doohan, later to be famous as Scotty on Star Trek, lost a finger on D-Day. Baseball star Yogi Berra manned a naval vessel off of the coast of France that day. The only known woman to land on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day was Ernest Hemingway’s estranged wife.
Great Britain arrested and tried a well-known clairvoyant for witchcraft, afraid her psychic abilities might reveal military secrets. A crossword puzzle creator was investigated prior to D-Day when he included — apparently entirely by coincidence — several crucial codewords in one of his puzzles, including Overlord, Neptune, and Omaha. Hitler had a nephew who served in the U.S. Navy. Boxing great Joe Louis enlisted in the Army but retained the heavyweight boxing title throughout the war.
Eisenhower demoted and sent home from Europe a West Point classmate and dear friend after he drunkenly revealed too much about the timing of the cross-channel invasion. Monopoly games were used to smuggle escape maps and other tools to Allied prisoners held in Europe. Some decks of playing cards were disguised to hide maps as well. In 1943, with a shortage of young athletes due to the draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles merged teams and played as the Steagles.
The youngest sailor in the American navy was only 12 when he enlisted. The youngest Medal of Honor recipient was only 17. The first time any Medals of Honor were awarded to African-Americans for heroism in WWII was in 1997.
To disguise the effectiveness of their radar systems, the British spread a rumor that their pilots’ accuracy was due to a diet rich in carrots. American Boy Scouts could earn a special medal named for Dwight Eisenhower for collecting piles of scrap paper for recycling. Girl Scouts took on the task of gathering millions of unused keys to recycle for the specialized metals they often contained. But butter and sugar rationing meant several years without Girl Scout cookies.
So what do you think? How much of this is fact and how much fiction? April Fool’s! As you might have already guessed, all of these factoids are true. More or less — you can quibble over some of the details. Sailor William Patrick Stuart-Houston was only Hitler’s half-nephew, for instance. But it only goes to show — sometimes truth is stranger than April 1st.
Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.