World War II was a period of dramatic change across the globe. But along with all the political machinations and military strategies, some seriously bizarre stuff happened. Here are five of the most mysterious incidents from World War II.
The Baffling Battle of Los Angeles
A few months after Pearl Harbor, America was pretty on-edge, especially along the west coast. Everyone was scanning sky and sea in fear of another Japanese attack. In fact, a Japanese submarine had shelled the Ellwood oilfield near Santa Barbara in February of 1942. Later that month, the mounting tension exploded into full-blown hysteria. An AWOL weather balloon triggered the initial panic. After that, flares were fired into the night sky, either to illuminate potential threats or signal danger. People saw the flares as more attackers, and a barrage of anti-aircraft fire soon filled the night.
The activity continued for several nights. In the end, the only casualties from the whole affair were three heart attack victims and three dead due to friendly fire. No Japanese aircraft were found, and the Japanese later denied having anything in the air near L.A. at the time.
That's the official story, at least. At the time, there were claims of a coverup and a bunch of wild theories. The incident was five years prior to the Kenneth Arnold flying saucer report that sparked the U.S. UFO craze, but this is sometimes retroactively described as one of the first major UFO sightings. Newspapers at the time thought the whole thing was orchestrated to drum up support for the war effort by inducing panic. Tight-lipped military reports did little to alleviate concerns – a full public investigation wasn't performed until 40 years later.
The Mysterious Disappearance of Flight 19
This is one of the most famous mysterious incidents of all time. It technically happened a few months after the war had ended, but it involved the U.S. military and aircraft used during World War II. The basic story is quite simple: Lieutenant Charles Taylor lead a flight of five TBM Avenger planes on a training exercise from a Naval air station in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Over the radio, Taylor complained that his compasses weren't working and that he didn't know where he was. After flying around in confusion for several hours, the planes ran out of gas. None of them have been seen since, and all 14 men on board were presumed dead.
The Navy's inquiry was pretty clear-cut as well. Taylor had a history of getting lost while flying, and several radio operators and even junior members of Flight 19 seemed to know where they were, but following Taylor's faulty leadership, they flew far into the Atlantic instead of back to Florida. Much of the mystery surrounding the incident stems from the Navy's efforts to assuage Taylor's mother, who complained when the inquiry blamed her son without hard evidence. They changed it to, "cause unkown."
Later writers would wrap supernatural elements around the story, creating the legend of the Bermuda Triangle and inventing details out of whole cloth, such as pilots having premonitions of tragedy that prevented them from joining the doomed flight, and mysterioso radio transmissions like, "the sky is all wrong here."
It's a creepy enough story on its own – five planes lost over open sea with night falling and bad weather moving in, the encroaching certainty of their own deaths looming over them. The actual final radio transmission was a faint, garbled message. Radio operaters could only make out the flight's call sign, "FT…FT…FT…"
Since the planes have still never been recovered, the true fate of Flight 19 technically remains a mystery.
The Strange Life of Rudolf Hess
Rudolf Hess' life is straight out of a spy novel, filled with bizarre twists and turns before you even to get to the really weird stuff. He was a high-ranking Nazi who carried the title "Deputy to the Fuhrer." On May 10, 1941, Hess ate dinner at his home in Augsburg, Germany, then hopped into a Messerschmitt Bf 110 and flew to Scotland. He was chased by British planes, crashed, survived and was captured by a farmer. He asked to speak to the Duke of Hamilton and other British officials, claiming he sought a peace agreement between Germany and Britain (he feared the bloodbath of a lengthy war between Germany, Britain and Russia).
It's not really clear that Hess had the authority to create a peace agreement on his own (Hitler was certainly not in on the deal), and the British simply kept him as a prisoner of war. He spent some time in the Tower of London and other prisons, then was tried at Nuremberg. Found guilty of conspiracy and crimes against peace, Hess was given a life sentence. He spent most of that time at Spandau Prison in Berlin – for the last 20 years of his life, he was the only prisoner in the entire place. When he died in 1987, they tore Spandau down, partly because it was obsolete and unneeded, but partly to prevent it from becoming a shrine for neo-Nazis.
That's all pretty weird, but there are conspiracy theories galore. The Russians always suspected that Hess was trying to secretly unite Germany and Britain so they could team up against Russia. Churchill and Stalin had some memorable confrontations over the matter. Hess' mental state declined dramatically once he was imprisoned, despite reports that he seemed mentally fit when he first arrived in Scotland. By the time of the Nuremberg trial, he was suffering from severe amnesia and was periodically unable to remember anything from his years as a Nazi. This resulted in claims that the real Hess was in hiding, and the man tried at Nuremberg and left to rot at Spandau was an impostor.
The Haunting Case of WW II Ghost Planes
It's not hard to find reports of World War II ghost planes. Unfortunately, it's quite hard to find documented sources of these ghostly tales. The fact is, they're all pretty much folk tales. They take many forms, but there are two basic types.
First, you have post-war stories about people encountering planes from the past. Typically, you'll have a young couple out for a country stroll in the 1960s, 70s or 80s. They hear an odd sound and turn around to see a prop-driven vintage warplane cruising along at low altitude, or perhaps an entire flight of them. Some of these stories are heavily embellished (the plane disappears into thin air, the sighting was a harbinger of a tragic plane crash that happened shortly thereafter, the ghostly pilots waved sadly to the witnesses as they passed). Stories might incorporate speculation about "time slips."
The second type is more interesting. These are ghost plane sightings that happened during the war. In its most common form, the story revolves around a flight of planes that left for a dangerous mission. Later, all the planes return and are accounted for except one. Everyone watches the sky, hoping they made it out alive, but no plane appears on the horizon. Then, hours later, the drone of radial engines sounds in the distance. A plane is spotted. Could it be their missing comrades? But, no they would have run out of fuel hours ago. Still, there it is, heavily damaged, limping along toward the air field. It makes a ragged landing and fellow airmen rush to the scene. Inside the plane they find…nothing. Not a soul. Not a corpse. And the fuel tanks are bone dry.
There are variations – sometimes the crew is on board, but dead. Sometimes the plane is so badly damaged there's no physical way it could have flown. There's a story that a U.S. plane appeared over the California coast hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, smoking and sputtering. Witnesses could see a pilot on board, but when the plane crashed, the wreckage was empty.
The Creepy Coincidence of the Deadly Double
If you dive deep enough into the rabbit hole of paranormal experiences, you'll eventually run into numerology. Numerologists find meaning in odd numeric coincidences that seriously strain credulity. But in the case of the Deadly Double, the numbers lined up just a little too perfectly to be dismissed out of hand.
A few weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack, a pair of strange ads appeared in the New Yorker. They seemed to be advertising a dice game called The Deadly Double. One of the ads showed a pair of dice with the characters 0, 5, 7, xx, 24, and 12 on the visible faces. Above were warnings in a variety of languages: "Achtung! Warning! Alerte!" The other ad showed people in a bunker and explained that the dice game was essential air raid survival gear. The company logo was a suspiciously Germanic looking double eagle.
The ads have a somewhat strange design, but only in retrospect did they appear to contain a coded message. The numbers could allude to the date of the Pearl Harbor attack (12/7), with the other numbers representing codes to be deciphered by sleeper agents in the U.S. The Deadly Double itself was thought to refer to the twin threats of Germany and Japan.
Like many mysteries, retellings of this story emphasize the unknown and leave out crucial facts. The 0 and 5 are sometimes thought to foretell the exact time of the attack, but the first aircraft opened fire on Pearl Harbor at 7:48 a.m. local time. Books on mysterious events like to leave this story unresolved, as though the identity of the ads' creator remains unknown to this day. In truth, it was traced to a game company in Chicago that made a dice game called the Deadly Double. Their war-themed ad might seem like poor taste today, but the numbers on the dice matching the date of Pearl harbor was pure coincidence. Still, it was weird enough that the FBI got involved.
Breuer, William B. Unexplained Mysteries of World War II. Wiley, 1998.
California State Military Museum. "California and the Second World War: The Battle of Los Angeles."
Fishman, Jack. Long Knives and Short Memories: The Spandau Prison Story. Breakwater Books, 1986.
New York Times. "Hess Dies at 93; Hitler's Last Lieutenant."