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9 World War II Facts Every History Buff Should Know

Nearly 80 years after the final shots were fired, the shadow of World War II continues to loom large over the modern world. The scale and impact of the conflict were so profound that the story of this chapter in history has been retold in countless books, films, TV shows, video games, and more. It’s not difficult to understand why: From 1939 to 1945, the Second World War plunged nearly every part of the globe into a violent clash that altered the course of history, impacting virtually every aspect of human civilization, from politics to art to science. Here are nine facts about World War II that every history buff should know.

The Father of Computer Science Spent the War Cracking Nazi Codes

In 1940, the Germans began communicating using a nearly unbreakable code, encrypted with a machine called Enigma that rendered it indecipherable to nearly every Allied codebreaker. The complex cipher was finally broken by British mathematician and scientist Alan Turing, who later developed the mathematical framework for modern computer science. Working with a team of cryptanalysts, Turing built a computing machine called the Bombe that was capable of deciphering the Enigma code. Thanks to the breakthroughs of Turing and his colleagues, the British were able to decode encrypted Nazi messages in less than an hour, a development that changed the course of the war.

Indigenous Volunteers Defended the Coast of Alaska From Invasion

In June 1942, roughly six months after the attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Japan launched another attack against the United States by invading the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. In response, the U.S. military turned to Alaska’s Indigenous communities to help guard the vulnerable territory, as they had the experience and expertise required to navigate the vast, forbidding landscape of the Alaskan coastline. The Indigenous volunteers who joined this Alaska Territorial Guard came from several tribes throughout the region, including the Yup’ik, Inupiaq, Tlingit, Aleut, and Tsimshian peoples. In addition to defending the Alaskan coastline, the Alaska Territorial Guard protected vital supply routes between the U.S. and Russia.

A Unit of Black Truck Drivers Played a Crucial Role After D-Day

Following the successful Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, Allied forces continued inland to liberate occupied France and Belgium from the Nazis. As more than 1 million Allied troops continued to move inland, it became increasingly difficult to transport supplies from the port cities to the soldiers pushing east, especially after Nazi forces destroyed a crucial Belgian port in Antwerp. To solve this problem, the Allied forces established a trucking route known as the “Red Ball Express.” These trucks were predominantly driven by African American soldiers who braved treacherous terrain and the threat of German aircraft to keep Allied soldiers stocked with crucial supplies. The trucking route of the Red Ball Express eventually stretched all the way from Normandy to the French-German border, and drivers would often make the journey almost entirely without stopping to transport their cargo to the front as quickly as possible. 

The American armed forces were racially segregated throughout the war, with Black and white soldiers serving in separate units. Due to discrimination, Black soldiers were often relegated to support roles in the service of white troops. However, the bravery of units such as the Red Ball truckers and the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, a decorated group of African American fighter pilots, helped persuade President Harry Truman to integrate the U.S. military shortly after the war.

The U.S. Military Was Full of Baseball Legends

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Americans from all walks of life, including professional athletes, enlisted in the armed services. Some of the greatest baseball players of all time put their careers on hold to support the war effort, including Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, and Jackie Robinson. One of the most notable major leaguers to serve in the war was legendary hitter Ted Williams, who served in both the Navy and the Marines as a fighter pilot. Williams proved a highly skilled pilot, and even returned to military service during the Korean War, where he flew combat missions with future astronaut John Glenn.

A Hollywood Icon Invented a Torpedo Guidance System

Austrian-born actress Hedy Lamarr was already a movie star in Hollywood as World War II was looming in Europe. In 1942, in an effort to help the fight against fascism, Lamarr helped invent a novel torpedo guidance systemcalled “frequency hopping,” which allowed for long-range weapons guidance that was resistant to torpedo jamming from the enemy. While the U.S. Navy ultimately decided against using Lamarr’s invention in the war effort, her ingenuity didn’t go to waste. The frequency-hopping technology laid the foundation for future technologies such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and in 2014, Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. 

The Government Established An Entire Town To Build The Atomic Bomb

As part of the top-secret Manhattan Project, the U.S.-led research project aimed at developing an atomic bomb, the United States government constructed an entire town in Tennessee, known as Oak Ridge, in 1942. Oak Ridge was home to multiple factories and other industrial facilities that produced the materials needed to build nuclear weapons. The work being done in Oak Ridge was so secretive that not even most of the town’s residents knewwhat exactly they were working on. With the exception of a few high-ranking scientists, most people employed in the town’s science and energy facilities were given a set of instructions for how to do their jobs, but were not told the purpose behind the tasks.

The United States Was Involved in the War Even Before Pearl Harbor

Although the United States didn’t officially enter World War II until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. government still found ways to support the Allied war effort. For instance, in 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act, which authorized the U.S. to lend weapons to the Allied powers, particularly Great Britain. The Lend-Lease Act allowed the United States to remain technically neutral while still supporting its European allies in the fight against the invading German army. This tenuous policy of neutrality continued until the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. By the next day, the U.S. had declared war on Japan, and just three days later it fully joined the conflict by declaring war on Germany and Italy. 

China and Japan Never Signed a Peace Treaty With Each Other

Although China’s contributions to the Allied war effort are often overlooked in the West, China was the first nation to engage in combat against an Axis power. China had been fighting against Japan’s encroaching imperialism in mainland Asia since 1937, two years before the official beginning of World War II, and when the global conflict broke out, China joined the Allied powers by continuing to fight its island neighbor. More than 14 million Chinese civilians and soldiers were killed in battles throughout Asia over the course of the war. When World War II ended, China was not involved in the Allies’ peace negotiations with Japan, and to this day the two nations have never officially signed a peace treaty to mark the end of their wartime conflict.

Early NASA Rockets Were Based on Nazi Missile Designs

During World War II, the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun was the leading engineer behind the development of the deadly supersonic missile known as the V-2 rocket. Development began in 1936, and by 1944, the Nazis were using the missiles to deliver devastating attacks against France, England, and Belgium. At the time, the V-2 was the most advanced ballistic missile in the world: Its innovative use of liquid rocket fuel enabled it to reach speeds up to 3,500 miles per hour and strike from distances of 200 miles; it was also equipped with an onboard computer-based guidance system that allowed it to strike with deadly accuracy. The technology that allowed the V-2 to reach these stunning altitudes and travel with such accuracy also made it the forerunner to modern space rockets. After the war, NASA brought von Braun to the United States, where he used his expertise in rocketry to become one of the leading scientists in the U.S. space race. Though von Braun’s ties to the Nazis tarnished his reputation for the rest of his life, his contributions to the space race earned him high honors from the U.S. government, and he remains a controversial figure in the history of space travel.

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