Seventy-five years after the fighting stopped, World War II is still a fertile ground for stories. Books and movies are still coming out to highlight the triumphs and defeats of the fighting, yet so many epic stories still escape public attention. These lesser-known heroes and villains played a significant role in shaping the outcome of the war — and history as a whole!
In December 1943, American pilot Charlie Brown’s B-17 suffered significant damage from enemy fire. When German fighter pilot Franz Stigler spotted the wounded plane, he didn’t finish it off and instead led Brown towards Allied territory. Years later, Brown wanted to repay Stigler.
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When WWll ended, Brown searched for Stigler using a newsletter for pilot veterans. It worked! When the two met, Stigler revealed that it would have been dishonorable to have shot down the damaged plane. The two remained friends until they passed away in 2008.
General Henning Von Tresckow had a simple request when Hitler’s plane landed at his headquarters in 1943: for an aide on Hitler’s staff to deliver liquor bottles to another officer in Berlin. He handed over towel-wrapped bottles that were not what they seemed.
Uta von Aretin
The bottles were actually bombs, set to detonate midflight! Somehow, the plane landed without any explosions. Not to be defeated, Von Tresckow was involved in another failed assassination attempt, which was adapted into the 2008 film Valkyrie.
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Georg Elser, a carpenter, was deeply angered with his country as he traveled to Munich in November of ’39. Wanting to make a difference, he planned to assassinate Hitler when the leader attended the celebration of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch.
At the event hall, Elser chiseled into a pillar and placed a timed explosive inside. But on the day, Hitler left early — 13 minutes before detonation. The bomb killed and injured everyone else. Elser was soon executed, leaving Hitler convinced it was an Allied plan.
After the horrors at Auschwitz, the Auschwitz Trials were to hold accountable some 40 prominent members of the Nazi party. But not every one on trial was treated equally. Dr. Hans Münch actually had former prisoners testified in his favor.
Münch saved prisoners from the gas chambers by means of fake experiments. He refused to choose who lived and who died. And as the war ended, he helped an inmate escape. Münch would be the only individual acquitted during the trials.
In the Netherlands, Han Van Meegeren was a frustrated artist, so, to mock the modern art world that he felt ignored him, he forged paintings by Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer. When he sold them, he earned the equivalent to $60 million — and found himself in a lot of trouble.
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Trouble came after Van Meegeren, below, sold a painting to Hermann Goering of the Nazi party. It was considered a capital sentence. To save himself, he told the truth and was convicted of the lesser sentence of forgery. Before an appeal could be made, Van Meegeren succumbed to a heart attack.
Edward Slovik was drafted into the US army in 1944. Deployed in France, he deserted two times, afraid of serving along the front lines. He was placed in the stocks and told charges against him would be dismissed if he went back to his unit.
But he didn’t want to fight. Figuring he’d get a short prison sentence, he refused to return to the fighting. General Eisenhower punished him severely, making Slovik the only US soldier to be executed for desertion.
Juan Pujol, a Spaniard, gained the trust of the German intelligence service, Abwehr, by sending intelligence he had collected in Britain. But unbeknownst to them, Pujol had never been to Britain. He created the “intelligence” with the help of films, newspapers, and pure imagination.
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Pujol soon talked his way into MI5 and became the spy he always wanted to be. His most important deception involved diverting the German high command away from the true location of the D-Day landing. Oblivious to it all, the Nazis awarded Pujol with their highest honor, the Iron Cross.
Milwaukee-born Mildred Fish and her husband, Arvid Harnack, were in Germany as Hitler rose to power. The couple and close associates believed the Soviet Union would be the last obstacle stopping complete Nazi tyranny in Europe. They wanted to do something.
So, the couple joined a communist espionage network called The Red Orchestra, which provided intelligence to the USSR. The group, however, was compromised, and a betrayal led to Arvid’s execution. Mildred faced the guillotine. She was the only American woman executed by Hitler.
In 1945, the German ocean liner, Cap Arcona, was transporting concentration camp prisoners. The British believed it was carrying escaping members of the SS and attacked the vessel. The results were catostrophic.
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In what is considered one of the worst maritime disasters in history, the British fired on the ship, not realizing the ship carried prisoners as well, and killed all but 50 of the 5,000 passengers!
In Papago Park, Arizona, a prison camp held German POWs. Among them, 25 were determined to return to their home country. They got cash, some phony IDs, and even made a raft to sail the Gila River. And in December of 1944, they escaped through a tunnel they made.
The FBI and Native American scouts went after them. Several POWs were stranded in bad weather and turned themselves in. The raft proved useless, so the rafters were caught. By January, the last prisoner was captured at a railway station in Phoenix.
Captain Richard Thomas Partridge knew in war there was no room for cowardice or self-pity. You did whatever you had to, and you prepared for the worst. This mentality was especially vital during an important battle in Norway.
The small Norwegian town of Ålesund was tucked away within the heavy wilderness of mountains. Despite its remoteness, the Nazis’ set the little village in their sights in World War II. For a number of reasons, Ålesund was a critical spot to control.
Iron ore was shipped from Sweden through Norway and into Germany, so without access through Ålesund, the Reich would take a huge loss. However, Norway was ready to fight to the death to defend their land.
With massive assistance from the Allies, the German attack was kept at bay. Hitler, however, was about to throw everything he had into the fight, knowing exactly how crucial an Ålesund victory was.
In preparation for the looming fight, the Allies concocted the Norwegian Way in 1940, an operation that would flood the land with ground troops and planes. Captain Richard Thomas Partridge, who’d enlisted back in 1929, was chosen as one of the pilots to man the air.
Partridge was summoned to the HMS Ark Royal, a British aircraft carrier where his plane was docked. The commanding officer flew with one crewman, a lieutenant named R.S. Bostock, as his gunner. Partridge soon led his squadron into the sky.
Not long after takeoff, Partridge and his team came across several German bombers. Strangely, the enemies didn’t have fighter jets accompanying them, and they fled the scene. Well, all but one fled, and Partridge was ready for the straggler.
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A German lieutenant named Horst Schopis was manning the bomber, and he was showing no signs of slowing down. Partridge instructed his men to fire at will, and they launched an all-out barrage on the lone plane.
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Dozens of bullets tore through the German bomber, sending plumes of smoke erupting from the panels. The plane crashed into the snow-capped mountains 20 miles from Ålesund. There was no time to rejoice, as Partridge was also having issues with his plane.
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Partridge and Bostock knew their plane took a beating during the bomber attack, but they never imagined the engine dying mid-air. Awaiting their fate, the men braced for impact as Partridge hit an icy mountain snowbank.
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Skill and luck guided Partridge during the descent, and he managed to ground the plane with minor damage. There was no time to wait around, however. They needed to find shelter from the sub-zero temperatures immediately.
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After what seemed like miles of tedious trudging through knee-deep snow, the two men found an abandoned hunting cabin. But, not long after they went inside to warm up, they realized they weren’t alone.
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Through the thick snowfall, Partridge and Bostock made out three Germans coming their way. It was the crew of the plane they shot down just a few hours earlier! Somehow, they’d all survived. The men braced for the tense encounter.
Both sides were equally as shocked when they locked eyes with each other. They were exhausted and recovering from rather traumatizing plane accidents. No one wanted to fight, and everyone wanted to live. But that wasn’t allowed in times of war.
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Yet somehow, the soldiers reached an agreement: they wouldn’t fight each other. They would instead help each other survive. Of course, the Brits didn’t tell the Germans they were the ones who shot them down. They said they, too, were bomber pilots who fell victim to fighter planes over the mountains.
Partridge and Bostock, feeling as though civility may not last long, left the Germans behind and sought refuge elsewhere. They found an empty hotel full of food and supplies, but the next day, they encountered the Germans again.
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With no other option available, the Brits allowed the Germans to share the space, even going as far as eating breakfast together. Knowing food wouldn’t last forever, Partridge and a German went looking for more to eat — and found so much more.
Not far from the hotel, a Norwegian patrol unit was passing through, and they spotted the two men. The Germans were arrested and sent to prison camps, and Partridge and Bostock, once safely escorted out of the mountains, ventured off.
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The two Brits trekked 21 miles in hopes that when they returned to Ålesund they’d reconnect with their troops. However, Ålesund was eviscerated, and the men traveled hours to another small town to finally board the HMS Manchester.
Sadly, Bostock died shortly after returning home, but Partridge actually stayed close with one of the German soldiers until his passing in 1990. Stories like this drove people to military service. There was just an indescribable bond soldiers had that attracted civilians. It made some into heroes too.
At 19 years old, Theo van Eijck wanted nothing more than to become an American Air Force pilot. He was on the verge of reaching his dream when he found out his grades didn’t grant him entry into the Air Force’s trainee program; however, he figured out a loophole.
See, in 1964, the Navy had its own courses for pilots, and you could get into that automatically if you spent some time in an engineering role. He had some experience as an electrician, so he landed a job as an apprentice.
He knew this was only the first step in the grand scheme of things, and becoming an electrician wasn’t his endgame. But he kept up the good work and tried to impress his superiors. In it for the long haul, he signed an eight-year contract with the Navy.
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In an interview with the BBC in 2019, a 76-year-old Van Eijck recounted his experience. “Oh, it started well. I got selected for the pilot scheme, and I loved it.” In the cadet pilot scheme, he could work alongside pilots and with aircraft. The perfect stepping stone.
His dream was getting closer. He kept up the good electrician work and was even able to do some flying. But then there was a problem. One night at a party at the Navy barracks, Van Eijck had a little bit too much to drink.
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Van Eijck’s commanding officer was at the party, and he asked Van Eijck what he thought of the flight training program. He told him to speak his mind, and, quite a few drinks in, Van Eijck did just that. Although, he may have been a little too candid.
Feeling a bit impatient with his plan, he let loose with his thoughts, saying how he thought the training aircraft were totally useless. Instead of flying those, he said, cadets should be flying the Grumman Tracker planes, the modern aircraft the Royal Netherlands Navy pilots were learning.
He continued to unload, going so far as to sum up the training regime as “quite frankly crap.” Unfortunately, the commanding officer didn’t take these words too kindly. Van Eijck’s previously unblemished history with the Navy was now tarnished.
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The next day, Van Eijck noticed an orange mark next to his name on his assessment papers, signaling that he had a disciplinary issue filed against him. It was serious, meaning he could be thrown out altogether and his flying days could be over before they began.
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He felt betrayed. At the party, the officer told him to speak candidly and that his words would be treated confidentially, but now he was being retaliated against. He wasn’t going to stand for it, and that’s when his troubles really started.
After a series of incidents of lashing out, Van Eijck was confined to his barracks as punishment. That didn’t stop him however, and he managed to escape, busting the lock and disappearing from the base. It was the final straw: he was to be expelled from the trainee program.
Van Eijck launched an appeal against the expulsion, formally protesting the officers’ decision to the higher-ups in the Navy. It took three whole months for them to come to a decision on the result of his appeal, and after an agonizing wait, he had an answer.
His dreams were shot down in flames. Not only was he kicked out of the trainee program, but he was to work the remainder of his eight year contract as an electrician. He refused to accept it, seeing the only way forward was to take truly drastic measures.
It was now do or die. He concocted the plan of all plans: he was going to do something that would force the Navy to discharge him. “I told absolutely no one,” he told the BBC. “If I had… it would not have worked.”
His surefire way to get discharged? He was going to steal a plane. And specifically, one of the Grumman Trackers. First though, he had to learn how to fly one. He volunteered to relocate duty to Malta, where he would be around lots of planes and could study in secret.
He finally put his plan in action one morning after getting in the hangar and telling the guard on duty he was someone else. He wasn’t questioned, and somehow, managed to get on board a plane. After confused messages from the control tower, which he ignored, he was gone.
Incredibly, just as he planned, Theo van Eijck had managed to steal a valuable aircraft right from under the nose of the Royal Dutch Navy. Flying free in the Mediterranean, he burst into tears. He did it; he was flying his dream plane.
After staying in the air for over five hours, he eventually landed at an airstrip across the sea in Libya. By some extraordinary luck, there were some Dutch Air Force pilots there at the time, and they were shocked to hear about what he had done.
They reported Van Eijck to the Dutch ambassador, who was infuriated, but glad that the ordeal had come to end without incident. Because no one was hurt, and when all was said and done, the plane was in fine condition, Van Eijck was able to strike a deal with the authorities.
After serving a one-year sentence in prison for desertion, Van Eijck was honorably discharged from the Royal Navy. He had gotten what he wanted! In the end, the adventure in the sky was worth it and he could return to normal life. “I don’t regret what I did,” he said.
Military life certainly produces some colorful stories. Each year, just over one thousand cadets enter the U.S. Air Force Academy with dreams of becoming true American heroes. One particular figure had supported these young men and women for years, though most of them never noticed him.
By the mid-1970s, Bill Crawford had worked as a janitor for close to a decade. Of course, his work at the Academy wasn’t exactly glamorous. He spent most of each day mopping floors and replacing dead light bulbs. But he did have a lot to teach those kids.
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Unfortunately, Bill rarely had the chance to converse with students. Juggling drills, classes, and mandatory meals, cadets found themselves with precious little free time. And most of them didn’t want to spend it befriending the janitor.
Air Force Times
But unlike most of his classmates, James Moschgat took notice of the older janitor. Though the quiet man “blended into the woodwork,” there was something about Bill that piqued James’ interest. He just couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
Still, James had bigger fish to fry — a huge amount of history homework, to be specific. He and the other cadets were yawning their way through a detailed history of World War II. But one page soon had James’ pulse racing.
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It described a bold private serving in the U.S. Army’s 36th Infantry Division during the invasion of Italy. In 1943, a burst of enemy machine-gun fire sent his entire platoon scrambling for cover. But he rushed forward with a bundle of grenades.
Without any assistance, the private charged up the hill and cleared out multiple Italian machine gun nests. His bravery allowed Allied forces to advance up through Europe, and Fascist Italy fell just two weeks later.
His moment of glory came at one of the most crucial junctures of World War II. America should’ve celebrated the private as a hero, however, he never got any kind of parade back home.
Immediately following the battle, that courageous young man was reported dead. Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent a posthumous Medal of Honor to the soldier’s father. Little did the President know he was missing one key detail.
It turned out the American champion was still alive! Axis forces captured him after his heroic charge and placed him in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Once the conflict ended, he simply returned home without any fanfare.
That story was thrilling enough by its own merit, but what really sent James’ head spinning was the name of the private. The book listed him as William J. Crawford. It couldn’t be the same man who cleaned the Academy bathrooms, could it?
A couple of days later, James worked up the courage to ask Bill about the story. After scanning over the book’s account, Bill nonchalantly said, “Yep. That’s me.” The young cadet’s jaw dropped to the floor.
Re-gathering his wits, James asked Bill how he ended up as a custodian. The older man said that once he left the army, he still had the desire to serve somewhere in his native Colorado. Not long after, he offered his services to the Air Force Academy.
Word of Bill’s exploits spread like wildfire around campus. In a matter of days, the mild-mannered janitor became an Academy legend, with amazed cadets going to him for advice and war stories. Still, James felt the war hero was underappreciated.
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For one thing, Bill never officially received his Medal of Honor. That bothered James even after he graduated in 1977. So when, a few years later, the recent alumnus heard a big guest was visiting the Academy, he spotted a chance to make things right.
Ahead of President Ronald Reagan’s address to the student body in 1984, cadets past and present pestered the Academy to recognize Bill Crawford in the event. They thought their pleas fell on deaf ears…until that fateful day came. Reagan called Bill onstage.
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The President personally awarded Private Crawford the Medal of Honor and spoke about how he was the perfect model of leadership. At last, everyone knew Bill was a hero. His hometown of Pueblo even erected a statue in his honor.
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Bill lived out the rest of his years in relative peace and quiet — just the way he liked it. When he passed away in 2000, he was buried in the Air Force Academy Cemetery. No other enlisted Army serviceman was ever laid to rest there before.
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Although Bill left this world years ago, the tenets he stood for live on. Colonel James Moschgat — now retired — still speaks about the lessons he learned from the humble janitor.
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James said that Bill’s life is proof that the real heroes aren’t always who you would expect. All service is worthy of respect. On top of that, there are countless ways for brave men and women to serve their communities.
Nobody knows this fact better than Bill’s brother-in-arms, Bob Williams. His neighbors admire him for his experience as a war hero and educator, but that isn’t all he has done.
The Quad-City Times
A resident of Long Grove, Iowa, the WWII veteran is known by most for his time as a high school teacher and football coach in nearby Davenport. Still, Bob has become a legend in his small town of 800 for an entirely different reason.
Every Saturday, the 94-year-old rises bright and early with one very special purpose in mind. Pulling on his signature yellow slicker, Bob begins down the street and heads over to his local Dollar General.
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Bob is a familiar sight as he enters the small discount store, and he greets each employee by name as he shuffles up to the counter. Pulling a crisp 50-dollar bill out of his wallet, the cashier knows exactly what the elderly man is here for: chocolate.
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Handing him two full boxes of jumbo Hershey bars – one with almonds, one without – the cashier smiles as Bob cracks open one of the containers and hands her a full bar. Gifting another to the customer in line behind him, Bob heads back out into the streets of Long Grove, determined to make as many days as he can.
Known as “The Candy Man,” Bob Williams has been handing out jumbo Hershey bars to complete strangers in his community for the last 11 years. He was inspired to begin his mission of kindness after reading about a number of “pay it forward” initiatives being promoted across the country.
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Given his lifelong love of chocolate, Bob decided to make his trips to the dollar store worthwhile by sharing his sweets with others. Starting off with purchases of just three bars, Bob would keep one for himself and give the other two away. The responses he got were astonishing.
“You’d think I’d given them keys to a new car,” Bob said of the reactions to his initial act of kindness. “Honest to God, these people were thunderstruck.” From then on, the veteran knew exactly what his “pay it forward” movement would be.
The Des Moines Register
Over the years, Bob has given out over 6,000 Hershey bars within his community. Though he typically reserves his bars for people that “look like they could use a smile,” strangers aren’t the only ones that can expect a sweet treat from this kind old man.
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Jan Hartwig-Heggen, a close friend of Bob’s, estimates that he’s given her between 200-300 chocolate bars, most of which he leaves at her front door. “That’s his signature,” she said. “You always know when Bob has been there.”
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Another lucky resident that receives frequent visits from “The Candy Man” is Darla Fay, who Bob jokingly asked to be his Valentine one February before handing her an extra-large Hershey bar. Since then, Bob has visited Darla almost every day, always making sure to have some chocolate saved for her.
“Do you remember as a kid, the excitement and joy you felt when you first saw all the gifts Santa left under the Christmas tree?” asked Darla. “That’s the feeling I get when Bob surprises me with a Hershey bar. It just makes me feel like a kid again.”
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So, how does the 94-year-old keep up with the demand for his satisfying sweets? By stashing them, of course! Bob is known to keep around 500 chocolate bars in his freezer at a time, and he always makes sure to rotate them out so that he’s gifting only the freshest chocolate.
Unsurprisingly, Bob has become something of a celebrity in Long Grove, with nearly everyone knowing his name and his mission. Not a day goes by where cars don’t honk their hellos at him as they pass, and some residents will even approach him to exchange a hug and a smile for a delicious chocolate bar.
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Recently, a local magazine called Our Iowa did a feature on Bob and his remarkable hobby. After reading the article, one of Bob’s neighbors sent it to her son, who worked in Hershey’s corporate strategy department. He presented the story to company executives, and, right then and there, they were hooked.
Inspired by Bob, Hershey began their Heartwarming the World campaign, which sought to spread kindness and compassion nationwide. Taking a page from “The Candy Man’s” book, Hershey encouraged their employees to hand out chocolate bars to strangers, including those recently affected by Hurricane Florence.
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Not only that, but Hershey’s also reached out to Bob directly to make him part of their family. Cutting him a check for $1,500, the company promised to provide Bob with “all the bars he’ll ever need.” Now that’s a kiss!
With all the recognition Bob has received from his giving, he was able to purchase a nearby park bench to serve as a memorial for his late wife, Mary Elizabeth. Visiting the bench daily, Bob says that it’s really his wife who gives him his instructions to deliver his treats each day.
The Des Moines Register
But beyond it all, Bob’s mission is about more than just handing out Hershey bars to strangers. For “The Candy Man” of Long Grove, he hopes that his one small act of goodwill create an avalanche of kindness for people everywhere.
“I hope everybody picks up on that,” said Bob. “We need to lighten up and smile a bit more. Share whatever you can with people. There is no charge for that last bit of advice.”