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Military Believe-it-or-Not

01/07/2012 08:03 EST | Updated 03/06/2012 05:12 EST

In the category of wartime trivia, I owe the following information to retired U.S. Marine Col. D.G. Swinford, which was sent to me by Clare Wescott, longtime aide to Premier Bill Davis who has a galaxy of informed and intriguing sources.

Col. Swinford is a historian with an eye for the unusual, hence his appeal to Clare Wescott and, of course, myself: Military history is replete with oddities and trivia. For example, how many casual history buffs of the U.S. Civil War know that U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant would become enraged at abuse to horses, while committing Union soldiers to die in droves attacking the Confederates because he knew attrition was on the North's side?

Or that in the U.S. army's 7th Cavalry massacre of up to 300 mostly Lakota Sioux women and children at Wounded Knee in 1890 (as reprisal for the Little Bighorn massacre of George Custer and his troops in 1876), resulted in 20 Congressional Medals of Honour being awarded to the assassins? The sorriest award of that gallantry medal.

Back to Col. Swinford: Apparently, the youngest American in WWII was 12-year-old Calvin Graham who joined the U.S. Navy and was wounded -- and dishonorably discharged for lying about his age, until an Act of Congress restored his benefits.

In WWII, more died in the U.S. Army Air Corps than in the Marines. Only 29 per cent of bomber crews survived 30 missions -- a 71 per cent casualty rate.

Statistically, there was no such thing as an "average" fighter pilot. You were either an ace or a target. Japan's top Ace, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, shot down over 80 planes -- and died as a passenger on cargo plane that crashed.

It's not exactly trivia, but the most decorated person in the wartime history of British, Canadian, and Commonwealth forces was Billy Barker, born in Dauphin, Man. Barker shot down of 50 German planes in WWI, flying a distinctive Sopwith Camel with his kills painted on the fuselage.

Barker had 13 gallantry awards, including the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order twice, the Military Cross three times, two Italian Silver Medals for Valour, the Croix de Guerre, and three Mentioned in Dispatches. Barker died at age 36 in a puzzling plane crash in Ottawa in 1930.

Tracer bullets in machine guns apparently are drastically different from other rounds, so when every fifth bullet is a tracer hitting the target, it means the others (80 per cent) fall short. Tracers were a dubious blessing, because as well as marking the target, they also tell the enemy where the fire is coming from. Units that stopped using tracers saw their success rate double and loss rate go down.

Among the first enemy captured on the D-Day invasion of Normandy were Koreans who had been forced to fight for the Japanese until they were captured by the Russians and forced to fight with the Red Army, and then were captured by the Germans and recycled into the German army, eventually being captured by the Americans.

Following a massive bombardment of the Island of Kiska in the Aleutian Islands in 1943, 30,000 American and 5,000 Canadian troops stormed ashore -- at the cost of 21 killed. It could have been worse if there had been any Japanese defending the island. Another triumph for friendly fire. The 5,000 Japanese troops defending had been evacuated the day before, leaving behind a dog and a network of booby traps.

Forty years later, in 1983, 8,000 American forces invaded Grenada; half the U.S.'s 140 casualties from brief fighting with Cuban forces were by friendly fire.