24 Of The Biggest Badasses In Modern History

Published February 7, 2018
Updated March 16, 2018

Whether it's war heroes, adventurers, or stories of survival in extreme conditions, these stories are about the triumph of the human spirit.

Nancy Wake

Nancy Wake
As WWII’s most decorated woman, Nancy Wake was at the top of the Gestapo's most wanted list. Trained in hand-to-hand combat, espionage, sabotage, and able to drink her male counterparts under the table, she was known as one of the most fearsome resistance fighters of WWII. At one point during the war, she led 7,000 guerilla fighters into a raid of a German gun factory and even killed an SS sentry with her bare hands. One of her comrades described her as “most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then, she is like five men.”Wikimedia Commons

Desmond Doss

Desmond Doss
Desmond Doss marched into WWII battlegrounds without any form of weapon and saved hundreds of lives as a medic. He single-handedly saved 75 soldiers at the battle of Okinawa by lowering wounded soldiers down the ridge. After getting a leg filled with shrapnel from kicking a grenade away from comrades, he took a bullet to the arm and simply crawled back to base rather than occupy a stretcher that someone else might need.Wikimedia Commons

Mariya Oktyabrskaya

Mariya Oktyabrskaya
When Nazis invaded her homeland of Kiev and killed her husband, Mariya Oktyabrskaya sold everything she had, bought a T-34 Main Battle Tank for the Red Army, taught herself how to maneuver and repair it, and entered the Nazi-killing business full time. She drove the tank with the words “Fighting Girlfriend” displayed on the turret into a battle in Smolensk, wiped out machine gun nests and repaired the tank mid-battle. She did this on two other separate occasions before the Nazis finally killed her in 1944. Wikimedia Commons

Teddy Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt has several other titles besides president - including war hero, explorer, Medal of Honor recipient, and Nobel Peace Prize winner. He aimed to clean up the corrupt NYPD from the inside as a police commissioner, took down an armed bully in a bar fight, and of course, gave a rousing speech right after being shot. Wikimedia Commons

Peter Freuchen

Peter Freuchen
This Danish, 6’ 7” polar explorer lost one leg to frostbite, amputated his own toes with pliers, and escaped an avalanche in Greenland by making a knife out of his own frozen feces. He went on to get captured by Nazis in World War 2 but escaped, then went on to win $64,000 on the game show "The $64,000 Question."Imgur

Eugene Jacques Bullard

Eugene Jacques Bullard
Eugene Jacques Bullard was born black and poor in the deep south in 1895 and immediately figured out that was a raw deal. He stowed aboard a German freighter at age 11; crossing the Atlantic and ending up in London where he became a boxer, vaudevillian performer, the first African-American military pilot in combat. Oh, he also had a rhesus monkey for a sidekick and opened a Paris nightclub where he played drums and partied with Josephine Baker. Wikimedia Commons

Running Eagle

Running Eagle
One of history's only female Indian war chiefs was a Blackfoot woman named Running Eagle, who at age 15 took her murdered dad’s rifle and began attacking enemies with such vigor that the elders sent her on a vision quest to figure out what the heck her destiny was. Apparently, it was to become so kick-ass that other warriors begged her to join her expeditions (also to marry them, but nah). She distinguished herself as an extraordinarily brave chief who was among the first to use guns in battle. Badass of the Week

Warren Crecy

Warren Crecy
Dubbed "The Baddest Man In The 761st Tank Battalion" (the first-ever all-black armored unit), Warren G.H Crecy was a Nazi killing machine who was in combat for more than 180 straight days and took out Nazi artillery with a rocket launcher from an exposed position. Credited with 300-400 kills, he won a Silver Star medal and four Purple Hearts. Afterwards, he worked as a prison guard in Nuremberg keeping notorious war criminals in line before going off to fight another war in Korea. Imgur

Leonid Rogozov

Leonid Rogozov
In 1961, Leonid Rogozov was a Soviet doctor on a team stationed on a remote base in Antarctica, when he realized he had acute appendicitis. Not wanting to cause a fuss, Rogozov wrote in his journal, “It seems that I have appendicitis... I am keeping quiet about it”, and then proceeded to perform an emergency appendectomy on himself under general anesthesia. He was back to work in a couple of weeks. Wikimedia Commons

Michael "Hell Roaring" Healy

Hell Roaring Healy
Already a life-saving legend in the Coast Guard, Michael A. ‘Hell-Roaring’ Healy went on to be the first man of African-American descent to command a U.S. government vessel. He single-handedly patrolled the Alaska coastline for over 20 years as the federal government’s only law enforcement in the vast area, all while earning humanitarian points as judge, doctor, and policeman to Alaskan natives. Wikimedia Commons

Richard Francis Burton

Richard Francis Burton
A controversial figure in history, Richard Francis Burton’s keen interest in people’s sexual exploits might detract some from his intellect, but this 19th-century linguist spoke over 20 languages, journeyed to Mecca (in disguise) when it was forbidden and was an army captain in the East India company. He served as British consul, was awarded knighthood, and was a co-translator of the original Kama Sutra.Wikimedia Commons

Edith Garrud

Edith Garrud
Edith Garrud was one of the first female martial arts teachers in the Western world. She used her skills and knowledge in 1908 to train a team of 30 suffragettes to defend themselves against the police. The England-born Garrud would Jiu-Jitsu her way through cops to protect the movement’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, and once said: “Woman is exposed to many perils nowadays, because so many who call themselves men are not worthy of that exalted title.” Wikimedia Commons

Daniel Inouye

Daniel Inouye
In WWII, Daniel Inouye was on a flanking maneuver against three German machine gun nests, where he took a bullet the stomach while still holding a grenade. Bleeding heavily, he inched towards the final bunker and cocked his arm to throw, but was hit by German fire and the arm holding the grenade was all but severed. But Inouye wrenched the still-live grenade from the meat of his severed appendage and threw it, destroying the nest.

Then he was shot in the leg, so his comrades rushed to help, to which he ordered them back to their posts yelling “Nobody called off the war!" He eventually went to a field hospital where they lopped off the rest of the arm with no anesthesia. Later, he went off to become a nine-term U.S. senator for Hawaii.
Wikimedia Commons

Hugh Glass

Hugh Glass
Though it’s difficult to determine how much of Hugh Glass’ legend is true and how much is an exaggeration, the basic story is that the American frontiersman and fur trapper was thoroughly mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his fellow explorers. He woke after a few days, let maggots feast on his injuries to prevent infection, and crawled to the Cheyenne River where he fashioned a crude raft and sailed for six weeks to Fort Kiowa surviving on roots and berries. He recuperated and returned to the frontier as a fur trapper, because why the hell not. Wikimedia Commons

Juliane Koepke

Juliane Koepke
On Christmas Eve of 1971, seventeen-year-old Juliane Koepcke was in a plane crash and fell into the Amazon Rainforest without a parachute. With multiple severe injuries and scant food scoured from the wreckage, she hiked for 11 days through vegetation and crocodile-infested waters to finally reach a logging camp. Then she embarked on a seven-hour canoe trip to get to a pilot who could fly her to a hospital. She was the sole survivor of the crash. ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images

John Fairfax

John Fairfax
Sure, John Fairfax was the first to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean, but that amazing 1969 feat doesn’t secure his title of badass on its own. He was also a pirate, adventurer, mink farmer, and professional gambler. He also dabbled in smuggling, survived a shark attack, and was kicked out of the Italian boy scouts for shooting live rounds at other kids. Chris Wood/Daily Express/Getty Images

Larcena Pennington

Larcena Pennington
23-year old Tucson, Arizona pioneer woman Larcena Pennington was taken captive by Apaches who didn’t appreciate her attempts to escape. They threw her off a short cliff, went down there and stabbed her, and threw rocks at her face till she passed out. They left her for dead, but Larcena woke up three days later, ate some snow, and crawled 15 miles to her husband’s lumber mill, but he was out searching for her; super-worried because she had malaria when she disappeared. Wikimedia Commons

Ching Shih

Ching Shih
Ching Shih was a female pirate who terrorized the China Sea in the early 19th century, manning a 300 ship fleet so powerful it kicked the crap out of the Chinese Imperial Navy. Disobeying Shih meant you were beheaded on the spot, and pirates that raped captives were put to death. Even when the fleet was eventually defeated, the Chinese government offered her and the crew amnesty if they surrendered, so Ching got to retire and keep all of her loot.Wikimedia Commons

Ernest Henry Shackleton

Ernest Henry Shackleton
Ernest Henry Shackleton wanted to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent by sea - so he mounted an ocean expedition that ended up involving his ship getting trapped between two ice sheets for 281 days. After a hull breach, the boat sank, and his crew escaped the icy water only to be stranded on an ice sheet with few supplies. Shackleton then sailed 800 miles in a barely seaworthy boat, reached South Georgia Island, and climbed the 4,500-foot tall snow-covered mountains to get help. His entire crew survived.Wikimedia Commons

Loius Zamperini

Loius Zamperini
Louis Zamperini was as a skinny young Italian in 1920s California that bullies loved to beat on until he took up boxing and dished it right back to them. After busting his tail off at track and field, he ends up on the U.S. Olympic team. But he’s not tired yet, so he flies a plane in WWII, gets shot down, and survives adrift in the shark-laden Pacific Ocean for 47 days. Then he washes ashore into the arms of the Japanese Navy, where he's tortured by war criminals. He returns home a hero, forgives his torturers, fathers some babies, then caps off his life by running a leg in the Olympic Torch relay in Nagano at age 81.Wikimedia Commons

Joe "The Mighty Atom" Greenstein

Mighty Atom
This legendary 5’4” Jewish strongman (who once clobbered 20 Nazis single-handedly) was told at age 14 that he’d probably die from tuberculosis. Instead, Yosselle (Joe) Greenstein ran away, joined the circus, and started training as a strongman. Within two years he was a true superhero, even inspiring a comic book character. He was best known for fighting antisemitism, stopping a bullet with his head, and bending so much metal with his bare hands that the Guinness Record Book came calling. Wikimedia Commons

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai
Not even the Taliban could stop female education activist Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head at age 15 by the fundamentalist organization on her bus home from school. After the injury, she took a few months off, recuperated, widened her campaign, and got back on that bus to school. She earned a slew of peace prizes from various countries and became a United Nations Messenger of Peace.Wikimedia Commons

Simo Häyhä

Simo Häyhä
The famed Finnish Winter War sniper Simo Häyhä has the highest recorded number of enemy kills in any war to date. Nicknamed "the White Death," Häyhä was intensely feared by the Red Army, and when they eventually succeeded in shooting half his face off, he didn’t die. Instead, he regained consciousness the day peace was declared and went off to hunt giant moose instead of enemy soldiers. Wikimedia Commons

Walter Walsh

Walter Walsh
Law graduate Walter Walsh was a champion Olympic marksman, an FBI agent who single-handedly brought the mob to justice in an epic shootout, and a Marine who saved his entire squad from Okinawan snipers. In his later life, he became a marksmanship instructor and the 92-year-old coach of the U.S. Olympic shooting team. He died of old age at 106. Wikimedia Commons

History has its share of badasses, but let's dive into the 19th and 20th century specifically. Here lie some absolutely phenomenal people that might slip through the cracks of a wider historical scope. The accomplishments of these amazing humans put the rest of us to shame.

Whether it's war heroes, adventurers, or stories of survival in extreme conditions, these stories are about the triumph of the human spirit. They are about finding the inner strength to power through some of the darkest days in life. They are about defeating enemies so efficiently that there's no one left to take a name.

But most of all, they are examples of some of the most badassery that ever existed. Every single one of them deserves more than the few sentences provided here. It would take pages to do their lives justice. But as a starting point, enjoy these summaries of what some of the biggest badasses in modern history accomplished with only one lifetime.


Next, read about some more badasses throughout history. Then, learn some more about Peter Freuchen, the world's most interesting man.

author
Erin Kelly
author
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
editor
John Kuroski
editor
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Cite This Article
Kelly, Erin. "24 Of The Biggest Badasses In Modern History." AllThatsInteresting.com, February 7, 2018, https://allthatsinteresting.com/modern-badasses. Accessed April 24, 2024.