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American Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone was the only Marine to receive both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross during World War II. At the Battle of Guadalcanal, Sergeant Basilone successfully defended a narrow pass with his gun team. Afterward, he was offered a safer, base training position but Basilone turned it down in favor of going back into action. At Iwo Jima, he gave his life on the battlefield.Flickr
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Adrian Carton de Wiart
Over four wars spanning six decades, Adrian Carton de Wiart proved himself to be one of the most dedicated and unkillable soldiers of all time. The Belgian-born British Army officer sustained 11 grievous injuries — including being shot in the face, head, hand, stomach, leg, groin, and ankle. He also survived numerous plane crashes and a broken back. Despite all of these injuries, he remained fully dedicated to military service.Wikimedia Commons
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Pilot Jacqueline Cochran headed up the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and tirelessly trained pilots for the program during WWII. After earning the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal in 1945, she joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve as a lieutenant colonel. She also received her Air Force Command Pilot Wings and three Distinguished Flying Cross medals.Wikimedia Commons
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Desmond Doss was a fearless World War II medic who refused to carry a gun. Dubbed a "conscientious objector," he nevertheless single-handedly saved the lives of 50 to 100 American soldiers on the Maeda Escarpment of Okinawa in 1945.
Doss also treated his own injuries to save stretchers for others and earned the Medal of Honor, making him the first conscientious objector to do so.Wikimedia Commons
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Polish Army Captain Witold Pilecki volunteered to enter Auschwitz in order to expose its horrors to the world. There, he organized a network of prisoners to aid him in the name of the Polish resistance. Unfortunately, the underground army thought Pilecki had exaggerated conditions in the camp and didn’t believe him.
Though Pilecki managed to escape Auschwitz and tried to liberate the camp from the outside, he was
captured at the Warsaw Uprising and later executed by the Soviets on fabricated charges. Wikimedia Commons
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A short, baby-faced boy from Texas, Audie Murphy's skill as a soldier made him one of the most decorated heroes of WWII.
He earned the Medal of Honor by stalling a German attack. Wounded and alone with a gun, Murphy mounted an abandoned burning tank destroyer and held the Germans off long enough
for the Allies to launch a counterattack.
After returning home a hero, Murphy launched an acting career and played himself in the film To Hell and Back.Wikimedia Commons
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Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man for two years to fight in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Shot in battle, she dug the bullet out of her own leg rather than be exposed. After an exam years later while gravely ill, she was found out and honorably discharged. She was one of the first female lecturers, and her husband was the first man to receive a widow’s pension.Wikimedia Commons
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Noor Inayat Khan
A descendant of Indian royalty, Noor Inayat Khan fought for the British in WWII — not necessarily as a proponent for the country, but as an opponent to fascism. Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1940 and was a wireless radio operator and a Special Operations Executive. She was the lone radio operator for four months in Paris until she was betrayed by a double agent. Khan withstood unimaginable torture, solitary confinement, and was executed at a concentration camp in 1944.Wikimedia Commons
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In his short time fighting in WWI, Frank Luke epitomized the reckless image of a fighter pilot by going after heavily defended German observation balloons. In 30 hours of flight time over 10 missions in nine short days of combat, he shot down a remarkable 14 enemy balloons and four aircraft.
He flew his final mission on Sept. 29, 1918 but was tragically shot while in the air. Luke managed to land his plane near Murvaux, France, but perished from his wounds.
He posthumously received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery.Wikimedia Commons
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Jennie Hodgers/Albert Cashier
Born in Ireland in 1843, Jeannie Hodgers sailed to the United States and started a new life as Albert Cashier, a man.
Cashier went on to fight in the American Civil War, serving the Union Army in the 95th Illinois Infantry. There, Cashier was seen as "one of the boys" and fought in 40 engagements over three years.Wikimedia Commons
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Cathay Williams/William Cathay
Cathay Williams was the first African-American woman to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1866. After the Civil War, she enlisted in the 39th U.S. Infantry Company A — an all-Black regiment that became known as the Buffalo Soldiers — under the name William Cathay
She served only two years of her three-year tour before being hospitalized, discovered, and promptly sent home. After her dismissal, her health declined further. Denied military disability payments, Williams died sometime around 1893. Wikimedia Commons
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George Henry Thomas
Despite many Union victories in the Civil War, General George Henry Thomas is not as widely recognized as fellow historic generals like Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Thomas's Southern heritage kept him from getting the recognition he deserved in life. Wikimedia Commons
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As part of the Black regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters, Henry Johnson suffered 21 wounds and rescued a soldier while repelling an enemy raid in the Argonne Forest during WWI. Nicknamed "Black Death" during wartime, Johnson’s discharge papers contained errors and left out his injuries — therefore denying him disability pay and his Purple Heart. He died at 32, but his military legacy lives on through his son, Herman Johnson, who served with the famous Tuskegee Airmen.Wikimedia Commons
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British troops picked the wrong house in Philadelphia to commandeer for a meeting during the Revolutionary War. Homeowner Lydia Darragh overheard them plotting a surprise attack, and left home the next day to alert American officers. Her act ensured that Gen. George Washington was prepared for the British advancement. Library of Congress
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"Mad Jack" Churchill
WWII war hero Jack Churchill didn't use a rifle or drive a tank. Instead, this British Army officer wielded a Scottish broadsword — and sometimes a longbow.
As a commando, Churchill gained notoriety for charging into battle, playing the bagpipes, and throwing grenades. Even after a stint at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (from which he escaped) he continued his military escapades, walking 93 miles to rejoin the Army in Italy. Getty Images
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The Gestapo called Virginia Hall "the most dangerous of all Allied spies." They underlined the importance of tracking down the woman with a limp, which was from Hall’s use of a prosthetic leg.
Hall was the first female operative of Britain’s Special Operations Executive to be sent into France, where she worked as an Allied spy. She spied there for three years until she was forced to escape on foot through the Pyrenees Mountains. Hall later requested to be sent back into occupied France as a wireless radio operator, reporting the movements of German troops before she joined the CIA in 1951. Wikimedia Commons
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John Rabe may strike many as an unlikely war hero — after all, he was an enthusiastic Nazi.
But Rabe proved himself a hero during the Japanese takeover of Nanjing in 1937. Sent to China for business, Rabe nevertheless stepped up and helped shelter some 200,000 from certain death. Rabe even saved women from rape by wielding his Nazi badge. Wikimedia Commons
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During his tour in WWII, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Urban earned seven Purple Hearts. He was critically injured time and time again but always wanted to stay on the battlefield with his men.
Urban once even left an English hospital without permission, hitchhiked back to France, and re-joined his regiment to finish a fight — cementing his nickname of "the Ghost." He repeatedly took shrapnel and bullets (even getting shot in the neck) but survived and came out the other side as an American hero. Wikimedia Commons
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Called the "Ace of Aces" Major Richard (Dick) Bong took down a record 40 aircrafts in his career as a WWII pilot and earned the Medal of Honor. Once, he even shot a crocodile from the air when he noticed it following his fellow soldiers.
Bong was chosen to test a P-80, the Army Air Forces' first jet on Aug. 6, 1945. But the test went terribly wrong and Bong lost his life. Because he died on the same day as the bombing of Hiroshima, Bong's death received little notice at the time. Wikimedia Commons
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A WWII surgical nurse, Ruby Bradley was captured three weeks after Pearl Harbor and sent to a POW camp in Manila. There, she became an "angel in fatigues," performing over 230 surgeries and assisting in childbirths under the camp’s inadequate conditions, all while smuggling in food and medical supplies.
Five years later, Bradley went to the front lines of Korean War as the Chief Nurse of the 171st Evacuation Hospital. As 100,000 Chinese soldiers advanced on her hospital, Bradley refused to leave until she'd evacuated all the injured and sick. Bradley managed to leap aboard her plane just as an enemy shell struck and destroyed her ambulance. Wikimedia Commons
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For 29 years after WWII ended, the dedicated Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda refused to believe that the conflict was over. Instead, he hid out in the jungle of the Philippines and continued waging a war.
Onoda refused to believe that the war had truly ended until his former superior officer flew to where he was camped out. The officer confirmed the news and relieved Onoda from duty. He was eventually pardoned for the crimes he committed while he believed the world was still at war.Keystone-FranceGamma-Rapho/Getty Images
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Eugene Bullard was the first African American fighter pilot — but he flew for France because the U.S. didn't accept his service during WWI.
Flying instead for the French, Bullard fearlessly embarked on 25 to 27 missions in a plane painted with the motto, "Tout sang que coule est rouge," or "All blood runs red." He later also served as an Allied spy in Paris during WWII. Wikimedia Commons
22 War Heroes And The Superhuman Stories That Put Them In The History Books
What defines history's greatest war heroes? The answer isn't always simple. The normal attributes ascribed to heroes — like bravery — sometimes don't apply in war, where every day might offer the terrifying possibility of losing your life.
As World War II veteran William Carpenter once said, "You show me a man who says he was brave [during World War II], and I'll show you a liar. Every one of us was afraid. Even the Germans were afraid."
Like bravery, we might think that skill with a weapon is a key element of war heroes. However, some of the most remarkable war heroes never even picked up a weapon. Take Desmond Doss, a "consciousness objector" who abhorred weapons and violence. Nevertheless, he saved between 50 and 100 men during World War II at the Battle of Okinawa. Doss never wielded a gun and instead used his skills as a medic.
Wikimedia CommonsDesmond Doss receives the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman.
Then there are those who became war heroes only after changing their identities. Consider Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man in order to fight in the Revolutionary War. Or the Irish-born Jennie Hodgers, who transformed themselves into a man named Albert Cashier and fought during the American Civil War.
Meanwhile, we have the soldiers who defied convention on their way to becoming war heroes. There's "Mad Jack" Churchill, who stormed into battle during World War II wielding a broadsword or a longbow, and or George Henry Thomas, a Southern general who fought for the Union Army.
Of course, there are controversial war heroes as well. John Rabe was a Nazi — an enthusiastic one — but he saved hundreds of thousands of Chinese people when the Japanese invaded Nanjing. And Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda, who kept fighting World War II for three full decades after the war actually ended.
Some of the war heroes in the gallery above even operated in the shadows, like the spy Virginia Hall. Others proved their prowess in the sky, like "Ace of Aces" Richard Bong. They're all different. Yet, what all of these war heroes did was step up when they were called.
So, what makes a war hero? Look through the gallery above and learn about some of history's most interesting war heroes who fought, and sometimes died, for what they thought was right.
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.