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Adrian Carton de Wiart
Over four wars spanning six decades, Adrian Carton de Wiart proved himself to be the most dedicated and unkillable soldier of all time. For most soldiers, the loss of their left eye and left hand would force them to retire, but Belgian-born British Army officer de Wiart sustained 11 grievous injuries — which included being shot in the face, head, hand, stomach, leg, groin, and ankle, surviving 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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American Gunnery Sergeant ‘Manila' 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 who were basically a human force field of bullets against the Japanese. Afterward, he was offered a safer, base training position. However, he turned it down in favor of going back into action at Iwo Jima, where he gave his life on the battlefield.Flickr
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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 and also received her Air Force Command Pilot Wings and three Distinguished Flying Cross medals.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. He actually managed to escape and tried to liberate Auschwitz from the outside. However, he was captured at the Warsaw Uprising and later executed by the Soviets on fabricated charges. Wikimedia Commons
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Audie Murphy was a short, baby-faced farm boy from Texas whose intense skills as a soldier earned him rank quickly, making him one of the most-decorated heroes of WWII. In the act that earned him the Medal of Honor, Murphy mounted an abandoned burning tank destroyer, all alone with a single machine gun. Despite being wounded, he stalled the Germans long enough to mount the Allied counterattack that caused their retreat. 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 as a Continental soldier in 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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Desmond Doss, the fearless World War II medic who single-handedly saved the lives of 75 American soldiers on the Maeda Escarpment of Okinawa in 1945, never carried a weapon. Doss treated his own serious 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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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, delivering info to Britain from Paris. She was the lone radio operator for four months until she was betrayed by a double agent. She withstood unimaginable torture, solitary confinement, and was finally ruthlessly 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 thirty hours of flight time over ten missions in nine short days of combat, he shot down a remarkable fourteen enemy balloons and four aircraft. He flew his final mission on Sept. 29, 1918, when his plane went down in a field just west of the small village of Murvaux, France. He posthumously received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery.Wikimedia Commons
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Jennie Hodgers/Albert Cashier
Born Jennie Hodgers in 1843 Ireland, the soldier now known as Albert Cashier left her homeland to search for opportunity in the U.S. and ended up in the 95th Illinois Infantry as a man. Historians estimate the brave Cashier fought in over 40 Civil War battles, escaped capture by stealing a guard’s gun, and braved snipers to re-tie the company flag to a tree.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, joining the 38th U.S. Infantry during the Civil War under the male pseudonym William Cathay. Her story is a sad one as she contracted smallpox while traveling west on duty. 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; she was denied military disability payments and 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 George Patton. As a Southerner fighting for the Union side, the slander from the south was a weight that kept his name off the history books, despite his great military mind and success records.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.
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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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Jack Churchill was a WWII British Army officer that didn’t use a rifle or a tank to take down the enemy; he used his basket-hilted Scottish broadsword. As a commando, Churchill gained notoriety for charging into battle, playing the bagpipes, and throwing grenades. Even after capture and a stint at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (which he escaped) he continued his military escapades. He moved to British-occupied Palestine, coordinating rescue efforts for Jewish citizens who were under attack.Getty Images
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The Gestapo called Victoria Hall ‘the most dangerous of all Allied spies’ and it was of utmost importance to find the woman with a limp, which was from Hall’s use of a prosthetic leg. She was the first female operative of Britain’s Special Operations Executive to be sent into France, where she worked as an allied spy. She acted as a spy there for three years until she was forced to escape on foot through the Pyrenees Mountains. She 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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Pre-WWII, the Germans sent businessmen and commanders to China to train their military. John Rabe was a member of the Nazi party who saved hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives when the Japanese invaded in 1937. In one seldom-recounted moment in history, a Nazi was the hero. Rabe set up a safety zone that sheltered Chinese civilians from the enemy, while he pulled Japanese attackers off of women with only his Nazi Party badge as defense.Wikimedia Commons
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During his tour in WWII, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Urban earned seven Purple Hearts; finding himself critically injured time and time again but never willing to leave the battlefield or his men. Urban once left a hospital without permission, hitchhiked back to France, and re-joined his regiment to finish the 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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Major Richard (Dick) Bong was lucky to have a few nicknames; among them ‘the Deadliest American Pilot in WWII’ and the ‘ace-of-aces,’ earned after taking down his 40th enemy plane in late 1944. Bong was awarded the Medal of Honor, and chosen to test a P-80, the Army Air Forces' first jet. But on the same day that the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the P-80 stalled and Bong was forced to bail out at a low altitude, killing him. Aside from his war heroism, he is most known for his aerial antics, namely flying loops around the Golden Gate Bridge and buzzing neighborhoods so low that the force blew clothes off clotheslines.Wikimedia Commons
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Ruby Bradley started as a WWII surgical nurse when she was captured three weeks after Pearl Harbor and sent to a POW camp in Manila. Here she was the “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 stood at the front lines in the Korean War as chief nurse, narrowly escaping her surrounded facility after all injured persons were evacuated by plane. Wikimedia Commons
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For 29 years after WWII ended, the dedicated Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda hid out in the jungle of the Philippines and continued waging a war. Isolated and fiercely loyal, Onoda regarded any news of the war’s end as enemy propaganda. That is, until 1974 when a traveler encountered Onoda, who said he’d only believe that Japan had surrendered if he heard it from a superior officer. Authorities tracked down an officer and had him officially relieve 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
21 War Heroes And The Superhuman Stories That Put Them In The History Books
How do you define a hero? In war, the terms may be irreconcilably different than in everyday life. Situations arise where taking certain lives is imperative to saving others and often giving your own life for a cause makes you a hero.
Following orders from superiors that could result in your death but doing it anyway. Acting out of loyalty and dedication instead of self-serving means, above all, is probably a prerequisite. To act in spite of being afraid, instead of being void of fear.
Heroic World War II veteran William Carpenter told NBC, “You show me a man who says he was brave over there, and I’ll show you a liar. Every one of us was afraid. Even the Germans were afraid.”
However you define the title of hero, the label dares us to ask what we would do in situations such as these. Would we charge into blasts of battlefield gunfire to save our comrades? To save civilians that we'll never see again? Would we sign up for active duty in the first place?
There are many of us that wouldn't. But luckily, there are those among us courageous enough to take on the burden.
War is, of course, a morally complicated and politically messy ordeal. It challenges us to amend our thinking of who the real heroes are. Sometimes, the war heroes are just who we would expect like Desmond Doss -- someone who humbly saved multiple lives without ever taking one. Other times, the war heroes are the flying aces that bomb the enemy into oblivion - the enemy that would kill so many others if left unchallenged. It's the women who changed their entire identity just to be able to fight when their country told them they weren't allowed to.
Lastly, and most controversially, is it Hiroo Onoda? He obeyed his orders and respected his military training as all soldiers are expected to. This meant killing perceived enemies to survive and serve another day. He continued, unwavering and isolated, for three full decades after the war actually ended.
These men and women and their stories are certainly noble in their own ways, but ultimately, we all get to choose our own heroes. That's the beauty of it all.
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 published book covers in her career as a graphic artist.