Throughout history, heroes have served as role models. I grew up proud to be named after two great American heroes – Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion, who many say played a major role in the American Revolution by bedeviling the British with his guerilla attacks and giving George Washington time to get his troops ready for Cornwallis. I’m also named after Robert E. Lee, who some blame for not winning the War Between the States.
There have been so many great heroes – such as the 225 World War II U.S. Army Rangers who on June 4, 1945, scaled Pointe Du Hoc, a sheer 100-foot cliff overlooking Omaha and Utah beaches. Thousands of American soldiers on the beaches were being mowed down by Nazi machine gunners atop the bluff. The Rangers took the position, then without reinforcements or resupply for two days, fended off relentless German counterattacks. Only a handful survived by the time relief finally arrived. But thousands upon thousands of lives had been saved down on the beaches.
And then there are the Navajo “Windtalkers” who turned around the war in the Pacific when they volunteered to serve as communicators between the front lines and headquarters – making their reports in their native Diné dialect – thoroughly confounding the eavesdropping enemy – which targeted them for capture and torture, trying to break the complex U.S. “code” that was nothing but 400 very brave kids talking in the language of their grandfathers as the bullets whizzed by. Their story was a classified secret until 1968, but eventually the entire group was given Congressional Medals of Honor – although only 29 survived by the time the medal was finally awarded.
So, with so many heroes throughout history from which to choose, consider these nine. And ask yourself – which War Hero Am I?
Audie Murphy of Texas
The most decorated soldier in World War II was Audie Murphy with 1 Belgian medal, five French and 33 U.S. medals earned in 27 months of combat. After the war, Murphy went on to star in 44 movies. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, 17-year-old Murphy tried to enlist in the military, but was too young. Upon turning 18, he was declined by the Marines, Navy and the Army paratroopers as too short and underweight at 5 feet 5 and 110 pounds. The U.S. Army finally accepted him, but at boot camp while learning how to march, he passed out. His company commander tried to have him transferred to a cook and bakers' school but Murphy insisted on becoming a combat soldier.
In 1943 he was shipped out to Africa and he took part in the invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943. Shortly after arriving, Murphy was promoted to corporal after killing two escaping prisoners of war. On the Italian mainland, while leading a night patrol, Murphy and his men fought their way out of a German ambush, killed a squad of Nazi soldiers in and brought in several prisoners.
In France, Murphy's best friend, Lattie Tipton, was killed by a German machine gunner who feigned surrender. Murphy went into a rage and single-handedly wiped out the German machine gun crew, then used the German machine gun and grenades to destroy several other nearby enemy positions. During seven weeks of fighting in that campaign in France, Murphy's division suffered 4,500 casualties. He received two Silver Stars for heroic actions and was awarded a battlefield commission to second lieutenant, which elevated him to platoon leader, then company commander.
On January 26, Murphy's 128-man unit was reduced to 19. Murphy sent all of the survivors to the rear while he held off the Germans with his M1 carbine until he ran out of ammunition. He then climbed aboard an abandoned, burning M10 tank destroyer and used its .50 caliber machine gun to cut down one full squad of German infantry. He was able to call in artillery fire using a land-line telephone and, under heavy fire, was wounded in the leg. He nonetheless continued his nearly single-handed battle and only stopped fighting when his telephone line to the artillery fire direction center was cut by enemy artillery. He then organized a counter-attack which drove the enemy from Holtzwihr. When asked after the war why he had seized the machine gun and taken on an entire company of German infantry, he replied simply, "They were killing my friends." He received every U.S. decoration for valor available to Army ground personnel at the time. He earned the Silver Star twice in three days, two Bronze Star Medals, three Purple Hearts, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Sgt. Alvin York of Tennessee
“Alvin York was born in 1887 into a Tennessee farming family that didn't have much, but nobody else did, so it wasn't so bad,” writes author Peggy Noonan. “He was the third of 11 children and had an average life for that time and place. Then World War I came. He experienced a crisis of conscience over whether to fight. His mother's Evangelical church tugged him toward more or less pacifist thinking, but he got a draft notice in 1917, joined the Army, went overseas, read and reread his Bible, and concluded that warfare was sometimes justified.”
During the battle of the Argonne in October 1918, the allies were attempting to break German lines when York and his men came upon well-hidden machine guns on high ground. As he later put it, "The Germans got us, and they got us right smart . . . and I'm telling you they were shooting straight." American soldiers "just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home."
York and his men flanked the Germans, overran a unit, and captured the enemy. Suddenly he came under fire from a different machine gun on a nearby ridge and six Americans around him were killed. York, the Tennessee farmboy who had grown up hunting dinner for his family, remained cool and began to shoot. "All I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting. All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn't want to kill any more than I had to." The Germans surrendered and York marched 132 German prisoners back to the American lines.
His Congressional Medal of Honor citation called him fearless, daring and heroic.
“Warriors are funny people,” writes Noonan. “They're often naturally peaceable and often do great good when they return. York went home to Tennessee, married, founded an agricultural institute (it's still operating as an award-winning public high school) and a Bible school. They made a movie about him in 1941, the great Howard Hawks film "Sergeant York." If you are in Manhattan, walk down York Avenue on the Upper East Side. It was named for him. He died in Nashville in 1964 at 77.
Los Niños Héroes of Mexico City
If we are going to consider history’s great heroes, we cannot overlook Juan de la Barrera, Juan Escutia, Francisco Marquez, Agustin Melgar, Fernando Montes de Oca and Vicente Suarez. They are known to very Mexican schoolchild as “Los Infantes” or “Los Niños Héroes,” the little boy heroes. The youngest was 13. All were teenagers, military cadets in Mexico City. The Mexican-American War was in its final chapters. United States Marines were quickly advancing on Chapultepec Castle, Mexico’s national military academy.
Mexico’s General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna recognized the strategic advantage that Chapultepec Hill held. Rising some 200 feet above Mexico City, it was naturally fortified. However, American forces greatly outnumbered their Mexican counterparts, both in manpower, strategy and gunpowder.
When it became apparent that the American forces were triumphing, Santa Anna ordered a retreat to safety. The six young cadets refused and fled into the building – vowing to stay and defend their academy.
The Americans began a day-long artillery barrage against Chapultepec at dawn on September 12. On September 13 at first light, U.S. General Winfield Scott ordered a charge.
To the southwest, 40 Marines led the storming party. However, the boys in the castle put down withering fire and the storming party stalled. George Pickett (later famous for "Pickett's Charge" and the Battle of Five Forks during the American Civil War) was the first American to top the wall of the fort. General Shields was severely wounded, but his troops managed to raise the U.S.
The six young heroes were led by 19-year-old Lt. Juan de la Barrera – and fought to the death. According to legend, the last of the six, Juan Escutia, grabbed the Mexican flag, wrapped it around himself and jumped off the castle’s tower to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.
The six died that September day, defending their school and their country, their sacrifice forever etched into Mexico’s history.
Tadeusz Kościuszko of Poland
Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko was born in 1746 in the village of Mereczowszczyzna, near the present-day town of modern-day Kosava, Belarus – but then a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1765 Poland's King Stanisław August Poniatowski created a Corps of Cadets and Kościuszko joined, graduating as a captain. In 1768, civil war broke out. Rather than choose sides, Kościuszko set off for Paris, but was rejected by the French army as well as the Prussian and Saxons, so he sailed to America, saying that upon reading the Declaration of Independence, he was so moved – because it encompassed everything in which he believed – that he resolved to meet Thomas Jefferson. They became close friends and Kościuszko was put to work in the American army. His excellent judgment and meticulous attention to detail at Saratoga received great praise. Dr. Benjamin Rush reported "...the great tacticians of the campaign were hills and forests, which a young Polish engineer was skillful enough to select.”
Thereafter, Kościuszko was regarded as one of the best American engineers. George Washington took notice, tasking him with the command of improving the defense of West Point. During the course of the war, he was placed in charge of constructing camps, river crossings, fortified positions – and was in charge of developing intelligence contacts. During the famous "Race to the Dan River," when exhausted British troops chased the Americans through 200 miles of rough backcountry terrain in the dead of winter, the Continentals safely crossed each stream safely – thanks to Kościuszko’s advance work. British General Cornwallis, having no boats and finding no way to cross the swollen Dan, withdrew back into North Carolina.
Commanding U.S. forces in the Battle of James Island on November 14, 1782, Kościuszko was nearly killed, but was among the first Continental troops to reoccupy Charleston, S.C. After seven years of faithful, uninterrupted service to the American cause, on October 13, 1783, he was promoted to brigadier general, received American citizenship and was given by Congress a grant of land near Columbus, Ohio. When he died, he left his property to be used to buy the freedom of black slaves.
George Vujnovich of New York
In the summer of 1944, the U.S. Army Air Corps undertook a series of missions to Romania to attack Hitler's oil fields -- and the Nazis sent up anti-aircraft fire that downed hundreds of American bombers. Many of the surviving airmen were retrieved by a group of Serbian resistance fighters called the Chetniks.
The Chetniks hated Nazis, but didn’t think much of Americans either, so put them into prison camps. The U.S. Army sent George Vujnovich, a New Yorker with Serbian roots, to negotiate for their release. He masterminded a huge operation codenamed "Halyard Mission," during which 512 airmen were escorted out of Nazi territory by the militia of war-hardened Serbs – which Vujnovich won over to the American side.
He was awarded the Bronze Star for his efforts. "I feel deeply satisfied," said Vujnovich. "Not for myself, but for men who gave their lives to save these airmen."
Chiune Sugihara of Japan
During World War II, Japanese Consul-General Chiune Sugihara and his wife Yukiko were assigned to Berlin. They saw first-hand how bad things were getting for the Jews and decided to get involved. Unfortunately the Japanese government had formed the Axis with Germany and fascist Italy – and refused permission for Chiune to issue visas to Jews to get them out of harm's way.
So, he did it anyway, in direct disobedience to his superiors. The Nazis became furious – but Chiune and his wife started issuing Japanese visas around the clock, blazing through them like no bureaucrats in history. Although they were forced to flee the country, Sugihara continued issuing visas and throwing them out his train window as it pulled away.In the end, it's estimated he and his wife saved the lives of up to 6,000 Jews – which is noteworthy when you consider that Oskar Schindler's list is estimated to have saved 801.
When he arrived back in Japan, his government threw him out of government service. The Japanese only begrudgingly apologized to his family in October of 2000, acknowledging that in the Japanese tradition of Samurai, Chiune had served as a brave warrior of conscience – despite the personal toll.
Deborah Sampson of New England
Deborah Sampson fought bravely in George Washington’s Continental Army, pretending to be a man. She was born in 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts, but her family’s terrible poverty forced her into indentured servanthood as a teen. By the time she was 21, the American Revolution had broken out and she was determined to join the fight.
Although most women worked at home, in hospitals or in other support roles, she made herself a man’s suit of clothes and enlisted as “Robert Shurtleff” in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment. She kept her true identity secret by what one historian has called “artful concealment of her sex.” Her fellow soldiers simply thought she was late bloomer -- a whiskerless lad in his late teens!
U.S. military records show she was wounded twice in raids along the Hudson. In a skirmish near Tarrytown, she suffered a sword cut to the head. At East Chester she took a bullet in her thigh that left her a permanent scar.
She cared for her own wounds in order to prevent detection. She was not discovered until 1782 when serving as a general’s orderly near Philadelphia, she became sick with fever and lost consciousness. An attending physician learned that the infantryman under his care was actually a female. She received an honorable discharge and soon after married farmer Benjamin G. Gannet. She raised three children before putting her army uniform back on in the 1790’s to become America’s “first woman lecturer.”
At a time when it was extremely unusual for a woman to speak before a mixed male and female audience, she toured the nation and told of her adventures in the War for American Independence.
Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson
Admiral Lord Nelson is considered the greatest British military hero of all time. The naval leader, who became a national icon after his death in the battle of Trafalgar, recently topped a British poll covering more than 800 years of British military history, beating even Richard the Lionheart.
Nelson pulled off an audacious victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 when he sailed his ships between the shore and an unprepared French fleet expecting an attack from the opposite direction. Three years later Nelson, who had lost his right eye and arm in combat, destroyed the Danish navy at Copenhagen after ignoring a signal from his superiors to disengage by placing a telescope to his blind eye and remarking: "I really do not see the signal."
His finest hour came in 1805 when he destroyed the combined French-Spanish Fleet at Trafalgar.
The Armada numbered the most ships of the line ever assembled for a naval battle. Napoleon Bonaparte planned to sail into the English Channel and invade Britain.
In the pitched battle, a cannon ball struck and killed Nelson's aide, John Scott. His clerk took over, but he, too, was almost immediately killed. Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, led the assault. With the ship’s wheel blown away by enemy cannon fire, his captain asked Nelson which ship to engage first. Nelson told him to take his pick – and the British fleet proceeded to destroy the Armada.
Nelson was a brilliant naval commander and a charismatic leader. He died in that decisive battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805, but hung on long enough to know that he had achieved victory.
The Battle of Trafalgar put an end to Napoleon's plans for the invasion of Britain and ensured British dominance of the world's oceans for the rest of the 19th century.
Tecumseh of Ohio
Born in 1768, Tecumseh grew up during the American Revolutionary War and the Northwest Indian War, where he was constantly exposed to warfare. With whites continuing to encroach on Shawnee territory after the British ceded the Ohio Valley to the new United States in 1783, the tribe moved further northwest. In 1808, they settled in present-day Indiana. His father was Puckshinwa, a Shawnee war chief, the son of a Muscogee warrior who settled among the Shawnee. At the time they married, their tribe was living somewhere near modern Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
“As Pucksinwah stared at the sky on this night,” writes author Alan King, “he saw a huge meteor streak across from the north, leaving a trail of greenish-white flame. It lasted for fully 20 seconds and was unlike anything he had ever seen before. This was the Panther spirit that the old men sometimes spoke of, and a good sign indeed. As the women around the fire talked excitedly and pointed to the heavens, a baby's cry came from the shelter. Usually a child was not named for several days while the parents waited for a sign to indicate what the great spirit Moneto wished the child to be called, but this child must surely be named Tecumseh, "The Panther Passing Across.” At age 15, Tecumseh joined a band of Shawnee determined to stop the white invasion of their lands. Tecumseh became a warrior and in one historic 1811 meeting, he was widely quoted among the tribes as declaring, "Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mochican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man. Sleep not longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws. Will not the bones of our dead be plowed up, and their graves turned into plowed fields?"
In September 1809, future U.S. President William Henry Harrison, who was then governor of the newly formed Indiana Territory, negotiated the Treaty of Fort Wayne in which a delegation of Indians ceded 3 million acres of Native American lands to the United States.
Tecumseh denounced the treaty and began to travel widely, urging warriors to join him in resistance, declaring, "No tribe has the right to sell land, even to each other, much less to strangers. Sell a country!? Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Didn't the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?" Tecumseh rallied the largest confederacy of native American tribes and sided with the British in the War of 1812. He joined British Major-General Sir Isaac Brock in capturing Detroit. At one point in the battle, as the British advanced to a point just out of range of Detroit's guns, Tecumseh had his 400 warriors parade out from a nearby wood and circle back around to repeat the maneuver, making it appear that there were many more warriors than was actually the case. The fort commander, U.S. Brigadier General William Hull, surrendered in fear of a massacre.
British commander Major-General Henry Procter, wanted to honor Tecumseh for his help and gave Tecumseh a sash, offering him the rank of brigadier general in the British army. Tecumseh refused and gave the sash away. On October 5, 1813, the Americans defeated the British and Tecumseh’s confederation at the Battle of the Thames, near Moraviantown, Ohio. Tecumseh was killed and his great confederation collapsed. Today the U.S. Naval Academy’s Tecumseh Court is located outside Bancroft Hall's front entrance and features a bust of the great warrior. It was actually originally meant to represent Tamanend, an Indian chief from the 17th century, but the Academy's midshipmen preferred the more warlike Tecumseh and the new name persisted.
Four ships of the United States Navy have borne the name USS Tecumseh. The last was a James Madison-class ballistic missile submarine, commissioned in 1964 and decommissioned in 1993. In Canada, Tecumseh is honored as a hero and military commander who played a major role in Canada's successful repulsion of an American invasion in the War of 1812, which, among other things, eventually led to Canada's becoming a separate nation. A number of U.S. towns are named in his honor in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Union Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, was given his middle name because of his father’s admiration for the great Shawnee leader and warrior.