1. Desmond Doss: Non-combatant who rescued 75 men, one at a time, while under fire
Desmond Doss’ religion forbade him from carrying a gun or threatening another human life, which was very inconvenient when he was drafted into the Second World War. So Doss was a conscientious objector, placed as a non-combatant, and was the target of ridicule from the other soldiers. He was serving as a field medic in Okinawa when the Japanese attacked his unit on top of a cliff, cutting down nearly every man. Doss quickly rigged up a stretcher that could be lowered by a series of ropes and pulleys to the ground below. Then, by himself and under fire, he retrieved each soldier in his unit one at a time and lowered them to safety. President Truman said it was 75 men that Doss pulled to safety when he presented him the Medal of Honor (above), but Doss insists it was closer to 50. That was only one instance of astonishing bravery and self-sacrifice Doss displayed throughout his military service. His story is told in the documentary The Conscientious Objector.
2. Rukhsana Kausar: 21-Year-Old Woman Who Fought and Killed Militants Who Attacked Her and Her Family
Rukhsana was 21 when three armed men came to her parents' farm in Jammu, India. One of the militants had come to marry Rukhsana against her will, and when her parents resisted, he began beating them mercilessly. Rukhsana and her older brother were hiding under the bed on her parents' orders, but did not stay there for long. Says Rukhsana, “I thought I should try the bold act of encountering militants before dying."
She and her brother grabbed axes and charged Osama. Rukhsana grabbed him by the hair, smashed his head against the wall, struck him with the axe, and then grabbed his assault rifle and fatally shot him. She exchanged gunfire with the remaining terrorists until they retreated. (It should be noted that Rukhsana’s brother, Eijaz, was very much a participant in these brave acts. Most of the world’s press found it less newsworthy that a 19-year-old man would defend his family, and focused on the unexpected prowess of a young woman.)
3. Irena Sendler: Saved 2500 children from the Nazis
There are endless examples of courage buried in the ruins of the Holocaust, but Irena Sendler's story stands out. When the Nazis invaded her native Poland and rounded up all the Jews into a walled-in ghetto, Sendler knew what was going to happen. She was a social worker and got credentials as a nurse so she could sneak food and medicine into the ghetto. What she snuck out was even more phenomenal: It’s estimated that Sendler and her group helped get approximately 2500 children out of the ghetto—sedated and placed in the bottom of toolboxes or lying in burlap sacks at the bottom of her truck—and sent them through a network of likeminded comrades to Christian orphanages, where they were given new identities. She kept their real names in a jar buried in her backyard.
Sendler was eventually caught by the Nazis, who imprisoned and tortured her, breaking both of her legs. When the war ended she devoted herself to reuniting children with their families, though it proved nearly impossible to do so.
4. The Elderly Fukushima Volunteers: Willing to expose themselves to high radiation to save younger men
Even after the worst of the Fukushima nuclear disaster had been contained, there was a massive amount of cleanup and containment remaining to be done. Yasuteru Yamada, a 72-year old engineer and cancer survivor, felt terrible as he watched young men being doused in radiation day after day as they tried to neutralize the damage. So he started the Skilled Veterans Corps, a volunteer force of elderly Japanese engineers and other helpers to take the place of the young. He gathered 400 volunteers almost immediately.
The elderly volunteers accepted that their work at the plant may take years off their lives and subject them, after a period of time, to severe illness. But, as Yamada said, "I am 72 and on average I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live. Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years or longer to develop. Therefore us older ones have less chance of getting cancer."
5. Sir Ernest Shackleton: Fought Antarctica and Won
Shackleton (second from left) via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Shackleton had wanted to discover the South Pole, but was beaten to that distinction. Instead, he decided to be the first man to cross the continent of Antarctica by boat (which was possible to do during the Antarctic summer). Unfortunately, the crew of Shackleton’s Endurance ran out of summer, and their ship became permanently frozen in the polar ice. Though the crew was able to wait out most of the winter, the Endurance didn’t. She sank, leaving the crew stranded on an ice floe. To make matters worse, the ship had drifted 1200 miles off course while stranded.
Shackleton packed his crew into three life boats as the ice under them began to melt, and got them safely to Elephant Island. Although Elephant Island was solid ground, it was still uninhabited and far from trade routes. Shackelton loaded four of the most necessary crew into an open-air life boat and set off for a whaling station 800 miles away. He refused to pack for more than four weeks, knowing that if the journey took longer they’d be dead anyway. The boat reached South Georgia but landed on the side opposite the whaling station. The water was too dangerous, so Shackleton took two of his men and made a 36 hour trek over a snowy mountain range to the whaling station. From there he organized the rescue of all his men, without a single fatality among his crew.
6. Juliane Koepcke: A 17-year-old girl who survived a plane crash and walked out of the Amazon
Sometimes it takes extreme courage just to survive. On Christmas Eve of 1971, 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke boarded a plane with her mother in Peru with the intent of flying to meet her father at his research station in the Amazon rainforest. Lightning struck the plane and tore off a wing, causing the plane to crash. All 92 of her fellow passengers died, but Juliane stayed strapped to a row of seats, falling until she plummeted through the jungle canopy. Somehow, she survived.
After failing to find her mother and other survivors, Juliane relied on what she’d been taught by her parents (both famous zoologists). She grabbed a bag of candy she’d found and started walking down a stream. Her father once told her that walking downstream will eventually lead to civilization, and for 10 days Juliane walked or floated through the water. Her wounds became infected and she was besieged by maggots, while having to dodge crocodiles, piranhas, and merciless insects. She found the corpses of other victims as she went, making sure each wasn’t her mother before continuing on. Eventually she came to a shack and a boat. Not wanting to steal the boat, she holed up in the shack and was found by Peruvian lumberjacks. She was eventually reunited with her father.
7. Witold Pilecki: Broke into and out of Auschwitz
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Pilecki may be the only person to purposefully get himself incarcerated in Auschwitz during WWII. As a resistance fighter in conquered Poland, Pilecki arranged to be arrested and sent to the concentration camp. He spent two years there, gathering evidence to convince the Allies that Germans where not running typical prisons. He transmitted information about the staggering number of deaths in the camp via the Polish Resistance, smuggling out dispatches in the laundry. It was partially because of Pilecki that the Allies understood the urgency of their liberation movement. He escaped in 1943 by overpowering a night guard with two other Polish comrades. Despite being a war hero, Pilecki was executed by the Russian Secret Police a few years after the war ended, as a consequence of having remained loyal to the exiled non-communist Polish government.
8. Jacklyn H. Lucas: Jumped on two grenades and survived
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Lucas’s first display of courage was signing up for the Marines during WWII—at the age of 14. He was patrolling Iwo Jima ravines when the Japanese attacked, throwing two grenades directly onto Lucas’s position. Lucas shoved one grenade into the ash, laid himself over it, and then grabbed the second grenade and pulled it underneath himself as well. Lucas somehow survived; he underwent 26 surgeries and retained 250 pieces of shrapnel in his body for the rest of his life. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman.
9. John Rabe: The Nazi Who Protected 200,000 Chinese from the Rape of Nanking
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
In 1937, the Japanese Army wrought an unprecedented slaughter of Chinese citizens in what is remembered as The Rape of Nanking. Some estimate hundreds of thousands of Chinese were murdered, tortured, and raped as the Japanese Army laid waste to the city. All but a handful of Western missionaries fled Nanking, as well as John Rabe. Rabe was a German businessman who stayed and organized the Nanking Safety Zone to shelter and protect refugees.
Rabe opened up his own properties as sanctuaries for the Chinese, as well as all foreign embassies and Nanking University. The Japanese respected this safe zone because Rabe was a member of the Nazi party and officially represented Germany, which was in the early stages of forming the Axis powers with Japan. It is estimated Rabe saved the lives of between 200,000 and 250,000 Chinese refugees.
10. Anthony Omari: Fought Off Machete-Wielding Attackers While Defending an Orphanage
The Faraja Children's Home in Ngong, Kenya is a refuge of order and kindness in a dangerous place. It sheltered 37 boys and girls who had been orphaned or abandoned and was run by Anthony Omari and his mother. Omari was the only grown man on the premises and had chased off raiders many times. Soon, the criminals realized it was Omari they had to dispose of first.
One day, Omari woke to find three men standing over his bed. Omari reached under his bed, grabbed his hammer, and took on all three of the intruders, who were armed with machetes, at once. He backed them out of the orphanage and into the yard, screaming wildly to intimidate them and to warn the children. When he turned back to see if the children were safe, he was struck with a machete. But Omari kept fighting, and eventually drove the attackers back far enough to return to the orphanage and lock all the doors. Penn State student Ben Hardwick was working at a nearby facility, and shared Omari’s story with Reddit. A request from Hardwick for $2000 in donations to build a bigger fence resulted in $65,000 worth of donations to the Faraja Children’s Home.
11. Sgt. Stubby: Hero Dog of WWI
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
I love my dog, but if she hears fireworks, rustling paper, or the sound of a broom, she runs and hides. Not so with Stubby, a little stray bull terrier found by J. Robert Conroy and smuggled into the 102nd Infantry during WWI. Sgt. Stubby was originally intended to just be a mascot (he could do a little salute!), but soon proved far more useful. After suffering a mustard gas attack, Stubby became ultra-sensitive to its odor and was able to run through the trenches, barking and biting soldiers awake before an attack. The dog could locate wounded Americans on the battlefield by listening for the specific sounds of English amid the fracas. He’d stay and bark until the medics came, or lead the soldiers back to the trench.
Once, when a new soldier in the trench called to him, Stubby’s ears went flat and he charged. The man ran, and Stubby bit him on the leg, causing him to fall. Stubby kept attacking until soldiers came. The man he bit had been a German spy who was mapping out the trenches. Eventually, Stubby was injured and unable to return to the front line. He spent the rest of the war on duty in the hospital, improving the morale of the wounded men. By the end of WWI he’d been in 17 battles. Sgt. Stubby lived out the rest of his life comfortably with his master, Conroy.