It takes guts to be a solider, particularly one facing down the enemy on the front lines. Thankfully, both World Wars are in the past, though there are plenty of conflicts going on in the world today. Still, there have been a huge amount of opportunities throughout history for soldiers to earn a name for themselves – gaining a distinct reputation that sets them head and shoulders above even their own comrades in arms.
Hollywood excels at making war movies, with all the explosions and heart-wrenching moments they can muster. But there’s always one thing that draws us to watch those movies: the brave, strong, and badass leading man, who can take out the enemy single-handedly while shrugging off injuries as if they were nothing more than slight inconveniences. They walk away from explosions, take shots to the hand and carry on firing, and charge the enemy alone with no fear.
Of course, all of that is nothing compared to the real world, where there’s no such thing as a super-soldier who can perform those kind of feats. Or is there? As these 20 men and women demonstrate, it turns out that it is possible to do things you might consider far-fetched in a Hollywood script, and even live to tell the tale. It doesn’t matter whether you fly a plane, drive a tank, or go out screaming with a gun or a sword. It doesn’t matter how high the odds are stacked against you. You just have to be as extraordinarily badass as they were.
These days you wouldn’t get away with a racially based nickname like The Black Death, but that’s what they called African-American Private Johnson during WWI. During the midnight to 4am patrol, in 1918, he and one friend were attacked by a German raiding party. His friend was wounded by shrapnel, and Johnson took bullets and stabbings to his head, face, arm, and side, even while returning fire. Then his gun jammed. He started using the rifle as a club instead. When the Germans tried to take his friend prisoner, he took out a knife and started hacking away, grabbing his friend even as he was shot in the arm. He drove off the Germans alone for one hour until reinforcements arrived, at which point he collapsed. He was given a victory parade in New York City, as well as a Croix de Guerre from France. The Purple Heart wouldn’t follow until long after his death in 1929.
During WWII, Vlug was serving in the Philippines. In 1941, he was helping man a roadblock when a group of Japanese tanks rolled up. Vlug ran out into the open and took up a rocket launcher, then sent a rocket to blow up the first tank – all while under machine gun fire. If that wasn’t badass enough, he then reloaded and fired again – but not until after shooting one man, who had dismounted from the tank, with his pistol. He used every single rocket at his disposal to take out an enemy tank. The last one even got blasted down a steep embankment as a bonus. Apparently, that just wasn’t the right day to try to mess with Dirk J. Vlug. Even while under heavy fire from all of the tanks and gunners, he never paused, reloading again and again until the threat was neutralized – and all this from simply a private.
Back in 1701, one man was setting the trend for badassery before there was even a word for it. Admiral John Benbow was fighting for the British against the French during the War of the Spanish Succession, and his fleet came up against some French warships. They naturally started firing at one another, exchanging fire until night, and then the French decided to make a run for it in the morning. Benbow’s colleagues weren’t eager to make chase, so he went after them with just his own ship – for five days of battle. He managed to capture one warship, but then was hit by a blast of cannon chain shot. This shattered his leg painfully. His response? He had his bed brought up onto the deck so he could still oversee the battle. He only gave up when it became clear his support ships were not going to join the fight, and returned to port to court-martial his officers.
Have you ever seen someone jump on a grenade in a movie and survive it, without it turning out to be a trick or a dud? Well, while you wouldn’t believe it happening on screen, it’s exactly what happen to Michael J. Fitzmaurice. He was returning from guard duty to his bunker when North Vietnamese suicide bombers came in, throwing 3 grenades into the bunker. Fitzmaurice was quick enough to throw 2 of them back outside, but there was nothing to do about the third: he jumped on it and covered it with his flak jacket, hoping to at least save the lives of the other men inside. Although he survived, the shrapnel wounded him badly, leaving him partially deaf and blind. Nevertheless, he ran outside to begin shooting, until a fourth grenade destroyed his rifle. He then managed to kill one armed enemy combatant with just his bare hands.
In 1999, Yogendra Singh Yadav was a member of the Indian troops fighting against Pakistan and his target was three enemy bunkers situated at the top of a mountain. Said mountain presented a hundred-foot wall of solid ice, which meant climbing with pickaxes and risking death every step of the way. Yadav volunteered to go first, fixing ropes in place so that his fellow soldiers could follow. Halfway up, the Pakistani troops starting shooting. Yadav was hit three times and most of his squad was killed. When he reached the top, he ran through machine-gun fire to throw a grenade in through the window of the first bunker, killing everyone inside. Then he tackled the second bunker, again taking multiple hits, before he got inside and killed the four men there with his bare hands. He had a broken leg, shattered arm, and as much as 15 bullets in him when his fellow troops took the third bunker. He was awarded with the Param Vir Chakra, a medal so highly valued that only 21 people have ever received it – two thirds posthumously. Yadav, however, survived.
The commander of the USS Johnston was facing the Battle of Leyte Gulf, as it would come to be known, in 1944. It was the largest such battle in WWII, and was a poor situation for the US ships from the start. Guard ships had been lured away by a decoy Japanese fleet, leaving unarmed troop transports with just a few destroyers and planes for protection. The USS Johnston was one of those destroyers. Evans decided to lead his ship into a full-blown attack on the Japanese fleet, totally alone. He managed to get numerous hits on the much larger ships, ranging up and down with the advantage of speed. Finally, with no ammo left, they were hit by a Japanese ship. The impact was enough to wound Evans, singe his hair, and even blow his clothes away. He had his men steer the ship, using the rudder by hand, directly at the Japanese. As the ship went down, even the Japanese sailors saluted him. As a result, they were intimidated enough to call off the attack, saving the other troops’ lives.
As anyone who has looked into WWII can tell you, any man who flew a plane during that time was a hero just for having the courage to get up in the air. In 1940, Churchill was doing his best to rally his troops, as things weren’t going so well. Nicolson heard his speech, and took the words to heart. That August, he was fighting against German bombers attacking his homeland, when a Messerchmitt fighter caught him. The cannon fire tore his Hurricane to shreds and injured him in the legs, and also happened to set the plane on fire. Specifically, the cockpit area. He also had a gash on his forehead that was bleeding into his eyes and blinding him, if that wasn’t enough, and his instruments panel was melting in the heat. He was ready to parachute out when he remembered Churchill, and took the fight back to the German plane. He shot it down from the sky while literally on fire, and bailed out only when he was sure the job was done. As he came down from his plane, still burning, he was shot with friendly fire by ground forces who assumed he was a German. He survived, even as the face of his watch melted off in the heat.
US soldier Millett started his WWII career by deserting from the US Army to join the Canadian one, since the US hadn’t yet joined the fight. After Pearl Harbour, he returned to the US Army, which is where his badass moves started. In 1942, he jumped into a burning truck full of ammunition and drove it away from his fellow soldiers, then jumped back out before it exploded a safe distance away. He taught his men to use bayonets as he had learned the Chinese thought Americans were afraid of them. Then in 1951, he led them into battle and used the bayonets so efficiently that the enemy combatants simply fled. A few nights later he did the same thing again. He was awarded several medals for his insistence on charging headfirst into the action, taking on as many enemies as he could – and coming out on top each time.
It was 2003, the early days of the Iraq War. Chontosh was guarding a convoy when it was ambushed, attacks coming from the irrigation ditches. Bullets and grenades started to fly in the air around them. His Humvee went straight into the ditch and Chontosh climbed out with the rest of his men, starting to fight enemy soldiers immediately. His M16 jammed, so he swapped with a fellow soldier and fired until he was out of ammo. Then he started taking AK-47s from dead enemies and firing them until they ran out of ammo. Then he found an RPG launcher. The obvious choice was to set it off and he cleared 650 feet of trench in one shot. He took out 20 enemies and wounded more, earning himself the Navy Cross for his efforts. Like a true badass, he insists that the credits should be given to the men who gave him covering fire during his rampage.
Jay Zeamer’s crew were all outcasts, people who no one else wanted to work with. So when it came to getting a plane to fly, they were at the bottom of the list. No matter; there was a plane no one wanted either, an old B-17 with a tail number that ended in 666, a beaten-up old vehicle jokingly named Old 666. So they took it, and filled it with lots of extra machine guns, and started taking the missions no one else wanted. While most dogfights in WWII lasted a few minutes at most, one of theirs in 1943 lasted for 45 – with 17 enemy fighter planes after them. This ragtag bunch were doing recon work, flying a poorly manoeuvrable plane, and facing ridiculous odds. Jay took shrapnel through his arms, legs, and wrists – fairly essential equipment for flying. His forward gunner started bleeding to death. The rudder, hydraulics, and oxygen systems were shot up. They had to plunge 3 miles down in 40 seconds, then evade the enemy. Finally, the Japanese left because they ran out of fuel. Zeamer and his crew had made it, taking out 5 enemy planes and completing their mission along the way. The medics even thought Zeamer was dead when they returned to base, but he survived to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Milunka Savic had to disguise herself as a man to join the Serbian army at the outbreak of WWI, taking her brother’s place. At the Battle of Kolubara, she ran alone through no-man’s land with a good supply of grenades, then jumped into the Austrian trenches and captured 20 soldiers with just a bayonet. During the Battle of Crna Reka, she snuck off for a toilet break, then came back to the wrong trench by accident. She captured the 23 Bulgarian troops she found there instantly. She fought through the whole First Balkan War and became a corporal before she was wounded and taken to a field hospital, her secret finally coming out. Her superiors wanted her to switch to being a nurse, so she just stood in front of their building until they changed her minds. She became the most decorated female soldier of all time and was wounded 9 times. When the war ended, she had a daughter, and also took in 3 war orphans.
How many working limbs would you suggest you need to win a fight? 4? Well, John P Bobo disagrees. During the Vietnam War, his troops were sent on a mission, but were ambushed and hit by a Vietnamese troop in return. They blew off his right leg with a mortar round, so Bobo tied a web belt around the remains to stop it from bleeding, then stuck it into the ground so that the bleeding would slow long enough for him to take some enemy soldiers with him. He had his men place him in a tactical position so he could fire, and then proceeded to rain devastation on the Vietnamese as well as inspiration on his men. They ended up lasting long enough to hold the enemy at bay until they could get into a protective position and then repel the attack. Bobo received a Medal of Honor for his bravery.
One of the great facets of Captain America’s story is how he used to be a small, weak man until he gained his superhero abilities and used them to be a super-soldier. But Audie Murphy didn’t need any of that. Even though he was 5’5”, 110 pounds, and, well, 16, he joined the Army in 1942. He was quickly promoted, but also caught malaria, which he continued to suffer from. At one stage, a German machine gun crew shot down Murphy’s best friend, so he raged out and killed everyone in the machine gun nest as well as two more nests and some snipers nearby. Later, he was with just 19 men and 2 tanks when they were attacked by the Germans, and the tanks were quickly crippled and set alight. Murphy wouldn’t be beaten. He jumped into the flaming tank and started firing. He kept going until he ran out of bullets, then walked back to join his men – right as the tank exploded behind him. He was given 33 medals in all for his time in service. Then he played himself, in a movie about him and his exploits, which was the highest-grossing Universal film up to Jaws.
In 1943, Scott and his men were sent to the Solomon Islands to capture an airstrip from the Japanese army. It seemed like a simple mission, but the terrain was rough and covered with hidden guard posts. They travelled only 7 miles in almost a month. But finally, they were close – just when hidden soldiers sprang out to charge at them. The rest of the men turned and ran, leaving Scott alone. He took cover behind a tree stump and fired with his carbine until it, and a large part of his hand, were shot away. Then he took shrapnel to the head. So instead of giving in, he started throwing grenades at the enemy, hitting their dugouts. He carried on for 30 minutes alone until his men finally rejoined him. He threw 30 grenades; they found 28 dead men in the dugouts. His accuracy record was absolutely astonishing, particularly under fire and badly wounded.
It’s fairly impressive to find a woman who can be as badass a soldier as most men. It’s even more impressive when that woman is still one of the top 10 deadliest snipers of all time. This Soviet Union fighter has a confirmed count of 309 sniper kills. 36 of those were enemy snipers. Want to compare that to Hollywood movies? She’s killed more people than Sylvester Stallone did on screen in all of his movies combined. The longest duel she ever had with a sniper lasted more than 3 days, and she still managed to beat him. Imagine sitting still and quiet in the cold of the Soviet Union, just waiting and watching, looking for the tell, knowing someone out there was doing the same for her. Knowing that whoever cracked first would die. She became a diplomat and was the first Soviet citizen to be welcomed into the White House, and was a women’s rights advocate, even going on tour with Eleanor Roosevelt to promote equal treatment.
Jack Churchill was also known as “Mad Jack,” which gives you a good starting point for his character. He was an allied commander during WWII who claimed that an officer should never go into action without a sword, and so he took up carrying a claymore into battle. In WWII. You can see him wielding it in the photograph above. He signed up for commando duty and one night he captured 42 Germans as well as a mortar squad with his sword. Next he was sent to take the German Point 622. He did so with glee, charging far ahead of the rest of his team – who all ended up being killed, to a man - and throwing grenades left and right as he swung into action. That was unfortunately the end of his rampage, as without his team to back him up he was eventually captured by the Germans – not that he seemed phased by it, playing the bagpipes he had managed to carry with him as they approached. He was put into a concentration camp, but escaped. After getting caught again, he then escaped – again. He walked 150 miles to try to get back to the war, only to find out it had ended while he was making his way across country, with only a can of onions to eat. By all accounts, he was disappointed at the news.
This Finnish farmer probably didn’t seem like much of a threat when the Soviet Union invaded his country in 1939. Then again, they probably didn’t know that he had already served the mandatory year in the military when he was younger, or that he had an ingenious plan that didn’t involve signing back up. Instead, he climbed into a tree with his rifle and a few cans of food, in conditions that were between 20 and 40 degrees below zero. Then he sat, and waited for the Russians to come to him across 6 feet deep snow, and took them out one by one. He wore a white outfit so that he wouldn’t stand out, and soon became a special target, with Russian soldiers referring to him as "The White Death." First a task force went after him, and he gunned them down. Then a team of counter-snipers were sent, and he killed them all, too. With an SMG alongside his rifle, he personally took out 705 enemy soldiers. Despite being hit with shrapnel, and shot in the head with an exploding bullet he lived – waking up in hospital the very day the war ended.
In 1917, Alvin York wasn’t keen on going to war. He even tried to be a conscientious objector, but it didn’t work, and he ended up being put on a task force of 17 men to take out a machine-gun encampment near a German railroad. 9 of them were shot down as they approached, and the rest ran – except for Alvin. He was then facing 32 heavy machine gunners alone. He lay down on the ground to make a smaller target and killed around 20 men right off. When a group of 5 Germans snuck around to take him from the side, he used his Colt .45 to shoot them all down – impressive, with only 8 bullets. After this, a brief exchange between the German commander and himself convinced the 133 men to surrender to him. They were so stunned to learn that he was an American soldier, having heard that the Americans were less experienced, that they decided to simply hand themselves in.
This US Army officer was named as the most decorated soldier in US history in 1989, so you can guess this is going to be a good one. He was actually called “The Ghost” by German soldiers in WWII because he seemed to come back no matter what they could throw at him. In one skirmish, he blew up 2 tanks with a bazooka before being hit in the leg, but carried on fighting until he was hit again the next day. They evacuated him to an English hospital, but he broke out to hitchhike to Normandy and rejoin his men. He was so badly injured he needed a cane to walk, but he took up an exposed machine gun position anyway and helped save his men from a situation where the Germans had them pinned down. He then took shrapnel to the chest a few days later, and then got shot in the neck. All he lost in this battle was his voice, rather than his life. He led his men to victory and lived for a further 51 years.
Benjamin F Wilson was already a WWII veteran when he enlisted in the Korean War. He had to take a demotion from Lieutenant to private to do so, but he quickly rose back through the ranks. In 1951 he was put in charge of protecting a place that they called Hell Hill, and he knew that an attack was coming, but he remained with his men. He took a bullet to the leg and then went into a one-man charge to kill 7 and wound 2 Chinese soldiers alone. His men tried to take him for medical treatment, but when his stretcher was put down, he got up and limped back up the hill… just as everyone else was retreating. He charged alone with his rifle, killing 3 enemies. Then they took his rifle, so he killed 4 more with his entrenching shovel. The Chinese retreated, for a while. The next day Wilson went on a one-man assault again to take down 33 more enemy soldiers, despite his existing wounds. This was a guy that just wouldn’t be held down.