Despite what it looks like in video games, war is not fun. War is hell, to coin a familiar term. War is full of uncertainty, fear, frustration, and sadness. World War II was no exception. Lasting six years, 1939-1945, it’s not considered a lengthy war in the annals of history, but to the men and women in the thick of it, it seemed to last forever. World War II was full of soldiers, all ordinary people, performing extraordinary feats of bravery, luck, and skill. It is no wonder those who fought in that war are considered our “Greatest Generation.”
Even when the war was still in its infancy, Hollywood was struggling to depict it accurately on screen. To this day, they rarely get it right. It’s hard for a war film to correctly depict the carnage and courage of the battlefield, without resorting to a bit of cheesy heroism. I mean, have you seen the Rambo films? Could one man, even a special ops commando, really take out a whole platoon of enemy soldiers? Well, actually yes, they could. And they did it without all the big wavy locks of hair and bulging baby oil-massaged muscles of the screen. If you look deeply, you’ll find history is chock full of stories of incredible soldiers who did unbelievable deeds in the face of the enemy. Some involve valor; others are just actions that are too mind-blowing to believe. What follows are fifteen of these true stories of World War II soldiers that you just aren’t going to believe!
15. Edward A. Carter, Jr. – Followed His Indomitable Spirit
Born in 1916, in California, Carter’s father was an African-American missionary, and his mother was Indian from Calcutta. He lived in Shanghai, and spoke four languages. Though he was refused enlistment in the U.S. Army, he fought for the Chinese Army in the early days of Second Sino-Japanese War, and then in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the heroic Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He told his parents he was visited by a spirit that said he was destined to be a great soldier and would never die in battle. Finally, in 1941, he was allowed to join the U.S. Army and served as a staff sergeant, swallowing his pride and working as a cook. Carter decided to take a demotion to private in exchange for a transfer to the front, where his experience paid off. He was quickly given his stripes back and went on to receive the Distinguished Service Cross for single-handedly taking on eight Germans. Despite being shot five times, he killed six, grabbed the other two, using them as shields to make his escape. Though Carter passed away in 1963, the United States upgraded his award to the Medal of Honor in 1999.
14. Simo Häyhä – A Simple Farmer They Called “White Death”
Simo Häyhä served his mandatory year in the Finnish Army and then returned to his quiet life a farmer. In 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland, he quickly reenlisted. He served as a Finnish Vänrikki (Second Lieutenant) and a sniper. During the Winter War of 1939, Simo, dressed in snow-white camouflage, haunted the Soviet Army and became the deadliest sniper ever with 505 confirmed kills. The Soviets nicknamed him, “White Death.” He achieved more than half of his kills in the first 100 days, averaging 5 kills per day. To avoid giving away his position, he kept snow in his mouth to reduce steam from his breath. He also preferred to use iron sights, rather than an optical scope, which allowed him to keep his head lower when aiming, plus sunlight reflected on scopes which could reveal his position. The enemy finally caught up with him in March 1940, when he was shot in the lower left jaw. He survived, but by then the Soviets and Finland had signed a peace treaty. He later became a successful dog breeder, dying at the age of 96, in 2002.
13. The U.S. Special Forces Major Who Was Once A German SS Officer
Lauri Törni is a unique individual. He fought in three different wars, for three different countries, but all against the same enemy – Communism. Born in Finland, Törni joined the Finnish Army and fought against the Soviets during the Winter War of 1939. When the peace treaty was signed, he travelled to Austria where he trained with the Waffen Schutzstaffel (SS) – the elite of the Nazi German Army. He achieved the rank of SS-Untersturmführer (comparable to second lieutenant). He then fought the Soviets heading a German unit named “Detachment Törni.” He took his unit behind enemy lines, conducting sabotage operations and guerrilla attacks. Not pro-Nazi, but very anti-Soviet, he continued to fight until captured by the Allies in 1945. Charged with treason by the Finns (pardoned in 1948), he escaped custody and joined the U.S. Army under the name Larry Thorne. As a member of the elite 10th Special Force Group (Airborne), he fought with distinction in South Vietnam as an expert in guerrilla tactics. In 1965, his helicopter crashed during an operation. His body wasn’t found until 1999. Finland honors him as a hero and the U.S. granted him burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
12. The U.S. Pilot Who Defected To Fight Communists With The German SS
It might seem too incredible to believe, but during the war, an American pilot defected to Nazi Germany, became an SS officer, and then was allowed to rejoin the U.S. Army! Martin J. Monti was a strong anti-Communist. In 1942, he joined the U.S. Army Air Force, commissioned an officer and trained to fly the P-38 Lightning. He was initially sent to Karachi in 1944. However, a few months later, without explanation, he made his way to German-controlled Milan in a reconditioned P-38, and announced his defection. Initially stuck in a POW camp, he was moved to Berlin where he joined the Schutzstaffel (SS), doing anti-Communist radio broadcasts, and then as a propaganda writer. After the war he surrendered to the U.S. Army and was sentenced to prison. In 1946, he was allowed to have his sentenced overturned in exchange for reenlisting in the U.S. Army. He served two years until the FBI discovered he was formerly an SS officer. He was allowed an honorable discharge before being arrested for treason. He remained in prison until he was paroled in 1960.
11. Christopher Lee – Public Actor, Secret Soldier
He was Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee CBE CStJ, famed actor, singer, and author, with a career that spanned 70 years. He portrayed some of the most iconic film villains in cinematic history, and is quite possibly the most prolific actor in motion pictures. Born in England, Lee also had a relatively unknown military career. In 1939, he joined the Finnish Army to help fight against the Soviet invasion of Finland. Returning home in 1940, he joined the British Royal Air Force as an intelligence and liaison officer. He was attached to the Long Range Desert Patrol, where he conducted covert operations in North Africa. Then he was assigned to the Special Operations Executive and conducted covert missions in Norway and Eastern Europe. In the final days of the war, he reportedly helped track down Nazi war criminals. We really don’t know for sure as his service records remain sealed to this day. We know he spoke six languages and by the time he left the service in 1946, he’d been decorated for valor by the British, Czech, Polish, and Yugoslavian governments. When pressed about his war service, he once replied, “Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that.”
10. Dirk Vlug – One-Man Tank Destroyer
Dirk J. Vlug was a young soldier in the U.S. 126th Infantry Division based in the Philippines. On December 15, 1944, his unit was protecting a roadblock when they came under attack by an advancing Japanese force. Though Vlug was in a covered position, he put himself in harm’s way by charging the enemy, armed with a rocket launcher and five rounds of ammunition. Vlug was under heavy machine gun fire. Despite this, he fired his rocket launcher and destroyed his first enemy tank. Drawing his pistol, he then shot and killed the gunner of a second tank, before re-armed his rocket launcher and destroyed that tank. Seeing three more tanks rolling in, he immediately flanked the first approaching tank, fired, and destroyed it. He then pressed forward engaging the fourth tank, destroying it as well. With only one round left, he re-armed his rocket launcher, fired, and sent the fifth tank plummeting down a steep embankment. Single-handedly destroying five tanks, with only five rounds; if that isn’t “badassdom,” then I don’t know what is! He received the Medal of Honor and later retired as a Master Sergeant.
9. Ivan Pavlovich Sereda – The Axe-Wielding Soviet
Remember that film, Under Siege, starring Steven Seagal as the cook that terrorists underestimated? Well that pretty much sums up the exploits of Ivan Pavlovich Sereda. He served as a cook for the Red Army’s 91st Tank Regiment. On August 1941, he was cooking for his unit when he saw a German tank stalling not far from his field kitchen. Pavlovich grabbed an axe and quietly approached the tank. He waited for the crew to get out of the tank, which they would have to do in order to get it moving again. Once they did, he charged them, axe in hand! The crew quickly returned to their tank and began laying down machine gun fire. Pavlovich climbed onto the tank and used his axe to bend the machine gun barrel. He then threw a tarpaulin over the observation port and loudly ordered his comrades to pass him a grenade (hint: there were no comrades and there was no grenade). He banged on the tank’s armor until the four-man crew surrendered. What they believed was an entire Soviet tank destroyer unit, was just one soldier with an axe, Ivan Pavlovich.
8. Havildar Lachhiman Gurung – The Deadly Gurkha
Havildar Lachhiman Gurung was a Nepalese rifleman in the 8th Gurkha Rifles, part of the Indian Army during World War II. Standing a mere 150 cm (4’11”), he served in Burma and fought against the deadly Imperial Japanese Army. On May 12 and 13, 1945, Gurung was in a forward position with his platoon at Taungdaw. In his forward post, he was utterly alone when a force of 200 Japanese soldiers attacked him. He managed to hurl back two grenades that landed near him, but as he attempted to throw back a third, it detonated and blew off his right hand. Gravely injured, Gurung refused to give up. For four long hours, he repeatedly reloaded his rifle, with one arm, and fought off the Japanese soldiers until reinforcements arrived. When his unit arrived to repel the enemy forces, they found 31 dead Japanese lying around Gurung. He had killed them all, with only one hand.
7. Major Tommy Macpherson – “The Kilted Killer”
A Scottish commando, Tommy Macpherson joined the army in 1939. He parachuted into Nazi-held France and became known by the enemy as the dreaded “Kilted Killer.” His goal was to stimulate the French resistance into disrupting the Axis response to the 1944 Normandy invasion. He was able to galvanize the small, poorly armed resistance fighters with his cunning and dramatic style. You see, Macpherson always went into battle wearing his full Scottish Highlander’s battledress, including his kilt. His flamboyant, daring, and successful attacks earned him a bounty placed on his head by the Nazis. He would famously rig his machine guns to sound like heavy weaponry, causing the enemy to believe they were up against a superior force. In one exploit, dressed in full Celtic gear, he made his way into a German command post and bluffed General Botho Henning Elster into believing non-existent heavy artillery fire and an air strike were on standby if his forces didn’t surrender immediately. The general surrendered 23,000 men and 1,000 vehicles.
6. Tommy Prince – The Master of Stealth
Tommy Prince was a First Nations soldier born in Canada in 1915. An accomplished hunter and tracker, he excelled as a paratrooper in the Canadian Army and, during World War II, as a reconnaissance sergeant with the 1st Special Service Force, an elite American-Canadian commando unit. He was known to carry a pair of moccasins in his pack, and during the night would wear them to move about more stealthily. He would quietly creep into a nearby German camp and steal their shoes, or apply shoe polish to their faces while they were asleep. Other times, he would quietly slip into the sleeping barracks and slit the throat of every third German soldier as they slept. These startling but incredible actions would confuse and panic the German command and they dubbed Prince’s unit, “The Devil’s Brigade.” He continued to serve throughout World War II and Korea, finally retiring, due to arthritis, in 1954.
5. Major James H. Howard – The One-Man Air Force
James Howard joined the U.S. Navy in 1938, as a fighter pilot, but resigned in 1941, to join the famous Flying Tigers of Burma. In Burma, he flew 56 missions and shot down six Japanese aircraft. When the unit disbanded in 1942, Howard joined the U.S. Army Air Force and was given command of a fighter squadron in Britain. In Europe, bomber crews were taking heavy losses as they began to fly farther into Europe. In 1944, Howard was flying over Germany when he came across a group of 30 German fighters attacking a group of heavy bombers returning to England. Even though he was greatly outnumbered, Howard engaged the enemy squadron. For almost an hour, Howard defended the bombers, shooting down six. Even when he ran out of ammunition, he continued to dive on the enemy fighters until they retreated. Howard had become not only an Air Ace in two combat theaters, but became the only fighter pilot in Europe to receive the Medal of Honor. He had set himself apart that day as the “One-Man Air Force.”
4. Joseph Beyrle – Fought In Both The U.S. And Soviet Armies In World War II
Joseph Beyrle was a paratrooper in the U.S. Army, serving in the prestigious 506th Para Infantry Regiment, 101st Division. He jumped into France during the Normandy Invasion on D-Day in 1944. Having survived his jump, his unit was scattered. Alone, he still managed to conduct several sabotage operations before being captured by the Germans. After enduring seven months in prison camps, he was able to escape. He made his way east, encountering Captain Alexandra Samusenko, the only female Russian tank commander. Being the same age, he convinced her to allow him to fight by her side on their advance to Berlin. They spent a month fighting side-by-side, until Beyrle was wounded. While in a Soviet hospital, he met Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who furnished him with official documents to allow him to finally get back home to his family in Michigan. In 1994, both the U.S. and Russian presidents honored Beyrle as a symbol of cooperation for both countries. Beyrle died in 2004, Samusenko sadly was killed later in the war.
3. “Mad Jack” Churchill – The Sword-Waving Commando
Lieutenant Colonel “Mad Jack” Churchill was a true military legend! Retired from the British Army in 1936, he was a newspaper editor, movie extra, and a professional male model. He was a skilled bagpipe player and a champion archer. In 1940, he rejoined the British Army, proving himself a talented leader, if not a little eccentric. “Mad Jack” was known for leading his men into battle with his signature cry, “Commando!” with his bagpipes and longbow on his back, wielding a broadsword. Churchill led the Number 2 Commandos in operations in Norway, Italy, and Yugoslavia. In Salerno, Churchill single-handedly captured 42 German prisoners using only his broadsword. His sheer intensity and the imposing sword left the Germans stunned. When asked about his signature weapon, Churchill remarked, “…any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.” Churchill is also credited with the last bow and arrow killing in any war when, in 1940, he killed a German sergeant in France with an arrow through the heart.
2. Audie Murphy – The Most Decorated Soldier
He is, officially, the most decorated soldier of World War II. Audie Murphy was a young Texas farm boy who was too short to be a marine and too frail to be a paratrooper. The U.S. Army eventually accepted him. He served with distinction in nine campaigns throughout Europe. However, it was in the invasion of southern France, where he was to distinguish himself even further. It was January 1945, near Holtzwihr, in eastern France. Murphy’s unit came under attack by six German Panzer tanks and 250 infantrymen. Murphy ordered a retreat and mounted a burning tank destroyer, holding the enemy back with a machine gun. Wounded by gunfire, Murphy held his position for almost an hour, single-handedly killing 50 enemy soldiers. He stalled the German advance long enough for his unit to reorganize and drive the enemy from Holtzwihr. For his actions, Audie Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for gallantry. By war’s end, still not even 21 years old, Lieutenant Audie Murphy had earned every medal for bravery his country could bestow.
1. Lt. Colonel Matt L. Urban – “The Ghost”
This soldier received just about as many medals as Audie Murphy, yet is practically unknown. By the time World War II ended, Urban had earned the Medal of Honor, seven Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, and three Bronze Stars. Having joined the U.S. Army in 1941, he participated in seven campaigns. He was known to always press the attack, even after being wounded. In one signature exploit, Urban’s unit was attacked by Germans in Tunisia. His unit began a retreat, while Urban alone rushed the enemy with only his trench knife, stabbing one soldier to death. He then drew the German’s own pistol and used it to fire upon the attacking soldiers. Though wounded, he refused to allow the Germans to overrun his position. Later, in France, his unit was under heavy tank fire. Urban took a bazooka and charged the enemy tanks, destroying both, thereby saving his men. Later, near Belgium, Urban personally led a charge against an enemy mortar and artillery position. Though shot in the neck, he refused to back down until the enemy had been beaten. He was called “The Ghost” because, by all accounts, he shouldn’t have survived the war!
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