In the midst of the pain, death, and horror of war there are numerous stories of ordinary people stepping up to the plate and making heroic sacrifices for their fellow soldiers and countrymen. Although the names and stories of most of these everyday heroes perish with history, every once in a while, one of those stories becomes legend and is told from generation to generation. These are the stories of 25 World War II heroes who put their lives on the line.
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Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz
Even though Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz was a member of the German forces during War World II, it did not mean that he hated the Jews as much as some of his comrades did. In fact, when Duckwitz learned of the roundup of the Danish Jews on October 1, 1943 he called politician Hans Hedtoft with an idea that would allow thousands of Jews to escape. At the end of the day he made it look like a failure on his part.
Raoul Wallenberg, an envoy to Budapest from Sweden, was able to rescue about one hundred thousand Jews in Hungary by issuing documents to assure the safety of these Hungarian Jews from being deported and being brought into Nazi camps outside the country.
When Giorgio Perlasca escaped to Hungary after many months of being detained in prison, he was able to convince the Nazis that he was a Spanish diplomat. Thanks to his perfect cover, he was able to give visas to many Jews, which they then used as a means of escape.
Angel Sanz Briz
Like Girgio Perlasca, Angel Sanz Briz was actually a Spanish diplomat to the country of Hungary. He was able to protect thousands of Jews from the Nazis by granting amnesty given that Spain was neutral during the World War.
Coronel Jose Arturo Castellanos Contreras
El Salvador could never be any more proud of Coronel Jose Arturo Castellanos Contreras as he played a major role in protecting numerous Jews in Switzerland during the World War. In fact, this Salvadorian diplomat made sure that over 25,000 Jews were able to get away from the Nazis by issuing them Salvadorian visas.
Charles Joseph Coward, known as the “Count of Auschwitz”, was a British soldier captured during World War II who rescued Jews from Auschwitz and smuggled himself into Auschwitz for one night, subsequently testifying about his experience at the Nuremberg Trials and the IG Farben Trial.
At first, Oskar Schindler hired about a thousand Jewish laborers for his business, as they were very cheap to obtain. What he had originally been done for the money changed to a rescue operation when he saw how the Jews were being detained and murdered. He began using his war-essential industry to protect them from being taken away by employing women, children, the elderly, and even those with physical disabilities as mechanics and assembly line workers.
Abdol Hossein Sardari
When Abdol Hossein Sardari was in charge of the Iranian consular office in Paris back in 1941, he had done all he could to save Iranian Jews by contesting to Nazi generals and soldiers that Iranian families who had been present in the country since the Persian Empire had agreements for protection and safety from aggression. He was successful with many of his appeals and even ended up issuing Iranian passports to non-Iranian Jews.
Chiune Sugihara chose to disobey the government and exercise his full power as Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania by issuing handwritten visas to many Jews, regardless of origin or race. It was said that he even wrote visas while traveling around the country via train, throwing them out of the windows. He was able to help over 6,000 Jews because of his selfless endeavor.
At a time when the Japanese were attacking the Chinese in Nanking, John Rabe was one of the few remaining foreigners who stayed despite the attack and established the Nanking Safe Zone. He used his influence as a member of the Nazi Party in order to control the situation and attempted to delay the attack as much as possible. His efforts led to nearly a quarter million Chinese lives being saved.
Monsignor Hugh O’flaherty
The famous “Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican” has been recognized due to his way of evading the many traps that were set by the Gestapo while visiting POW camps and helping both Allied missing-in-action soldiers and Jews to safety.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches
With possibly the hardest to remember name on the list, his actions were anything but. Even though he knew that the Portuguese government was against helping the Jews he still issued tens of thousands of visas. Although his efforts saved numerous lives he was eventually exiled and died in poverty.
Necdet Kent was a Turkish diplomat who risked his life to save Jews during World War II. While vice-consul in Marseilles, France between 1941 and 1944, he gave documents of citizenship to dozens of Turkish Jews living in France who did not have proper identity papers, to save them from deportation to the Nazi gas chambers.
General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was an American general and field marshal of the Philippine Army who was Chief of Staff of the United States Army during the 1930s and played a prominent role in the Pacific theater during World War II. He received the Medal of Honor for his service in the Philippines Campaign, which made him and his father Arthur MacArthur, Jr., the first father and son to be awarded the medal. He was one of only five men ever to rise to the rank of General of the Army in the U.S. Army, and the only man ever to become a field marshal in the Philippine Army.
Alvin Cullum York, known also by his nickname, Sergeant York, was one of the most decorated American soldiers in World War I. He received the Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine gun nest, taking 32 machine guns, killing 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 others.
Nicknamed Fighting Jack Churchill and Mad Jack, there has been perhaps no one in history quite like him. He was a British soldier who fought through World War II armed with nothing but a longbow, arrows, and a Scottish broadsword. He is known for the motto “any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly armed.”
Nicknamed “White Death” by the Red Army, Simo was a Finnish sniper who hid out in temperatures between of up to -40 degrees Celsius picking off Soviet troops. There were, in fact, entire campaigns mounted as part of an effort to get rid of him. He was eventually struck in the jaw by a counter sniper but he still managed to survive and to this day he has the highest recorded number of confirmed sniper kills in any major war (505).
Henryk Slawik of Poland was a prominent politician and diplomat that made a way for over 5,000 Hungarian Jews to be freed from the clutches of the Nazi forces by issuing fake documents that confirmed their lineage as Polish citizens. Because of his assistance to the evacuation, he was arrested by the German army and was executed in the Mauthausen concentration camp.
Ernst Werner Techow
Although the story was later proved to be completely unfounded, according to a story published by American journalist George W. Herald titled “My favorite Assassin” he claimed to have met a captain of the French foreign legion with the name of Tessier in 1940. This captain, Herald claimed, turned out to be German assassin Ernst Werner Techow. Apparently he had a changed of heart, denounced antisemitism, and joined the French foreign legion. In 1941, Herald further reported, Techow-Tessier helped save hundreds of Jews in Marseilles.
Witold Pilecki put his life on the line when he volunteered himself as an intelligence officer that would infiltrate the Auschwitz concentration camp by taking a false identity and being cast into prison. Aside from being able to create an internal resistance force within the camp, known as the Związek Organizacji Wojskowej, he also created an intelligence network that made it possible for outside military forces to know of Auschwitz’s activities. Though he served as a courageous war officer, he was sentenced to death due to various charges involved in his heroic acts.
Dimitar Peshev, although holding the position of Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly of Bulgaria and Minister of Justice at the time the war broke out, chose to resist the government by preventing the deportation of over 48,000 Jews from the country.
Matt Louis Urban was a United States Army infantry officer who served with distinction in the Mediterranean and European Theater of Operations in World War II. He scouted, led charges upfront, and performed heroically in combat on several occasions despite being wounded. He was awarded over a dozen combat decorations by the Army. In 1980, he was awarded and presented the Medal of Honor and four other combat decorations belatedly for repeated acts of heroism in combat in France and Belgium in 1944. The Guinness Book of World Records in 1989, considered Urban to be the United States Army’s most combat decorated soldier of World War II.
At a time when Nazis had overtaken the city of Fiume in Italy, Giovanni Palatucci decided to act in his office as head of police administration and never leave his responsibility, even if it cost him his life. He used his position to protect the Jews from being sent to Nazi camps by destroying documents and serving as a point of contact for the resistance. Even though he had a ticket to get away from it all, he gave that freedom to his Jewish fiance and sent her to Switzerland. He was captured and killed by the Germans inside the Dachau prison in February 1945.
Audie Leon Murphy was one of the most famous and decorated American combat soldiers of World War II. He served in the Mediterranean and European Theater of Operations where he was presented the Medal of Honor and several other decorations for heroism in combat including some from the countries of France and Belgium. Originally lying about his age to enlist in the military and follow his dream of becoming a soldier he was only 19 years old when he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
The heroism of Irena Sendler may have benefited hundreds and even thousands of children during the World War. Disguised as a nurse with an ID to match, she was able to smuggle Jewish children out of the warzone and handed them over to Polish foster parents. Though at one point she was caught by Nazis and tortured, she was able to escape with the help of her friends and continue the rescue effort secretly.