World War II is a defining period of the twentieth century. It had brought the world to its knees with thousands of casualties, billions of dollar-worth of infrastructure destruction, and a catalyst of trauma that would affect generations to come. It was a dark time, plagued with fear, chaos, violence, and deaths on a scale that had never been seen before. Despite this, many have risen to the occasion, both combatants and non-combatants alike, to fight against evil and reinstate peace.
While much has been written about successful campaigns and decisive battles by brilliant and venerable high-ranking officials, what made the Second World War ultimately see its end likewise can be greatly attributed to the millions of young, ordinary teens and young adults who gave up their youth to fight for freedom and peace across the globe.
Here are some incredible, courageous tales of soldiers who fought and made a significant impact during the world’s deadliest war in history.
The man who single-handedly took out 200 enemy soldiers, literally—considering the Nepalese-British Gurkha (synonymous with “Nepali”)—had only one hand after losing the other from a grenade explosion.
Lachhiman Gurung is one of the 13 Gurkha warriors who received the prestigious British Victorian Cross for heroic gallantry during World War II. Born in a small village in Nepal, a young Gurung spontaneously enlisted for the British Indian Army in an apocryphal story that many find too good to be true. Allegedly, a father “sent out his son to buy some cigarettes at the village shop one morning, returned five years later with a blind eye, minus his right hand, and wearing the Victorian Cross—but without the cigarettes.”
While running errands in the morning of 1940, Gurung met a friend and learned about urgently enlisting in the British Army as part of the Gurkha Rifles to prepare for a looming war. In normal circumstances, the young adult would not pass due to his inefficient height, but as the pressing times needed as many able-bodied men as possible, he was accepted.
On that fateful night, Gurung was part of a three-man squad on guard duty at the platoon’s most forward position on a small hill when 200 Japanese infantry launched a surprise attack. Despite being outnumbered, Gurung and his fellow soldiers held their position and defended it as best as possible. Just like those edge-of-the-seat moments we often see in movies, Gurung tossed back two grenades that landed near them. Unfortunately, the third grenade exploded before he could pick it up, which resulted in severe injuries to his comrades and himself. He was covered in his own crimson and practically struggling to see with only one eye left, but seeing his fellow soldiers lying helplessly and in terrible pain on the ground ignited a raging fire in him. With one arm left, he grabbed his bolt-action rifle and annihilated the attackers that came in waves. That solo battle stretched for hours and eventually days. It was unclear how the man survived with the obvious detriment, but reinforcements who arrived later had been emboldened after seeing the incredible fighting spirit of the Gurkha rifleman. Gurung took down 31 of the 87 Japanese soldiers who attacked that day, significantly contributing to the latter’s failed invasion attempt.
A young Gerhard Reinhardt joined the German resistance shortly after the Nazis took the reins in the country in 1933. Eventually, he was captured and sent to prison three years later and was forced to fight in a penal battalion between 1939 and 1942. He finally had his chance of escape in 1942, deserting his post and joining the Greek partisans, where he firmly campaigned for anti-fascism ideologies and, later, his so-called “the second round of Greek freedom” after 1967.
Adrian Carton de Wiart
Perhaps one of the fairly known heroes in the list, Adrian Carton de Wiart, is a World War II legend widely known as the “unkillable soldier.” He previously served in other great wars, which made him a refined warrior by the time WWII rolled. He suffered severe injuries during the First World War, where he had not just one, not two, but EIGHT close death calls. By the time Nazi Germany stirred chaos in Europe, de Wiart was already sporting an eye patch, and his missing hand did not stop him from leading his men into battle. The man was the epitome of badassery and was praised for his dedication to serving no matter how many close calls he obtained.
Recalling in his memoir, de Wiart asked his doctor to take his fingers off when it was severely shot on the night of the Battle of Ypres. When the doctor refused, he pulled his dangling fingers himself like a true legend. Later, though, the hand had to be amputated when it showed no signs of healing. Although the man himself was too extreme (that might be an understatement), his dauntless courage and passion for fighting and defending his country inspired many existing and future soldiers.
Calvin Leon Graham
Sharing the patriotic fervor to avenge fallen men in the horrendous attack on Pearl Harbor, a young Texas-native boy snuck into the Navy enlistment and found himself serving aboard USS South Dakota at only twelve years old. Yes, you read that one right. He forged his age, becoming the youngest US serviceman to fight in World War II. Graham was just eleven and barely out of elementary when he hatched a plan to lie about his age to become a sailor after seeing the chaos the world has spiraled into, in addition to hearing stories about the deaths of his relatives who fought in the war. Underage enlistment was not uncommon during this period, but young aspiring soldiers were usually at least sixteen years old (with their parent’s consent), never twelve. But the fearless boy simply cannot wait for five more years. So, after a bit of “deep talking” practice, Graham grabbed his older brother’s clothes and went to the recruitment camp with his mother’s forged signature in hand. Eventually, a dentist uncovered his real age, but with the shortage of sailors looming, the boy was approved to attend Boot Camp—that and the fact that Graham had threatened the doctor to rat him out for passing other underage boys ahead of him if he won’t be cleared.
He trained as an anti-aircraft gunner and joined aboard USS South Dakota three weeks later, heading toward the southeast of Guadalcanal. There he witnessed his first intense action, possibly shaking him up to the horrors of war. When the battleship joined the four-day Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Graham found himself amidst the bombings and deaths of his fellow sailors. He lost some of his teeth when he caught shrapnel in the face while manning the guns, and when the firefighting subsided, he was tasked to remove belts off the dead to craft makeshift tourniquets for the living. “I […] gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night,” he later said. “It was a long night. It aged me.”
Graham was eventually kicked out of the Navy when his mother discovered his enlistment and complained about recruiting a twelve-year-old. His medals were taken away too, and his life has not been smooth sailing since. Nonetheless, Graham, now seventeen, joined the Marine Corps when he was drafted in 1948 as tension nears the breaking point in the Korean Peninsula. His service was cut short, however, in a freak accident after he fell from a pier and broke his back.
Graham might have been wrong in his ways to join the Navy, but his fervor, dedication, and courage have set a tone on what one is willing to do to serve their country.
An exact opposite of his surname, Charles Joseph Coward rose to prominence after his exemplary and valiant actions despite becoming a Prisoner of War (POW) during WWII. He was even dubbed the “Count of Auschwitz” for putting his life on the line to secretly rescue Jews in the worst prison camp ever, as well as smuggling dozens after dozens of the suffering minority out from concentration camps. His skill in speaking German gave him leverage, and he even tried to blend in, posing as a German soldier in one of his attempts to escape. Funnily enough, he played the role well that “German doctors treated his wounds, and received an Iron Cross for his bravery” until one day, he was busted and thrown back into the POW camp. His attempts didn’t stop there, though, and when his captors finally had enough, Coward was sent to the infamous Auschwitz work camp.
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Fortunately, Nazi Germans maintained a clean image of abiding by the Geneva Convention around this period, and thanks to his German proficiency, Coward was assigned as a Red Cross liaison officer. Here, he had a front-row seat to the monstrosities thousands of Jews went through. Seizing the advantage of his position in the Red Cross, the British officer began stealing food and medicine, along with other prisoners, and giving them to the Jews. Moreover, he sent letters as they were allowed to do so, but instead of sending them to his family, Coward was writing cryptic messages for the British War Office, where he told the horrible condition of the camp, and the brutality Jews were going through.
Coward’s most audacious plan to help Jews escape involved bribing guards with chocolates in exchange for the remains of non-Jewish POWs, where he and his comrades would strip their belongings and identity papers to secretly hand them to living Jews to smuggle them out of hell hole stealthily.
Unlike the First World War, WWII has seen a rise in technology, among which are signal transmitters and interceptors. This innovation becomes an advantage in transmitting communication and intelligence, at the same time, an asset dangerously prone to getting intercepted by adversaries. Thus, the need for codes. The US Army knew about this, taking notes from the enigma codes of the Germans in the previous war that caused headaches to Allied Forces. Wanting to mimic the complexity and difficulty of decoding the lines of communication, WWI veteran Philip Johnston proposed using the Navajo language as a code in the Pacific theater. This has proven to be useful and added leverage for the Marines who utilized the Navajo code. Among the successful battles won thanks to Johnston’s suggestion, including the almost month-long battle of Iwo Jima.
Virginia Hall Goillot
Using her disability to her advantage, Virginia Hall was an American secret agent working for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) who helped gather Nazi intelligence while maintaining an under-the-radar presence. She was sent to France to conduct espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in occupied Europe. In the beginning, expectations from Hall’s supervisors were low—doubting that she could execute her mission without running into trouble, considering the area was flooded with Gestapo agents. But the woman dubbed as the “limping lady” proved otherwise. Despite looking dangerously conspicuous with her prosthetic legs, she used her wit and charisma to recruit resistance fighters. There were obvious mistakes at the beginning of her mission, but soon she became slick—an itch German secret police were having trouble scratching.
In 1942, Hall had a close call as Nazis almost caught her. She narrowly escaped to Spain by walking about 50 miles for three days in heavy snow. After staying low for a couple of days, Hall returned to France to continue her mission with new tricks up her sleeve to evade the Gestapo, who were now on the hunt for her. Nonetheless, she passed tons of sensitive, crucial information that saved the frontlines and even helped devise battle plans that resulted in decisive victories.
After the war ended, Hall went on to live life under the radar, with the British and French recognizing her contributions privately. Then-President Harry Truman also wanted to honor the American spy but declined, saying she’d rather remain undercover. Nevertheless, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), making her the only civilian woman to receive one in WWII.
Do you know any WWII unsung heroes worth mentioning? Let us know in the comments!
Book recommendations: Check out Forgotten Heroes of World War II: Personal Accounts of Ordinary Soldiers—Land, Sea, and Air by Thomas E. Simmons. Link here. You might also want to read A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell. Add the book to your list.
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