10 of the Most Heroic Acts of Self Sacrifice in History

10 of the Most Heroic Acts of Self Sacrifice in History

D.G. Hewitt - June 9, 2018

“Greater love hath no man than this: to lay down one’s life for his friends.” So says the Bible. And, indeed, in almost every culture since the beginning of time, sacrificing your own life in order that others may live has been regarded as the ultimate act of courage and selflessness. Understandably, it’s an act only few people are ever willing to make. But, over the course of history, some remarkable people have done just this – they have given up their lives in the hope that other people will be able to carry on living.

What’s even more extraordinary and heroic than someone sacrificing their own life in order to save their friends and loved ones is when someone takes the ultimate step to save strangers. And yet, there have been numerous examples of this happening. Sometimes it’s been for reasons of patriotism or for national pride. Sometimes in order to further a cause greater than themselves. And sometimes it’s just been in order to save one single other soul.

Here we salute ten individuals, or small groups of individuals, who sacrificed it all. In some cases, their stories are now the thing of legend. But in other cases, they remain relatively unknown. Whatever their fame and place in the history books, they surely deserve to be remembered for their undeniable bravery:

10 of the Most Heroic Acts of Self Sacrifice in History
In Russia, monuments were erected to those who risked their life to stop another nuclear explosion. CNN.

The Chernobyl Three

On the morning of April 26, 1986, scientists got to work on a new series of tests in Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine. Soon after the tests began, things started going wrong. Very wrong. Two explosions rocked through the unit. Two unfortunate engineers were killed instantly. But that was just the start of the problem. More seriously, a fire had started in the light water graphite moderator reactor. Plumes of radioactive smoke were sent into the sky. A further 49 workers quickly fell ill and died over the next few weeks – often enduring slow, agonizing deaths.

The accident meant that more radioactive fallout was sent into the atmosphere than was caused by either of the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War. The damage was massive. But it could have been so much worse. A second explosion could have caused the whole Chernobyl complex to go into full meltdown. Had this happened, experts estimate that nuclear fallout would have spread over half of Western Europe, killing untold numbers as well as destroying land and food crops. Tensions between the Western world and the Soviet Union might have also deteriorated significantly.

Thankfully, a second explosion was avoided, thanks to the three men who have gone down in history as ‘The Chernobyl Three‘ – or, testament to their bravery, as the Chernobyl ‘Suicide Squad’. The story goes that, several weeks after the first explosion, the plant chiefs became seriously worried that radioactive material was traveling in a molten flow towards the huge pool of water under the reactor. If the two came into contact, it would have caused a second steam explosion, potentially destroying Chernobyl’s three other reactors. Someone needed to go into the pool and drain it.

According to most accounts, two plant workers and one soldier stepped forward to take on the job. Undoubtedly, the plant workers – and most likely the soldier, too – would have known that the basement of the reactor was highly radioactive. Even if they could get the job done quickly, they would still be exposed to lethally high doses. In short, it was a true suicide mission, and the Soviet authorities even assured the men that their families would be looked after financially.

Some historians have tried to separate myth from reality. It’s been pointed out that all the men may well have been plant workers who were just unfortunate enough to be on shift at that time rather than actively volunteering for the work. The depth of the water in the cooling pool is also disputed. But what can’t be denied is that, in darkness and in treacherous conditions, the three men put concerns of their own safety to the back of their minds and, after much trying, finally found the correct valves to open and drain the pool.

Since the Soviet authorities were determined to downplay the Chernobyl “accident”, what happened to the three men is also a question of historical debate. It’s believed that none of them actually died in the immediate aftermath of their heroic actions. Even if they didn’t die of radioactive fallout – and many workers did – their heroism is by no means diminished. The three men stepped into the darkness beneath a molten radioactive core and put the good of humanity before their own safety.

10 of the Most Heroic Acts of Self Sacrifice in History
John Robert Fox asked for shells to be fired on his exact position, giving his comrades chance to regroup. Wikipedia.

John Robert Fox

During the Second World War, countless Allied soldiers put their lives on the line for the good of their country. Others simply offered themselves up in order to save comrades. But still, even in this time of true heroism, the story of John Robert Fox stands out. The artillery officer added his names to the history books – and earned himself a posthumous Medal of Honor – for the sacrifice he made one December day in 1944, when he was thousands of miles from home.

Fox was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in May 1915. By all accounts, he was a smart, diligent young man and he earned a place at Wilberforce University. Here, he signed up for the Reserve Officer Training Corp, meaning he not only finished college with a graduate degree, but with a rank of Second Lieutenant. When war broke out, then, he took his commission and joined the 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated division for African-American soldiers that fought with distinction throughout the conflict.

With his unit, Fox was sent to the European theater of war. In 1944, he found himself fighting the Nazis in Italy. It was here where, in December of that year, he was tasked to stay behind in the small village of Sommocolonia, in Tuscany. The village had been overrun by Nazis, and Americans were in retreat. Fox found a house to hide in and, from the second floor, he used his radio to contact his colleagues. He called for artillery fire to be directed at the village in order to give the US forces time to retreat, regroup and then launch a counter-attack. Fox even specifically ordered a barrage of fire on his exact position. The gunner who received the message pointed this out to him, assuming it must be some mistake. Fox, however, simply said: “Fire it. There’s more of them than there are us”: famous last words of a true American hero.

Fox’s act of sacrifice was not in vain. As he planned, the artillery barrage did indeed give his comrades the chance to regroup and launch a successful counterattack. When the US army entered Sommocolinia, they found Fox’s body surrounded by the bodies of around 100 Germans. It wasn’t until 1997 that his bravery was truly recognized, however. President Bill Clinton awarded Fox the Medal of Honor, with his widow, Arlene, picking it up. The citation noted it was awarded for Fox’s “gallant and courageous actions, at the supreme sacrifice of his own life”. He was a true American hero who made the ultimate sacrifice.

10 of the Most Heroic Acts of Self Sacrifice in History
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt could have used his wealth to save his life, but chose not to. Irish Times.

Alfred Vanderbilt

When disaster strikes, men and women are capable of moments of pure heroism. Sadly, all too often, such acts are largely forgotten to history. Unless that is, you are no ordinary person. If, say, you are one of the world’s richest men – and a globe-trotting playboy to boot – then your act of sacrifice certainly will be noted, and celebrated, for posterity. This is certainly true for Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, who is remembered not just for his wealth but for the fact he gave his life so others may live.

To say Vanderbilt was born into privilege is something of an understatement. His great-grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, left school at the age of 11 and then went on to make a fortune in shipping and railroads. Cornelius left the equivalent of $150 billion in today’s money to his son, who then doubled the family fortune. So, when Alfred inherited the family fortune, he had big shoes to fill. And fill them he did. For, while he may well have scandalized polite society with his partying and womanizing ways, he was also an astute investor, putting his money in real estate and, to a much lesser extent, horses.

It was for the latter that Vanderbilt set off from New York aboard the Lusitania in May 1915. He was planning on attending a meeting of the International Horse Breeders’ Association in Britain. Even though the waters of the Atlantic were teeming with German U-boats, most passengers on the huge vessel assumed that, since they were on a non-military ship, they would be safe. How wrong they were. On the morning of 7 May, the Lusitania was attacked off the coast of County Cork, Ireland. It soon became clear that it was going down.

Vanderbilt was, as a First Class passenger, given a lifejacket. He gave it away. Then, as the ship started to sink, he concerned himself with making sure as many children as possible got into the lifeboats. Given his status – and given what had happened on the Titanic – he could have easily got a spot on a lifeboat himself and saved his own skin. However, he was still trying to save others when the boat went under the waves. Vanderbilt’s body was never found. A reporter in the New York Times noted that he displayed “gallantry which no words of mine can describe”.

10 of the Most Heroic Acts of Self Sacrifice in History
Huge numbers of people died in the Siege of Stalingrad, including a group of brave scientists. Daily Mail.

Alexander Stchukin and the scientists of Stalingrad

Nobody can say for certain how many people died from starvation during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. But, it’s safe to say that you could count the number of people who chose to starve to death despite sitting on huge supplies of potatoes, rice and other food staples, on one hand. Alexander Stchukin and his colleague Dmitry Ivanov did just this. They chose to go hungry rather than eat the collection of genetically modified crops and plants they have been tasked with preserving for future generations.

Both scientists were employees of the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry. The state body had been ordered to build up huge collections of plants and crop seeds. In all, they managed to bring together 187,000 types of plants, 40,000 of them food crops. These were to be kept safe for future generations. But, as the Nazi siege of the city went into its second, and then its third winter, the team would have been under huge amounts of pressure to just give in and raid their supplies to fend off the unbearable hunger.

Stchukin in particular could have easily saved himself. He was the man in charge of groundnut supplies, so he would have had many calorie-heavy nuts at his fingertips. But still, he resisted. In the end, he was found slumped over his desk. Just a few days later, his colleague Ivanov also died. He was the head of the Institute’s rice collection. Again, he chose to starve rather than raid the protected supplies of genetically important plants. Several other scientists also made the ultimate sacrifice. None dared touch the valuable supplies, driven by a potent mixture of fear and patriotism.

In the end, the Institute survived the war. After almost three years of horror, the supplies remained intact and all accounted for. And so, was the sacrifice made by Stchukin, Ivanov and the other scientists worth it? Undoubtedly. Even today, farmers around the world – including in the United States – grow crops that have been developed from the genetically modified seeds of the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry. Modern-day scientists have cross-bred crop varieties with the varieties the brave Russians guarded with their lives to produce plants that can resist extreme temperatures and all kinds of pests. More recently, however, concerns have been raised over the Institute’s long-term survival. Could simple economics and mismanagement end up doing what Hitler couldn’t do and closing the center once and for all?

10 of the Most Heroic Acts of Self Sacrifice in History
Captain Oakes stepped out into the freezing cold to certain death to try and help his comrades. Wikipedia.

Captain Lawrence Oakes

For generations, in England’s public schools, including in elite institutions such as Eton and Harrow, Lawrence Oakes was held up as the ideal gentleman. He was dashing, adventurous, well-educated and well-mannered. And, when the chips really were down, he chose to sacrifice his own life so that his colleagues would have a better chance of survival. What’s more, he made the ultimate act of sacrifice with true stoicism and with a sense of humor.

Captain Lawrence Edward Grace “Titus” Oates was born in London in 1880. As was befitting for a boy from a wealthy family, he attended Eton College, though he left after a couple of years due to ill health. In 1898, he joined the British Army. As a commissioned officer, he led men in the Second Boer War, winning the Victoria Cross for his bravery. After his exploits in South Africa, Oates then served as a lieutenant and then as a captain in Ireland, Egypt and India.

However, it was as a member of Great Britain’s polar exploration team where Oates truly made a name for himself. In 1910, the acclaimed explorer Robert Falcon Scott invited Oates to join him on an expedition to the South Pole. To begin with, he was appointed as a carer for the team’s 19 ponies. However, his strength and soldierly discipline impressed Scott so much that he promoted Oates to the five-man team who would make the final push to the South Pole.

On the morning of 1 November 1911, the expedition team set off on their journey. Some 79 days later, they made it to the Pole. There, however, they stumbled across a tent left behind by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team. Scott had been beaten by just 35 days. The team started heading back, dejected and struggling in the harsh conditions. After a few days, one of their party had died, and Oates was struggling. His feet were frostbitten, and his progress was slow. Fearful that his condition was slowing down the rest of his party, and thereby placing them in danger, Oates decided to sacrifice himself. On 17 March, Oates left the tent. He told Scott: “I am just going outside and maybe some time.”

Scott noted in his diaries that Oates had sacrificed himself so that others may live. He called his companion “a true gentleman”. Tragically, Scott and his two other teammates only ever made it a further 20 miles. They died in their tent, too weak and cold to continue. While their bodies were soon found, that of Oates has never been located. On the spot where he is believed to have perished lies a memorial that states: “Hereabouts died a very gallant gentleman…He walked willingly to his death in a blizzard, to try and save his comrades, beset by hardships.”

10 of the Most Heroic Acts of Self Sacrifice in History
The villagers of Eyam chose to accept their fates so that the Plague wouldn’t spread. Pinterest.org.

The Village of Eyam

History gives us plenty of examples of individuals sacrificing themselves so that others – even strangers – might live. But whole villages? Such cases of collective selflessness are rare indeed. But they aren’t unheard of, as the case of Eyam shows us. Indeed, according to the history books, this small hamlet in the county of Derbyshire came together and decided to give themselves up so that their neighbors might be spared.

The year was 1665, at the height of the Black Death. The plague was sweeping across large parts of Europe, and northern England was no exception. It’s believed that, in the summer of that year, a bale of damp cloth arrived in Eyam from London. But it wasn’t just cloth that arrived from the capital. Hidden among the material were fleas – and they were carrying the plague. So, when a tailor hung the cloth out to dry, the fleas woke up and set about their work. The tailor was infected, and, like millions of others, soon died of the plague. Over the next few weeks, 42 other villagers died. By the end of the year, many were packing up and getting ready to leave Eyam in a bid to escape the Black Death.

That’s when the village clergyman stepped in. Though William Mompesson had only been in Eyam for a short amount of time, he argued that its residents had a duty to others. He believed the village should quarantine itself so that the plague did not spread to surrounding towns and villages, including to nearby Sheffield. With the help of his predecessor, Mompesson pulled off the impossible: he convinced the villagers to stay put.

The decision had consequences. By the summer of 1666, five or six people were dying every day. In Eyam, the mortality rate became even worse than in London. In all, an estimated 260 villagers – out of a total or around 800 – perished in the space of just a few months. No family was left unaffected. Through their bravery, the people of Eyam succeeded in keeping the plague from spreading, saving thousands of lives. Remarkably, Mompesson survived. He left Eyam soon afterwards, though wherever he went, his flock were wary that he would bring the plague with him.

10 of the Most Heroic Acts of Self Sacrifice in History
The Four Chaplains willingly went to their watery graves in order to save others. The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation.

The Four Chaplains

George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, Clark V. Poling and John P. Washington: Collectively, they have become known as the ‘Four Chaplains‘ and are remembered for not only giving their own lives for others, but for offering comfort to those whose end was near. Throughout the Second World War, stories of heroism were commonplace. However, that of the Four Chaplains continues to be told and held up as a pure example of self-sacrifice.

The four men had met at the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University. And, while their backgrounds and faith may have differed (Fox was a Methodist minister, Goode was a rabbi with a Ph.D., Washington was a Catholic priest, and Clark a revered of the Reformed Church of America), history brought them all together. In February of 1943, all four were aboard the Dorchester, a renovated luxury liner being used to transport troops. In all, 902 souls were on the ship as it sailed through the treacherous Atlantic waters from Newfoundland to Greenland. On the evening of 2 February, the enemy attacked. A torpedo from a Nazi U-boat scored a direct hit. The ship was doomed.

Numerous stories came out of that night, mostly told by the surviving seamen. They all paint a remarkable picture of extreme courage in the face of certain death. All four chaplains got busy looking after others. They all gave up their life jackets and refused to abandon the ship. They tended to the men who had been wounded by the explosion caused by the torpedo. For those unable to get off the boat and to safety, they offered spiritual counseling. Finally, as the Dorchester started to vanish under the waves, survivors spoke of seeing the four holy men linked arm-in-arm, praying aloud to the very end.

In 1961, the U.S. Congress approved a new, and unique, award. The posthumous Special Medal for Heroism was conferred on all of the Four Chaplains (they were ineligible for the Medal of Honour since the rule states it must be awarded for bravery while under enemy fire). All four men have also been remembered on postage stamps, in statues and with chapels dedicated to their memory across the world.

10 of the Most Heroic Acts of Self Sacrifice in History
Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to die in another man’s place in a Nazi death camp. Wikipedia.

Maximilian Kolbe

Despite it being a place of pure evil, the Auschwitz death camp was also the location of several acts of heroism and self-sacrifice, none more so than that of Maximilian Kobe. The Franciscan friar gave his life so that another man – a stranger to him – might live. For others, his sacrifice was extraordinary. For Maximilian himself, however, there was no question of doing anything else. So strong was his faith that he never wavered or asked for better treatment, even when the end got closer and closer.

Maximilian was born in Poland in 1894. At the age of just 12, he claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. According to his own account, she asked the youth if he would be willing to devote himself to a pure, holy life. She also asked if he would be willing to wear a red crown – a symbol of martyrdom. Maximilian accepted both. Within a couple of years, he had become ordained as a Franciscan friar, though he also carried on with his education, eventually earning a Ph.D. in philosophy. During the 1920s and 1930s, he traveled widely, building a monastery in Japan and another in India, before poor health forced him to return to his native Poland in 1936.

When the Nazis invaded his country, Maximilian was given the chance to earn enhanced rights and privileges in exchange for signing a document recognizing his German ancestry. He refused. He also could have had a much easier time under the occupation had he given up publishing religious texts. But he also declined to do this. In fact, his books and essays became increasingly critical of the Nazis. That’s why, in February of 1941, his monastery was shut down and he was arrested by the Gestapo. Within a couple of days, he was being transferred to the infamous Auschwitz death camp, as prisoner number 16670.

In the camp, Maximilian saw it his duty to carry on in his priestly manner, even though this got him regular beatings. Then, in July 1941, came his ultimate test of faith. Ten prisoners had succeeded in escaping. In order to deter other outbreaks, the Nazi guards picked ten prisoners to be starved to death in an underground bunker. One of the men chosen cried out that he had a wife and children, so the priest offered to take his place among the condemned. So, along with nine others, he was thrown into the bunker and left to die a slow, agonizing death.

One of the men employed to clean the camp survived to tell the story. He revealed that Maximilian led the condemned men in prayer. In all, he lasted two weeks, and was the last of the prisoners to die. Indeed, the guards ultimately had to give him a lethal injection – which, according to witnesses, he accepted with good grace and serenity. By 1955, he had been recognized by the Catholic Church and was on the way to Sainthood. He was canonized in 1982 and named a martyr of charity. And the man whose place in the bunker he took? He lived to be 93 years old and dedicated much of his life to telling the world about his savior’s act of sacrifice.

10 of the Most Heroic Acts of Self Sacrifice in History
Salvo d’Acquisto is celebrated in his native Italy for his heroic sacrifice. Wikipedia.

Salvo d’Acquisto

Very few Italian heroes from the Second World War are well known in the English-speaking world. But surely the story of Salvo d’Acquisto deserves to be known and celebrated. As a young officer, he condemned himself to certain death so that others might have the chance to live. Indeed, so great was his sacrifice that there are strong campaigns for him to be made the first soldier saint to emerge out of the bloody conflict.

By all accounts, Salvo had a typical Nepalese childhood. Poverty was rife in the southern Italian city and so he lived with his seven siblings, parents and grandparents in a single-room apartment. He left school at the age of 14, as was normal for boys from his neighborhood, and enrolled in the Carabinieri, a unit of the Italian army which serves as a police force. The first few years of his career took him to Rome and then to North Africa. And then, when war broke out, he was sent to keep order in Torrimpietra, a small village just to the north of Rome.

Salvo was on duty on the morning of 23 September 1943. He had just been to church for mass when he saw a group of feared SS soldiers approaching. Their officer immediately refused Salvo’s greeting, striking him hard instead. The SS man informed Salvo that one of his own soldiers had been killed in an explosion in a nearby village. He suspected sabotage was to blame and wanted revenge. The Nazis had chosen 22 local men. They would all be shot if Salvo could not find the man – or men – responsible for the alleged sabotage.

Salvo had to watch as the innocent men were made to dig their own graves. He tried to comfort the condemned and to reason with the SS officer. Eventually, Salvo himself ‘confessed’ to the crime, saying he had caused the explosion and had acted completely alone. He stressed that the other men were innocent and should be let go. Perhaps surprisingly, the SS man took Salvo at his word. The 22 men were released and Salvo was to face the firing squad alone. He was shot just before dusk, with just one of the freedmen staying around to watch his final, dignified moments.

After the war, Salvo’s actions became widely known. He was posthumously awarded the Gold Medal of Military Valor, Italy’s highest military honor. Streets have been named after him and stamps made with his face on them. He’s also been the subject of numerous biographies and movies. Perhaps more fittingly given his own strong Catholic faith, Salvo is being considered for beatification and is widely regarded as Italy’s most important Catholic martyr.

10 of the Most Heroic Acts of Self Sacrifice in History
Jan van Speyk blew himself and his ship up rather than surrender. Wikipedia.

Jan van Speyk

The name Jan Carolus Josephus van Speijk – or Jan Van Speyk – might not be commonly known outside of the Netherlands, but in his native country, he is remembered as a true hero. As with many dedicated patriots, he chose death over dishonor and surrender, and his name is in the Dutch history books as a prime example of self-sacrifice for his country.

Little is known about Van Speyk’s childhood, aside from the fact that he was born in Amsterdam in 1802 and was then orphaned just a few weeks later. As an orphan, the Dutch Navy gave him a sense of belonging and purpose and so, after signing up at the age of 18, he made rapid progression up the career ladder. In 1823, he was sent to serve in the Dutch East Indies for two years. It was here where he started making a name for himself. Dutch trading ships were constantly being targeted by pirates. Van Speyk struck back with such ferocity that he soon earned the nickname ‘Terror of the Bandits’. He also earned several promotions during these two years and so, by 1530, he was given command of his own gunship.

In August of 1830, the Belgian Revolution erupted. The Belgians were determined to win their freedom from the Dutch and the British, and they took their fight to the sea as well as on the land. Van Speyk was fiercely opposed to any talk of independence for the Belgians, and he took his hatred with him into battle. On 5 February 1931, his gunship ran into a storm. A fierce gale blew it into the port of Antwerp, an enemy stronghold. Before long, his ship was being overrun by Belgians. They demanded his surrender, telling him to take down the Dutch flag and accept his fate. He did neither.

According to the legend, Van Speyk threw a lit cigar into a barrel of gunpowder, screaming “I’d rather be blown up”. And blown up he was – along with 28 of his own men and numerous enemy sailors. His sacrifice soon became a thing of legend in the Netherlands, steeling the country’s resolve and boosting morale in a time of war. In 1833, King William I issued a Royal Decree stating that, from then on, the Dutch Navy should always have one ship named in Van Speyk’s honour – a tradition that is maintained to this day.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“A Chernobyl ‘suicide squad’ of volunteers helped save Europe – here’s their amazing true story”. Sarah Kramer, Business Insider, April 2018.

“One lieutenant’s ultimate gift to America”. David M. Thomas, The Washington Post.

“One of the US’s richest men among victims of Lusitania”. Ronan McGeevy, The Irish Times, May 2015

“Science under siege”. Steve Connor, The Independent, August 1992

“Antarctic mission: Who was Captain Lawrence Oakes?” Dhruti Shah, BBC, March 2012.

The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation

“The incredible sacrifice of Salvo D’Acquisto’: Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, The Catholic Herald, July 2012.

“Jan van Speijk (1802-1831)”. Amsterdam Tourism Board.

History of Yesterday – The Story of John Fox: Segregated in USA, Hero in WWII

Irish Times – One Of The US’s Richest Men Among Victims Of Lusitania

Medium – The Heroic Story of Nikolai Vavilov and The Saviors of the Seeds

Word On Fire – 9 Things To Know About St. Maximilian Kolbe

Today I Found Out – The Story Of Jan Van Speijk, The Explosive Dutch Hero