10 of the Most Heroic Acts of Self Sacrifice in History
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

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