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
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