Heroes from History People Really Don't Appreciate Enough
Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough

Khalid Elhassan - November 10, 2020

Being a hero is tough – if not, then we would all be heroes. Many heroes go unrecognized, and of those who are, the recognition seldom lasts for long before their deeds are forgotten. From a heroic World War I nurse, to a heroic WWII spy, following are thirty-five things about heroes whose deeds are little known today.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Edith Cavell in a Brussels garden with her dogs before WWI. The dog on the left, ‘Jack’, was rescued after her execution. Imperial War Museum

35. The WWI Heroine Who Saved Hundreds of Lives, and Paid for it With Her Own

Unlike in the movies and comics, the hero in real life seldom wears a cape and tight fitting leotards. In the case of real life heroine Edith Cavell (1865 – 1915), she wore a nurse’s smock and cap. As a middle-aged woman, Cavell saved hundreds of lives during WWI. She was not armed with a gun when she did that. Instead, she was armed and armored by a faith and sense of basic decency that compelled her to help those in need.

Also, unlike the movies and comics, her story did not have a happy ending. Because it happened in real life, and in real life the hero comes to grief more often than not, Edith Cavell’s heroism got her executed by a firing squad.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Edith Cavell. History Extra

34. The Background of an Unlikely Heroine

Edith Cavell was born in 1865 in a small English village in East Anglia. The eldest of four children born to a vicar and his equally religious wife, Cavell received an excellent by the standards of her day. Upon graduation, she worked as a governess, including for a family in Brussels from 1890-1895. She returned to England to care for her father when he became seriously ill, and by the time he recovered, Cavell had gotten a taste for nursing.

So in 1896, she began training as nurse, and graduated two years later. Her early Christian upbringing instilled in her a sense of duty towards those less fortunate than herself, which led her to choose to work in hospitals serving the poorer parts of London. In 1907, she was invited back to Brussels to become matron, or chief nurse, of Belgium’s first modern nursing school. By 1910, Cavell had launched Belgium’s first nursing journal, and was training nurses for three hospitals, 13 kindergartens, and 24 schools.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
German troops on parade in central Brussels in 1914. Pintrest

33. A Courageous English Nurse in German-Occupied Belgium

Edith Cavell was visiting her mother in England, when Germany kicked off WWI in the west by invading Belgium. She felt it was her duty to return to Brussels immediately. By August 20th, 1914, Brussels was occupied by the Germans, and Cavell’s nursing school was transformed into a Red Cross hospital that treated soldiers from all sides, as well as civilians.

In September, 1914, Cavell was asked to help two wounded British soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. She treated them, then helped smuggle them out of occupied Belgium into the neighboring and neutral Netherlands. That was the start of her involvement in a clandestine network that sheltered Allied soldiers and Belgian men of military age, and arranged for their escape. Over the following 11 months, Cavell helped over 200 British, French, and Belgian soldiers and civilians. She sheltered them in her hospital, furnished them with false identity papers, and arranged to smuggle them across the border to safety. As she put it: “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved“.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
The arrest of Edith Cavell. Amazon

32. The Betrayal, Arrest, and Trial of Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell’s efforts to help others were honorable, but also illegal under the laws of war. The Germans suspected Cavell, but could pin nothing on her, until she was betrayed by a collaborator. She was arrested on August 3rd, 1915, and imprisoned for ten weeks – the last two in solitary confinement.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Edith Cavell. Wikimedia

In depositions to the German authorities, Cavell confessed. She admitted to having sheltered about 60 British and 15 French soldiers, plus over 100 Belgian and French civilians of military age, then helped smuggle them across the border. Her admission to having helped enemy soldiers escape to a country at war with Germany sealed her fate. Tried before a military tribunal, Cavell was convicted and sentenced to death.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Allied propaganda about Edith Cavell’s execution. Canadian War Museum

31. The Execution of Edith Cavell Made Her a Martyr

Legally, the Germans had every right to execute Edith Cavell – a civilian who helped the enemy during wartime. Her protection as a Red Cross nurse was forfeited when she used it as cover to help Germany’s enemies. Politically, the German decision to execute the middle-aged nurse, which was carried out by a firing squad on October 12th, 1915, was a public relations disaster.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Propaganda poster about the execution of Nurse Cavell. Wellcome Library, London

Nurse Cavell became an iconic propaganda figure in Britain. In the then-still-neutral United States, her execution further sullied Germany’s reputation – a reputation already marred by a German U-boat’s sinking of the Lusitania earlier that year. After the war, Cavell’s remains were returned to Britain for a state funeral at Westminster Abbey. The Church of England commemorates the date of her execution, October 12th, on its Calendar of Saints.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Bill Chong in 1943. Chinese-Canadian Military Museum

30. WWII Hero Bill Chong Spent Years Behind Japanese Lines

World War II hero William “Bill” Gun Chong, BEM, (1911 – 2006) lived dangerously during that conflict. A Chinese-Canadian born in Vancouver, he was visiting relatives in Hong Kong in 1941, when all hell broke loose and the Japanese invaded and swiftly conquered the British enclave. After scary run-ins with the occupiers, Chong managed to escape. He then volunteered to serve with the British Army Aid Group, a paramilitary organization that operated in southern China as a unit of British Directorate of Military Intelligence Section MI9.

Chong was given the code name “Agent 50” (“five-oh”), and inserted into Japanese occupied China to gather intelligence, shepherd POW escapees to freedom, and deliver desperately needed medical supplies. He spent the years from 1942 to 1945 traveling behind enemy lines, doing his best to avoid the unwelcome attentions of both Japanese patrols and Chinese outlaws. He was captured on three occasions, but proved a slippery customer, and managed to escape and resume his clandestine work each time.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Bill Chong in 1938, when he worked as a house servant and cook. War History Online

29. This Hero Grew Up Amidst Intense Discrimination

Vancouver, where Bill Chong was born and raised, was seething with anti-Chinese discrimination in those days. Our hero grew up in a country where he could not vote, and where he could not even use a public swimming pool alongside white Canadians. Opportunities for advancement and upward mobility were few and far in between for Chinese-Americans, and equality was a pipedream. Against that backdrop, he eked a living from menial and low paying jobs. That did not keep Chong from becoming a patriotic Canadian.

Chong was a house servant and cook in Vancouver when WWII began. When Canada joined the war, Chinese-Canadians were divided about whether they should volunteer to fight. As some saw it, why volunteer to fight for a country that treated them as second-class citizens? Others argued that volunteering to fight would shift public perceptions about Chinese-Canadians and their right to full citizenship. As one veteran put it: “We weren’t demanding something extra, we just wanted to be equal“. Chong was in the latter camp, and he tried to do his bit out of patriotism and love of Canada.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Canadian WWII recruitment poster. Legion Magazine

28. Bill Chong Tried to Enlist in the Canadian Military, But Was Rejected Because He Was Chinese

Bill Chong might have loved Canada, but Canada did not love him back. When he tried to enlist in the army, he was turned away by recruiters who were unenthusiastic about signing a “Chinaman”. As fate would have it, Chong would end up playing a greater role in the war than anybody could have imagined when he was spurned by the Canadian military.

It began with a family bereavement. Chong’s father died in Canton, and his sister, who lived in Hong Kong, wrote her brother to tell him that he was needed to help settle the estate. He traveled to Hong Kong in 1941, but probate was more complicated and took much longer than expected. Weeks turned into months, and Chong was still in Hong Kong in December, 1941, when Japan kicked off WWII in the Pacific and Asia by attacking American, British, and Dutch colonial possessions.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Japanese troops crossing the Shenzhen River Bridge into Hong Kong, December, 1941. South China Morning Post

27. Witnessing Japanese Brutality Set Bill Chong on the Path to Becoming a Hero

Japanese forces invaded Hong Kong Island, whose garrison included Canadian units, on December 18th, 1941. After a week of heavy fighting, during which thousands of civilians were killed, the Japanese forced the defenders to surrender and secured the island. Like many who found themselves living under Japanese occupation, Bill Chong was appalled by the brutality and rudeness of the conquerors. He grew particularly incensed after he witnessed a Japanese soldier execute a wounded Canadian officer, and decided that he would do something about it.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Japanese artillery shelling Hong Kong. Wikimedia

Chong sold all his possessions in Hong Kong, burned his Canadian passport, and set out for mainland China. As he put it: “I had seen so much of the war in Hong Kong I was full of hate … I had seen how the Japanese killed people, killed Canadians without any cause. They’d just shoot anybody they want, they’d shoot people left and right. I said, ‘I’ve got to do something about this.’ I felt like getting a gun and just going out and shooting a few Japanese [soldiers]. So I escaped to China“.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
British Army Aid Group (BAAG) badge. Australian War Museum

26. The Canadian Military Might Have Spurned Bill Chong, but the British Military Knew How to Spot a Potential Hero

Bill Chong fled Hong Kong for mainland China, taking nothing but money. He reasoned that if he was caught carrying supplies for a journey, it would probably mean his summary execution. He planned to buy food from villages en route, but those hopes were dashed when he saw a Japanese flag flying from each one. So he subsisted on raw vegetables, dug from gardens in the dead of night.

Chong seems to have a had a hero streak from early on, and he formed nebulous plans to join Chinese guerrillas. However, he ran into a British military intelligence officer who saw something in Chong, and convinced him that he would be more valuable as a clandestine agent. The Canadian military had scorned Bill when he tried to enlist, but the British eagerly snapped him up. As a fluent speaker of both English and Chinese, Chong was ideally suited for intelligence work, so he was assigned to the Directorate of Military Intelligence, Section MI9. When volunteers were sought for hazardous work with an MI9 subunit, the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), Chong stepped forward.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Chinese-Canadian intelligence personnel in Australia, awaiting deployment. Chinese-Canadian Military Museum

25. Operating Behind Enemy Lines as “Agent 50”

The British Army Aid Group (BAAG) was a paramilitary organization that operated in southern China. Its chief aims were to gather intelligence, and help escaped POWs make their way to safety behind Allied lines. Throughout the war, BAAG sent agents into Japanese occupied southern China and Hong, to gather intelligence and help POWs escape from Japanese clutches. The escapees were then guided to Chungking, China’s wartime capital, where they were debriefed, before rejoining the war effort.

Bill Chong was given the codename Agent 50, and sent to operate behind Japanese lines. As our hero recalled in later years: “[w]e didn’t have any communications; we had to use the Chinese telegraph office … Every time I’d send a message back, they wanted me to include the word 50. I’d write I was going back for my mother’s 50th birthday, I’m waiting for transportation, things like that. Then they understood it was from me. If I had some escapees, I said I had three cattle, three escapees“.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Macu during WWII. South China Morning Post

24. Sneaking Into Macau Under Japanese Noses

Bill Chong’s first mission behind enemy lines was to find out what had happened to the British consul in the Portuguese enclave of Macau, with whom contact had been lost. Macao was officially neutral, but it was teeming with Japanese, who had heavy patrols throughout the region.

As our hero put it: “I found out if you tried to go there by boat, you’d get shot … If you walked, you’d get caught. So how the heck was I going to get there? I went to a smuggler’s town, bandits, crooks, just like you see in the movies. You didn’t find a good guy there, all bad guys. I stayed in a little crummy hotel, and I began to get friendly with them.” After winning their confidence, Chong got the smugglers to sneak him into Macau, where he confirmed that the consul was OK.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Bill Chong, third from left in belted trousers, at a BAAG medical outpost. Chinese-Canadian Military Museum

23. The Dangerous and Exhausting Life of a Hero Behind Japanese Lines

Bill Chong completed his mission in Macau and reported back to BAAG, who promptly sent him out on more hazardous missions that called for a hero. Some of the missions involved scouting and reporting back on Japanese troop movements. Others entailed helping downed Allied pilots and air crews escape to the safety of friendly lines. Equally hazardous were his missions of mercy, delivering desperately needed medicines to BAAG outposts and resistance cells behind Japanese lines.

It was physically exhausting work, traveling the war torn countryside on foot, sometimes covering up to 50 miles in a single day, then sleeping on the bare ground. Chong wore disguises, and affected a limp as cover for the use of a walking stick: it had a hollowed-out compartment, in which he secreted intelligence documents or hid medicines.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Japanese soldiers taunting Chinese prisoners before their execution. Medium

22. This Hero Was Cornered and Captured More Than Once, But Escaped Each Time

Bill Chong’s work behind enemy lines was not just physically exhausting: it was mentally exhausting as well. On one occasion, our hero and a guide were discovered hiding from a Japanese patrol. Their captors beat them bloody, then forced them to dig their own graves, and asked whether they would rather be shot or beheaded. Chong figured the jig was finally up, and asked to be shot. However, the duo were spared at the last minute when the guide showed the Japanese the personal card of a retired Japanese intelligence officer, and convinced them that he was one of his agents.

On another occasion, Chong was swept up in a random Japanese roundup, and locked up with others in the hold of a rickety fishing boat, that was then set adrift on the ocean. He survived when somebody discovered a rotten plank, kicked it out, crawled through the hole, then opened the hatch from the outside and released the rest of the prisoners. Another close brush came when he was held by collaborationist Chinese bandits, but he convinced them to let him go in exchange for medicine for their ailing leader.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
A post-war BAAG letter of recommendation for Bill Chong. Veterans Affairs, Canada

21. Bill Chong Saved Hundreds of Lives During WWII

The exact number of escapees rescued by Bill Chong is unknown, and probably unknowable. However, there were many who owed their freedom, or even their lives, to this hero. As he put it: “According to some newspapers, I rescued 1,863 people. That is not true. I never rescued that many people. A few hundred, yes.

I didn’t keep a record. Where would I keep a record? I didn’t want to be caught [with papers] saying on this day I brought so many people. Even our head office didn’t keep a record, because everybody was busy, nobody had time. I brought them back, put them on the plane, that was my job.”

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Bill Chong receiving an award from Hong Kong’s governor. Behind the Medal

20. This WWII Hero Kept on Performing Heroic Deeds During the Subsequent Cold War

For his courage in the face of death and exploits behind enemy lines, Bill Chong was decorated by Hong Kong’s governor in 1946. That made him the only Chinese-Canadian ever awarded the British Empire Medal. British intelligence knew and appreciated the fact that they had a hero on their hands. After the war, they asked him to stay on as an agent, and he agreed.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Bill Chong in old age. Chinese-Canadian Military Museum

Chong worked for British intelligence, operating out of Hong Kong and carrying out missions into communist China, until he retired in 1976. He returned to Canada, but nobody knew of his background until somebody noticed a photo of him receiving an award from Hong Kong’s governor. He was talked into joining a veteran’s organization, and after word of his exploits spread, he became the subject of a CBC documentary. He died in 2006, at age 95.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
The midnight ride of Paul Revere. Smithsonian Magazine

19. Paul Revere is a Well-Known Hero, But the Young Girl Who Outrode Him Has Been Largely Forgotten

American Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere is famous for his 18-mile midnight ride in April, 1775, to alert the colonial militia of the approaching British. The event was dramatized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Paul Revere’s Ride. In 1777, Sybil Ludington (1761 – 1839) made a 40-mile midnight ride to warn the colonial militia of approaching British troops. That was more than twice as far as Paul Revere’s ride, and she did it when she was only sixteen.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Sybil Ludington’s midnight ride. Amazon

Sybil Ludington was born in Fredericksburg (now Ludington), the eldest of a large family of 12 children. Her father, Henry Ludington, was a New York militia officer, and later an aide to George Washington. On the night of April 26th, 1777, word reached the Ludington household that New York’s governor, general William Tryon, was about to attack nearby Danbury, Connecticut, where supplies and munitions for the region’s militia were stored.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Sybil Ludington statue. Cerkl

18. Sybil Ludington Rode Twice as Far as Paul Revere, but is Not Half as Well-Known

Sybil Ludington volunteered (or was ordered by her father – accounts differ) to deliver the order for an immediate militia muster, and to rouse the countryside. The sixteen-year-old girl rode her horse, Star, throughout a rainy night on a 40-mile careen around the region. She traveled over unfamiliar roads, prodding the horse with a stick that she also used to knock on doors, and that came in handy to defend herself when a highwayman tried to attack her in the dark.

By the time Sybil returned home, exhausted and soaked to the bone, most of the region’s 400 militia were ready to march to Danbury. They managed to beat governor Tryon and his men, forcing the British to retreat. Sybil was praised by her neighbors, and even by George Washington. Unfortunately for her, no world-class poet took an interest in her exploits that night – or perhaps none could find anything good to rhyme with “Ludington”. Either way, Sybil never garnered as much attention as Paul Revere, and her heroics were largely forgotten.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
CIA Director William Colby before the Congressional Church Committee in 1975. C-SPAN

17. The CIA Director Who Began His Career as a Bona Fide Hero Blowing Up Nazis

Former Central Intelligence Agency Director William Colby is best remembered for his stint as America’s top spy from 1973 to 1976. It was a tricky time for the CIA: Congress, in a reformist mood after the Watergate scandal, launched investigations that unmasked many of the agency’s worst abuses. As the man on the spot, Colby became associated with the rot emanating from Langley. However, there was a time, decades earlier, when William Colby had been a bona fide American hero. During WWII, he had parachuted into German-occupied Europe to carry out dangerous operations that stuck it to the Nazis.

The last of those, Operation RYPE, came in 1945, when Colby parachuted into Norway at the head of an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) team. Their task was to blow up rail links to impede the evacuation of German soldiers, and keep them from reinforcing the Third Reich’s crumbling battlefronts. It was a hair raising mission that started off horrifically, and remained harrowing until the end. Nonetheless, Colby managed to snatch success from the jaws of catastrophe, and accomplished the mission.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
US Army 2nd Lieutenant William Colby. History Net

16. An Original Antifa, This Hero Wanted to Fight Fascists Since He Was a Teenager

WWII hero William Egan Colby (1920 – 1996) was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, the son of a US Army officer. Although Colby’s father was a career soldier, his pursuits focused more on the intellectual and scholarly contributions to the military, rather than on the strictly military. While serving in the Army, Colby’s father was also an author and scholar who did stints as an English professor in Vermont, Georgia, Washington, DC, and overseas in far off China.

That mobile childhood left its mark on William Colby. It broadened his horizons, and gave him an interest in world affairs and a thirst for adventure. In 1936, at age 16, he seriously considered fighting in the Spanish Civil War with the American volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, against General Francisco Franco’s fascists. Instead, he ended up accepting a scholarship to study at Princeton University. After graduating with a political science degree, he went to Columbia Law School in 1940. Colby dropped out of law school after his first year to join the US Army, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in August, 1941.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
WWII jump wings. War Relics

15. To Get His Jump Wings, William Colby Volunteered for an Experimental Airborne Artillery Unit

William Colby’s military career began in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he trained to become an artillery officer. He then volunteered to join an experimental airborne artillery unit. The concept of airborne artillery seemed ridiculous to Colby, but he figured that the training would qualify him as a parachutist and earn him the coveted jump wings, which were all the rage for the adventurous back then.

He got the parachute training, as well as training in demolitions and small arms. While our hero was learning how to jump out of airplanes and blow stuff up, a new organization that had a keen interest in people with interests and qualifications like Colby’s, came into being: the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
General William Donovan reviewing an OSS operation group before its deployment overseas. Wikimedia

14. The “Surprise, Kill, and Vanish” Ivy Leaguers

The CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was created in June, 1942 to collect and analyze strategic intelligence, and to carry out “special activities”. Operating under the overall command of America’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the OSS was headed by William “Wild Bill” Donovan, a WWI Medal of Honor winner and personal friend of FDR.

Like FDR (and William Colby), OSS chief William Donovan was an Ivy Leaguer and Columbia Law School alumnus. He saw to it that his organization recruited heavily from Ivy League circles. Colby, with Princeton and Columbia on his resume, an international background, a thirst for adventure, and a qualified parachutist with demolition training, was just the type the OSS was looking for. He was accepted into the organization in 1943. Colby received intensive training in guerrilla tactics to operate as a “Jedburgh” – OSS agents who worked with resistance forces in occupied Europe, and whose motto was “Surprise, Kill, and Vanish“.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Major William Colby led a Jedburgh team in France during WWII. OSS Society

13. This Hero Led 6000 French Irregulars Behind Nazi Lines

In his first mission, William Colby deployed into France as a Jedburgh team commander, working with French Resistance guerrillas. He experienced harrowing adventures along the way. They began with a pilot who mistakenly dropped Colby 20 miles off target, in the middle of a German-occupied village, and included a narrow escape from a collaborationist traitor who almost delivered him to the Gestapo.

Our hero overcame the rough start to his mission, and worked his way through the difficulties. He eventually ended up commanding about 6000 French irregulars, and led them in harassing the Nazis, until his command linked up with General George S. Patton’s Third Army in the fall of 1944. That stellar performance was praised by Colby’s superiors, and earned him a Bronze Star plus a French Croix de Guerre. He was given some time to rest and recuperate, and upon his return on November 1st, 1944, Colby was given command of an ethnically Norwegian OSS unit based in Scotland.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
NORSOG members. Norwegian American

12. America Put Its Ethnic Diversity and the Multicultural Roots of Its Citizens to Good Use During WWII

After the US joined WWII, the War Department tried to figure out the best way to make use of first generation bilingual immigrants from enemy-occupied areas. Eventually, it was decided to establish special units of bilingual American citizens from certain ethnic groups, for operations in occupied countries. Accordingly, ethnic battalions of Filipinos, Japanese, Austrians, Greeks, and Norwegians, were created in 1942.

The Norwegian one was the 99th Infantry Battalion, Separate (because it was unattached to any regiment). It trained for winter and alpine warfare in Colorado, and was then shipped to Scotland in September, 1943. It was there that the OSS came a-calling, seeking Norwegian speakers to volunteer for special missions. Eventually, 12 officers and 80 men from the 99th Battalion were selected for what would become the OSS’ Norwegian Special Operations Group (NORSOG).

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
SS troops on the Nordland Railway. Getty Images

11. Operation RYPE Sought to Impede the Evacuation of German Soldiers From Norway

As WWII progressed, the Nazi high tide of the early years receded, and things began to go from bad to worse for the Third Reich. With the Soviets rolling Hitler’s empire from the east and America and her allies doing so from the west, the Nazis grew desperate for military manpower. One potential source was the German occupation garrison in Norway, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

As the Nazis’ day of reckoning drew ever closer, the Germans started evacuating their forces from Norway to reinforce their crumbling fronts on the European mainland. The Allies decided to impede that evacuation, and the task was handed to the OSS, which drew up a mission, Operation RYPE (Norwegian for grouse), to parachute a NORSOG team into Norway. Once on the ground, they were to slow the German evacuation by blowing up bridges and links along the vital Nordland Railway, the main ground link to the country’s north. William Colby was put in charge of the operation, whose primary target was to be the Grana Bridge, near the village of Snasa.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Major William Colby. Pintrest

10. A Hero Dropped Behind Enemy Lines, Then Cut Off From Reinforcement and Resupply

On March 24th, 1945, converted B-24 bombers, laden with NORSOG team members instead of bombs, took off from Scotland and flew to Norway. William Colby parachuted with three companions into Norway, and made contact with the local resistance. However, out of the expected 31 OSS operatives of the NORSOG who were supposed to rendezvous with him, only 12 showed up. Three B-24s had been unable to locate the drop point and returned to Scotland, while another made an even greater hash of things, and mistakenly dropped its load of 5 men into neighboring Sweden.

A few days later, four B-24s returned, but a heavy mist prevented them from locating the drop zone. Three made it back to base, but one crashed en route, killing 13 men. A final attempt to reinforce Colby was made in April, but poor weather conditions again prevented the B-24s from locating the drop zone, and yet another one crashed, this time a few miles from the drop zone, killing another 12 men. Colby’s superiors informed our hero that there would be no more attempts to reinforce him.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
German soldiers in Norway. Pintrest

9. Prevented From Attacking His Original Target, William Colby Skied for 100 Miles to Attack Another Target

Without William Colby’s whole team at hand, attacking his target, the well-protected Grana Bridge, would have been foolhardy. So he decided to attack and destroy another bridge: the smaller, but unguarded, one at Tangen. On April 9th, 1945 Colby led his men on a 100 mile journey on skis to their target.

The men, carrying a 60 pound load of ammunition and rations, took turns dragging a sled with 180 pounds of explosives. They made their way through tough terrain, skiing through a sleet storm en route, until they reached the Tangen Bridge on April 14th. After cutting nearby telegraph wires, they blew up their target. With the bridge destroyed, Colby and his men sped east towards the safety of neutral Sweden.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Major William Colby (oak leaves on cap) with OSS personnel and Norwegian Resistance members in Norway. Special Operations

8. After Blowing Up a German Bridge, This Hero and His Men Had to Ski For Their Lives

Soon as William Colby and his men blew up the Tangen Bridge, the Germans sent up a spotter plane to find them. Before long, 50 German mountain troops were hot on their tail. Bluntly warned that “if you can’t outski the Germans, you will not return“, our hero and his men skied for their lives.

After 56 grueling hours, they managed to lose their pursuers by making their way up a steep hill, which they nicknamed “Benzedrine Hill” after the tablets they took to keep them awake and going. On April 18th, 1945, the NORSOGs crossed into the safety of Sweden, where they were reunited with their five teammates who had been mistakenly parachuted there. Reinforced and resupplied, Colby’s men returned to Norway, and blew up a half-mile stretch of the Nordland Railway on April 23rd.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Major William Colby and the Norwegian Special Operations Group (NORSOG) parading in liberated Trondheim, Norway, in 1945. Wikimedia

7. William Colby Concluded His WWII Adventures by Accepting the Surrender of a German Garrison

After another harrowing chase, with Nazis nipping at their heels, William Colby and his men once again shook off their pursuers by climbing Benzedrine Hill. While awaiting new orders, Colby’s men found and buried the remains of their comrades who had crashed near their initial drop zone.

A few days later, they stumbled across a squad of Germans and wiped them out in a shootout. A few days after that, Germany surrendered. As commander of the nearest Allied unit on the ground, Colby accepted the surrender of the local German garrison. After a triumphant tour during which they were lionized by the locals, our hero and the other NORSOGs made it to the Norwegian capital of Oslo. From there, they were repatriated back to the US in June, 1945.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
German forces plunging into the Soviet Union at the start of Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Encyclopedia Britannica

6. This Hero Hacked Nazis to Death With an Ax

The summer of 1941 was a bad time for the Red Army. The recent sudden German onslaught, Operation Barbarossa, had caught the Soviets off guard and inflicted catastrophic losses upon them. As Red Army casualties mounted and reeling Soviet military personnel retreated in disarray, an unheralded soldier, Dmitry Ovcharenko, found himself among the millions of caught up in the calamity.

A few weeks into the German invasion, however, Ovcharenko managed to pull off an act of sheer brutal and bloody mindedness that set him apart and made him an early Soviet war hero. He was one of the relatively few people to have ever experienced the satisfaction of killing Nazis with an ax.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Dmitry Ovcharenko. Russia Beyond

5. A Red Army Hero Who Never Wanted to be in an Army

Dmitry Ovcharenko was born in 1919 in a Ukrainian peasant village, the son of a carpenter. He grew into a mild mannered young man, whom acquaintances described as lacking a vicious bone in his body, and the type of who would not hurt a fly. Nothing about him indicated that one day, he would become a hero by dint of bloody exploits in combat. Ovcharenko quit school in fifth grade to make a living in his village, caring for cattle, cutting and storing hay, and attempting to learn carpentry from his father.

Everyday life in his village required familiarity and handiness with an ax. That turned out to be a great asset. When he was 21, Ovcharenko was drafted into the Red Army. He had no taste for the military, and all he wanted was to just serve his term, then return to his village to get married and raise a family. Unfortunately, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941, and Ovcharenko’s dreams of returning to a simple life back in his village went up in smoke. It did not take our hero long to make the invaders pay.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
A Red Army cart. Mintorg Museum

4. A Hero Who Beheaded a Nazi Officer With an Ax

A few weeks after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, Dmitry Ovcharenko was in southern Ukraine, serving in the 389th Regiment, 176th Infantry Division. It was mid-July, 1941, and he had already been wounded once, so he was given light duty and was entrusted with a cart to bring up supplies from the rear to his comrades on the front.

Unbeknownst to Ovcharenko, however, the front had moved, and on July 13th, 1941, he turned a bend in the road, only to find himself face to face with dozens of Germans. An enemy soldier quickly seized Ovcharenko’s rifle, then an officer came up to interrogate him. Unfortunately for the Germans, Ovcharenko’s cart had an ax. He suddenly seized it mid-interrogation, and used it to lop off the German officer’s head in one sweep. It was the start of a gruesome episode, that was about to get more gruesome.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Bloody ax. 123RF

3. After Chopping Off a German Officer’s Head, Ovcharenko Went on a Bloody Ax and Grenade Rampage

Ovcharenko’s beheading of a German officer was followed by a moment of stunned silence. As the other shocked Germans tried to process what had just happened, Ovcharenko dove into the cart, pulled out some hand grenades, and began lobbing them at the enemy soldiers. Within a few seconds, the ground was covered with 21 dead and dying Germans, while the rest scattered.

Hefting his bloody ax, Ovcharenko gave chase. He caught up with another enemy officer from behind, and lopped off his head as well with an ax. The now thoroughly demoralized and terrified Germans – most likely reach echelon troops rather than front line soldiers – had no thoughts of fighting back. Instead, they gave in to blind panic and fled in terror from our hero.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Dmitry Ovcharenko. Bashny

2. This Hero’s Account Was Disbelieved at First – Until His Comrades Saw With Their Own Eyes the Carnage He Had Caused

After slaughtering over a score of Nazis, Dmitry Ovcharenko eventually grew tired of chasing the fleeing enemy soldiers with an ax. So the exhausted hero returned to his cart, whose surroundings were now a field of carnage.

He collected all the maps and documents and weapons off the dead Germans, loaded them in the cart, and delivered them to the 389th Regiment’s HQ. When he explained what had happened, Ovcharenko was not believed at first – which is not surprising, considering just how extraordinary his actions had been. He was finally believed when his comrades inspected the scene of his one-man rampage, and saw with their own eyes the gruesome evidence scattered all over the place.

Heroes from History People Really Don’t Appreciate Enough
Soviet soldiers in Budapest, Hungary, 1945. Bundesarchiv Bild

1. Ovcharenko’s Ax and Grenade Rampage Against the Nazis Made Him a National Hero

In the early days of the Soviet Union’s entry into the war, with the country reeling from calamity after calamity, Dmitry Ovcharenko became an instant national celebrity. For having killed 21 German soldiers with grenades and beheaded two German officers with an ax, he was awarded a Hero of the Soviet Union decoration.

As a military historian put it: “Ovcharenko showed wit and extraordinary courage, taking advantage of the confusion of the Germans. I think that he was a man of unbending will, devoted to his duty, land, and homeland. And striving to liberate his native land from fascist invaders by any means“. Dmitry Ovcharenko fought on until the war’s final year, when he was seriously wounded during the liberation of Hungary. He died of his wounds on January 28th, 1945.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

99th Infantry Battalion – Operation RYPE/ NORSO

Central Intelligence Agency – A Look Back… The Office of Strategic Services: Operation RYPE

Encyclopedia Britannica – Sybil Ludington, American Revolutionary War Heroine

Heimark, Bruce, University of Nebraska – OSS Operation RYPE: Cutting the Nordland Rail Line in Norway at Two Points in the North Tondelag Area, April, 1945 (1990)

History Net – Surprise, Kill, Vanish: Operatives Take on Nazi Forces in Norway

History’s Heroes – Edith Cavell: An Ordinary Nurse Becomes a Nation’s Heroine

Imperial War Museum – Who Was Edith Cavell?

Legion, Canada’s Military History Magazine, June 8th, 2017 – Hush-Hush Heroes

Russia Beyond – 5 Soviet Superheroes in World War II Who Terrified the Nazis

Special Operations – OSS Dons Chutes and Skis For a Dangerous Norway Mission

Veterans Affairs Canada – Bill Chong Interview

War History Online – Russian Rambo of WWII

War History Online – The Incredible WW2 Story of Intrepid Espionage Agent Bill Chong: Agent 50

Wikipedia – British Army Aid Group

Wikipedia – William Colby

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