Category Archives: War Heroes

Chiune Sugihara: The Hero Who Didn’t Walk Away

By Jesse Schultz

There is a surprisingly profound line towards the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  It is uttered by Professor Dumbledore, who says “It takes great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends”. This idea is particularly true in warfare where actions by enemy troops are vilified, while actions by friends and allies are often excused or ignored. We see this phenomenon play out even today as the United States struggles with whether “enhanced interrogation” techniques are legal and ethical, and with the legitimacy of killing civilians during drone strikes.

This was a situation facing a man named Chiune Sugihara in the waning years of Imperial Japan when he bore witness to the beginning of one of the most abhorrent acts of evil ever committed.  Born in Yaotsu, Japan on January 1, 1900, Chiune Sugihara was raised in a middle-class rural family. His physician father had wished him to follow in his footsteps but Chiune purposely failed the required exams and instead majored in the English language and passed the Foreign Ministry Scholarship exam. He was soon recruited by the Japanese Foreign Ministry and sent to China.

It was in China that hints of his future acts of heroism would come to light. During this time Japan had invaded China and the mistreatment of the locals was commonplace. In protest of the way the Chinese were being treated, Chiune resigned his post as Deputy Foreign Minister in Manchuria.

In 1939 Chiune was then sent to the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania. On September 1st of that year Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the persecution of Jews began almost immediately. By 1940 Jewish refugees from Poland and from within Lithuania itself began to seek ways to flee the country. This required visas and many countries were refusing to issue them. Japan itself had stringent requirements that the refugees did not meet. Chiune inquired to his superiors three times requesting instructions, but in all cases requests to issue the visas were declined.

It might have been easier to simply walk away and do nothing but instead, in July of 1940, against orders, Sugihara started issuing visas and even directly negotiated with officials of the Soviet Union to allow the refugees to pass through Russia on their way to Japan. He continued to write visas, reportedly spending 18-20 hours a day until September 4th when the Consulate was closed. During the night prior to the closing, Chiune and his wife Yukiko spent the entire night writing visas, and Chiune was reportedly even preparing them en route to the train station where he threw them out the window of the train to waiting refugees as it left the station. In a final act of desperation he resorted to throwing blank pages with the Consulate seal and his signature, which could be filled out later.

The exact number of Jews saved by Chiune Sugihara is not known but estimates put the number around 6,000. By comparison Oskar Schildler saved around 1,100 to 1,200 lives.  Chiune’s actions seemed to have given him few accolades immediately after the war. The Japanese foreign office asked him to resign due to downsizing —  though some have suspected it might have stemmed from his activities in Lithuania. To make a living he began selling light bulbs door-to-door and later he found work in an export company.

Finally in 1968 he was located by one of his beneficiaries and later visited Israel. In 1985 he was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations award by the Israeli government. In June of the next year Chiune Sugihara passed away in Kamakura, Japan.  Today he has streets in Lithuania named after him, an asteroid (25893 Sugihara), a synagogue in Massachusetts, a memorial at his birthplace and in Lithuania, and a memorial in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. It seems inaccurate to refer to Chiune Sugihara as an “unsung hero” due to his many honors but many more should hear his story.

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The author, Jesse Schultz, has contributed several other essays on heroism here, including Love Thy Enemy: Opposing Heroes and Night Witches: the Forgotten AviatrixesTwo of his previous blog posts on Merlin and The Makers of Fire will appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.


Heroes of 9/11: The Passengers and Crew of United 93

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

As we pass the 13-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Americans continue to experience a range of strong emotions.  There remains deep sadness about the losses suffered that day.  There is still anger at the people who perpetrated the assaults, and the toxic mix of political, theological and economic conditions that fed their hatred.  And there continue to be reaffirmations of the goodness, resilience and courage of America and its citizens.

One of the ways we have coped with the tragedy is to remember the heroes who stepped forward that day.  Many paid the ultimate price to combat the terror and help us get back on our feet.  In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “they gave the last full measure of devotion.” There were numerous such heroes in New York and Washington, DC.  But few made as much difference as the passengers on United 93.  Their story will be remembered for as long as this nation survives.

United Airlines Flight 93 was bound from Newark, New Jersey to San Francisco that brilliant Tuesday morning.  It was delayed for about 45 minutes due to air traffic congestion, finally taking off at 8:42 AM.  Four hijackers began their takeover at 9:28 AM.  By that time the two flights from Boston had crashed into the World Trade Center.  The Pentagon would be hit in a few minutes.

During the hijacking itself, the four men apparently killed the pilot and co-pilot, and herded the passengers into the back of the aircraft.  Luckily, some passengers and flight attendants were able to use cell phones or airphones to call family members or contact GTE operators.  Slowly, what had happened at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon came into focus.

Many passengers’ relatives tried to console their loved ones, and saying that everything would be okay.  Intense fear very frequently leads to denial.  Initially both those in the air and those on the ground had difficulty coming to terms with the fact that the plane was on a suicide mission.  Once that was clear – and it became clear to those on the plane before those on the ground – the passengers reacted quickly.  It’s a good thing.  When the plane crashed, it was only twenty minutes from Washington, DC.

We don’t know who organized the counterattack.  It began at 9:57 AM.  The passengers voted to break into the cockpit to try to retake control of the plane.  Flight attendants helped.  One called her husband and told him that they were preparing boiling water to throw at the hijackers.  And we don’t know exactly how the passengers overwhelmed the hijackers and breached the cabin.

But the last words of one man are iconic.  They were overheard by the GTE operator he had reached by airphone:  “Are you guys ready?  Okay.  Let’s roll.”  It sounds like a line from a movie, but it happened to real people acting under the most terrifying circumstances imaginable.  They knew they were going to die.  But they wanted to prevent more death and destruction in the nation’s capital.

Most experts believe that United 93’s target was the Capitol building itself, though it may have been the White House or Camp David.  The hijackers’ mission failed due to acts of heroism that are as unalloyed as they come.  The nation will be forever grateful to the heroes of United 93.

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Do you have any heroes you would like us to profile?  If so, please contact Scott Allison as

Night Witches: The Forgotten Aviatrixes

By Jesse Schultz

There was a controversy in the early 1990s. U.S. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced in 1993 that for the first time in US history, women would be allowed to fly combat missions. It was a field that was traditionally dominated by men and by that date there were still many who felt that it should remain that way. The debate played out in the nightly news and in television shows ranging from JAG to Northern Exposure. Even a close family member of mine, who was a veteran of the second World War and had a long Naval career, expressed mild opposition to it.

But it was a controversy that should never have happened for the simple reason that woman had flown combat missions before and had done it successfully during World War II. Not in the United States, where most are aware of the non-combat Women’s Army Corp (or WACs), but in the Soviet Union.

In the summer of 1941 Russian aviatrix Marina Raskova was tasked with forming a regiment of night bombers to conduct strikes against German positions. This tactic was known as harassment bombing. Raskova in turn formed a unit composed entirely by women, from the mechanics to the pilots themselves and the 588th Regiment was born.

During the course of the war the squadron would fly some 23,000 sorties and drop an estimated 3000 tons of bombs. Impressive for a regiment that at its height only had 40 two-person crews. Impressive enough that it was the Germans who gave them their name:  Nachthexen, or Night Witches. Even more amazing was that the Night Witches were given obsolete Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, aircraft that were originally designed for crop dusting and training, to conduct their operations in.

And really this is where the Night Witches were truly inspirational. Not only because they were among the first at something, or unsung, or overcame adversity (though they deserve recognition for all of that).  It is because they turned that adversity into advantage. While the Po-2s were slow, lightly armed, and vulnerable the Night Witches found that they did have their advantages. The slow air speed of the plane often placed them below the stall speed of the German fighters sent to attack them. The slow speed also allowed the pilots to fly close to the ground and use trees and buildings as cover. And being biplanes the Night Witches could shut their engines off and silently glide to their targets, effectively performing some of the first stealth bombing missions. The Germans would often have no idea an attack was coming until the bombs were dropping.

By the end of the war, 30 members of the Night Witches had died in combat and 23 were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title, the highest distinction in the Soviet Union at the time.

However, after the end of the war the women pilots found their opportunities increasingly limited. Politics of the Cold War kept their exploits from western attention. But as their lesson is now too late for the debate of 1993, we can still learn from them and others who went before. Whenever a society or a culture or a stereotype insists that this group or that group cannot do something there will always be an example from history to refute the notion. Be it an ethnic group striving for new opportunities, or a religion group seeking to live their lives peacefully, or a gender who can defend their country with the same valor as their counterparts.

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The author, Jesse Schultz, is a life long admirer of aviation, history, and women- though not necessarily in that order. His previous musings on heroism include Love Thy Enemy: Opposing HeroesHis previous blogs on Merlin and The Makers of Fire will appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

Louis Zamperini: The Unbroken Hero

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

Human warfare brings out the worst in people. Prisoners of war, especially, can be at the receiving end of the most unimaginable brutality. During World War II, Second Lieutenant Louis Zamperini underwent horrific suffering after he survived a plane crash and was sent to several of the most brutal Japanese prison camps. Zamperini’s story is told in bold, vivid detail in Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, which was named Time Magazine’s best book of the year in 2010.

Zamperini’s heroic odyssey began with a few successful missions as a bombardier in the Pacific theater in 1942 and 1943.  In the spring of 1943, while on a routine mission searching for a lost plane, his own aircraft experienced mechanical trouble and plunged into the ocean about 850 miles west of Hawaii.  He and two other men drifted for 46 days on a raft, heading west into Japanese-held waters.  They suffered from thirst, starvation, violent storms, intense sunburn, menacing sharks, and strafing from a Japanese plane.  After floating 33 days, one of the three men died from starvation.

As much as Zamperini suffered on the raft, he would later recall that it was far preferable to what awaited him after the Japanese captured him on the 47th day near the Marshall Islands.  Already in an emaciated state from weeks on the raft, Zamperini was tortured and starved before being transferred to the notorious Ofuna Prisoner of War Camp, which was known for its egregious violations of the terms of the Geneva Convention.  At the Ofuna camp, Zamperini performed slave labor under the watchful eye of Imperial Japanese Army Sergeant Mutsuhiro Watanabe, perhaps the cruelest of all camp guards of World War II.

The level of hostility directed toward the prisoners by Watanabe was staggering.  He especially targeted Zamperini.  Watanabe was prone to violent outbursts during which he beat the prisoners daily, starved them, made them perform humiliating acts, refused to treat their illnesses, and exposed them to bitter cold.  Watanabe’s level of barbarism was so great that after the war he was classified as a Class-A war criminal.  The punishment heaped on Zamperini’s mind and body at the hands of Watanabe was extraordinary.

In one striking example of Watanabe’s sadism, Zamperini was once ordered to hold an extremely heavy wooden beam above his head.  He could barely raise it. Watanabe told a guard to strike Zamperini in the face with a gun if he dropped the beam.  No one expected Zamperini, in his weakened state, to hold it aloft for more than a few minutes.  Watanabe waited for Zamperini’s quick and inevitable failure.  Minutes ticked by.  Then a half hour.  Zamperini recalls the intense pain but also the fierce resolve not to let Watanabe defeat him.  After 37 minutes elapsed, Watanabe grew so frustrated waiting that he charged Zamperini and slammed his fist into the prisoner’s stomach, sending them both toppling to the ground.  Zamperini’s bold act of strength and defiance gave great inspiration to the throngs of POWs who witnessed the event.

But these moments of triumph were few and far between.  By August of 1945, Zamperini was near death, suffering from starvation, exhaustion, dysentery, and beriberi.  The dropping of the atomic bombs and Japan’s surrender soon thereafter saved Zamperini and other prisoners, all of them walking skeletons, who somehow managed to cling to life.

Because Zamperini was presumed dead, the reunion with his family was especially poignant.  He slowly regained his physical strength, but he suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.  Each night in his dreams, Zamperini was haunted by images of Watanabe beating him.  Zamperini was agitated, depressed, and unemployed.  To soothe his pain, he turned to alcohol and was consumed by revengeful thoughts of returning to Japan to murder Watanabe, the man who ruined his life.

During this emotionally tumultuous period, Zamperini fell in love with a young woman named Cynthia Applewhite, and they married in 1946. Cynthia was aghast at the level of Zamperini’s emotional pain.  One day in 1948 she convinced him to attend a speech given by a young Reverend named Billy Graham.  Zamperini was transfixed by Graham’s message of forgiveness.  He made a life-changing decision to turn his life over to God and to forgive his Japanese captors, even Watanabe.  Zamperini traveled to Japan in 1950 to communicate his forgiveness to his former prison guards, now in prison.  The trip went well, but unfortunately Watanabe was nowhere to be found.  The cruelest of prison guards in all of World War II had somehow evaded capture.

Zamperini’s religious conversion helped him overcome his emotional scars and lead a happy, productive life.  After enduring a plane crash, weeks without food and water on a raft, and appalling treatment at illegal prison camps, Zamperini found a way to survive and even thrive afterward.  His military service to his country, by itself, made him a great hero.  His remarkable resilience as a POW has made him an inspiration to millions.  Today, at the age of 95, he still draws big crowds as a motivational speaker.  In Laura Hillenbrand’s words, Louis Zamperini is indeed a man unbroken in mind, in body, and in spirit.

Dakota Meyer: The Hero Who Defied Orders to Save Lives

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

The war in Afghanistan is currently the longest war in U.S. history.  Americans have gotten used to very little good news coming out of that region of the world, but recently there was something to cheer about.  A U.S. Marine Corps veteran named Dakota Meyer performed a remarkable feat of heroism and received the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration one can receive.  Meyer distinguished himself by demonstrating “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.”

Here are the stirring details.  On September 8, 2009, Sergeant Meyer was serving his country in Afghanistan when he heard on his radio of a Taliban attack on a nearby village.  Members of his unit and a number of allied Afghan fighters were being bombarded by enemy fire.  He repeatedly asked his superiors for approval to assist those under attack, and he was repeatedly denied permission to do so.  It was simply too dangerous, and Meyer was heavily outnumbered.

Defying orders, Meyer headed into the besieged village. He first encountered several wounded allied Afghan fighters. He transported them to safety and then headed back into battle.  During the next several hours, Meyer entered the “kill zone” five times, rescuing 23 Afghans and 13 Americans.  He was under heavy enemy fire the entire time from a numerically superior foe.  Despite receiving shrapnel wounds to his arm, Meyer was able to kill at least eight Taliban while evacuating his fellow Marines to safety.

During one of his trips into the village, he stumbled across the bodies of four of his teammates killed by gunfire.  “I checked them all for a pulse. Their bodies were already stiff,” Meyer said.  Meyer made the decision to bring his friends back home. Bleeding from his shrapnel wound and still under fire, he carried their bodies back to a Humvee with the help of Afghan troops.

Meyer has said that he expected to die that day.  He also remains quite humble about his heroism, focusing instead on the guilt and pain of not being able to save the lives of the four men whose bodies he collected. “It’s hard getting recognized for the worst day of your life.  It’s a really tough thing,” Meyer said.  “There’s not a day — not a second — that goes by when I don’t think about what happened that day.  I didn’t just lose four [colleagues] that day; I lost four brothers.  I went in there to get those guys out alive, and I failed. So I think it’s more fitting to call me a failure than a hero.”

During the Medal of Honor ceremony, President Obama addressed Meyer’s obvious heartache. “Dakota, I know that you’ve grappled with the grief of that day; that you’ve said your efforts were somehow a failure because your teammates didn’t come home,” Obama said. “But as your commander-in-chief, and on behalf of everyone here today and all Americans, I want you to know it’s quite the opposite. You did your duty, above and beyond, and you kept the faith with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps that you love.  Because of your honor, 36 men are alive today.”

Below is a clip of the Medal of Honor being awarded to Dakota Meyer.

Pat Tillman: The Consummate War Hero

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— Scott Allison and George Goethals