What is the stuff of legend? Is it making a game winning shot? Is it revolutionizing an industry or a country? Super-human efforts lead us to placing men and women on pedestals for all to admire and aspire to. What is more super-human than fighting off a group of enemy combatants by oneself? That is the stuff of legend.
Unfortunately, as time has passed, many legends have been forgotten. Men who have done the unthinkable on the battlefield, with some even living to tell the tale. Our list consists of soldiers who have shown other-wordly courage and loyalty to cause and country. Here are 10 incredible stories of warriors who took on the enemy all alone.
10. Aníbal Augusto Milhais
Conflict: World War I
Born in Portugal in 1895, Milhais is viewed as the most important soldier in his nation’s history. Drafted when he was only 20, Milhais was ushered from his small village to the front line of the Portuguese Second Infantry division.
The legend of Anibal Milhais began during the Battle of Lys. Portuguese involvement in World War I was mostly centered in Belgium with British and Portuguese soldiers defending the area from invading German divisions. With casualties growing – 1,938 men killed, 5,198 wounded, with an additional 7,000 taken prisoner – Milhais was in charge of one of the machine guns. As the Germans continued their advance against retreating soldiers, Milhais defended against the assault by laying down intense fire, causing many German casualties. Instead of retreating with the other soldiers, he continued firing, covering the full the retreat of Portuguese and British alike despite coming under heavy attack. Milhais continued firing at his post until he ran out of ammunition.
If that wasn’t enough, Milhais would again come to the rescue of Belgian troops, standing alone with his machine gun, and covering another group of retreating troops. Not a single casualty was reported. As a result of heroic efforts, Anibal Augusto Milhais was awarded the highest military honor in the country.
9. Lone Viking
Conflict: Battle of Stamford Bridge
The Norse were being pushed back by the Saxon Army, their morale was low, and they struggled to reorganize their ranks as their enemy breathed down their necks. Out of the chaos, a lone Viking emerged. He pushed his way through his retreating brethren and faced the Saxon army on a bridge that had the width of three men. Our lone Viking was a large man with wide shoulders, wearing a helmet that covered his nose and metal that draped across his chest. According to legend, he stepped out toward the middle of the bridge by his lonesome with his fellow Vikings organizing their famous shield wall defense.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge was the result of the Norse army pillaging and burning English towns like Scarborough and York. While enjoying the spoils of their victories near Stamford Bridge, the English Saxon Army marched 180 miles in four days to face them. After the great Viking king, Harald Hardrada, was killed in the battle, the Vikings seemed destined to be routed by the Saxons. However, our lone Viking had other ideas.
Both sides share the account of the heroic effort. A lone man standing on the bridge as the Saxons came upon him. Our legend swung his battle axe, killing each man that stepped forward, and remained unmoved from his position despite the many arrows lodged across his torso. Finally, a Saxon soldier, who went below the bridge, stabbed the Viking up through the wooden slats. However, it wasn’t until our lone Norseman took at least 40 Saxon troops from the field of battle and rallied his Vikings.
8. Dian Wei
Conflict: Battle of Wancheng
One of the earliest conflicts on our list is the Battle of Wancheng, where Dian Wei made himself one of the most famed warriors in the Eastern Han Dynasty. After fleeing his home, Wei managed to impress a regional commander and eventually was promoted to Commandant. The role put him in charge of the safety of warlord Cao Cao, commanding his personal guards. Dian Wei would take this responsibility to heart.
After Cao Cao led the successful invasion of a province, the warlord, Zhang Xiu, immediately surrendered. Pleased with Xiu’s surrender, Cao Cao threw a party for Zhang Xiu and his men. However, a historical rendition of “The Red Wedding” ensued with Zhang Ziu rebelling and launching a surprise attack on Cao’s unprepared forces. Many of Cao’s men would be killed as he retreated with a few horsemen, however Dian Wei did not flee. He stood tall and fought. Wei had about a dozen men and were greatly outnumbered. Wei fought to the death allowing Cao to escape.
Legend has it that Dian Wei lay on the ground for several minutes, but the enemy soldiers were too afraid to approach him. Feared even after death – Wei’s story will live on.
7. Ben L. Salomon
Conflict: World War II
The United States entry into World War II changed the lives of thousands of young Americans. Ben L. Salomon had just graduated from college when he was drafted into the Army. Salomon had an opportunity to never see the horrors of war. Stationed in Hawaii as a dentist, he would have received an honorable discharge without seeing the battlefield. However, when a medic was killed in the line of duty, Salomon volunteered to take his place.
Salomon and the 2nd Battalion managed to complete their objective of clearing a coastal area stronghold. However, it seemed inevitable that they would face a strong counter-attack. Soon after, Japanese Army commander General Saito ordered all remaining Japanese soldiers would “advance to attack the American forces and will all die an honorable death. Each man will kill ten Americans.” Deployed as a paramedic, Salomon had set up close to the shoreline, making him vulnerable to a possible attack. Soon after the Japanese counter-attack began, the station was overwhelmed with more than thirty wounded. Salomon had to juggle to save the most seriously wounded while fighting off Japanese soldiers who entered the aid tent.
The station was soon overwhelmed with Japanese attackers. Salomon forced his men to leave the station while he fought off the Japanese. The last living memory of Ben L. Salomon was his him taking over the machine gun after the gunner died. He managed to take out an incredible 98 enemies before himself being killed, his body reportedly riddled with up to 76 bullet holes. Shakespeare’s quote comes to mind in the manner of Salomon’s death: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste death but once.”
6. John R. McKinney
Conflict: World War II
The war in the Pacific has often been characterized as one of the most brutal campaigns American soldiers have had to endure. Surviving the war is a feat in itself, but being awarded the Medal of Honor (that’s him on the left in the photo above, receiving the award) places Sergeant John R. McKinney in the halls of legends.
While fighting in the Philippine Islands, McKinney was part of a unit tasked with defending an outpost that would become overrun with Japanese forces. As the outpost was being captured, McKinney received a blow to the head by a saber.
Despite his injury, he seized his rifle, struck the attacker with the butt of his weapon, and killed another Japanese soldier who had entered the post. McKinney noticed that the machine gun operator was injured and had to be carried away. Soon after, it came under the control of the Japanese.
What follows is nothing short of legendary: McKinney managed to kill ten Japanese soldiers who were huddled around the machine gun, shooting three of them while bludgeoning to death the rest.
In a bitter irony, the machine gun proved to be inoperable and McKinney was left with just his rifle to defend against the ongoing Japanese advancement. Still, he managed to singlehandedly secure the area. By the time more US troops arrived, the encounter was already over. They counted 38 dead Japanese around him with two more at the side of a mortar 45 yards away.
5. Sempronius Densus
In a list comprised of military immortality, what would our list be without the inclusion of a tale of Roman conspiracy and heroism?
The conspiracy would come in the form of Marcus Otho, a rival of Densus’ deputy, who would conspire to kill deputy Piso Licinianus and Emperor Galbus. One Roman Centurion, Sempronius Densus, proved to be the only man willing to stop Otho’s plot. In 69 AD, Emperor Galbus and his deputy Licinianus were being paraded down the streets of Rome when the plot unfolded. A large group of men surrounded the proceedings and attacked the Emperor.
While other Centurions fled or even joined the attackers, Densus fought off as many men as he could, refusing to give up his position. Finally, he was overcome and killed, but his heroics live on in Roman lore.
4. Saito Musashibo
Conflict: Battle of Gojo Bridge
The range of life experiences of Saito Musahibo is hard to imagine. Not many film characters even manage to have the character arc of Saito Musashibo. At an early age, he joined the Buddhist Monks of Japan until he was thrown out for unruly behavior. Somehow his schooling as a monk included the ways of the samurai.
It was not long after this that Benkei, for some unknown reason, stood alone at Gojo Bridge killing every man that attempted to pass. In the end, nearly 1,000 swords lay at his feet. Finally, Benkei was defeated by Minamoto no Yoshitsune and a partnership that has remarkable parallels to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid developed.
For four years, Benkei and Yoshitsune lived as outlaws before ultimately finding themselves surrounded in the castle of Koromogawa, just like their fictional counterparts. With their fate sealed, Yoshitsune chose to end his own life with ritual suicide. Benkei, on the other hand, was having precisely none of that. He continued his efforts to hold off the advancing soldiers to keep them from his friend, while archers rained arrows down upon him.
Benkei’s reputation led to many soldiers fearing to cross the bridge to confront him. Eventually, the soldiers noticed that the giant warrior – who supposedly stood 6-foot-7 – was no longer moving. Some of the soldiers finally managed to muster up enough courage to take a closer look, and realized that he was dead, yet had somehow managed to stay on his feet anyway.
3. Simo Hayha
Conflict: Winter War
Our list is filled with ordinary men who were thrust into war and became the stuff of legend. The case of Simo Hayha is no different. A farmer and hunter, Hayha joined the Finnish Army when he was just twenty. By the end of the war, he would claim responsibility for the deaths of more than 500 Soviet troops.
In 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland, Hayha decided to join the military and fight off the Soviet expansion. Geography played a major part in the war with a major portion of the fight taking place in wooded areas. As a result, Simo Hayha was able to take cover and hide in the thick forest while targeting Russian soldiers. Eventually, Soviet soldiers became terrified of the man and nicknamed him “The White Death,” as he was wearing a white camouflage uniform. Reports show that the Russians made a concerted effort to kill Hayha, even compromising the life of many soldiers just to eliminate the great sniper.
After the failure of a team of soldiers, the Russian army sent a group of snipers to eliminate Simo Hayha, but this too failed. Hayha would compile a kill total that would seem only plausible in video games. Finally, in March 1940, one Soviet soldier managed to shoot Hayha through the jaw, but he survive. Simo Hayha recovered and managed to live to the ripe old age of 96.
2. Yogendra Singh Yadav
Conflict: Kargil War
One of the oldest unresolved conflicts in the world is the struggle for Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Since the end of British rule and the creation of India and Pakistan, wars have been fought over the small region of land. The Kargil conflict began in 1999 with Pakistani troops and Kashmiri militants crossing the Indian border. Yogendra Singh Yadav was only 19 years old when the war started.
His unit’s mission was to reach the top of Tiger Hill, and capture three strategic bunkers. Naturally, the bunker sat at the top of a cliff face that was nearly 17,000 feet high. What did the 19 year old Yadav do? He led the assault, of course. They installed ropes that would allow them to climb the cliff face and also provide a means for future assaults, should they fail. Halfway up the cliff face, it seemed like they would. The platoon commander was killed along with two other soldiers. Yadav himself was shot three times in the groin and the shoulder. However, he willed himself forward, climbing the remaining 60 feet and reaching the bunkers.
Upon reaching the top, Yadav lobbed a grenade into the first bunker and killed four men. After neutralizing the first bunker, Yadav charged forward towards the second with enemy soldiers firing on him. Somehow, he managed to kill the four armed enemy soldiers. He and two other soldiers managed to secure the bunker and allow the rest of his unit to reach the summit of the cliff. Yadav and his unit were able to capture all three bunkers and India would go on to win the war.
1. Alvin York
Conflict: World War I
What makes Alvin York’s exploits so astounding is the fact that he was initially denied his conscientious objector application. A pacifist, York had to be convinced that the duty of a Christian during war is to fight. And fight he did. In 1918, Alvin C. York reportedly killed over 20 German soldiers and helped capture an additional 132 at the head of a small detachment in the Argonne Forest near the Meuse River in France during World War I.
A passage from his diary shows his inner turmoil and courage in battle. At this point, we feel the best course is to just let Sergeant York tell his own story…
“[T]hose machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful…. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush, I didn’t even have time to kneel or lie down…. As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. In order to sight me or to swing their machine guns on me, the Germans had to show their heads above the trench, and every time I saw a head I just touched it off. All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.”
Alvin York would return home an American hero, and would later earn the Congressional Medal of Honor. So incredible were his deeds that both France, Italy, and Montenegro also honored his remarkable courage. His story was later turned into a movie starring Gary Cooper.