You probably don’t know his name, but Birger Stromsheim is one of history’s biggest badasses. Just last month he passed away at the vivacious age of 101, but he certainly left behind some epic stories.
In 1943, during WWII, Stromsheim worked as a spy for the Special Operations Executive a precursor to what we have come to know as the CIA. Basically, the guy was part of a group of 6 men who were responsible for infiltrating and blowing up a huge Nazi facility where a crucial component to a nuclear weapon was being built.
It seemed like a suicide mission, since another team had already made an attempt and failed, but Stromsheim and company, who were equipped with explosives and skis, managed to succeed in honor of their fallen brethren. Without so much as a shot being fired, the men made it in and then escaped before the Nazis could even figure out that it happened.
So, no matter how hard you try, your obituary will be nowhere near as cool as Birger Stromsheim’s. Keep reading for even more historical badasses…
50 years ago, Vasili Arkhipov single-handedly prevented World War III.
It was at the height of the Cold War during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962 and Russia had just secretly sent four submarines to Communist Cuba. Arkhipov was aboard one of those subs, B59, and was one of only a handful of men who knew that each one of the ships carried nuclear weapons as strong as the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.
During their journey, American forces – via helicopters, airplanes and battleships – spotted the fleet of Russian subs and aimed to halt their progress. In an effort to avoid capture, Arkhipov’s sub dove deeper into the ocean, enduring worsening conditions and warning grenades from the Americans above.
The captain of the B59, Valentin Savitsky, thought they were under attack and wanted to unleash his ship’s nuclear weapons. Between high tensions and the explosive capabilities of those weapons, any sort of attack would have ignited a third World War.
That’s when Arkhipov’s cooler head prevailed. As commander of the fleet, Arkhipov had the final veto on any ship decisions, and he decided the Russians should retreat without using any weapons. Arkhipov knew the volatility of his ship’s weapons and acted in the best interest of his submarine’s, and his country’s, safety.
While his cool-headedness was not immediately recognized when they returned home, his true story is now known. Who knows how history would’ve turned out had he acted differently.
Compton is best known for his prosecution of Sirhan B. Sirhan for the 1968 slaying of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. But that only tells part of the story. Compton was one of the war heroes who inspired the HBO series "Band of Brothers" and earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart for his service in World War II. But wait; there’s more. Compton also played college football and baseball alongside Jackie Robinson. His amateur sports career included an appearance in the 1943 Rose Bowl.
Say what you will about the founder of the Mongol Empire; the man got results. You have to hand it to someone capable of killing off 11 percent of the world’s population. Also, a 2003 study found that as many as 8 percent of the men living in territories of the former Mongol empire bear Y chromosomes characteristic of the Mongol ruling house. That means approximately 16 million men can likely claim descent from Khan. The man certainly made his mark on the world.
An astronomer in the mid-1500s, Brahe was stolen from his parents by his uncle when he was 2. Everything got stranger from there. When he was 20 years old, his nose was torn off in a violent fight with a fellow scholar over a mathematic formula. Brahe spent the rest of his life wearing a prosthetic nose made out of copper. (Eat your heart out, Humpty.) He was said to posses up to 1 percent of Denmark’s wealth and lived in a castle with a psychic dwarf and an elk who died prematurely after drinking too much. You read that right; the elk apparently had a drinking problem. Brahe’s death is shrouded in mystery, but most believe he was poisoned by the Prince of Denmark for having an affair with the queen.
Hugh Thompson, Jr.
Most soldiers are commended for their bravery for attacking enemy forces. Thompson stood out for threatening his own troops. During the Vietnam War, Thompson was flying over the town of My Lai when he saw American troops attacking innocent civilians. Thompson touched down and ordered his crew to shoot any American soldiers who continued to attack unarmed civilians. The soldiers stopped their unnecessary attack. In 1998, Thompson received the Soldier’s Medal for his role in stopping the further massacre of civilians by American soldiers.
Jackson was the first U.S. President to be the victim of an assassination attempt and he turned the tables on his attacker. Jackson was leaving a congressional funeral in the Capitol when he was stormed by an unemployed housepainter. 67 years old at the time, Jackson fought off his deranged attacker—who had two guns—with nothing more than presidential mettle and his cane. (Fun fact: the ensuing scuffle involved representative Davy Crockett of Tennessee.)
During World War II, Lim was second steward on a British merchant ship that took off from Cape Town in South Africa. When the slow-moving boat was torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat some 700 miles east of the Amazon, Poon jumped ship before the boat sunk. For the next 133 days, Poon survived on an 8-foot by 8-foot life raft. In that time, Poon found ways to catch sharks using leftover hemp rope and nails from his life raft. He was eventually successful, drinking a shark's blood for hydration and eating its fins for sustenance. Poon was almost rescued once by Navy patrol planes, but a storm hit right as they were going to get him to safety. Finally, a group of Brazilian fisherman rescued Poon and got him back to land. His ordeal remains the longest ever involving a human lost at sea on a life raft.
When on a fur-trapping expedition near the top of the Missouri River in the early 1820s, Glass was mauled by a bear. The injuries were gruesome. Glass had a broken leg and his back had been clawed down to the bone. When he was left for dead by his group, things looked bleak. The only hope for recovery was at a fort nearly 200 miles away down the river. After crawling for six weeks to reach the Cheyenne River while subsisting on twigs and berries, Glass floated the rest of the way to safety. Once he had fully recovered, Glass set out again looking for revenge against the men who left him. He did track them down, but chose to forgive them. A true badass with a heart of gold.
During the Battle of Stalingrad, Pavlov was ordered to seize and defend a house in the center of the city against German attack. Pavlov surrounded the building with four layers of barbed wire and countless land mines. His group was under siege from multiple German attacks every day but held strong using their anti-tank rifles from strategic angles behind the building’s windows. Pavlov’s men reportedly destroyed a dozen tanks and eventually started using the German corpses as cover. Originally armed with a platoon of 30, Pavlov’s group had whittled to four by the time the two-month defense was over.
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Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
The eldest son of President Theodore Roosevelt, Teddy Jr. didn’t let a cane stop him from storming the beach on D-Day. Roosevelt was the only General to land with the first wave of troops at Normandy and he had to fight to get there. In addition to battling arthritis, Roosevelt Jr. had a heart condition and wasn’t originally scheduled to join the troops until he insisted in a written letter to the Major General. Roosevelt helped the troops navigate an erroneous landing spot apparently exclaiming, “We have landed in the wrong place, but we will start the war from here.” To top it all off, Roosevelt Jr. wore a knit wool cap in place of the more traditional army helmet.