Someone once said that you’ll never achieve greatness by playing it safe. That certainly holds true for the men and women of this list. Enjoy these awesome facts about some awesome people in history.
20. Ching Shih
Madame Ching or Ching Shih was a Cantonese prostitute who was captured by pirates after her brothel was raided. In 1801, she married Cheng I, a notorious pirate. The name she is best remembered by simply means “Cheng’s widow”. When her husband died she ascended to his leadership position and went on to terrorize the China Sea in the early 19th century.
The Chinese government sent out an armada to challenge her but she managed to capture many of their ships. At her peak, she personally commanded over 300 ships manned by 20,000 to 40,000 pirates—men, women, and even children. The rest of her fleet, commanded by her subordinates, had more than 1,500 vessels with a crew upwards of 180,000. She entered into conflict with the existing empires of the time, such as the British, the Portuguese and the Qing dynasty. She was one of the few pirate captains in history to retire from piracy after China offered her amnesty. She is considered to be the most successful female pirate and one of the world’s most powerful pirates in history. In the third Pirates of the Caribbean film, Ching Shih was portrayed as the powerful pirate Mistress Ching, one of the nine Pirate Lords.
19. Jack Churchill
He was a WW2 Commando who served with distinction in a number of theaters, his exploits earned him the Distinguished Service Order as well as the Military Cross.
He was known as ‘Mad Jack’ by his men and his fellow officers for his ferociousness in combat. Unlike his more conventional peers his weapons of choice were not the traditional British fire arms of the period, instead he chose to rush in to combat with a long bow, a Scottish broadsword and his bag pipes.
In July 1943, as commanding officer, he led the 2 Commando from Sicily with his trademark Scottish broadsword around his waist, a longbow and arrows around his neck, and his bagpipes under his arm. Churchill was ordered to capture a German observation post outside of the town of Molina, controlling a pass leading down to the Salerno beach-head. He infiltrated the town and captured the post, taking 42 prisoners including a mortar squad.
After escorting the the wounded and prisoners back to the camp he went back to the observation post to retrieve his sword which he lost in hand to hand combat. As far as he was concerned “Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed”
This Mongolian Princess insisted that any man who wished to marry her must defeat her in wrestling, forfeiting horses to her if they lost. She eventually took a fall to one particularly desirable suitor at the request of her parents.
Khutulun was also would ride into battle alongside her father. Many Mongol women fought along side the men as they were expert mounted archers. Khutulun was known for charging straight at the enemy and literally plucking one of them and carrying them back as her prisoner. Marco Polo wrote she would ““make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time”.
She was recently depicted in Netflix’s Marco Polo.
17. Roy P. Benavidez
On May 2, 1968, a 12-man Special Forces patrol was surrounded by a NVA infantry battalion of about 1,000 men. Benavidez heard the radio appeal for help and boarded a helicopter to respond. Armed only with a knife, he jumped from the helicopter carrying his medical bag and ran to help the trapped patrol. At one point in the battle, an NVA soldier accosted him and stabbed him with his bayonet. Benavidez pulled it out, killed the NVA, and kept going. After the battle, he was evacuated to the base camp, examined, and thought to be dead. As he was placed in a body bag among the other dead in body bags, he was suddenly recognized by a friend who called for help. A doctor came and examined him but believed Benavidez was dead. The doctor was about to zip up the body bag when Benavidez managed to spit in the doctor’s face, alerting the doctor that he was alive.
Sergeant Benavidez was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
“Sergeant Benavidez’ gallant choice to join voluntarily his comrades who were in critical straits, to expose himself constantly to withering enemy fire, and his refusal to be stopped despite numerous severe wounds, saved the lives of at least eight men. His fearless personal leadership, tenacious devotion to duty, and extremely valorous actions in the face of overwhelming odds were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army.” – Medal of Honor citation
16. Simo Häyhä
Known as ‘The White Death’ Simo Häyhä fought during the Winter War (1939–1940) between Finland and the Soviet Union. Häyhä served as a sniper for the Finnish Army. He earned his nickname, The White Death, for the all white camouflage he would wear. In his career he earned 505 confirmed kills but it is estimated his actual kill count was closer to 800. The Soviet army tried many times to take him out using counter-snipers and artillery strikes. On 6 March 1940, Häyhä was hit by an explosive bullet in his lower left jaw, blowing off his lower left cheek. He was picked up by fellow soldiers who said “half his face was missing”.
15. “Tank Man”
Tank Man is the nickname of an unidentified man who stood in front of a column of tanks on June 5, 1989, the morning after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 by force. As the lead tank maneuvered to pass by the man, he repeatedly shifted his position in order to obstruct the tank’s attempted path around him. The incident was filmed and seen worldwide. Neither the fate of Tank Man nor the tank crew that he blocked is known to this day. It is also said that there were other protesters that opposed the tanks day.
14. Sir Christopher Lee
Lee volunteered for the RAF in WWII and became a Flying Officer. His time as a pilot was short lived as he was soon diagnosed with a failure of his optic nerve and was grounded. He was transferred to RAF intelligence, the position he would remain in for the rest of the war.
He fought in North Africa where he contracted Malaria 6 times in one year, being treated quickly each time. Once in Europe, he spent most of his time with the Gurkhas of the 8th Indian Infantry Division during the Battle of Monte Cassino. During the final assault on Monte Cassino, Lee was nearly killed when a plane crashed on takeoff and he tripped over one of its live bombs.
After the war, he began his career as an actor. His played Count Dracula in a string of popular Hammer Horror films; a James Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun; Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man; Saruman in The Lord of the Rings films and The Hobbit films; and Count Dooku in the final two films of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. The character of James Bond is supposed to be part based on him (Ian Fleming was his cousin.)
Lee released a Heavy metal album at the age of 88; has won awards for his metal music; the single he released in his 90th birthday made him the genre’s oldest performer; he had a song in the Billboard Hot 100 in December 2013 making him — at 91 — the living oldest performer to ever chart.
Oh yeah, he was knighted in 2009 making him Sir Christopher Lee. He is perhaps the world’s most interesting man.
Subutai, Ghengis Khan’s primary military strategist. He directed more than twenty campaigns in which he conquered thirty-two nations and won sixty-five battles, during which he conquered or overran more territory than any other commander in history. He was known for perfectly coordinating the movements of armies that were hundreds of kilometers apart. He tore through Eastern Europe like tearing toilet paper, with only a scouting force.
12. Genghis Khan
Gengis Khan was the founder and Great Khan (Emperor) of the Mongol Empire, which became the largest contiguous empire in history after his death. He came to power by uniting many of the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia. After founding the Empire and being proclaimed “Genghis Khan”, he started the Mongol invasions that conquered most of Eurasia.
“I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me to you.” – Genghis Khan
It is believed that 0.5% (or 1 in 200) of the world’s population are distant descendants of Genghis.
11. Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn manipulated Henry VIII into turning away from his beloved religion, kill his supporters who objected (Cardinal Wolsey), and broke with the church to marry her. She’s usually seen as conniving, a witch and evil, but in a male dominated world she cut out her own path and became the queen of England. Sadly, after failing to produce a male heir for the king, she was accused of adultery, incest, and high treason and beheaded.
10. Frederick the Great
Frederick the Great is one of the most underrated badasses in history. The guy took on Austria, France, Russia, Poland, Sweden, and a bunch of smaller German and Italian states and won with his tiny kingdom-Prussia. He turned a small obscure German state into the nation that would end up uniting Germany and guide it on its path to evoking the most powerful country on Earth until WWI.
She was Queen of the Iceni tribe of ancient celts, until the Roman army swept through the region ignoring her rule. When she resisted the Romans invasion, they beat her up and raped her two daughters. She then led her ragtag army of Celtic tribes against the invading and highly organized roman army. Boudica didn’t mess around. She burnt Londonium (modern day London) to the ground and wiped out a decent portion of Roman forces.
8. Albert “Hard” Jacka
“On the morning of 7 August 1916, after a night of heavy shelling, the Germans began to overrun a portion of the line which included Jacka’s dug-out. Jacka had just completed a reconnaissance, and had gone to his dug-out when two Germans appeared at its entrance and rolled a bomb down the doorway, killing two of his men. Emerging from the dug-out, Jacka came upon a large number of Germans rounding up some forty Australians as prisoners. Only seven men from his platoon had recovered from the blast; rallying these few, he charged at the enemy. Heavy hand-to-hand fighting ensued, as the Australian prisoners turned on their captors. Every member of the platoon was wounded, including Jacka who was wounded seven times; including a bullet that passed through his body under his right shoulder, and two head wounds. Fifty Germans were captured and the line was retaken; Jacka was personally credited with killing between twelve and twenty Germans during the engagement.”
That was the second time he had done something like that. The first time he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for gallantry “in the face of the enemy” that can be awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces, for single handedly retaking a trench held by turkish soldiers.
7. Bruce Lee
“He was a ruthless boxer, dominated street fights, and created his own style of martial arts, “the style of no style.” He could do one-handed two-fingered push-ups, fifty one-handed pull-ups, and play ping-pong with nunchucks. He’s the father of the “unstoppable punch” and two human kids. He inspired the Tekken character Marshall Law, and his feature-length films made him a cultural icon.”
6. Michael Malloy
Malloy was a homeless alcoholic man. Five men took out life insurance policies on him and tried to get him to drink himself to death by giving him unlimited credit at a bar that one of them owned (so that they could collect the money from the insurance company). This wasn’t working fast enough, so they started putting anti-freeze in his drink, then turpentine, then horse tranquiliser, and finally rat poison. None of them killed Malloy.
The men then tried feeding him raw oysters with wood alcohol and poisoned, spoiled sardine sandwiches filled with carpet tacks. Again, none of this worked, so they waited for him to pass out drunk one night, then dragged his body out into the -26 °C night and left him there to sleep pouring 19 litres of water on him for good measure. The next day, Malloy came into the bar and ordered another drink.
The group then ran him over with a car at 70km/h. This hospitalized him for a few weeks, but again, didn’t kill him. Eventually they succeeded by putting a gas pipe down his throat (after he passed out drunk of course) and pumping gas into him for an hour. The group were later convicted of murder (due, in no small part, to the fame of Malloy’s durability), with four of them receiving the death penalty.
5. Daniel Inouye
Second longest serving Senators in US History (representing Hawaii since it gained statehood in 1959) and a WWII vet with this remarkable story to tell:
On April 21, 1945, Inouye was grievously wounded while leading an assault on a heavily-defended ridge near San Terenzo in Tuscany, Italy, called Colle Musatello. The ridge served as a strongpoint along the strip of German fortifications known as the Gothic Line, which represented the last and most unyielding line of German defensive works in Italy. As he led his platoon in a flanking maneuver, three German machine guns opened fire from covered positions just 40 yards away, pinning his men to the ground. Inouye stood up to attack and was shot in the stomach; ignoring his wound, he proceeded to attack and destroy the first machine gun nest with hand grenades and fire from his Thompson submachine gun. After being informed of the severity of his wound by his platoon sergeant, he refused treatment and rallied his men for an attack on the second machine gun position, which he also successfully destroyed before collapsing from blood loss.
As his squad distracted the third machine gunner, Inouye crawled toward the final bunker, eventually drawing within 10 yards. As he raised himself up and cocked his arm to throw his last grenade into the fighting position, a German inside the bunker fired a rifle grenade that struck him on the right elbow, severing most of his arm and leaving his own primed grenade reflexively “clenched in a fist that suddenly didn’t belong to me anymore.”
Inouye’s horrified soldiers moved to his aid, but he shouted for them to keep back out of fear his severed fist would involuntarily relax and drop the grenade. While the German inside the bunker reloaded his rifle, Inouye pried the live grenade from his useless right hand and transferred it to his left. As the German aimed his rifle to finish him off, Inouye tossed the grenade into the bunker and destroyed it. He stumbled to his feet and continued forward, before being wounded in the leg and tumbling unconscious to the bottom of the ridge. When he awoke to see the concerned men of his platoon hovering over him, his only comment before being carried away was to gruffly order them to return to their positions, since, as he pointed out, “nobody called off the war!”.
4. Stanley “Swede” Vejtasa
He was an American pilot during WWII. At the Battle of the Coral Sea, he shot down two Japanese planes in an SBD Dauntless – a dive bomber – and rammed a third. Upon learning of this, the Navy transferred him to a fighter wing flying F4F Wildcats. Later, at the Battle of Santa Cruz, he became an “ace in a day”, shooting down seven Japanese planes in a single sortie. At least one of these kills was accomplished after running out of ammunition; he charged an enemy plane (which was also out of ammunition) head-on at low altitude and forced it to crash.
3. Audie Murphy
Audie Murphy, aka real life Captain America. He was 16 in 1942, weighing 110 pounds and standing 5’5″. He applied to both the Marines and Air Force, but was turned down by both, and eventually managed to get into the Army, where he passed out halfway through training but insisted on going to fight.
He contracted malaria in Italy, but was still sent into France in 1944, where he found a German machine gun crew who pretended to surrender, then shot his best friend. Murphy lost his cool and killed everyone in the gun nest.
6 months later, his company (down to 19 men out of the original 128) was tasked with defending a critical region in France. The Nazis showed up with a ton of guys, so Murphy and his men sent out their M-10 armored vehicles, which didn’t do much. They were about to be overrun when the skinny short kid with malaria ran to one of the burning M-10’s, grabbed the machine gun, and started mowing down every enemy he could see. He kept going for an hour, until he ran out of bullets, then walked back to his men as the tank exploded behind him. For his actions that day, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
2. Leo Major
For starters, he was part of the D-Day invasion. During the invasion he killed a squad of German soldiers and captured a half-track that was loaded with intelligence information.
Later in the war, he was hit with a phosphorous grenade, blinding him in one eye. He refused discharge, saying that as long as he could see through the scope, he had enough eyes.
During the Battle of the Scheldt, Major single-handedly captured 93 German soldiers and was offered a Distinguished Conduct Medal. He refused, saying that the man awarding it, General Bernard Montgomery, was an incompetent, so any award from him was worthless.
In the beginning of 1945, he was in a vehicle that struck a landmine. He broke both ankles, 4 ribs, and fractured 3 vertebrae. He still continued, refusing evacuation.
In April of that year, his unit came upon the Dutch city of Zwolle. His commander asked for two volunteers for a reconnaissance mission. Major and his friend Willie volunteered. They were expected to go see how many German soldiers were in the town. Shortly into their mission, Willie was killed, and the plan changed. Major was out for blood. He went down the street guns blazing and throwing grenades while yelling in French to convince the Germans that the Canadians had sent their whole force into the town. He captured nearly one hundred German troops who went fleeing from their cover. Later that night, he came upon the Gestapo HQ and burned it to the ground. He barged into the SS HQ later that same night, killed 4, and ran the other 4 out of town. At 4:30 a. m. He discovered that the city belonged to the Dutch again, and the Germans had been run out. He received a Distinguished Conduct Medal for single-handedly liberating the town of Zwolle.
But he still wasn’t done. In the Korean War, he was asked to lead a strike team of elite snipers to support an American division. He and his twenty men took the hill single-handedly and held it while nearly 20,000 Chinese soldiers attacked their position. He was ordered to retreat. Instead, he held the hill for three days until reinforcements arrived. For this action, he received a bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal.
1. Hugh Glass
While the story is probably embellished some, it’s still amazing. While on a fur trapping expedition, he was mauled by a grizzly bear, which he killed with some help, then passed out. Later, he woke up to find his party abandoned him and he had no equipment. So he cleaned his multiple wounds and with the help of natives sewed the bear skin in place to replace his own. He spent the next six weeks making it back to civilization. Along the way he fought off wolves and even made his own raft to travel down a river. Glass’s story has recently been retold in the film The Revenant where Glass is played by Leo DiCaprio.
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