Mercy isn't a part of any army's strategy. Combat training is about eliminating any doubts or sympathy that might make a recruit hesitate at the wrong second. When his own life -- and the life of everyone in the unit -- is at stake, there's no time to stop and ask, "But won't this Nazi's wife miss him?" That kind of thing gets you killed.
And yet, inspiring stories of mercy on the battlefield do turn up all through history. In the most inhumane settings, sometimes a little humanity shines through.
British soldier Patrick Ferguson was an expert marksman who invented his own rifle and created his own sniping unit. This becomes much more impressive when you consider that this was the 1700s, when guns were so primitive that you had a better chance of hitting the enemy if you just threw it at them. Then it becomes more impressive still when you realized he almost took out George Washington with one.
Ferguson was reckoned to be the best shot in all of the British forces during the Revolutionary War. He also abided by several rules, the first of which was to never shoot a soldier who was unaware of his presence. So, yeah, sniping has changed a bit since then.
"Boo! Haha, but really, sorry."
In September 1777, Ferguson was involved in the Battle of Brandywine. He was busy, you know, killing people, when he saw two officers ride up a path on horses. Not being one to potentially let this opportunity pass him by, Ferguson quickly ordered his men to crawl up and ambush them.
"But wait!" you say, "What about his first and most important rule?" Well, Ferguson remembered that and changed his mind, thinking that shooting the officers in an ambush would be "disgusting." So instead, Ferguson did the only sensible thing a sniper would ever do: He stood up and made his position known to them.
"OK, now I just feel like a jerk."
Noticing him, one of the officers quickly galloped off, giving Ferguson the clearest shot yet. To quote Ferguson, "I could have lodged half a dozen balls in or about him, before he was out of my reach." But his own aversion to shooting a man in the back prevented him.
Later in the same battle, Ferguson was in the field hospital for an injured elbow when he learned that the officer he could have shot was General George Washington. Yeah, so if you really want the guy who saved the Revolution, look no further than the British sharpshooter whose conscience wouldn't let him take out the father of America.
But he was only known as "That what's-his-name who invented the Ferguson rifle."
It was 1940, and British and German ships were engaged in their favorite pastime of sinking each other. Considering how the odds were stacked against it in this particular battle, you already have to feel sorry for the small British warship the HMS Glowworm. You just wouldn't expect the Nazis to agree.
"They are too adorable to kill."
It started when Lt. Commander Gerard Roope and the crew of the Glowworm were surprised to find themselves toe to toe with the Nazi heavy cruiser the Admiral Hipper. Despite the fact that the Hipper was approximately three times larger than the Glowworm and far more heavily armed, Roope decided that the Hipper would look pretty good over his mantle, and engaged it.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-757-0038N-11A / Lange, Eitel / CC-BY-SA
"Don't worry, lads! The worst they can do is kill us all easily."
He fired all his torpedoes, which had precisely no effect on the massive ship in front of him (mostly because they missed). Taking on heavy fire, Roope would be damned if he'd go down without a fight, and said, "Prepare to ram!" Around that time, a sailor aboard the Hipper took this photo:
Presumably while shouting, "Holy shit, no way!"
That's the Glowworm, on fire, trailing a pillar of smoke, coming around to try to head butt the German ship to death. Oh, and the Glowworm's action stations siren was stuck in the "on" position the whole time, so it was whooping like a wounded animal as it made a sharp right turn straight into the Hipper's side. The crash seriously damaged the Hipper's hull, but sank the Glowworm, killing Roope and all but 31 crewmen in the ensuing chaos.
This left floating survivors at the mercy of three Nazi ships -- vessels they'd just been shooting and/or ramming. So you'd think the heartless bastards probably machine-gunned them or something, right? Wrong.
They were afraid to anger Roope's ghost.
The Hipper stuck around to rescue survivors, and if this sounds like common courtesy, keep in mind the Nazis were risking their own lives to do it. As far as anyone knew, the Glowworm had transmitted their position before going down and reinforcements might show up any second. In fact, that's exactly what she had done, and the battleship Renown was on the way.
The rescued survivors were greatly surprised by the treatment they received on board, which was the same as wounded Germans were getting. Even more shocking, the Hipper's captain came to see them and offered his compliments, telling them that he and his fellow officers couldn't believe the fight they'd just had. To him, the Glowworm's captain had balls that were hard as Krupp steel.
"Of every British man I've heard of, he was the least girlish."
Afterward, the German captain wrote a letter to the Royal Navy in which he retold the story of what happened, again complimented Roope's cojones, and recommended that Roope be awarded the Victoria Cross, which is more or less the equivalent of our Congressional Medal of Honor. In an odd twist of fate, the German captain's honorable act ended up getting Roope a posthumous Victoria Cross, which was the first time it had ever been awarded on the basis of a recommendation from the enemy.
The USS Indianapolis, led by Captain Charles McVay, was ordered to head toward Guam by going through the Leyte Gulf. What the U.S. Navy didn't tell him was the Leyte Gulf at the time was a freaking haven for Japanese submarines, and that ships passing through should do so with extreme caution.
"There's a lot more fire and screaming on this leg of the trip than I'd expected."
Lacking the intel that he was in unfriendly waters and exercising his order to perform evasive maneuvers "at his discretion," McVay told the crew to just head straight forward, and bid them a good night. Unfortunately the Japanese submarine I-58, captained by Mochitsura Hashimoto, noticed the Indianapolis heading straight toward it and immediately sank it.
McVay survived and World War II ended, but soon thereafter he found himself in a court martial for negligence in the sinking of his ship (probably as a scapegoat to cover for the other Navy guys who completely botched the Indianapolis' travel instructions and subsequent rescue).
"How could knowing about the packs of deadly, deadly submarines possibly have helped?"
In the trial, the U.S. Navy made the fairly unprecedented step of bringing in Hashimoto as a witness -- yes, the freaking captain of the Japanese sub. He was brought in as a witness for the prosecution, expected to talk about the gross incompetence of the American captain, hoping he would seal McVay's fate. Rather unexpectedly, when Hashimoto took the stand he outright defended McVay, stating that no matter what he had done, the Indianapolis still would have been hit by his torpedoes.
"I was just too damn good."
The U.S. Navy still found McVay guilty regardless of what Hashimoto said, demoting him and basically ruining his naval career. Though Admiral Nimitz would wind up promoting McVay back to his old rank soon thereafter, the trial decision still stood -- that is, until Hashimoto decided to help McVay out again. Hashimoto sent a letter to Senator John Warner, an action that helped lead to McVay being exonerated.
B-29s Over Korea
"You call it a letter, I call it a Word Torpedo."
Yes, the Nazis make this list twice.
"Compared to those other mass-murdering, genocidal lunatics, you guys are alright."
In World War II, German U-boats were tasked with sinking freighters and other supply ships based on the theory that countries with no food, supplies or fuel tend to surrender quickly. So, one night in 1943, the captain of U-156 noticed a rather large ship, and knowing he wasn't there to watch ships go by, ordered it torpedoed.
He was he surprised to find out it was not a freighter or a military ship, but a civilian ocean liner called the Laconia. It was full of civilians and Italian POWs.
Picture taken by Oblt. z. S. Leopold Schuhmacher
A little difficult to explain to the PR department, even for Nazis.
The crew of U-156 then did something extraordinary: They surfaced and began picking up survivors. They were soon joined by U-506 and, at the order of Admiral Karl Donitz, two additional U-boats. Even with all these subs, there were still plenty of people in the water. So the Germans did something even more amazing: They offered safe passage to Allied merchants who came to pick up survivors. Indeed, the Brits were even sending ships to pick up folks.
Nobody bothered telling that to one of the U.S. anti-submarine bomber squadrons that regularly patrolled the area. When one of the pilots radioed back about U-boats on the surface towing lifeboats crowded with people, the squadron commander figured it must be either a trick or yet another party he wasn't invited to. Accordingly he told the pilot to bomb the subs, which the pilot attempted unsuccessfully. We like to think it's because he knew his commander was probably wrong and missed on purpose. The U-boats submerged, having significantly assisted in the rescue of the Laconia survivors.
"We can't start killing Nazis the one time they aren't acting like dicks."
This sort of thing wasn't an isolated incident. In the time that the German Admiral Donitz served (he would eventually become the German Navy Commander-in-Chief), it wasn't unusual for the U-boats to surface near any surviving lifeboats and pass out food, water and nautical maps. Though they'd specifically been ordered not to do this kind of thing by their government, they did it anyway, and Donitz unofficially sanctioned it.
After the war, Donitz was brought up on charges at the Nuremberg trials, along with his comrades. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz was sitting in with the good guys, and had also been a submariner. Though Nimitz didn't particularly like Donitz, he wasn't gonna just sit by and watch his opposite number get hanged simply for being good at his job.
Even Nazis who look like your math teacher aren't necessarily evil.
When guilt was determined and sentences were handed down, Donitz received 10 years in prison rather than the customary death penalty. As far as defendants went at the trials, he got off with the least punishment because his former enemy was able to show that Donitz had been doing a legitimate military job. And though the "I was just following orders" excuses given by folks like Adolf Eichmann didn't fly, Donitz's compassionate U-boat rescue policy earned him a few brownie points in the end.
Would you ever shoot someone, even if it meant not doing so would lead to some of the worst bloodshed of the century?
"It's the end of the road for you, Bob Saget."
We previously mentioned this event in passing; the story takes place during World War I, near the occupied French town of Marcoing. British soldier Henry Tandey, who was just a private, found himself and his regiment under heavy machine gun fire from German forces. Tandey, not being one to let such little things as being heavily fired upon bog him down, made his way forward and secured the machine gun nest for the Brits.
Pushing on, they came upon a bridge that had been somewhat disassembled, making vehicle traffic over it impossible. On the other side was, of course, more enemy soldiers with machine guns. The only way out was with major reinforcements or a miracle. Or failing either of those, an incredibly brave soldier with a death wish. Tandey crawled up to the bridge, and with Germans firing upon him, he managed to replace the missing planks to allow passage. Despite being hit a couple of times himself, he continued to advance into the town.
"How many bullets could nerdy old Germany possibly have?"
With the battle winding down, he stopped long enough to notice a wounded German soldier suddenly emerging from some bushes. Tandey raised his rifle to drop the guy like a bad habit. Being injured in the presence of one's enemy usually meant death or imprisonment, and the German seemed to know it.
However, by then Tandey decided he'd shot enough people, so he lowered his weapon and motioned the wounded and mustachioed German to get out of there. The soldier nodded his thanks and took off. Of course, that soldier was a young Adolf Hitler.
A random act of mercy ended up leading indirectly to the next world war and the Holocaust. Not only did Tandey let the man who would become one of humanity's worst monsters go, but also he kind of enabled him. See, some men would have taken that act of mercy to heart and paid it forward to others in need of mercy themselves.
In an alternate reality, this man did a term as head of a very different Salvation Army.
But Hitler, being a shithead, liked to tell the story as proof that providence had saved him for a bigger future. He told himself that after every near-death experience, be it on the battlefield, in an explosive meeting or whenever he almost slipped in the tub.
Yes, the moral of this article is, "KILL EVERYONE YOU SEE IN CASE THEY ARE HITLER." You're welcome.
For more extraordinary acts during times of war, check out The 6 Most Insane Underdog Stories in the History of Battle and 6 Inspiring Tales of Friendship in the Middle of Brutal Wars.
And stop by LinkSTORM to see Michael Swaim and David Wong set aside their murderous impulses toward each other.
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