Unsung War Heroes Who Deserve Their Own Movies
As we've previously discussed, some war heroes never get their moment in the spotlight -- which is a little messed-up considering, well, the whole "war hero" thing. So let's all just take a few moments and change that, eh?
Emanuel Ringelblum Kept Ghetto History Alive
Following the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland, Warsaw's Jewish population was herded into what we now call the "Warsaw Ghetto" -- a walled-off area of the city that, at its height, was "home" to over 460,000 people. They were kept in a constant state of starvation and fear about when (not whether, when) they'd be shipped off to the nearby extermination camps of Treblinka and Chelmno.
It'd be an understatement to say that life in the Ghetto was a bit shit. But as time passed, the Ghetto's occupants secretly established everything from libraries, schools, hospitals, soup kitchens, to even a symphonic orchestra that held regular concerts. It wasn't a laugh riot by any stretch of the imagination, and death still loomed, but life went on, in whatever way it could, as best it could.
Enter, Emanuel Ringelblum.
Before the war, Ringelblum was a social activist and historian, and after his internment in the Ghetto, he decided to pass the time by doing what he loved: documenting history. Using a diary he'd smuggled in, he started recording details of his life in the Ghetto. Before long, it became a trend among his fellow prisoners and led Ringlblum to establish a secret organization known as "Oneg Shabbat" (or "Joy of the Sabbath") to compile a complete record of how people lived, worked, and died in their prison city.
For three years, Ringelblum and his researchers amassed thousands of documents, including eyewitness testimonies, diaries, resistance materials, poems, paintings, sketches, maps, recipes, surveys, and even jokes:
Hitler comes to the other world. Sees Jesus in Paradise. "Hey, what's a Jew doing without an armband?"
"Let him be," answers St Peter, "He's the boss's son."
If the Nazis discovered the work of Oneg Shabbat, shit would hit the fan, and bullets would hit the bodies, so secrecy was paramount to the group. Collecting and compiling documents was done on carbon paper -- so if one copy was destroyed or damaged, there was another copy out there. The collection was also split up across several properties inside the Ghetto, for extra security.
In 1942, the Nazis began liquidating the Ghetto (precisely what that sounds like), so Ringelblum, knowing that was time was short, had the cache divided into three smaller caches. Each was secured and waterproofed in metal boxes and milk cans, and hidden in the walls and cellars of three buildings inside the Ghetto. In 1943, Ringelblum and his family were smuggled out of the Ghetto. They remained hidden in Warsaw until 1944 when they were discovered and executed.
As for the archive, one cache has yet to be located, but two of the others were recovered in 1946 and 1950, serving as an unparalleled record of life in the Ghetto.
Helge Meyer Was War-Zone Knight Rider
We all love a good apocalypse road movie; Mad Max, Zombieland, Dirty Grandpa, they're all great ... but at the same time, a little unrealistic. When the world goes to hell, what sort of maniac thinks, "Finally, an opportunity to try out those off-brand car mods I bought from eBay?"
Well, we know a guy.
During the '90s, Helge Meyer was a special forces officer stationed at Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany -- at which point, a massive war broke out in Bosnia that saw the country become the world's number-one location in ethnic cleansings, genocide, and war rape. Meyer was soon tasked with helping aid agencies deliver food and supplies to the untold millions of civilians caught at the center of this hellscape. An ordinary man would've elected to complete the job in an armored personnel carrier or a tank -- y'know, something halfway suitable for off-roading through an active warzone.
But Meyer wasn't an ordinary man. He was a special forces soldier, goddamnit, and so he decided to do the job in his classic muscle car -- with a few modifications, of course. Over what we imagine was a busy weekend (or a 5-minute AC/DC montage), Meyer kitted out his car with everything that a budding road warrior would need: including armor-plating, a mine-clearing blade, run-flat tires, night vision, stealth paint (to hide the car from infrared sensors), and a nitrous system that would make Dominic Toretto fast and furiously mess his pants. After a tune-up that took the engine from 185hp to 220hp (which went to 440hp when the nitrous was applied), Meyer wasn't driving a muscle car anymore -- he was piloting a stealth fighter, albeit with a better sound system.
Despite all this gear, Meyer was still able to fit over 400kg of food and supplies into his "ghost car" (as he called it), which he hand-delivered to starving families, refugees, aid workers, and everyone in between. That said, not everyone was pleased to see Meyer, as he was regularly shot at by enemy soldiers. Not that their bullets had any effect on his Postmates Batmobile, which is doubly-fortunate considering that Meyer didn't carry a gun. His only weapon was his car, and, yep, that's the tagline for the Netflix adaptation ... which we'll start writing as soon as Netflix stops blocking our number.
The Oversteegen Sisters Were Teenage Nazi Ass-Kickers
Throughout WWII, the Nazis that occupied Holland obviously had their fair share of run-ins with local resistance fighters. But none struck more fear into their hearts than Freddie and Truus Oversteegen, sisters who didn't just share genetics, but a love of kicking Nazi ass. And that took the form of sabotaging Nazi vehicles, blowing up their buildings, shooting them in the streets, or infiltrating their concentration camps.
The most surprising fact about the Oversteegens, though? They were only children: 14 (Freddie) and 17 (Truus) years-old.
However, their most dangerous tool wasn't their guns or their bombs -- it was Nazi thirst, which they used to lure unsuspecting off-duty soldiers and local collaborators into a set of nearby woods for "birdwatching." Once there, a resistance fighter would emerge from the tree and put and shoot them for being Nazis and creeping on teens. As Freddie described one such mission, where Truus was the bait:
"Truus had met him in an expensive bar, seduced him, and then took him for a walk in the woods. She was like: "Want to go for a stroll?" And of course, he wanted to. Then they ran into someone -- which was made to seem a coincidence, but he was one of ours -- and that friend said to Truus: "Girl, you know you're not supposed to be here." They apologized, turned around, and walked away. And then shots were fired, so that man never knew what hit him.
They had already dug the hole, but we weren't allowed to be there for that part They later told us that they had taken off all his clothes so you couldn't tell who he was. I think he might still be there."
Hugh Thompson Jr., Glenn Andreotta, and Lawrence Colburn Try To Prevent A Massacre
On March 16, 1968, a platoon of soldiers under the command of U.S. Army Captain Ernest Medina entered Son My -- a village comprising several hamlets, including My Lai. The soldiers were told to expect heavy resistance from Vietcong fighters, but upon entering and searching Son My, all they found were unarmed villagers, men, women, and children of all ages, preparing for market.
Nevertheless, they made do and over the next several hours, slaughtered anywhere between 300-500 villagers -- pausing only to take a lunch break because war crimes apparently build up an appetite.
In the days that followed, the soldiers responsible for this massacre -- many of whom belonged to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment -- were hailed as heroes for having "dealt the enemy a heavy blow" in a "fierce firefight." Medina himself was commended by top army brass for an "outstanding job." And this is how history would've remembered this mission if it wasn't for the actions of a single man: Major Hugh Thompson Jr., a helicopter pilot that arrived halfway through the massacre to perform reconnaissance. As he later described:
"We kept flying back and forth, reconning in front and in the rear, and it didn't take very long until we started noticing the large number of bodies everywhere. Everywhere we'd look, we'd see bodies. These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever."
Thompson and his crew -- Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn -- initially believed that these casualties were the simple result of an artillery strike that the U.S. had launched at Son My before the platoon's attack. However, this illusion was shattered when Thompson et al. witnessed Medina execute a wounded, unarmed woman, Nguyen Thi Tau, for whom Thompson had requested medical attention. Thompson landed his helicopter near a drainage ditch filled with bodies and wounded civilians and told a nearby sergeant to help him clear out the wounded -- to which end, the sergeant pulled out a hand grenade and said that he was going to "help them out of their misery."
After his concerns were brushed off by a nearby second lieutenant, William Calley, a shocked Thompson took to the skies and set about saving as many lives as possible. Soon enough, he spied several soldiers chasing a group of civilians. He flew over, parked his helicopter between the two groups, and directed the civilians away from the fighting -- and ordered Andreotta and Colburn to open fire on any soldiers who tried to finish the job.
Over the next hour, Thompson darted around Son My rescuing civilians from irrigation ditches, bunkers (where they'd been pinned down by soldiers), and roadsides. However, soon enough, his helicopter began running low on fuel, after which he returned to base and angrily reported the massacre to his superiors -- who radioed Medina to cut the fucking shit. The massacre was nonetheless hailed as a success. In a desperate attempt to buy off Thompson, the brass awarded him a medal for rescuing a wounded child who'd been "caught in intense crossfire," an act of "sound judgment had greatly enhanced Vietnamese-American relations in the operational area."
Thompson threw it away.
The following year, the incident at Son My -- which was swiftly rebranded as 'the My Lai massacre' -- was exposed in all its full, gory detail by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. The story, which went old-timey viral in Time, Life, Newsweek, and on CBS, generated such anger and horror that the government swiftly opened an investigation into the massacre. It resulted in 14 officers being court-martialed, but only one (the aforementioned 2LT Calley) being found guilty.
The investigation into My Lai also raised Thompson's profile, but not necessarily in a good way.
"After it broke, I was not a good guy I was a traitor. I was a communist. I was a sympathizer. I became invisible. When it first broke, people thought everybody was picking on Lieutenant Calley. Believe me, Lieutenant Calley was very guilty. But we, being Americans, we cheer for the underdog, so that's what people were thinking Congress came after me real hard. A very senior congressman made a public statement that if anybody goes to jail in this My Lai stuff, it will be the helicopter pilot."
It wasn't until the '90s, with the release of the award-winning movie Four Hours in My Lai (and its accompanying book adaptation) that Thompson, Andreotta, and Colburn's heroics were properly recognized. In 1998, they received the Soldier's Medal -- the army's highest award for "heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy." However, we're not sure that "enemy" means what they think it means in this context.
Top Image: Piqsels