World War II was one of the most transformative events of the 20th century. It was the largest war ever fought, with more than 50 nations and 100 million troops involved, and it reshaped geopolitics, resulting in the United States and Soviet Union emerging as major world powers leading into the Cold War. This far-reaching war also inspired new global peacekeeping efforts, including the creation of the United Nations, and it brought to light incredibly courageous acts of humanity from soldiers and civilians alike. Here are the stories of six daring heroes of the Second World War.
The Youngest American Soldier in WWII
Calvin L. Graham was the youngest U.S. military member during WWII, and is still the youngest recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. It wasn’t unusual for boys to lie about their age to enlist, but Graham was just 12 years old when he forged his mother’s signature and headed to Houston to enlist. The 125-pound, 5-foot-2 boy was miraculously cleared for naval service and assigned to the USS South Dakota as an anti-aircraft gunner.
On November 14, 1942, the South Dakota was ambushed by Japanese forces at the Battle of Guadalcanal. Graham was severely burned and thrown down three stories of the ship, but still mustered the strength to tend to his severely wounded shipmates. He was honored for his heroism, but when his mother found out about the honor, she informed the Navy of his real age and he was stripped of his medals and thrown into the brig for three months. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter learned of Graham’s story and restored his medals, except for his Purple Heart, which wasn’t restored until two years after Graham’s death.
Wojtek the Bear
Polish soldiers stationed in Iran during the war were met with great surprise when a shepherd traded them a Syrian brown bear cub for a Swiss army knife and some canned goods. The cub’s mother was likely killed by hunters, so the soldiers adopted him, giving him the name “Wojtek,” meaning “joyful warrior” in Polish — a title he soon lived up to. His caretaker, a soldier named Peter Prendys, taught the bear how to salute, wave, and march, and Wojtek became a great morale booster.
In 1944, Wojtek was given the rank of private and a serial number (pets were banned in the Polish army), and he shipped off to Italy with his unit. That May, the bear even joined combat during the Battle of Monte Cassino, carrying supplies to his fellow troops, according to witnesses. He was promoted to the rank of corporal for his bravery. After the war, Wojtek found his forever home at the Edinburgh Zoo in 1947. A bronze statue of the bear and Prendys still stands in downtown Edinburgh today.