Heroism is a powerful thing. It can inspire others to act valiantly, turn the tide of a conflict, and live on in history books for centuries to follow. And then there are some acts of heroism - acts so brave, so sacrificial, so unlikely - that they're hard to even believe.
In 480 BC, 300 Spartan soldiers (along with hundreds of others, it turns out) stood their ground against a Persian army that dwarfed them in size. But not all heroes are fighters. During WWII, Polish resistance member Witold Pilecki volunteered to be held captive in Auschwitz to investigate and send reports to the outside world. And in more recent history, the heroism displayed by the three men who waded through radioactive water during the Chernobyl disaster is truly astonishing.
If you're interested in heroic moments in history, unbelievable heroic feats, and true stories of sacrifice, look no further than this list. Vote up the stories that seem almost too cinematic to be real life.
In September 1940, Polish resistance fighter Witold Pilecki volunteered to enter Auschwitz to gather intel. He placed himself in the path of a Gestapo sweep and was hauled away to the most devastating concentration camp in WWII.
While inside, Witold formed a secret resistance group that started with just a few men - but eventually expanded to nearly a thousand. Together, they sent reports of the murder, starvation, and cremation of Jewish prisoners by planning harrowing escapes for a small number of men.
Pilecki's intelligence was considered among the most important sources of information the Allied forces received during WWII. Eventually, in 1943, Pilecki himself escaped and joined the Polish resistance in Warsaw.
After WWII, Poland was occupied by the communist Soviets. Pilecki was arrested and put on trial in 1947 as a traitor. He was executed weeks later, reportedly saying before his demise, “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy than fear.” It wasn't until the 1990s that Pilecki's story emerged from Polish archives, to the surprise of even his own elderly children.4,43828True hero?
During the Korean War in 1955, Roy Benavidez became an active-duty member of the Army, but did not serve. At Fort Bragg, he became a member of the Army Special Forces. In 1965, Benavidez served in South Vietnam, but stepped on a landmine and was evacuated back to the US. Doctors believed he would never walk again, but by rehabilitating himself at night against their orders, he made a full recovery.
Benavidez was redeployed to Vietnam in 1968, where he joined a 12-man Special Forces unit. On May 2 of that year, Benavidez hopped on a helicopter to respond to a distress call. Armed with only a knife, he leaped off the landing helicopter and ran to help trapped patrolmen. Benavidez moved through enemy forces to reach his men, at one point getting stabbed by a bayonet, pulling it out, and leaving his knife stuck in the attacker's chest.
After a six-hour fight, he was pulled from the fray with 37 wounds from bullets, shrapnel, and bayonets. He was presumed deceased, but while zipping up his body bag, Benavidez spit in his face to signal he was still alive. Miraculously, he also survived these injuries and eventually recovered. Benavidez was awarded four Purple Hearts and a Medal of Honor.4,08828True hero?
The Chernobyl Three Saved Europe From Nuclear Eradication (1986)
In late April 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, experienced a catastrophic failure, leading to the worst nuclear meltdown in human history. While the initial disaster was already devastating, a bigger threat loomed several days later.
Molten nuclear material was eating through the reactor floor, and if it were to break through and make contact with a pool of cooling water below, it would create a massive steam explosion that would certainly destroy the other reactors. The pool of water needed to be drained.
Three men - mechanical engineer Alexei Ananenko, senior engineer Valeri Bespalov, and shift supervisor Boris Baranov - were tasked with entering the radioactive water in wetsuits and locate draining valves to release the water. With only flashlights and their bravery, the men managed to do just that, in spite of their flashlights losing power.
Though their nuclear exposure was extremely high, Ananenko, Bespalov, and Baranov all survived without developing acute radiation syndrome.
According to nuclear physicist Vassili Nesterenko, had these heroes not completed their task, the resulting steam blast would have left much of Europe uninhabitable for hundreds of thousands of years.3,68727True hero?
John Robert Fox Called An Artillery Barrage On Himself (1944)
In December 1944, First Lieutenant John R. Fox was stationed in the village of Sommocolonia, Italy, along with the 92nd Infantry Division, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Fox and a small party of men volunteered to stay behind in Sommocolonia, which, though under Allied control at the time, was facing an advance by German troops.
Fox's job was to call out defensive artillery strikes from the second story of a house. As more and more German soldiers arrived in the area, Fox was forced to call strikes closer to his own location. Eventually, Fox and his team were simply overmatched. "Fire it," Fox said, calling for an artillery strike on his exact position.
The operator he spoke to was in disbelief, but Fox insisted, "There’s more of them than there is of us."
The strike took out Fox and his men, but also nearly 100 German soldiers - and created an opportunity for the Allied forces to reclaim the area. In 1997, Fox was awarded the Medal of Honor, along with six other Black Americans who fought in WWII.4,45851True hero?