21 Unsung WWII Heroes You May Not Know About

Sadly, World War II heroes are leaving us every day. With the vast majority of veterans past the age of 90, it won't be long before only a few WWII heroes and veterans are left to tell their stories of courage and triumph in the face of troubling odds. While some soldiers and important figures of the time are well known to the culture in general, most are unknown. Some didn't survive, and many others simply never spoke about what they did. This list of World War II heroes shows the courage, bravery, and selflessness of many men you may not have heard of, but who made important contributions to the war nonetheless.

WWII made heroes out of countless soldiers, scientists, officials, and even cooks, and the World War II timeline is dotted with remarkable and heroic individuals. Whether fighting on the European front or making a difference in the Pacific, these real-life heroes helped lead the Allies to victory and helped make the world what it is today. Their sacrifices for their fellow fighters and even strangers they'd never meet were truly heroic.

This list features many World War II soldiers, pilots, and fighters who you should know something about. Some were officers and aces; others were ordinary foot soldiers. They hailed from around the world, and some never even wore a uniform. But all of them took actions that saved lives, inflicted damage on the enemy, and collectively helped win WWII, the worst conflict in human history.


  • Bruce Kingsbury
    Photo: Australian War Memorial collection / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Australian trooper Bruce Kingsbury was a private and had been in combat for just a few weeks on the brutally hot Kokoda Track on the strategically important island of Papua. Nonetheless, Kingsbury won the UK’s highest honor for his actions in August 1942, single-handedly delaying a Japanese advance when he ran toward the Japanese line, screaming and firing a huge Bren gun from his hip.

    His comrades took up the charge and pushed the enemy back, turning the tide of the battle. Sadly, Kingsbury was shot by a sniper minutes later - but he almost certainly saved his entire battalion from being overrun.

  • Bhanbhagta Gurung
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Nepalese Gurkha fighting for Britain, Gurung won the Victoria Cross in 1945 for his insanely courageous attack on five Japanese foxholes that were holding up a Gurkha advance.

    Running from position to position, Gurung cleared four with grenades and his bayonet, and then advanced on the final one, a machine gun nest. However, he was out of grenades, so he threw a smoke bomb in, stabbed the Japanese troops who emerged with his personal knife, and then broke into the machine gun nest and beat the last man with a rock. The position was held against the Japanese counterattack thanks to Gurung’s guts and leadership. After WWII, he went back to Nepal to care for his mother and perished in 2008.

  • Charles Joseph Coward
    Photo: xiquinhosilva / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.0

    Charles Joseph Coward

    Captured in France in 1940, British soldier Charles Coward Coward would have been notable just for the multiple attempts he made to escape German captivity. However, he’s world-famous as the guy who broke into and out of a Nazi death camp. In 1943, the Germans decided they were done fooling around with Coward and sent him to Auschwitz, specifically the Monowitz slave labor camp there.

    Coward led his fellow Brits in smuggling food to Jewish inmates and passing coded notes to the Red Cross, who sent them back to England. At one point, he actually smuggled himself into the Auschwitz death camp for a night, then smuggled himself out and reported back to the British about what he’d seen. He bribed SS guards, saved at least 400 Jewish laborers, and gave testimony at the Nuremberg Trials.

  • Ivan Pavlovich
    Photo: Finnish army photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Ivan Pavlovich

    Not every soldier experiences the horror and glory of fighting on the front lines. Some guys have to be the cooks. But Soviet soldier Ivan Pavlovich got to pull off both as a cook for the 91st Tank Regiment of the Red Army. Ivan was cooking dinner in August 1941 when he noticed a German tank within sight of his field kitchen. He was alone. Grabbing a rifle and an ax, Ivan waited for the crew to start to exit the tank, which had stalled.

    When they got out, Pavlovich charged, causing the crew to run for cover in the tank. Naturally, Pavlovich climbed onto the tank and chopped the machine gun barrel with his ax, then blinded the tank with a tarp and ordered his imaginary comrades to hand him a grenade. The tank’s crew surrendered, and one imagines Pavlovich got back to his cooking.