10 Unique People of the Second World War

  • May 05, 2010
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Audie Murphy

Homeland: United States

Audie Murphy was born and raised in Texas. He was the sixth of twelve children, nine of whom survived until the age of eighteen. During the 1930s Murphy worked at a general store and filling station in Greenville, Texas. At age 18, he was accepted into the United States Army at Greenville. Murphy was turned down by the Marines and the paratroopers for being too short (5 feet 5.5 inches (166.4 cm). He was also turned down by the Navy for being slight of build. Ultimately, Audie Murphy was sent to Camp Wolters, Texas, for basic training. On July 10, 1943, Murphy embarked on his first combat mission, which was the invasion of Sicily. Shortly after arriving in Sicily, he was promoted to U.S. corporal after killing two Italian officers as they tried to escape on horseback. After Sicily was secured from Axis forces, the 3rd Division invaded the Italian mainland, landing near Salerno.

audie murphy

Murphy distinguished himself in action on many occasions while in Italy, fighting at the Volturno River, at the Anzio beachhead, and in the cold, wet Italian mountains. While in Italy, his skills as a combat infantryman earned him numerous promotions and decorations for valor. He then earned the Distinguished Service Cross for a seven week campaign of fighting in France. In France, Murphy's division suffered 4,500 casualties. He also participated in the battle at Holtzwihr, where Audie was given the Medal of Honor for his decision making, leadership, and tactical maneuvers. In all he spent twenty-seven months in action during the European Theatre.

Audie Murphy became the most decorated American soldier of the Second World War, receiving a total of 33 US medals, plus five medals from France and one from Belgium. It has been said that he received every U.S. medal available at the time, five of them awarded more than once. After the war, Murphy became a celebrated movie star, appearing in 44 films. He also found some success as a country music composer. In 1971, Audie Murphy died at the age of 45 in a plane crash. He was interred with full military honors, and buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Murphy's grave site is the second-most visited grave at Arlington, after that of President John F. Kennedy.


Rudolf Hess

Homeland: Germany

Rudolf Hess was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and was the eldest of four children. His family moved to Germany in 1908, where Rudolf was subsequently enrolled in boarding school. At the outbreak of World War I Hess enlisted in the 7th Bavarian Field Artillery Regiment and became an infantryman. After hearing Hitler speak in May 1920, Rudolf became completely devoted to him. He acted as Hitler's private secretary and even transcribed and partially edited Hitler's book Mein Kampf. Eventually, Hess became the third-most powerful man in Germany, behind Hitler and Hermann Göring. Soon after Hitler assumed dictatorial powers, Hess was named Deputy to the Fuhrer. Rudolf Hess was said to be privately distressed by the war with the United Kingdom because he, like almost all other Nazis, hoped that Britain would accept Germany as an ally. On May 10, 1941, Rudolf took off from Augsburg, Germany in a Messerschmitt Bf 110 aircraft. He parachuted over Renfrewshire and landed at Floors Farm near Eaglesham, breaking his ankle in the process.

rudolf hess

In a newsreel clip, farmhand David McLean claims to have arrested him with a pitchfork. The goal of Hess’s mission was to bring a proposal of peace to Winston Churchill. It included declarations that would return all the western European countries conquered by Germany to their own national governments, but German police would remain in position. Germany would also pay back the cost of rebuilding these countries. In return, Britain would have to support the German war effort against the Soviet Union, which was in motion. Churchill initially sent Hess to the Tower of London, making him the last, in the long line of prominent political prisoners, to be held in the fortress. Hess was detained by the British for the remainder of the war, for most of the time at Maindiff Court Military Hospital in Abergavenny, Wales. Back in Germany, Hitler had all of Hess's staff arrested. He also stripped him of all party and state offices, and privately ordered him to be shot on sight if he ever returned.

In 1946, Rudolf Hess was convicted of crimes against peace and conspiracy. He was found not guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity, and was given a life sentence. On August 17, 1987, he died while under Four Power imprisonment at Spandau Prison in West Berlin, at the age of 93. Rudolf Hess' attempt to negotiate a peace treaty and subsequent lifelong imprisonment have given rise to many theories about his motivation for flying to Scotland, and conspiracy theories about why he remained imprisoned alone at Spandau, long after all other convicts had been released. Claims have been made that Hess felt his treaty would be considered. However, confusion remains because Hitler was unwilling to negotiate. In 2007, numerous British news services published descriptions of a conflict between Hess’s Western and Soviet captors over his treatment. Apparently, Soviet captors were steadfast in denying repeated requests for his release on humanitarian grounds.


Niels Bohr

Homeland: Denmark

No single person in World War II was more valuable than a talented nuclear physicist. Niels Bohr was a Danish physicist who made important contributions to understanding the atomic structure, for which he received the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics. In 1941, Germany occupied Denmark and Bohr was visited by Nazi soldiers, but he was not removed from his home. In 1943 Hitler ordered Bohr’s arrest. However, he was able to escape to Sweden, and then traveled to London. It has been said that Nazi soldiers were entering Niels Bohr’s front door as he left out the back window. He then joined the top-secret Manhattan Project, where he was known by the assumed name of Nicholas Baker. His role in the project was important and he acted as a knowledgeable consultant. However, he did not develop the project and was quoted as saying "That is why I went to America. They didn't need my help in making the atom bomb."

niels bohr

He realized that if captured by the Third Reich, he would have been forced into nuclear research. If Niels Bohr would have been arrested by the Germans, consequences would have been great. Bohr believed that atomic secrets should be shared by the international scientific community, and between Allied nations. During the 1930s he was the mentor of Werner Heisenberg, who was the physicist in charge of the Third Reich’s nuclear weapons program. This made Hitler extremely aware of Bohr’s ability. After the war Niels Bohr returned to Copenhagen and advocated for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. He died in 1962 at the age of 77. Niels Bohr was truly one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century.