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How do you define a hero? In war, the terms may be irreconcilably different than in everyday life. Situations arise where taking certain lives is imperative to saving others and often giving your own life for a cause makes you a hero.

Following orders from superiors that could result in your death but doing it anyway. Acting out of loyalty and dedication instead of self-serving means, above all, is probably a prerequisite. To act in spite of being afraid, instead of being void of fear.

Heroic World War I veteran William Carpenter told NBC, “You show me a man who says he was brave over there, and I’ll show you a liar. Every one of us was afraid. Even the Germans were afraid.”

However you define the title of hero, the label dares us to ask what we would do in situations such as these. Would we charge into blasts of battlefield gunfire to save our comrades? To save civilians that we’ll never see again? Would we sign up for active duty in the first place?

There are many of us that wouldn’t. But luckily, there are those among us courageous enough to take on the burden.

War is, of course, a morally complicated and politically messy ordeal. It challenges us to amend our thinking of who the real heroes are. Sometimes, the war heroes are just who we would expect like Desmond Doss — someone who humbly saved multiple lives without ever taking one. Other times, the war heroes are the flying aces that bomb the enemy into oblivion – the enemy that would kill so many others if left unchallenged. It’s the women who changed their entire identity just to be able to fight when their country told them they weren’t allowed to.

Lastly, and most controversially, is it Hiroo Onoda? He obeyed his orders and respected his military training as all soldiers are expected to. This meant killing perceived enemies to survive and serve another day. He continued, unwavering and isolated, for three full decades after the war actually ended.

These men and women and their stories are certainly noble in their own ways, but ultimately, we all get to choose our own heroes. That’s the beauty of it all.

William C. (Bill) Lambert (August 18, 1894 – March 19, 1982) was an American fighter pilot who flew in World War I. He was probably the second-ranking American ace of World War I. He claimed 18 air-to-air victories, eight fewer than “Ace of Aces” Eddie Rickenbacker and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Desmond Doss, the fearless World War II medic who single-handedly saved the lives of 75 American soldiers on the Maeda Escarpment of Okinawa in 1945, never carried a weapon. Doss treated his own serious injuries to save stretchers for others and earned the Medal of Honor, making him the first conscientious objector to do so.
Hiroo Onoda
For 29 years after WWII ended, the dedicated Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda hid out in the jungle of the Philippines and continued waging a war. Isolated and fiercely loyal, Onoda regarded any news of the war’s end as enemy propaganda. That is, until 1974 when a traveler encountered Onoda, who said he’d only believe that Japan had surrendered if he heard it from a superior officer. Authorities tracked down an officer and had him officially relieve Onoda from duty. He was eventually pardoned for the crimes he committed while he believed the world was still at war.
In 1942, Lt Adnan led a 42-strong platoon from the Malay Regiment to defend Singapore from the invading Japanese Imperial Army. They fought at Pasir Panjang Ridge in the Bukit Chandu (“Opium Hill”) area between 12 and 14 February. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Lt Adnan refused to surrender and urged his men to fight to the end. They held off the Japanese for two days amid heavy enemy shelling from artillery and tanks, as well as chronic shortages of food, medical supplies and ammunition. On the last day of the battle, Lt Adnan and his men were left with only a few grenades and had to fight the Japanese with their bayonets in brutal hand-to-hand combat. Lt Adnan was shot but he continued fighting.

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