History is filled with so many fierce fighters that it’s not surprising some have been largely forgotten following their service. Here are eight of the most fierce historical military (and military-adjacent) figures in history that most people have never heard about.
Agent 355 was a female spy who worked alongside George Washington during the American Revolution. She was a member of the Culper Spy Ring, which operated throughout New York and Long Island from 1778 to 1780. She’s considered to be one of the country’s first ever spies, and is responsible for filtering British information to the future President of the United States.
Her identity remains unknown centuries later, but sleuths have been working to crack the mystery. It’s widely agreed upon that she was likely a New York City socialite who used her position within society to obtain information from Washington’s enemies. There are even some who claim to know her true identity, positing she was either spy Robert Townsend‘s common-law wife; his sister, Sarah Townsend; or even Elizabeth Burgin.
Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow is known for a variety of reasons: he was the Chief of the Parry Island Band and was a member of the Algonquin Regiment, with which he served in a non-permanent active militia. While he accomplished much in his life, he’s best known for being the “most effective sniper” of World War I.
Pegahmagabow enlisted with the 23rd Regiment at the start of the war, and within weeks became one of the original members of the 1st Canadian Infantry. He landed in France in February 1915, alongside the 1st Canadian Division, serving as both a scout and a sniper. While in Europe, he fought at Ypres, the Somme, in Belgium, at Passchendaele and during the Hundred Days Offensive.
During the course of the conflict, Peggy is credited with killing 378 German soldiers and capturing another 300. He was one of the most decorated Indigenous soldiers in Canadian military history, with his honors including the Military Medal & Two Bars, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
Peter Freuchen was many things: an author, anthropologist, journalist and the owner of the Danish island of Enehoje, on Naksov Fjord. He was an explorer who participated in the Thule Expeditions of the Arctic, and during World War II fought alongside the Danish resistance, narrowly escaping execution.
Let’s focus on his exploits during WWII. Despite losing a leg to frostbite in 1926, he joined the Danish resistance movement, following the country’s occupation by the Germans. He risked his life by hiding refugees, openly claiming to be Jewish when faced with anti-semitic behavior, and sabotaging German operations.
Freuchen was eventually imprisoned by the Germans and sentenced to death. He managed to escape and fled to Sweden, after which he moved to New York City. He continued to live an amazing life, writing books and even going on to win the jackpot on The $64,000 Question.
Lyudmila “Lady Death” Pavlichenko was a female sniper who served with the Soviet Red Army during WWII. Following the launch of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, Pavlichenko traveled to Odessa to enlist in the Red Army. While initially told to become a nurse, she was set on using her marksmanship skills to become an infantryman.
She was given a position in the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division after killing two Romanian collaborators and became one of 2,000 female Soviet snipers to serve in the conflict. Only 500 survived. During her service, she fought during the sieges of Odessa and Sevastopol, and her skills became so well-known that the German Army attempted to bribe her.
By late 1942, she was a lieutenant and had secured 309 kills, making her not only one of the top military snipers of all time but the most successful female sniper ever. She later traveled to Allied countries as part of the Soviet Union’s attempts to open a second front against the Germans.
There are many stories about military officers entering battle with strange equipment (think Digby Tatham-Warter using an umbrella to disable a German tank), and Jack “Mad Jack” Churchill is no exception. The British Army officer was known to enter the battlefield with a Scottish broadsword, a longbow – and bagpipes.
Churchill had retired from active service by the time WWII broke out, but reenlisted and was sent to France, where he brandished his longbow while on patrol. Not just a skilled archer, he was also a talented bagpipe musician who boosted troop morale with his music.
He was present at Dunkirk and later went on to volunteer for the Commandos. During Operation Archery in December 1941, he was second-in-command on No. 3 Commando, and when he was sent to Italy in July 1943 he served as the commanding officer of No. 2 Commando.
Churchill was captured while leading the Commandos in Yugoslavia as part of the Maclean Mission. He escaped twice and was recaptured once. He was then sent to the Pacific Theater, but the war ended before he saw active combat. Following this, he was sent to British Palestine, where he served as executive officer of the 1st Battalion, the Highland Light Infantry.
Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat posted in Lithuania at the outbreak of WWII. Without instructions from Japan, he began issuing 10-day travel visas to Jewish refugees. After having issued 1,800 visas, he received a response from the Foreign Ministry, which told him that the visas he’d issued had been given to people who had little money and no visas to move onto their final destinations.
He admitted to having issued the visas in haste, citing Japan as being “the only transit country available for going in the direction of the United States, and his visas were needed to leave the Soviet Union.”
By the time diplomatic consulates were ordered closed in August 1940, Sugihara had helped thousands of Jews flee Europe. Estimates state that around 100,000 people alive today are descendants of those who escaped Europe with Sugihara’s visas.
Sugihara became known as the “Japanese Schindler” for his efforts and was named by the State of Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, the only Japanese national to be bestowed the honor. Lithuania also named 2020 “The Year of Chiune Sugihara.”
The Cuban Missile Crisis began following President John F. Kennedy‘s blockade of Cuba. This led to a 13-day standoff between the US and the USSR. Vasili Arkhipov was a Soviet Navy officer at the time, serving as the second-in-command aboard the B-59 submarine and the flotilla chief of staff, which also included the B-4, B-36, and B-130.
While the submarine was traveling to Cuba in October 1962, it came across depth charges laid by the US Navy. The intention had been to force the B-59 to rise to the surface and identify itself. Unbeknownst to its crew, the charges were non-lethal. Viewing it as a sign of aggression, the B-59‘s captain and senior officers discussed launching a nuclear torpedo.
The decision required the approval of all three of the submarine’s senior officers; Arkhipov disagreed and thus the launch never occurred. Following their return to the Soviet Union, the submarine’s crew faced condemnation from their superiors. Arkhipov continued to serve in the Soviet Navy until his retirement in the mid-1980s.
While many might not know Stanislav Petrov’s name, those who do often credit him with preventing World War III. Petrov was serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces in 1983, and during the infamous Soviet nuclear false alarm incident disobeyed orders regarding retaliatory action against a nuclear attack from the US.
On September 26, 1983, word came that the US had launched five nuclear missiles. Petrov was on duty and realized the reports were false, as the total amount of missiles was too small to initiate an attack. His quick thinking prevented the USSR from launching a counterattack that would have certainly resulted in nuclear war.
An investigation later found the Soviet’s satellite warning system was flawed. While many view him as a hero, he never did. Speaking in an interview for The Man Who Saved the World, he said, “All that happened didn’t matter to me – it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. ‘Nothing. I did nothing.'”