Top Ten: WWII Heroes and Heroines

Go to Blog
Alex Kershaw
March 31, 2024

Friends of the National WWII Memorial has two wonderful trips to Europe arranged this year. Both are great journeys through history but what makes them so special for me is that I actually get to stand where amazing individuals performed heroically. I am able to tell stories where they happened. And so, with that in mind, here’s a very personal list of my favorite WWII eyewitnesses – remarkable human beings I often think about and love to talk about with groups of WWII enthusiasts. It’s impossible to have a list of favorites by ranking. I’ve interviewed so many WWII veterans and met dozens and dozens over the last thirty years. But here are some remarkable individuals of whom I grew particularly fond.

I miss some of these people dearly. I think about them as 80th anniversaries approach this year and next. They’re the human face of my WWII. I count myself blessed to have known every single one.

1] Lyle Bouck (1923-2016)

At twenty years-old, Lt. Lyle Bouck commanded what would become WWII’s most decorated US platoon – an Intelligence and Reconnaissance unit from the 99th Division. He was the main source for my book, The Longest Winter - the very definition of an officer and gentleman. He made me vow to tell the story of every member of his 18-man platoon when I was researching my book.

Lyle Bouck, commander of WWII’s most decorated US platoon.

He endured many hours of questioning in his condo in Florida and his home in St. Louis. Every 17 December for years I would contact him – that was the day in December 1944 when he marked his 21st birthday as a POW having carried out orders to hold at all costs. He did just that and in doing so stalled a critical SS spearhead, altering the course of the Battle of the Bulge. Courage counts. He had it in spades. Friends’ “Last Battles Tour” this fall includes a stop at Lanzerath, Belgium, where Bouck and his platoon held their positions in one of the great last stands of WWII.  

See our Last Battles Tour here:

This 16 December, raise a glass to Bouck and his men on the 80th anniversary of the deadliest battle for the US of WW2.

2] Felix Sparks (1917-2007)

In over five hundred days of war, Texas-born Felix Sparks rose from a tough young captain of E Company, 157th Infantry Regiment to Lt. Colonel, in charge of a task force that was to hunt down Adolf Hitler but instead liberated Dachau concentration camp on 29 April 1945. I interviewed him on his death-bed in Denver, my tape recorder on the pillow beside his head. The most formidable warrior/leader I have ever met - gruff, outspoken, big-hearted, brittle, a truly amazing human being, the subject of my book, The Liberator.

General Felix Sparks and his wife Mary.

Think of Sparks and so many other liberators this 29 April on the anniversary of the liberation of Dachau.

3] Bob Sales (1925-2015)

The funniest WW2 veteran I ever got to know, one of many who made me laugh hard and long. Bob was the most important eyewitness for my book, The Bedford Boys. He landed, aged just 18, in the second wave on the deadliest section of Omaha Beach on D Day, rolling dead bodies in front of him to stay alive. He fought on with B Company, 116th Inf. Regiment until wounded near Aachen. I’ll always remember his hilarious stories about having fun in England before D Day, and the giant flag-pole he had in his yard in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Bob Sales, second wave, Omaha Beach.

This 6 June, think of Sales taking shelter behind the corpses of his fellow Virginians and then breaking out from the stretch of hell depicted in Saving Private Ryan.

4] Bill Leibold (1923-2022)

Bill Leibold, USS Tang survivor.

Bill Leibold was the last living survivor from the USS Tang. He was as humble and dedicated as they come, devoting his life to the US Navy. I’ll never forget sitting with him as he described looking through binoculars in October 1944 and seeing a torpedo broach the surface, leaving behind a phosphorescent wake. It was the last of 18 torpedoes fired on the fifth patrol of the legendary USS Tang, arguably WWII’s most lethal US submarine. Leibold watched as the torpedo boomeranged and then sank the USS Tang. He was one of just nine survivors (from 87 men) who were fished from the ocean by vengeful Japanese and who somehow survived POW camps.

Think this Memorial Day of all the submariners, those of the Silent Service, who remain on eternal patrol. These men paid a very high price but arguably had the greatest impact, per capita, of any branch of the US military.

5] Abraham Baum (1921-2013)

I remember a beautiful day in San Diego and Baum, born in the Bronx, telling me the unlikely story of how he went from making patterns for women’s dresses to leading one of the most controversial “suicide missions” of WWII – the notorious Hammelburg Raid of March 1945, a disastrous attempt, ordered by General Patton, to free American POWs, namely Patton’s son-in-law. Baum was gracious, larger than life, a proud tanker and superb story-teller who didn’t hesitate to tell the likes of Patton, if need be, the raw truth.  

Major Abraham Baum, 4th Armored Division.

This summer, think of the glorious 4th Armored, Baum’s unit, barreling across France, setting so many free.

6] Bob Slaughter (1925-2012)

Sergeant Bob Slaughter, one of first to break out from Omaha Beach.

Bob was a towering figure, six foot six inches on D Day, landing with D Company of the 116th Infantry Regiment on Omaha Beach. Some of his buddies from Roanoke, Virginia, died that 6 June and in subsequent weeks as Bob fought through the hedgerows toward St. Lo. He did more than any D Day veteran I’ve met to preserve the stories of those he fought with and to commemorate the loss. In 1994, on the 50th anniversary of D Day, he stood on that deadly beach with President Clinton. He was still a towering presence.

This April, imagine the “boys” like Bob Slaughter making their final preparations for D Day, writing their last letters home.  

7] Bill Edwards  (1918-2009)

Bill was in his late Eighties when he took me for a quick flight above Colorado Springs in a Cessna. I took the controls for a few seconds and imagined Bill at his prime, as an Eagle pilot, flying Spitfires and Hurricanes in the RAF’s 133 Squadron, before Pearl Harbor, risking his life as a Yank for my homeland before the US had even gotten into the war. He landed the Cessna perfectly. I did not even feel a jolt.

RAF and USAAF pilot Bill Edwards.

Bill flew 27 combat missions as an Eagle pilot, became a POW and served his country for decades more. He loved England and the US with all his heart. I’ll never forget the Eagle Squadrons' reunion he invited me to - getting to say thank you to him and his fellow fighter pilot veterans who had once worn the dark blue of the Royal Air Force. Top guns? You better believe it!

Imagine taking to the air in the spring in 1944 having already fought since 1940 or 1941, as an American, in the deadly skies to defeat Nazism.

8] Phillip Jackson (1928-2016)

Phillip Jackson was a 15-year-old only child when his parents joined the French resistance in 1943. His father was Sumner Jackson, chief surgeon of the American Hospital in Paris. His mother was a Swiss nurse. The family lived at 11 Avenue Foch, a short walk from mass-murdering Gestapo and SS officials. Phillip survived Neuengamme concentration camp. His father did not.

Phillip Jackson with the author at Les Invalides.

There were several long and boozy lunches in Paris with Phillip. I’d push his wheel-chair across cobbles and he’d remember the dark days of Nazi occupation, and the private war waged by his amazing parents.  

This May, imagine opening your front door, not knowing who might be there, and then being deported to the largest women’s prison in history and in the Third Reich – Ravensbruck concentration camp, which Phillip’s mother, by some miracle, survived.    

9] Charles Shay (1924 - )

Charles will turn 100 this June, a couple of weeks after the 80th anniversary of D Day. A recent guest for our monthly virtual conference series, Charles is the last living medic from Omaha Beach. He landed on D Day and saved as many lives as he could, pulling the badly wounded from the bloody surf. A native American from Maine, he’s now living in Normandy, cared for by a wonderful French woman. I’ve enjoyed several long dinners and visits with him over the years – Shay is always as humble and brave as they come.

Charles Shay with author, Normandy, 2023.

Raise a glass to Charles and his buddies in the Big Red One this 27 June, his 100th birthday.    

Click here to watch an interview with Charles Shay.

10] Alice Breuer (1926-2017)

The most remarkable Holocaust survivor I was privileged to meet. She was saved twice in Hungary by the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg. Her family was wiped out by the Nazis. She and her husband became psychiatrists after the war. I’ll never forget her pale, wise eyes as I listened to her in her office in Stockholm in 2008. She and her husband separated – she struggled to cope with the enormity of her loss. But their love in the darkest time - at one point they were roped together on the banks of the Danube as they were waiting to surely die - was perhaps the fiercest and most tested I have ever heard about from any survivors.  

Alice Breuer, April 1944, Budapest.

Count your blessings every day you get to live this year, full of 80th anniversaries of events in a war which killed more than 19 million European civilians.