I was a child of the 1960’s-80’s and am proud of it. I have always been a history nut and as such the people I looked up to in my youth were not the norm compared with my alleged peers. That didn’t bother me. Oddly enough, I found myself in later life writing books about those men that inspired (and continue to inspire) me.
I was never impressed by sports figures or musicians. I am stunned that the kids today think of the Kardashians or Paris Hilton as idols. Really? Wow. Kids today idolize people who make a lot of money but who don’t contribute to our society. Today’s society is unimpressed with real heroes – the media goes out of their way to diminish them, to expose every flaw and fault. It is all part of this “everyone has to be a winner,” mentality which only tarnishes our country. We can’t have heroes because that is admitting that some people have done more than other people.
I’m inspired by real people whose deeds stand on their own. Here’s my list – for your entertainment.
Count Felix Von Luckner: In WWI Graf Von Luckner took command of the SMS Seeadler, a converted windjammer, and took her out against the might of the British and American navies. In the age of the dreadnought battleship, he took a three-masted sailing ship out and successfully raided commerce in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Von Luckner was a wildcard in the German navy, a bit of a rogue. He only took one life on his entire mission. When his ship became wrecked on an atoll in the Pacific, he took one of the launches and began raiding again. When captured and imprisoned in New Zealand, he escaped and stole two other ships before getting caught. This kind of daring an swashbuckling attitude is incredible and despite his boastful claims and exaggerations made in later life – Von Luckner remains today one of the people that inspire me. If you want to read more, my book about his life, The Cruise of the Sea Eagle is still in print from Crecy Books in the UK.
Frank Luke Jr.: Mention WWI American aviators and people always seem to remember Eddie Rickenbacker, but Frank Luke Jr. was, for a short period of time, America’s Ace of Aces in WWI. His specialty was balloon busting, taking out heavily defended enemy observation balloons – a task many pilots considered too risky. Luke was an action hero decades before the phrase was invented.
On one occasion, in the presence of Billy Mitchell, Frank his wingman pointed to three balloons on the twilight horizon. He claimed he would take them out and named the time. It was the equivalent to Babe Ruth calling his shot. Frank took off and right on the money began blowing up the balloons.
Luke was shot down behind enemy lines and despite his wound continued to resist the Germans until he died. Frank Luke Jr. became the first American aviator to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Luke Air Force Base in his home state of Arizona was named after him. If you want to read more, my book, Terror of the Autumn Skies, is available now in hardcover from Skyhorse Publishing and will be a trade paperback next month.
George S. Patton: Patton is a fascinating character in American history. He suffered from dyslexia yet managed to graduate from West Point. Patton understood leadership and was one of our best generals of WWII. He had flaws, all great men do. At the same time he was a dynamic leader. I can’t write a book on Patton, there are already so many fine books on the man.
Patton is beyond interesting. A man of internal and external conflict, he came from a military family that had served the Confederacy during the Civil War. His hard-driving reputation and adherence to discipline was renowned. Andy Rooney despises Patton, feeling he wasted men’s lives – but then again, I’m not a fan of Andy Rooney. We would have won WWII without Patton, but we might have done it a year later and at the cost of hundreds of thousands more casualties. Kiss my ass Andy Rooney.
Thomas Jefferson: I now live about an hour from Charlottesville Virginia and as a kid my parents had me visit Monticello. Jefferson was a genius on many levels. He built the University of Virginia, he was the President that made the Louisiana Purchase, he was an architect and budding scientist/inventor. Can you imagine if we had a person like that today in the White House? No? I’ll tell you why, we don’t have men like Jefferson any more.
David “Davy” Crockett: No, not Fess Parker or John Wayne, but the REAL Davy Crockett. There is something purely American about Crockett. He came from humble upbringing, was a failed politician, and of all things – met his end at the Alamo. Davy was not a native Texan (Texian) and could have walked away from the Alamo, instead he chose to make his last stand there despite the overwhelming odds. I highly recommend William Davis’s book, Three Roads to the Alamo, which covers Crockett’s life (and that of Jim Bowie and Travis). Regardless of his many personal faults, Crockett was a true-blue American hero. In fact, it is despite those faults that I am intrigued by him.
Alvin York: Sergeant Alvin York led an attack that resulted in the capture of 32 machine guns, 28 dead German soldiers and the capture of 132. Much of this was done almost single-handedly. Even more remarkable was that York had tried to get out of the war on the basis that he was a conscientious objector. He went on to win the Medal of Honor. Offered the equivalent of millions of dollars of promotional opportunity, York refused to profit from his actions. I like York because he never compromised his principles.
Henry Ford: If you are raised in Michigan you spent time at Greenfield Village and I was honored to work at Ford Motor Company for a few years early in my career. Both exposed me to the Ford story. The story of Ford is the classic rags to riches story that made our country great. He was a man with a vision and he drove that vision into almost every home and altered the landscape of the country. The man had issues, his relationship with his son, his hatred of Jews, but if you can move past this – Ford changed the country in ways that only a few other men in our history have. I have to admit, when I worked at Ford, down at the Rouge Office Building, despite the fact it was a toxic dump – I was enjoying the history of the complex.
The spirit of Henry Ford still permeates the company that holds his name. Their recent turnaround, without government/taxpayer’s aid, made me feel proud that I had worked there.
Charles Lindbergh: We all take air travel for granted now, but that is due largely to Charles Lindbergh. Flying alone in a single-engine aircraft, he was the first man to solo across the Atlantic. Lindy’s action and his humble demeanor demonstrated the best of what is American. His popularity cost him his son’s life. Even his apparent support for Germany at the outbreak of WWII did not tarnish this true hero.
Stonewall Jackson: I have a deep respect for Robert E. Lee, and admiration for General Thomas Jackson. He and I wouldn’t get along well. Jackson was deeply religious and I am not. But when you stand the ground at the Bull Run battlefield you gain an appreciation for his sense of terrain and positioning that maps alone cannot convey. His stunning flank attack at Chancellorsville turned defeat against superior forces into one of the south’s greatest victories. To me, the greatest unanswered question in the Civil War is, “what would Gettysburg been like if Jackson had been alive and there?”
Neil Armstrong: When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. The race to land a man on the moon was a part of my life. I watched TV to see Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon and I knew at that moment the world had changed. It was the first time we saw brave men do brave deeds live on TV. We all wanted to astronauts, to push the border of the final frontier. If you don’t believe me go purchase From the Earth to the Moon from HBO and watch it. This was a moment when we were proud to be Americans – few men can instill that in us.
Abraham Lincoln: I am a southern boy in my heart and soul, but even I have to admit that Lincoln was a great president. When I was a kid I convinced my parents to take me to the Lincoln Trail sites on one of our summer vacations. It is amazing that Lincoln was born in a log cabin, went on to be president at the most tumultuous time in our nation’s history. I won’t write a book on Lincoln, there are so many out there already and most are good to great. Still, as a kid, this was someone I looked up to.
There are others. I admire George Washington for his sense of strategy in a war that should not have been winnable. Vasily Zaytsev, the infamous sniper of Stalingrad is neat (watch the movie Enemy at the Gates and you’ll see what I mean). Ronald Reagan rose to be one of my favorite presidents because he had the capacity to make us feel good about who we were as a people.
In more recent years I added Frederick Zinn to the list because of his efforts to recover missing airmen in WWI and WWII (check out my book Lost Eagles for more information). Unsung heroes, like Zinn, are part of the American psyche too…the men and women that do the big deeds but don’t draw attention to themselves. I also came to respect Bert Hall, WWI aviator and scoundrel, but I respected him for all of the wrong reasons. Bert was a bad boy and there is something in the American mystique that loves a bad boy. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was someone I discovered late in life – and his entire life story is really cool as well.
And then there’s Martha Stewart…
...yes, Martha Stewart. This woman built a media empire. She was hit with charges of insider trading. She could have fought those charges and probably gotten away with a slap on the hand. Martha instead stood up and said, “send me to jail.” She rode that out, came back, and rebuilt her empire. We Americans love to see our heroes get knocked down a peg or two, and we thrill even more when the climb back up. Martha had bigger balls than most men in business. Let’s be real too, her “crime” was one without a victim and one that many business people do. She got targeted and singled out by the government. The fact she stood up and took it, well, that’s freakin’ gutsy.
So, who were your heroes?