Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Some prove themselves on the battlefield, others show their bravery in unexpected moments and still others are heroes in the way they live everyday. Virginia has a long, proud tradition of heroes – starting with the brave men and women who settled Jamestown and managed to make it work where so many others had failed.
That tradition of courage and bravery has long continued here in Virginia. We see it every day in the acts of kind neighbors, brave strangers, military and police, as well as trailblazers and innovators. It takes a lot to be willing to put yourself out there, whether it’s to stand up for someone else, fight for what you believe or risk your own life to save another.
Here are a few heroes whose stories are particularly inspiring – from military giants, literally and figuratively, to trailblazers who set an example we can be proud to follow.
1.. Desmond T. Doss: A Conscientious Objector Who Showed Courage Under Fire
When Desmond T. Doss of Lynchburg was drafted into the Army in 1942, his beliefs as a Seventh Day Adventist forbid him from killing another human being or even carrying a gun. He served as a medic, which allowed him to fulfill his military obligations, without betraying his beliefs. During his time in the Pacific, he performed acts of heroism that are almost beyond belief. Repeatedly, under heavy enemy fire, he pulled men to safety, provided care in spite of personal risk and once even bound his own arm with a rifle after being shot. The act for which he was officially recognized occurred on May 5, 1945. When his platoon came under attack, dozens of men were wounded and unable to retreat. For 5 hours, in the face of the advancing Japanese, Doss singlehandedly lowered the wounded men to safety down the face of an embankment. His commanders claimed he saved 100 lives, but he swore it couldn’t have been more than 50 – so they agreed on 75. Doss, who had almost been court martialed for his objections, proved that heroes don’t have to fit the mold. At the end of the day, who we are under fire is what matters most.
2. Matthew LaPorte: A Student Who’s Sacrifice Saved Lives
On April 16, 2007, a gunman entered Norris Hall where he opened fire on 3 classrooms before taking his own life. Matthew LaPorte, a 20 year old sophomore and Air Force cadet at Virginia Tech, ignored his French teacher’s instruction to retreat to the back of the room and instead, he helped barricaded the door. When the shooter finally broke through, LaPorte rushed the gunman – an act which ultimately cost him his life, but saved the lives of many others. Last month, 8 years after his death, La Porte was awarded the Airmen’s Medal in a posthumous ceremony. The medal is the highest non-combat medal awarded in the United States Air Force. He may not have expected to fight a war that day, but Matthew LaPorte proved that he was a soldier through and through.
3. Joan Trumphauer Mulholland: An “Ordinary Hero”
Heroes sometimes come from the most unexpected places. Such was the case of Joan Trumphauer Mulholland. Born in Arlington in 1941 amidst segregation, Mulholland began to attend sit-ins and other peaceful protests during her freshman year at Duke, despite being one of only two white women to participate. She was arrested twice that first year before returning home for the summer and joining NAG (Non-Violent Action Group). Through her participation in sit-ins and peaceful protests, she realized that integration had to come from both sides. She left Duke and enrolled at Tougaloo, a traditionally all-black school in Jackson, Mississippi. Soon after arriving in Jackson, she was arrested again and placed in a prison where she slept on death row with other activists. She was released after 2 months, and yet somehow, her spirit was not broken. She attended classes at Tougaloo, and continued her work. Despite protests that turned violent and threats from KKK and Nazi party activists, she continued speaking out for equality, even after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964. Today, she continues to live in Arlington where she speaks to groups about her life, experiences and continued fight for justice. Mulholland has been featured in a movie about her life called “Ordinary Hero” and has been nationally recognized for her heroism in challenging the status quo.
4. Peter Francisco: Giant of the Revolution
Although he was probably born in the Azores, Peter Francisco was indentured to a sea captain and abandoned at a young age in City Point, Virginia, wearing fine clothes and only speaking Portuguese. He managed to convey that he had once lived in a mansion by the sea, leading his finders to believe he had been kidnapped. He was sent to live with Patrick Henry’s uncle, Anthony Winston, in Buckingham where he was tutored before becoming a blacksmith’s apprentice – a well-suited job given his immense size. He was reported to be at least 6’8” and 260lbs. During the Revolutionary War, he distinguished himself due to his incredible strength and heroism. He reportedly led charges with musket balls in his leg, captured enemy flags by sheer force and once even pulled an 1,100 pound cannon from the mud and dragged it to safety to keep it from British hands. A statue in National Military Park commemorates his deeds at Guilford Courthouse, NC, where he reportedly defeated 11 men, in spite of a severe bayonet wound in his thigh. He was nicknamed, “The Giant of the Revolution” and the “Virginia Giant.” When he died in 1831, he was buried with full military honors at Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond.
5. Maggie Walker: A Trailblazer for Minorities
There wasn’t much that could hold Maggie Walker back. Born to a former slave in 1864, Walker grew up Richmond attending the newly formed Richmond schools and working as a laundress. From the time she was 14, she was a member of the Independent Order of St. Luke, a humanitarian organization originally founded in Baltimore. After founding a newspaper for the group, she chartered and served as President of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, officially earning her the title of first woman of any race to run a bank. When her bank merged with 2 others in later years, they became The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company and remained an African-American owned institution for generations. When poor health and partial paralysis confined her to a wheelchair, she didn’t quit, but continued to serve as chairman of the bank and an advocate for the disabled until her death in 1934. Walker’s achievements paved the way for generations of women and black entrepreneurs to come.
6. George Washington: An Officer and a President
In almost everything he did, George Washington was the best of the best. Born in 1732 at Pope’s Creek in Colonial Beach, George Washington served as the Commander-In-Chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, leading the colonies to defeat the British in 1780. He saw no need to stop there and in 1789, he was unanimously elected as the first President of the newly independent United States of America. His influence, courage and mental and physical fortitude set him apart. Today, he is considered a Founding Father, as well as “The Father of Our Country.” There seemed to be nothing he couldn’t do and his ability to succeed under the weight of such immense responsibility makes him an example of leadership and courage that we would do well to have today.
7. Samuel Tucker: Peaceful Protests and the 1939 Library Sit-In
Twenty years before the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, brave black men and women were seeking ways to change a system that did not recognize them as equal, but there were some who believed that violence would not, and could not, be the answer. On August 21, 1939, 5 young black men led by Samuel Tucker, a Howard University graduate who had passed the Virginia state bar at the age of 20, entered the Barrett Branch of the Alexandria Library. Though they could vote and paid taxes, the whites-only library denied them library cards. One by one, the men took a book from the shelf, sat down and began to read. The police were called and the men were arrested for trespassing. This “sit-in” was the first of its kind and began a new means of peaceful protest that would become the mainstay for much of the Civil Rights movement in the following years. Tucker was not deterred by the arrests and continued to seek means of non-violent civil protest. Later in his life, he served as the lead lawyer for for the NAACP, appearing before the Supreme Court no fewer than 4 times. Through his example, he showed that violence is not the only way.
8. Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Jr.: Bravery in War and Peace
Perhaps Admiral Richard Byrd was simply destined for greatness. After all, his ancestors were among the “first families” of Virginia and included John Rolfe, Pocahontas and William Byrd, founder of Richmond. But as a naval officer and a pioneer in aviation and arctic exploration, Byrd did plenty to make his own distinct branch on the family tree. He was born in Winchester in 1888, and attended Virginia Military Institute and University of Virginia before graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1912. He served in WWI, earning his pilot wings during his service. After the war, he became a primary force in transatlantic flights and polar exploration, earning credit as the first man to reach both the North and South Pole by air. He served again during World War II, distinguishing himself even further. During his lifetime, he earned 22 citations, 9 for bravery and 2 for life-saving heroism. He also received the Medal of Honor, the Silver Lifesaving Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Navy Cross. He died in 1957 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but his legacy as a trailblazer has long lived on.
9. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee: Like Father, Like Son
While Robert E. Lee might be the name most often touted in Virginia history, he came from a long line of wartime heroes. Lee’s father, Henry, was born in 1756 in Dumfries to a well-connected family. Henry Lee studied law at Princeton before joining the Revolutionary War. He soon became distinguished for his ability to lead “light troops” and his men, known as “Lee’s Legion” were famous for their success at guerilla tactics. His superior horsemanship earned him the nickname “Light Horse Harry” and before long he was a Lieutenant Colonel. In 1779, the Continental Congress awarded him the highest honor at the time, a gold medal for his bravery in the Battle of Paulus Hook in New Jersey. After the war, Lee went on to serve as a delegate to the Congress of the Confederation, a member of the General Assembly and as the 9th Governor of Virginia. In 1794, he rejoined the Army and led 13,000 troops to help suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania and later served as a Major General. Although money problems led to a less than glorious end for Light Horse Harry, he is remembered for his doggedness and constant involvement in shaping the nation into what it is today.
When it comes to military service, there’s simply not enough time or space to adequately praise all of the men and women who have served our country. Fortunately, the Pentagon in Arlington has set aside a space to do just that. Located in the main concourse, the Hall of Heroes honors the nearly 3,500 recipients of the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest distinction of bravery.
I would definitely encourage you to visit this incredible site, as well as the countless other monuments and tributes to our military throughout the state. In the meantime, tell us about some Virginia heroes that have inspired you.