“Courage isn’t having the strength to go on – it is going on when you don’t have the strength.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
I was born in 1955, but the first US president I remember, vividly, was John F Kennedy.
He was everything a president should be, as far as we knew. And as time has passed –decades, in fact – that feeling has been greatly reinforced.
The Kennedys – Jack and Bobby – have come to represent a pinnacle in US political history. Anyone who holds that high office now is often held in comparison.
They say roughly 40,000 books have been written on JFK. And of course, I am not ashamed to say I own several.
Jack was the dashing young playboy president, who tried to turn the ship around and stop the madness of the escalating Cold War, only to pay for it with his life.
Bobby, the indefatigable attorney general, worked tirelessly to put bad guys in jail. Real bad guys, not enemies of the president.
They were not perfect, and yes, maybe glamorized with the passage of time, but there is no arguing they were noble, good men.
How far away those once-distinct American values are in today’s POTUS Twitter world.
So vastly far away …
Smashed into pieces by a president and an administration that are so corrupt, they should be loaded on to a barge, and sunk, in the Shakespearean sense … along with the lawyers.
So long, goodbye.
So many new lows have been dredged by the current bunch and their cronies that historians will be busy for decades trying to sort it out.
Yet we should not despair. Never, ever despair.
Courage lives, despite the last four years of this despicable presidency that has left us awash in cowardice.
Along the lines of JFK’s best-seller, Profiles in Courage, here are four stories of heroism that will help restore your faith in mankind.
They’re real, and they actually happened.
‘I’ll show you how an Italian dies’
His name was Fabrizio Quattrocchi, and he was captured while accompanying a group of clients on the road to Amman in Jordan.
Quattrocchi, 36, a former baker from Genoa with nerves of steel, was taken hostage by kidnappers, who called themselves the Green Brigade of the Prophet.
He was born in Sicily and moved to Genoa with his family. He had become a bodyguard after doing a stint as a nightclub bouncer and then signed up to work in Iraq.
He was said to have accepted a job as a security guard working in Iraq for an American company, to earn enough for a home in Italy and to get married.
After the Italian government had refused to negotiate with the kidnappers, Quattrocchi’s fate was sealed.
The Italian hostage sat silently, waiting for the end to come … showing no fear.
In the seconds before he was shot, at point-blank range, he screamed to his captors: “Now I’ll show you how an Italian dies.”
Details of the final moments of Fabrizio Quattrocchi deepened Italy’s shock and outrage.
Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, praised him as a hero, while Arab television station Al-Jazeera chose not to broadcast the video.
“I have been authorized by the [victim’s] family … to reveal the final words of this boy who died what I would call a courageous death, I would say like a hero,” Frattini said.
“When his assassins were pointing a gun at him, this boy tried to remove the hood and shouted: ‘Now I’ll show you how an Italian dies.’ And they killed him.”
Al-Jazeera said he was forced to dig his own grave.
“Fabrizio was a wonderful man, a man of iron but who had never hurt a fly,” his fiancee, Alice, told Italian television. “He was supposed to come back to me and we were to get married.
“The only consolation is that he died with honor.”
Heroism on Nanga Parbat
An elite Polish-led climbing team was poised at the base of K2, hoping to make the first winter ascent of the world’s only 8,000-meter peak that hadn’t been climbed in winter.
On the team were Polish superstar Adam Bielecki, 34, and the unstoppable Kazakh alpinist Denis Urubko, 45.
A message arrived at base camp that a team was in trouble on Nanga Parbat, just 200 kilometers away. It was from French high-altitude climber Elisabeth Revol.
She and her Polish partner, Tomasz Mackiewicz, had summited Nanga Parbat, but the message was clear: Mackiewicz was in trouble, he could no longer move, he needed to be evacuated.
Over on K2, the Polish team was led by Krzysztof Wielicki, an original member of Poland’s famous “Ice Warriors” who pioneered winter mountaineering.
After hearing of the stranded climbers, Wielicki knew immediately that there were only a handful of people in the entire world who were currently acclimatized enough to the high-altitude conditions and in position to attempt a rescue of Mackiewicz and Revol.
He asked his team if anyone would be willing to interrupt their K2 climb to help with the rescue. “Every single one said yes,” he recalled.
He chose Bielecki, Urubko, Piotr Tomala, and Jarosław Botor. All four were major contributors to the K2 effort, but Bielecki and Urubko were widely considered the team’s best chances to make the summit.
Two high-altitude helicopters picked up the four rescuers from the K2 base camp on January 27 and delivered them just below Camp 1 on Nanga, at 5:10pm.
“The helicopter pilot took a very strong risk for this mission with his life,” Urubko later told Alpinist magazine.
The men quickly came up with a strategy: Piotr and Jarosław would remain at the landing site for backup while Bielecki and Urubko would start climbing.
At 5:30pm the Killer Mountain was already enveloped in darkness. The men clicked on their headlamps and began ascending the Kinshofer Route.
Bielecki and Urubko raced up the mountain – keeping up a nearly superhuman pace of 150 meters an hour for eight hours up the steep terrain.
In the meantime, at Mackiewicz’ urging, Revol had started down without him. She left him in a sleeping bag with most of their gear and began descending the Kinshofer Route.
She would never see him again.
Urubko discovered Revol at around midnight. “One moment I heard her screaming. ‘Adam, I can hear her!'” Urubko said.
“A moment later he shouted, ‘Adam, I got her! I got her!'” Her hands were so badly frostbitten that she couldn’t even manipulate her carabiners.
They moved her to a ledge where they could sit together, replace her thin gloves with warm mitts, then heat some water and give her some pills to help stimulate her circulation.
They talked quietly about what to do next. Should they get Revol into a safe spot, secure her to the mountain, and continue up to Mackiewicz, who would somehow have to be carried down? Revol had explained that Tomasz was unable to move.
“We understood that if we left Revol and went up for Mackiewicz, she would die,” and Mackiewicz was too high for a helicopter to operate.
“We chose to rescue Elisabeth,” Urubko explained.
The sacrifice of Shughart and Gordon
Warrant Officer Michael Durant grew up in New Hampshire and went into the US Army shortly after high school, eventually piloting Black Hawk helicopters.
Sergeant 1st Class Randall Shughart, who went to Big Spring High School and Cumberland Perry Vocational Technical School, became a sniper in an elite unit.
They were among the US forces sent to Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope to prevent disruption of a United Nations effort to give food and relief to people being deliberately starved by factions in the war-torn country.
During the Mogadishu raid on October 3, 1993, Durant’s Black Hawk crashed after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Shughart was in another copter. He and a fellow Ranger, Master Sergeant Gary Gordon, volunteered to drop to the ground to protect survivors of Durant’s Black Hawk from an advancing mob.
They had to make the request three times, but were finally given permission, even through they faced a situation where no timely backup could be provided.
Durant was conscious but largely immobilized by a broken vertebra and broken leg.
Armed with only a sniper rifle and a pistol, Gordon killed several attackers closing in on the site. When he ran out of ammunition, he dug some of the weapons and ammo out of the downed chopper, gave some of it to a dazed Durant, then radioed for help.
Eventually, Shughart was fatally wounded, and Gordon again ran out of rifle ammo. He grabbed one last rifle with the last five rounds of ammo from the wreckage, gave it to Durant and said, “Good luck.”
He then went back into the fray to fight off the enemy with just his pistol. He was quickly shot and killed.
The site was overrun by the militants, who took Durant hostage. He was let go about two weeks later, but it was the selfless actions of Gordon and Shughart that ultimately saved his life.
Meanwhile, the full-scale battle continued into the early morning – about 15 hours total – and led to the deaths of 18 American service members, with many more wounded.
There were between 315 and 2,000 Somali casualties.
The Battle of Mogadishu was chronicled accurately by director Ridley Scott in the 2001 film Black Hawk Down.
As Gordon and Shughart died together, they were honored together, too. Both men posthumously received the Medal of Honor on May 23, 1994, during a ceremony at the White House. Gordon’s wife and two children accepted it on his behalf.
“Gary Gordon and Randall Shughart died in the most courageous and selfless way any human being can act. They risked their lives without hesitation,” then-president Bill Clinton said at the ceremony.
PT-109 and a future president
On a dark moonless night in the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific, Japanese destroyer Amagiri struck PT-109 just forward of the forward starboard torpedo tube, ripping away the starboard aft side of the boat.
Two of Jack Kennedy’s dozen-member crew were killed instantly, and the back half of the craft sank immediately. The survivors clung to the drifting bow for hours.
At daybreak, they embarked on a five-hour-long swim to a nearby deserted island. The stronger swimmers, including Kennedy, towed the injured, sometimes using their teeth.
After two days on the small island without food and water, Kennedy realized they needed to swim to a larger island, Olasana, if they were to survive.
It was there that two local scouts found them. One carried a coconut that Kennedy carved with a message to a lookout, who radioed the PT base to send a rescue boat.
It read: “Nauru Is. Native knows posit. He can pilot. 11 alive need small boat.”
For his courage and leadership, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and injuries suffered during the incident qualified him for the Purple Heart.
But the consequences of the event for JFK were more far-reaching than simple decorations for a uniform.
The story was picked up by the writer John Hersey, who told it to the readers of The New Yorker and Reader’s Digest, and it followed Kennedy into politics, where it was a strong foundation of his appeal.
For here was a war hero who had not won battles but who had shown courage and dogged will, responsibility for those he led and the ability to inspire them – and it would be hard to better this as a short list of qualifications for a political leader.
PT-109, a film dramatizing this story, starring Cliff Robertson as Kennedy, opened in 1963.
True to form … on a White House recording, Kennedy called the film a “good product,” but worried about the 2 hour, 20 minute length. “It’s just a question of whether there’s too much of it,” the president determined.
The film grossed about US$5.5 million at the worldwide box office, respectable for the time, but still far short of what the studio had expected.
Sources: National Archives, National Geographic, Sydney Morning Herald, Soldier of Fortune, History.com, Nature/PBS, Variety
Dave Makichuk is a veteran writer and copy-editor with 35 years’ media experience who lives in Calgary and freelances for Asia Times. A dedicated Detroit Red Wings, Tigers and Lions fan, Makichuk relishes his chosen role as enemy of the state, and defender of the oppressed and downtrodden.