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10 Heroic Battlefield Medics

When we study war in history class, we learn about kings, presidents, and generals. It's a shame we don't get to learn about the many everyday people who step up and do extraordinary things, like the medical workers who perform heroically under terrible conditions. Here are a few of those extraordinary people.

1. U.S. Civil War: Mary Edwards Walker

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was the only woman in her medical school class in 1855. Her medical practice floundered because few people trusted a female doctor. Walker volunteered her service to the Union Army, but was not allowed to enlist, so served as a volunteer. She was not allowed to serve as a doctor, either, so she served as a nurse -at first. Walker ministered to the wounded at the First Battle of Bull Run and worked her way into the position of a field surgeon's assistant. She was awarded an army commission 1863, but was still technically designated as a civilian worker. Walker was taken by the Confederacy as a prisoner of war for several months in 1864 and was accused of being a spy. She continued to serve until the end of the war. In 1865 Walker became the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, for her efforts at the First Battle of Bull Run. After the war, she campaigned for women's rights, temperance, and even ran for political office -before women even had the right to vote.

2. WW I: John Simpson Kirkpatrick

In 1910, Englishman John Simpson Kirkpatrick was a teenage deserter from the British Merchant Navy who found himself stranded in Australia. He enlisted in ANZAC, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps as John Simpson in 1914 and was designated a stretcher bearer. His medical ship was sent to the Gallipoli Penninsula of Turkey in 1915, during the battle in which 130,000 men died. Simpson rounded up a few donkeys to use in carrying the wounded over the rough terrain, and spent 24 days ferrying casualties from the battlefront to the seashore, often under fire. Simpson and the donkey he named Duffy were called "the bravest of the brave" by soldiers of the various nationalities in Gallipoli. He carried out his rescue missions day after day until he was killed by a sniper on May 19, 1915. Simpson was 22 years old at the time of his death.

3. WW II: Rex Gregor

Twenty-one-year-old Navy Pharmacist's mate Rex Gregor was assigned to the Marines fighting on the island of Vella LaVella in 1943. Gregor was fearless, retrieving the wounded under fire as a matter of course. In one instance, he raced through Japanese fire to a blazing ship full of ammunition in order to save the medical supplies he needed. In another instance, he could not find a doctor for a Marine who needed an immediate leg amputation, so he did it himself. Later, he got word from a field hospital that his surgery was adequate and the patient would be OK.

4. WW II: Desmond Doss

In 1945, then-Private First Class Desmond Doss became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. Doss was a devout Seventh-day Adventist who was willing to serve his country, but refused to kill. He prayed constantly and wouldn't work on Saturday, with the exception of tending to the wounded. His commander tried to expel him on a Section 8 charge, and the other soldiers resented him. But Doss refused to admit mental instability and proved his bravery as a medic on the field of battle in both Guam and Leyte. The Medal of Honor came for Doss' actions in Okinawa in May of 1945. Over three weeks of fighting, he retrieved approximately 75 casualties under artillery, mortar and machine gun fire. According to his Medal of Honor citation, on May 21st, Doss was wounded by a grenade while carrying out another retrieval mission. He dressed his own injuries while waiting five hours for someone to retrieve him. Meanwhile, Doss still attended other wounded soldiers on the field, even directing the litter bearers to aid other men first. A sniper then shot him in the arm, breaking the bone. Doss made a splint out of a rifle stock and crawled 300 yards to the aid station. Desmond Doss' actions were the subject of the 2004 documentary The Conscientious Objector.

5. WW II: John Bradley

Navy corpsman John Bradley was renowned as one of the six men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima and contributed to the most iconic image of World War II. But he shunned the fame that came from that event. He also shunned any recognition of the Navy Cross he earned for heroism on the battlefield, and his family only learned of the award after his death. Bradley enlisted in the Navy at age 19 and became a Pharmacist's mate. The Marines took him as a corpsman to the islands of the Pacific Theater. On Feb. 21, 1945, he rushed to the aid of a Marine wounded by machine gun fire on Iwo Jima. Under fire, he rigged up an immediate plasma transfusion and bound the Marine's bleeding wounds, while shielding the patient's body with his own. Only then did he drag the Marine thirty yards through an enemy barrage to shelter. A few days later, Bradley was on Mount Suribachi for the flag-raising, then was wounded by shrapnel and evacuated.

6. French Indochina: Geneviève de Galard

French Air Force Lieutenant Genevieve de Galard-Terraube went to French Indochina (now Vietnam) as a medevac flight nurse in 1953. In March of 1954, she was stranded with troops in Dien Bien Phu during heavy fighting when her plane was damaged, so she volunteered to work in the field hospital. She was the only female medical worker there. De Galard retrieved fallen soldiers from the battlefield, assisted in surgery, and ministered to the wounded of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, eventually running a 40-bed ward containing the most gravely wounded soldiers. The French considered the battle lost on May 7th, but de Galard stayed until the medical staff was finally evacuated on May 24th. De Galard was dubbed l'ange de Dien Bien Phu (the Angel of Dien Bien Phu) and became a media sensation. You can see her return to France in this video.

7. Vietnam: Charles L. Kelly

Major Charles L. Kelly was a medevac pilot in Vietnam and the Commanding Officer of the 57th Medical Detachment. He flew constant rescue missions from January to July 1964, even at night with low visibility. On July 1st, he was warned not to enter a "hot zone," but went anyway to pick up the wounded. When asked when he was going to return, he said, "When I have your wounded." Those words became the slogan for the medevac corps. Shortly afterward, he was shot through the open door and died when his helicopter crashed. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

8. Vietnam: Thomas W. Bennett

Corporal Thomas W. Bennett was assigned as a medical aid to the 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, fighting in Plieku province in Vietnam. On February 9, 1969, Bennett braved enemy fire to pull at least five wounded men to shelter during a battle in the Chu Pa area. He repeatedly retrieved the wounded over the next two days, until he was shot and by a sniper while pulling another wounded soldier towards safety. Bennett died from the wound. Bennett received the Medal of Honor posthumously, presented to his parents by president Nixon in 1970. Bennett had enlisted in the army as a conscientious objector, since he opposed killing on religious grounds, but was willing to serve his country in another capacity -that of saving lives.

9. Afghanistan: Sally Clarke

Lance Corporal Sally Clarke of the British Army was 22 years old and serving in Afghanistan in 2009. A Taliban rocket-propelled grenade hit her unit on patrol in Helmand province, exploding shrapnel three times and wounding eight soldiers, including Clarke. A piece of shrapnel was embedded in her back, but the other soldiers were more seriously wounded. Clarke rushed from one patient to the next, binding up wounds until the soldiers could be evacuated. Clarke refused evacuation herself, as she was the only medic in the patrol unit and felt responsible. She was treated at a nearby aid station. Clarke later received the Queen's Commendation for Bravery.

10. Afghanistan: Monica Lin Brown

Army Spc. Monica Lin Brown was an 18-year-old medic serving the 82nd Airborne in Paktia province, Afghanistan, in 2007. A roadside bomb went off as her convoy was passing, wounding five soldiers and setting their Humvee on fire. Brown ran through gunfire and mortars to reach the solders, who managed to leave the burning vehicle, and shielded them with her body. Brown received a Silver Star for her bravery -and was also pulled out of Paktia because of regulations barring women from combat.

This brief list is far from comprehensive. The many other medical workers who perform heroically during wartime could fill books -and may fill another list like this in the future.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.

1. KRAMPUS

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. JÓLAKÖTTURINN

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. FRAU PERCHTA


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. BELSNICKEL

A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. HANS TRAPP

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. PÈRE FOUETTARD

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. THE YULE LADS

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 

8. GRÝLA

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters

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