Monday, April 27, 2009

Unsung Heroes: Real-life Rambo, Simo Hayha

America has always been enamored of war heroes, so much so that we have elevated many undeserving people to that status through myth and legend when obvious targets did not present themselves (I'm looking at you, Paul Revere). Since the Vietnam War, however, the idea of praising soldier for their ability to kill the enemy has a fallen far out of favor, and it is only considered OK to glorify war in fiction. It should not be forgotten that war is an agreement to settle disputes on a battlefield, placing your life as less important than the cause you are fighting for. If belief and conviction are attributes to be admired, then the soldier should hold a position of respect and those soldiers that execute their jobs with exceptional skill and incredible tenacity should be lauded as heroes. No soldier has done this with more intensity and skill than Simo Häyhä.

Simo was a soldier in The Winter War, a little-known conflict (to Americans, at least) the began when the Soviet Union invaded Finland in November of 1939, three months after Hitler invaded Poland. Russia was using the West's preoccupation with Hitler to make a grab at conquering Finland, believing its superior numbers and industrial might would crush the Finns quickly, with the West having little strength to argue after their protracted war with Germany. The Russian army's officer corps had been severely weakened in the Stalinist purges of 1937, however, and no one expected the Finns to fight with such determination, cunning and skill. The Finns held off the Russian forces longer than anyone could have imagined, and in the Moscow Peace Treaty Finland gave up only 9% of it's pre-war land and 20% of its industrial capacity, when the USSR expected total domination.

While snipers had existed in the previous century virtually since the advent of rifling1, they had not been an organized military force in Europe until the First World War. They proved extremely cost-effective in that conflict and became a major part of World War II2 . While German and Russian (many of the most successful of of which were women!) snipers have gained a good deal of mainstream acknowledgement (most notably in Enemy at the Gates) the greatest among them still remains largely unknown.

Before entering the military at the age of 20 in 1925 Simo was a farmer and hunter, already recognized as an excellent marksman. Between the start of action on November 30, 1939 and March 13, 1940 Simo racked up 505 confirmed sniper kills of Russian soldiers (unconfirmed kills bring the total to 542) and an additional 200 kills with his submachine gun. Given that he has more kills than another other sniper, and that sniping has the greatest potential for kill counts among infantry positions, this may place him not only as one of the greatest warriors of his time, but among the greatest warriors ever. As if the shear volume of kills wasn't enough (an average of almost 8 kills a day) his methods make the feat even more astounding.

Operating in temperatures ranging from -4 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit Simo stalked his prey in an all-white camouflage suit, earning his name among the Russia troops as “White Death”. He eschewed the use of a scope in favor of his Mosin-Nagant's simple iron sights, to present a lower profile to his enemies and therefore assist in evading detection. He kept snow in his mouth while in position so that his breath would not create vapor and he routinely froze the snow at the front of his position so that his shots would not puff the snow when he fired, giving away his position. This man possessed patience, determination and cunning in unearthly amounts.

Simo was severly injured by a Russian soldier on March 13th, 1940. A bullet hit him in the jaw and, tumbling on impact, removed a large portion of his face. He left the front lines after that, but recovered sufficiently before the end of the war to train new soldiers to fight the Russians. His impact in this capacity is immeasurable. He survived the war and died peacefully at his home in 2002 at the age of 97. When asked how he got so good he replied simply “Practice”.

With the attention we give fictional action stars and soldiers who's acts, while heroic, do not compare to the uncanny abilities of this man; I'm amazed that his actions are virtually unknown in America. No English book has been published about him, let alone a film. Why create a fictional Rambo when one already exists for us in the annals of history? Why has Hollywood not taken the opportunity to remind us that ordinary human beings are capable of incredibly extraordinary things? And while they're at it they can illustrate how a small, unassuming country with no designs on world power can fend off one of the largest military forces on the planet. As much as I love fiction, I want people to know that amazing stories are also found in history books.

1the practice of milling spiraled grooves down the barrel of a gun to improve accuracy

2The Winter War is generally considered part of WWII, as it happened at the same time and on the same continent, though the parties involved and motivations were not the same.


Sniper Hall of Fame

Simo at

Wikipedia articles of note:

Winter War


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