XXVI: The White Death

Being a sniper is one of the most challenging jobs in the military, both mentally and physically. Not only are snipers often required to sit hidden and completely motionless for many hours at a time, but the basic point of their job is to target and kill individual people one at a time, which can be extremely mentally taxing.

One man who didn’t seem to have any qualms about the physical or mental difficulties of being a sniper was Simo Häyhä, the White Death of Finland. Häyhä has the largest number of recorded confirmed kills of any sniper in history — 505.

Häyhä was born in Rautjärvi, Finland (and if you can pronounce that, congratulations) in 1905. He was a hunter and farmer for many years and was well known as an accomplished marksman around his hometown. He joined the Finnish White Guard militia at age 20, and when Finland invaded by Russia in the Winter War, he was sent to the front lines at the Battle of Kollaa in December of 1939 to be a sniper.

Häyhä was not an average sniper. First of all, he preferred iron sights to telescopic sights because it made him a smaller target. Basically, he preferred to aim using little piece of metal stuck on the barrel of his White Guard M/28 Pystykorva rather than a small (and usually more helpful) telescope. Corporal Häyhä also dressed entirely in white to make it easier to hide out in the snow, because it was winter in Finland and it was usually somewhere between -40°F and -4°F outside. Standing only 5’3″ and wearing a giant white parka, Häyhä did not cut the most intimidating figure, but his prowess with a rifle would earn him the nickname “The White Death”.

Over the course of less than 100 days, Corporal Häyhä killed 505 Russian soldiers with his sniper rifle, an another 200 with a submachine gun, making him responsible for about 8.75% of the total Russia casualties in the battle. Häyhä had a personal best of 25 Russians shot in one day. He also survived numerous attempts on his life by the Russians, including counter-snipers (which Häyhä shot) and artillery strikes on any place where the Russians thought he might be. On March 6, 1940, Corporal Häyhä was shot in the face by a Russian soldier. He remained unconscious for a week, then awoke on the day the Winter War ended and eventually made a full recovery. Field Marshall Carl Mannerheim (the commander of the entire Finnish army and the future president of Finland) instantly promoted Häyhä from Corporal (the lowest non-commissioned rank) to First Lieutenant, making Häyhä’s the quickest rise through the ranks of the Finnish military in history. Häyhä would also win five medals for valor and live on as a successful moose hunter and dog breeder until the ripe old age of 96.

Many people wondered how a man could kill so many people and not be utterly destroyed by it. When asked if he felt remorse, he replied “I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could.”

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