Desmond Doss wouldn’t have stood out in a crowd as a brave hero. But sometimes looks can be deceiving. Doss was a quiet, unassuming conscientious objector who served as a combat medic in World War II. He was twice awarded the Bronze Star for valor for risking his life to save wounded soldiers during fighting in Guam and the Philippines. But it was on the island of Okinawa that he displayed his most extraordinary bravery.
A Very Unusual Training Experience
Doss was born in Lynchburg, Virginia on February 7, 1919. He was a strict Seventh-Day Adventist, a pacifist, and didn’t believe in violence or the use of arms. He attended a school of the same faith until the eighth grade when he left school to work to help his family during the Great Depression.
At the outbreak of World War II, Doss had a job in the Newport News shipbuilding yards and was offered a deferment. But he turned it down and enlisted in the army on April 1, 1942, hoping to be a medic due to his refusal to carry a weapon because of his religious convictions. His basic training experience was difficult. He was threatened and harassed. Many of the other recruits threw shoes at him while he prayed, and they tried to have him transferred out of their unit.
His fellow troops considered him a coward, a misfit and he was bullied during his training with the newly reformed 77th Infantry Division. He further angered the military when he asked for a pass on Saturdays to observe his Sabbath
His unit’s officers tried to threaten, cajole, and harass him into carrying a weapon. But he remained steadfast in his beliefs. They even tried to court-martial him for refusing to obey a direct order to carry a rifle.
But despite all of it, Doss remained true to his upbringing and never held a grudge against his fellow troops. Whenever one would need treatment for their injuries or ailments during their training, Doss was always there for them. Little did they know how much.
Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge
During the American invasion of Okinawa, the final precursor of the invasion of Japan itself, the 77th Division was assigned the task of taking the Maeda Escarpment, a jagged 125′ cliff.
The Japanese planned was to let the Americans climb up and once they reached the top annihilate them with a concentration of machine-gun and mortar fire.
The Americans reached the top and initially took the bloody ground called Hacksaw Ridge. But the Japanese counterattacked and forced them off the top with horrendous casualties. The Americans were forced to order a retreat. Everyone retreated except Desmond Doss.
Doss disobeyed orders and remained behind for 12 hours, slowly making his way from one wounded man to another, treating their wounds and then carrying them to the edge of the escarpment from where he slowly lowered them down to be taken to a field hospital.
Doss stayed on the escarpment praying to God to allow him to “save one more” until there were no more left to save.
In an incredible feat of bravery, with Japanese soldiers constantly trying to pick him off, Doss miraculously not only survived but saved 75 men during the night. Finally, he came down covered with the blood of his comrades but able to soldier on another day.
Initially, amid the confusion, he was thought to have been killed. In fact, his parents received a telegram saying he was killed in action, only to receive a letter from Doss later.
The Respect of His Fellow Soldiers
Two weeks later, on May 21, 1945, Doss was in a foxhole with two other soldiers when a Japanese soldier lobbed a grenade into the hole. Doss attempted to kick the grenade out but it exploded and severely wounded him in both legs. He treated his own wounds but had to wait nearly five hours for a stretcher-bearer to carry him to safety.
But as soon as the stretcher-bearers arrived, Doss noticed a more severely wounded soldier, rolled off the stretcher, and told the bearers to carry the other soldier to safety. While awaiting another one, a Japanese sniper shot him shattering the bones in his upper left arm. Doss then crawled 300 yards to the field first aid station. When he arrived there he discovered he had lost his Bible.
Every man in the company combed through the battlefield after the battle until they found it. Desmond Doss, the man who had been bullied, threatened, and harassed for his religious convictions, had earned the undying respect of his fellow soldiers after all.
For his actions on Hacksaw Ridge, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman in October 1945. He was the first conscientious objector to receive the award.
When he returned to the United States, doctors removed the bullet from his shattered arm. He then went to Washington DC for his award. Truman shook his hand holding onto it while the citation was being read. Truman told him, “You really deserve this. I consider this a greater honor than being president.”
At the ceremony, Doss received an even greater gift. His commanding officer presented him with a slightly charred, waterlogged Bible.
Doss died in 2006 and is buried at the National Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Mel Gibson, after a decade hiatus from filmmaking, made a critically acclaimed movie on Doss called Hacksaw Ridge. An interview of Doss can be seen here.