Desmond Doss wasn’t the kind of man who would stand out of 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. Twice awarded the Bronze Star for valor for risking his life to save wounded soldiers during fighting in Guam and the Philippines, it was on the island of Okinawa that he saved his most brave actions.
After infantry troops took the Maeda Escarpment known to the troops as “Hacksaw Ridge”, a jagged 125’ cliff, a vicious Japanese counterattack forced them back off. Over 75 wounded men were left behind during the retreat. Doss remained behind and brought the men back one by one by lowering them down the slope by ropes.
President Harry Truman awarded the Medal of Honor to Doss on the White House lawn in 1945. Mel Gibson made a critically acclaimed movie on Doss, “Hacksaw Ridge”.
Doss was born in Lynchburg, Virginia on February 7, 1919, and was a strict Seventh-Day Adventist and attended a school of the same faith until the eighth grade when he left school to go to work to help his family during the 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 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 Doss 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 who bullied him. 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.
During the invasion of Okinawa, the 77th Division was assigned the task of taking the Maeda Escarpment. The Japanese plan was to let the Americans climb up and once they reached the top to annihilate them with concentrated machine gun and mortar fire.
The Americans reached the top and initially took the bloody ground called Hacksaw Ridge but the Japanese counter-attacked and forced the Americans off the top with horrendous casualties. The Americans were forced to order a retreat. Everyone 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 and slowly lowered them down to other Americans waiting to take them to a field hospital.
Doss stayed on the escarpment and kept praying to God to allow him to “save one more” and he did until there was no more left to save.
In an incredible brave episode 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.
Two weeks later, while his unit was continuing the fight, he was in a foxhole with two other American soldiers, a Japanese soldier lobbed a grenade into the hole. Doss attempted to kick the grenade out of the hole 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 they arrived, Doss noticed a more severely wounded soldier and rolled off the stretcher and told the bearers to carry the other soldier to safety. While awaiting another one, a Japanese sniper shot him in the arm, shattering the bones in his upper left arm. Doss then crawled 300 yards to the field first aid station. When reaching there he discovered he lost his bible.
His commanding officer told Doss that he’d be the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. When he met President Truman at the White House, Truman shook his hand and held 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 a slightly charred, waterlogged bible. After he was wounded, every man in the company combed thru the battlefield after the battle until they found it. The man who had been bullied, threatened and harassed for his religious convictions had earned the undying respect of his fellow soldiers after all.
Doss died in 2006 and is buried at the National Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Medal of Honor Citation:
Citation: Private First Class Desmond T. Doss, United States Army, Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. Near Urasoe-Mura, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, 29 April – 21 May 1945.
He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Private First Class Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying them one by one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands.
On 2 May, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and two days later he treated four men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within eight yards of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making four separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety.
On 5 May, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small-arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Private First Class Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire.
On 21 May, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited five hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Private First Class Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers’ return, he was again struck, this time suffering a compound fracture of one arm. With magnificent fortitude, he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards over rough terrain to the aid station.
Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions, Private First Class Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.
Photo: US Archives