Desmond Thomas Doss is a hero from World War II. He has the distinction of being the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor and one of only three so honored. As a corporal in the U.S. Army, he was assigned to the Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division.
Doss was born on February 7, 1919, in Lynchburg, Virginia, to William Thomas Doss and Bertha E. Oliver. He married Dorothy Doss (m. 1942-1991) and Frances Doss (m. 1993-2006) and had one son, Desmond Thomas Doss, Jr. He died on March 23, 2006, in Piedmont, Alabama, and was buried in the Chattanooga National Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Pfc Doss was mocked for being unwilling to carry a rifle, but he became a hero because of his courage under fire and love for his men. A November 4th big-screen release of a movie, “Hacksaw Ridge” tells his incredible story. The movie stars Andrew Garfield, and the screen adaptation by Mel Gibson is “based on a screenplay that had been relegated to `development hell’ for 15 years. The film’s world premiere was [in September] at the esteemed Venice Film Festival, where it received a 10-minute standing ovation.”
I first heard of Desmond Doss when I read an article written by Mark Alexander at The Patriot Post. Alexander met 76-year-old Doss in 1995, as the two of them lived a few miles apart in east Tennessee. Alexander described Doss and his wife as being “simple people who lived a simple life on a small farm” and “warm and welcoming” people. Doss is described as “humble and slightly built,” wearing “thick glasses,” and being “virtually deaf. Both Doss and his wife were devout Christians.
Doss “was raised in a Christian tradition which taught that taking up arms to do someone harm was forbidden,” but he declined a religious exemption during World War II. He was as a “conscientious objector” but considered himself to be a “conscientious cooperator” because he felt it “an honor to serve God and country.” He did not want to dodge the draft, but he had no idea what was ahead of him. He was viewed by both officers and enlisted men as a coward because he never picked up a rifle.
In May 1945, near Urasoe on Okinawa, Doss showed by his actions that he was not a coward but had “limitless courage and character.” The fighting was “horrific,” and “he knew there were many severely wounded soldiers” on the top of Hacksaw Ridge (Maeda Escarpment). He disobeyed an order to retreat and cover and then spent 12 hours rescuing injured men under machine gun, rifle, and mortar fire. One-by-one, he pulled the injured soldiers off the battlefield and lowered them 35 feet to safety.
The Medal of Honor citation for Doss sounds like fiction, but it honors a real hero as it documents his heroic actions as a medic between April 29 and May 21, 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 machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying them 1 by 1 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 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making 4 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, Pfc. 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 5 hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Pfc. 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 1 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 Pfc. 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.”
Doss continued his service to other upon his return to the states. His character was shown by his many acts of honorable service throughout his life. It is only fitting that he receives the honor of having a movie made about him. “Hacksaw Ridge” sounds like a movie that all of us should see.