To the average outsider, all they would have seen was a skinny, quiet, and pensive young man. Some of his fellow soldiers even branded him a coward. They would never have guessed that he would be a war hero. Desmond Doss was born and raised in Lynchburg, Virginia in the Seventh Day Adventist church. He held one commandment high in his core of beliefs: The sixth, “Thou shalt not kill.” His father, Thomas Doss, had fought in the first World War and was adamant that his sons would not join the army. However, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, each American took it personally. Many men that were either declared 4F unfit to enlist, or were forbidden by family to enlist, committed suicide; such was their commitment and love for their country.
When he joined the Army, Desmond assumed that his classification as a conscientious objector would not require him to carry a weapon. He wanted to be an Army combat medic; to save life instead of take it. As luck would have it, he was assigned to an infantry rifle company. His refusal to carry a gun caused a lot of trouble among his fellow soldiers. They viewed him with disdain and called him a misfit. They ostracized him, bullied him, and cursed at him. One man in the barracks warned him, “Doss, as soon as we get into combat, I’ll make sure you won’t come back alive.”
His commanding officers also wanted to get rid of the skinny Virginian who spoke with a gentle southern drawl. They saw him as a liability. Nobody believed a soldier without a weapon was worthwhile. They tried to intimidate him, scold him, assign him extra tough duties, and declared him mentally unfit for the Army. Then, they attempted to court martial him for refusing a direct order—to carry a gun. But they failed to find a way to toss him out, and he refused to leave. He believed his duty was to obey God and serve his country. But it had to be in that order. His unwavering convictions were most important. They finally allowed him the choice to charge into the chaos of battle without a weapon to protect him.
Things began turning around when the men discovered that this quiet unassuming medic had a way to heal the blisters on their march-weary feet. And if someone fainted from heat stroke, this medic was at his side, offering his own canteen. Desmond never held a grudge. With kindness and gentle courtesy, he treated those who had mistreated him. He lived the golden rule, “…do to others what you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7:12 NIV).
It is important to understand how difficult it would have been fighting in the Pacific. Okinawa had the greatest loss of life in the Pacific theatre in the Second World War. We must pay tribute to the sacrifice those veterans made and the difficult circumstances they had to go through. This is juxtaposed to who Desmond was in the middle of this war. His story is entertaining, educational, and elevating–lifting you to a higher place inspirationally and spiritually.
Desmond served in combat on the islands of Guam, Leyte, and Okinawa. In each military operation he exhibited extraordinary dedication to his fellow men. While others were taking life, he was busy saving life. When the cry, “medic,” rang out on the battlefield, he never considered his own safety. He repeatedly ran into the heat of battle to treat a fallen comrade and carry him back to safety. All this, while enemy bullets whizzed past and mortar shells exploded around him. Several times, while treating a wounded soldier, Desmond was so close to enemy lines, he could hear the whispering of Japanese voices.
He was deployed to Okinawa to take place in one of the final, and bloodiest, battles that would help the US army get a foothold in Japan and hopefully force a surrender. What happened next defies believability, and yet, there are countless written, witnessed, and military accounts to corroborate what happened on Hacksaw Ridge.
This was the citation read at his Medal of Honor ceremony:
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. 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 braced 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.
October 12, 1945
The White House
Of the 16 million men in uniform during World War II, only 431 received the Congressional Medal of Honor. One of these was placed around the neck of a young Seventh-day Adventist, who during combat had not killed a single enemy soldier. In fact, he refused to carry a gun. His only weapons were his Bible and his faith in God.
Desmond did not want to publicize himself, so until the release of the movie “Hacksaw Ridge,” he was only well known in two circles: Military and the Seventh Day Adventist church. He was such a humble man and originally did not want to give the rights to his story, because he believed what he had done was not that great; he simply believed that that was his role and that is what he set out to do. In fact, Hollywood had approached him shortly after these events to ask for his life rights and even sent stars that were decorated WWII veterans to speak to him. He was simply uncomfortable with the attention.
Desmond’s friends and family kept telling him, “Your story should outlast you.” He eventually did a short documentary called “The Conscientious Objector,” and people who saw it were stunned that they had never heard of him before. They wanted to see a movie of this ordinary man doing extraordinary things. Toward the end of his life, Desmond approached his church and asked that they would form a council to oversee the sale and making of the movie to be sure it held to his principles.
As production began on the film, the producers were all floored by the material they saw in the documentary. They couldn’t believe this had actually happened. Desmond did not fit the archetypes for a Hollywood hero: here was a man who was not bold and vibrant. He would not give great speeches. He would change profoundly, but subtly. He was a remarkable, pure spirit. They needed to dig into his character and understand who he was.
There is a wealth of material on this man: books by him, about him, verbal accounts, documentaries, army documents, etc. Inevitably, there was a lot of material they couldn’t fit in to the award winning movie. There were a lot of true things to draw on so they chose some of those and had to leave others out. Some of it is unbelievable. It was so over-the-top heroic that if they included it, audiences would not believe it and simply think it was “Hollywood-ized” and dramatized to fit the action movie checklist. All of the people involved in the film remained aware that this is a true story: Desmond lived these experiences and there are still people alive that were with this man during his life. They carry their own memories and experiences with him. Andrew Garfield had no hesitation in taking the role. He savored the opportunity to dive into this man’s life, this ordinary man who had no intention of being a hero. In an interview, Garfield said, “Desmond was pulled through such terrible doubts in his own beliefs. Everyone was telling him that he was insane, so he essentially had to carry the crucible and walk through the fire of being so deeply misunderstood and mis-seen to the point where he was almost convinced to pick up a gun and wave it around just so he could get on with his training. Stories like this are so critically important to American and international culture. This story is worth telling and should be told right now.”
So many people judged Desmond wrongly as a small, lanky, coward whom they could not look to to save them on the battlefield. This would soon be proven wrong. Not only wrong, but so false that they soon believed so strongly in him that they wouldn’t go into battle without him. Each veteran from WWII will insist that they are not a hero, but that the heroes are still buried over there. I believe each one of these men is a hero. They did something that we cannot even begin to comprehend.
“It isn’t right that other men should fight and die that I would just be sitting at home safe. I need to serve. I have the energy and the passion to serve as a medic right in the middle with the other guys. No less danger, just while everyone else will be taking life, I’m going to be saving it. With the whole world bent on tearing itself apart, I don’t see what’s so bad about wanting to put a little of it back together.” Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss in “Hacksaw Ridge.”