This Day in History: Desmond Doss, Hacksaw Ridge & the Medal of Honor
On this day in 1919, an American hero is born. Desmond Doss was a Seventh-Day Adventist who would serve in the U.S. Army for years without ever once picking up a gun. He would also become the only conscientious objector to receive a Medal of Honor for his service during World War II.
Doss, of course, objected to the term “conscientious objector,” right from the beginning. He preferred “conscientious cooperator” or “noncombatant.” After all, he intended to help the Army in any way that his religion allowed.
He worked to get himself assigned as a medic—then to *stay* assigned as a medic when officers kept trying to transfer him to infantry.
Indeed, there was constant conflict between Doss and the Army. He refused to serve on the Sabbath, unless it was a critical health need. He was always asking for passes to go to church. He would not carry a gun or even train with one. He knew that he’d never kill another human being.
The other soldiers couldn’t understand him. One of his fellow soldiers would later observe that Doss “was immediately branded with a Scarlet Letter, so to speak.” No one wanted to be with him. Some thought he was faking to get out of service. Others assumed he didn’t love his country. When he got to his knees and said his prayers at night in the barracks, soldiers would sometimes throw their shoes at him. And yet Doss never wavered in his beliefs.
“I knew if I ever once compromised,” he said later, “I was going to be in trouble because if you can compromise once, you can compromise again.”
At one point, Doss had an opportunity to get out of the Army, but the discharge that was offered would have released him on grounds of mental instability. Doss refused to accept the discharge. He wasn’t mentally unstable just because he wanted to go to church on the Sabbath!
Finally, after years of battling the U.S. Army, Doss was dispatched to the South Pacific. He initially went to Guam, where the fighting was horrific.
“At night, that’s when Desmond done a lot of his work, was at night” one soldier later described. “He’d go out and crawl around amongst our boys and see if they wasn’t dead he’d take care of them, drag them back. . . . He wasn’t supposed to do it at night.”
Doss was warned that he could be mistakenly shot by friendly fire if he continued these night-time efforts. He just kept going anyway. Those boys needed his help, and he was there for anyone who was wounded and in need.
The actions that earned Doss a Medal of Honor occurred between April 29 and May 21, 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa. Americans were fighting for control of an escarpment known as Hacksaw Ridge. The 400-foot high cliff had been heavily fortified by the Japanese.
Doss’s Medal citation contains a long list of all the soldiers that he saved during those days, but one notable rescue stands out.
Doss was then at the top of the cliff. Americans had been attacked and dozens lay wounded. Doss remained in this dangerous zone, carrying injured American soldiers to the edge of the cliff, one by one. He lowered each man on a rope down to friendly hands below. When one soldier reached safety, Doss would pray out loud, “Lord, please help me get one more.” Then he ran back into enemy fire, looking for another wounded American to save.
One witness described what he saw: “Time after time, I saw Doss go back into the enemy, into the Japanese, and pick up wounded and bring them there and let them down on these ropes . . . and the bullets were flying like bees or something. It was just miraculous. I couldn’t understand how he could do this. . . . It was as if God had his hand on his shoulder.”
One Japanese soldier later reported that he repeatedly had Doss in his sights, but his gun jammed every time he tried to pull the trigger and kill Doss.
Doss saved at least 75 men during this effort.
The conclusion to the story is perhaps appropriate. A final assault was planned for May 5, but that happened to be the Sabbath. Doss was the only medic left in the company by then. He was injured, but he intended to stay and help. Nevertheless, he still needed to respect his Sabbath, so he asked for a delay while he took time to pray and read his Bible.
The American officers agreed to Doss’s request. On that day, Americans finally seized Hacksaw Ridge for good.
Booton Herndon, Redemption At Hacksaw Ridge: The Gripping True Story That Inspired The Movie (2016)
Booton Herndon, The Unlikeliest Hero; The Story of Desmond T. Doss, Conscientious Objector Who Won His Nation’s Highest Military Honor (2004) (paperback edition)
Medal of Honor Citation (Desmond Doss; Nov. 1, 1945)
The Conscientious Objector (2006) (documentary by Terry L. Benedict)