Desmond Doss was a Conscientious Objector and Was Decorated With The Medal of Honor

Desmond Doss was a Conscientious Objector and Was Decorated With The Medal of Honor

Alexander Meddings - June 20, 2017

Only now, thanks to Mel Gibson’s critically acclaimed biopic “Hacksaw Ridge”, is the remarkable story of Corporal Desmond Thomas Doss starting to get the recognition it deserves. The army medic who single-handedly saved hundreds, the man of god who sacrificed himself for those who scorned him, the only person to have been awarded a Medal of Honor without ever firing a single shot; Doss’s superhuman feats seem more the stuff of legend than history. But it’s to history his feats belong, and they set an example we could all do well to learn from.

Desmond Thomas Doss was born in Lynchburg, Virginia on February 7 1919 into a world still reeling from the shock of the First World War. What to do with the beaten (if no less bellicose) Germans was the hot topic of international diplomacy. The French wanted to severely punish them, while Woodrow Wilson’s government sought peace and prevention through the establishment of the League of Nations.

But it wasn’t international politics that shaped Doss’s pacifism from a young age. His mother, Bertha Edward Doss, was a committed Seventh-day Adventist, who raised Doss and his two siblings on a diet of nonviolence, strict observation of the Sabbath and vegetarianism. His father, William Thomas Doss, was also a religious man and a carpenter—earning Desmond Doss the honor being the second most devout carpenter’s son in history.

Desmond Doss was a Conscientious Objector and Was Decorated With The Medal of Honor
Desmond Dross as a young private. National Archives

Aside from having to take Saturdays off, there was no friction between Doss’s religious beliefs and early employment. He first labored in a lumber company to support his family through the Great Depression, before joining the Newport News Naval Shipyard as a joiner. He was drafted into the army in April 1942 aged 23, and although he could have deferred he welcomed the opportunity to serve his country. But it would have to be on his own terms.

Doss’s devotion to his religious beliefs immediately brought him into conflict with his superiors. Fortunately for the men he would later save, he narrowly avoided being consigned to a conscientious objector’s camp, insisting that because he still wanted to do his part for his country he was less a “conscientious objector” than a “conscientious cooperator”. After a brief and wholly unproductive stint training in the infantry, Doss was assigned as a medic to the B Company of the First Battalion, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division.

Unlike other medics, however, Doss’s beliefs prevented him from carrying any weapon, even a knife. He armed himself only with a small bible. And for this, he made himself the subject of merciless mockery from his comrades. Among his nicknames were “Holy Jesus” and “Holy Joe” (presumably they knew about his dad being a carpenter…). But it went beyond mere mockery. Years later, Doss would recall some serious threats from members of his squad: “One fella, he told me ‘I swear to God Doss, you go into combat, I gonna shoot you”‘. Doss’s beliefs even drove his officers to convene a hearing to have him discharged from the army. The only reason it failed was because they didn’t want to face a bureaucratic hailstorm from Washington.

Desmond Doss was a Conscientious Objector and Was Decorated With The Medal of Honor
US troops arrive on Guam, 1944. Pinterest

Doss’s first campaign was at Guam in 1944. The largest of the Mariana Islands, Guam had been captured by the Japanese in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. It held, however, considerable strategic value for the US, not least because of its proximity to the Philippines, Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands. Unfortunately the Japanese were all too aware of this and dug themselves in deeply to the already naturally fortified island.

The fighting was slow and savage. Over 50,000 were killed on both sides during the arduous campaigning. And it was in such circumstances that Desmond Doss, aged just 25, first showed himself to have the mettle of a veteran. He would reply to any cry of “medic” without any thought for himself, recklessly charging until he was within earshot of the Japanese gunners. He would drag fallen comrades out of the line of fire, no matter how futile the situation. He would even voluntarily accompany patrols to which he hadn’t been assigned.

Doss’s conduct is even more admirable when you consider the particular danger his role entailed. The Japanese especially targeted medics, and their rationale was sound if not sinister: it was far easier to demoralize troops if they knew there was no one to treat the agonizing wounds they were receiving from all the iron and shrapnel flying around. Doss’s actions on Guam would earn him a Bronze Star—the first of two. The second he would he pick up after campaigning on the Philippine island of Leyte later the same year. And what he did to earn himself this was truly remarkable.

Seeing two comrades who had been caught between two machine gun positions and bleeding out in the open, he sprinted across a vast open space to retrieve them. He realized that one was dead, but managed to drag the other across churned up, ankle-deep mud to the safety of the nearby jungle, the whole time under a barrage of Japanese fire. As if he had not excelled himself already, Doss then built a bamboo stretcher, lay the wounded soldier upon it, and dragged him off to safety.

But it was Doss’s exploits on Okinawa on April 29 1945 that earned him the fame he has today. Doss’s unit had been assigned the herculean task of taking the Maeda Escarpment. Better known now as Hacksaw Ridge, this 400-foot obstacle was teeming with hidden gunners, pillboxes, flamethrowers and booby traps. And its capture was essential if the US army were to take control of this strategically vital island. The ascent was hellish: incessant mortar shelling; flamethrowers; men being cut in half by close fire machine gunfire… Doss’s battalion would eventually reach the summit, but only to then be ambushed between two concealed trenches.

Desmond Doss was a Conscientious Objector and Was Decorated With The Medal of Honor
Doss standing atop Hacksaw Ridge, April 1945, Wikipedia

Doss saved scores of men from the aftermath of a Japanese ambush. The official figure is 75; Doss claimed it was 50, his Medal of Honor cites 100. But the figure is irrelevant; what’s relevant is the tenacity and fervent devotion with which he worked. Doss single-handedly devised a pulley-system that lowered the wounded down the 40-foot cliff face to the ambulances waiting below. And he did this for five hours straight, constantly under sniper, machine gun and artillery fire.

Two weeks later, Doss was back in action a few miles past the escarpment. But this time—owing to a miscalculation of (not so) friendly artillery fire and a ferocious Japanese counterattack—he found himself sheltering in a foxhole where a Japanese grenade inflicted severe shrapnel wounds to his legs and back. Refusing to draw another medic from cover, Doss tended to his own wounds and waited five hours to be rescued. While eventually being borne on a litter, he spotted another man in more serious need of aid and conceded his own place, saying that with his injuries he could afford to wait.

While waiting, however, a sniper round shattered three bones in his arm. Even with Doss’s durability and determination, there was only so much damage his body could take and he was forced to retreat back to his station. Testament to his strength is the fact he managed to do this unaided, crawling around 275 meters back to his aid station despite the damage done to his limbs. Eventually, on May 21 1945, Doss and his comrades were saved by an act of mercy—the USS Mercy. The ship evacuated them from the bloody war zone and deposited Desmond at a military hospital where he would start off on his lifelong (but never completed) road to recovery.

Desmond Doss was a Conscientious Objector and Was Decorated With The Medal of Honor
Doss and his family after receiving the Medal of Honor, October 12 1945. Daily Mail Online

After the war, Doss had his only child, Desmond Doss Jr., with his first wife Dorothy, and all three were present when President Truman presented Doss with his Medal of Honor in 1945. His fortunes faltered later in life; he battled illness and lost Dorothy in a car accident in 1991. But he remarried Frances Duman in 1993, and enjoyed 13 more years with her until falling seriously ill in 2003. Finally, on March 23 2006—just over sixty years after his extraordinary feats in the Pacific—he passed away at his home in Piedmont, Alabama, surrounded by loved ones.

Since Achilles first graced Homer’s “Iliad”, it’s always been a warrior’s headcount that’s determined their prowess and reputation. Refusal to fight, on the other hand, has been met with ridicule—perhaps most notoriously with the handing out of white feathers to those who refused to participate in the mechanized slaughter of WW1. Desmond Doss wasn’t the first to buck this trend, but his conduct certainly set a fine example. And his receipt of the Medal of Honor sends out a powerful message that, being in line with his faith, Doss would certainly have been proud of: even in times of war, the preservation of life has more value than the taking of it.