Desmond Doss: The Hero of Hacksaw Ridge
On October 12, 1945, President Harry Truman presented the Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest decoration for valor under fire, to one of the most remarkable American heroes of World War II, Desmond Thomas Doss.
Born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1919, Doss was raised as a strict Seventh Day Adventist, a Protestant Christian denomination. Devout in his faith, which forbade him from bearing arms and engaging in violence, Doss was offered a military deferment after the United States entered the Second World War. Feeling duty-bound to serve his country, however, he enlisted in the Army Medical Corps as a noncombatant. “While I believe in the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill,’” Doss later reflected, “and that bearing arms is a sin against God, my belief in freedom is as great as that of anyone else, and I had to help those boys who were fighting for it.”
Desmond T. Doss. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)
Doss’ conscientious objector status made military life difficult. His convictions about not bearing arms and not performing duties on the Saturday Sabbath led to mockery and harassment from some of his comrades. One source even records that “Doss was mocked when he knelt to pray next to his bunk,” and another notes that certain “recruits threw shoes at him while he prayed, and they tried to have him transferred out of their unit.” Regarding himself as a conscientious cooperator, Doss endured it all and never wavered from his deeply held beliefs. He might not have been willing to take another life, but he firmly resolved to go forward on the battlefield and save as many lives as he could.
Doss’ mission to serve and save began in earnest after he became a medic in the 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division. For his actions on Leyte in the Philippines from November 1944 to February 1945, he earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service. For his superhuman heroics at the bloody Battle of Okinawa between April 29 and May 21, 1945, Doss would become an eternal legend.
During the struggle for the island of Okinawa, Doss’ battalion climbed up cargo nets to ascend a 400-foot-high jagged cliff. The treacherous terrain was nicknamed Hacksaw Ridge and atop the plateau awaited thousands of determined Japanese defenders. Fighting an enemy entrenched in hidden caves and holes, American forces were thrown into a ferocious fight to secure the ridge. Treating the wounded in the thick of the action and dragging them to safety was 26-year-old Desmond Doss.
On one of his revered Sabbath days, Doss was the only medic available to join the forces assaulting Hacksaw Ridge. He advanced with the attackers into a maelstrom of concentrated Japanese artillery and heavy weapons fire. Japanese resistance was so fierce that American forces were driven back down the cliff, leaving behind many dead and wounded. The only one to stay behind and care for those most in need was Doss. “They had no way of getting back and I could not leave them up there,” he explained, “I was the only medical corpsman with them, so I just went ahead and continued to pick up the wounded still lying in front of the lines and then began the job of getting them off the cliff.” For several hours, Doss continuously exposed himself to enemy fire, treated the wounded, carried each man to the edge of Hacksaw Ridge, and lowered each man to safety in a rope sling. Through this process, he ultimately saved the lives of some 75 soldiers. After each soldier had been lowered to safety, Doss reportedly said, “Dear God, let me get just one more man.”
This clip from the 2016 blockbuster film Hacksaw Ridge powerfully depicts the efforts of Desmond Doss to rescue the wounded and lower them down to safety from the 400-foot-high jagged cliff.
Desmond Doss’ heroics did not end after his miraculous efforts to rescue 75 soldiers atop Hacksaw Ridge. He continued to risk his life over and over again in the face of intense enemy fire to save his fellow man on the battlefield. His selflessness and bravery were never in doubt. On the night of May 12, for example, Doss was treating wounded soldiers when a Japanese grenade exploded and seriously injured him in both legs. Instead of pulling another medic away from the raging battle to treat him, however, he took care of his wounds by himself. Just five hours after Doss was wounded, he was being carried away from the battlefield on a stretcher. Rather than thinking of himself, he gave up his spot on the stretcher so that medics could place another badly wounded soldier on it. As he was walking back to friendly lines, Doss was struck by enemy fire, which shattered his arm. Using a rifle stock as a splint, he managed to crawl 300 meters to a medical aid station.
For his gallantry under fire from April 29 - May 21, 1945, Doss became the first consciousness objector to receive the Medal of Honor. As his Medal of Honor Citation states, “His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.” To this day, the hero of Hacksaw Ridge remains an enduring symbol of the sacred American spirit. Unwavering in his faith, courage, and conviction, Desmond Doss will always be a reminder to the world of what it truly means to be an American hero.
Congressional Medal of Honor Society: Desmond T. Doss.
Library of Virginia: Desmond Thomas Doss.