The Most Unlikely Hero — Desmond Doss and Hacksaw Ridge
"Lord, please help me get one more man."
“There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty, that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism.” —Alexander Hamilton (1775)
Amid the heated contests to defend the future of Liberty today, I encourage you to pause with me and read about a simple man whose actions embody the essential spirit of America and service to others before self.
On November 4th 2016, there was be a big-screen release starring Andrew Garfield (Amazing Spider-Man) in the lead role. It is an “action hero” movie, but it will not feature a Marvel Comics character. The heroic actions of the main character actually exceeded those depicted in the film – because if all that character’s actions were included, few would believe any man was capable of such heroism.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is the incredible story of Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss, a screen adaptation picked up by director Mel Gibson after it had that had been relegated to “development hell” for 15 years. The film’s world premiere was at the esteemed Venice Film Festival, where it received a 10-minute standing ovation.
So why does a script sit for 15 years and then receive an overwhelming reception by the industry’s leading critics? Because Mr. Doss had no inclination for self-promotion, and was concerned that a Hollywood retelling of his actions would eliminate the foundational faith element which encouraged and propelled him.
The word “hero” is so overused today that its meaning is now a ubiquitous reference to virtually anyone in any uniform. But this story reaffirms the rightful definition of heroism.
I first met Desmond Doss in 1995. He and Frances were simple people who lived a simple life on a small farm a few miles south of our family home in Appalachia. He devoted much of his time to young people, including our Scout Troops.
Desmond was humble and slightly built. He wore thick glasses and was virtually deaf. But he and Frances were warm and welcoming people. So quiet and unassuming were these two souls that one would never suspect they had ever been more than five miles from their small homestead. But Desmond and Frances both exhibited a deep and unrelenting resolve rooted in their Christian faith, which became evident when in their presence.
Fifty years before we met, Desmond selflessly demonstrated that faithful resolve in repeated acts of heroism unparalleled among Medal of Honor recipients before or since.
He was raised in a Christian tradition which taught that taking up arms to do someone harm was forbidden.
In an earlier documentary on his life, “The Conscientious Objector,” Desmond explained, “My dad bought this Ten Commandments and Lord’s Prayer illustrated in a nice frame, and I had looked at that picture of the Sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ There’s a picture that had Cain and he killed his brother Abel, and I wonder how in the world could a brother do such a thing? Christ was for savin’ life. I wanna be like Christ and go savin’ life instead of takin’ life and that’s the reason I took up medicine.”
I note here that another Medal of Honor recipient, Tennessean Alvin York, held similar faith views. He was a Christian “pacifist.” However, in the 1918 battle of Meuse-Argonne, York took up his weapon and masterfully used his backwoods marksmanship to defend men who were pinned down by machine gun fire — and captured 132 Germans in the process. Alvin would later say, “A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do.”
Desmond was drafted into the Army in April 1942, but he told his superior officers that his religious beliefs — his understanding of the Ten Commandments — prohibited him from picking up a weapon to kill someone. He declined a religious exemption that would have allowed him to continue working in a Newport News, Virginia, shipyard because he wanted to serve his country. Instead, he became an Army medic with the 77th “Statue of Liberty” Division.
He was classified a “conscientious objector,” though he preferred the term “conscientious cooperator” because in his words, “I never objected to serving our country.” According to Desmond: “I felt like it was an honor to serve God and country. I didn’t want to be known as a draft dodger, but I sure didn’t know what I was getting into.”
Doss was viewed by officers and his fellow enlisted personnel as a coward. Ken Lafond, a battalion scout with the 77th, noted, “He’d say his prayers at night and everything, and some guys threw shoes at him and threw things at him, made fun of him right out in the open. I don’t think I could have taken what that guy did. I don’t think I could have taken it, but he hung in there. He hung in there regardless of what they said or what they did.”
“They made fun of me,” Desmond explained, “and one fella, he told me, ‘I swear to God Doss, you go into combat, I’m gonna shoot you.’” He was rediculled as “Holy Jesus” and “Holy Joe.” His faith called for observing the sabbath on Saturday, and the captain of his medical corps, Solomon Statman, threatened to court-martial him for requesting passes to attend church on Saturdays.
He never picked up a rifle, though he found himself in the heat of combat in places like Leyte and Guam in the Pacific. But it was his actions in May 1945, near Urasoe on Okinawa, 340 miles south of mainland Japan, which most distinguish his limitless courage and character. Being a medic made Doss a target. Japanese snipers set their sights on medics in order to demoralize the troops. “They preferred to get us above anyone else,” he said. “They would let the infantry get by just to pick off a medic, because if they killed the medics, it broke down the moral of the men.” Desmond remove his medic helmut, marked with a red cross, before entering the field of battle.
Amid the most horrific fighting on that bloody island, Desmond refused an order of retreat and cover, because he knew there were many severely wounded soldiers above his position at the top of the Maeda Escarpment — a rocky cliff also known as Hacksaw Ridge. Over the course of 12 hours, alone and exhausted, he repeatedly crossed fields of Japanese machine gun, rifle and mortar fire and, one-by-one, pulled injured soldiers off the battlefield and lowered them 35 feet to safety via an improvised rope litter. When he finally came back down the escarpment, his fatigues were caked with blood.
He later explained, “I had these men up there and I shouldn’t leave ‘em. They were my buddies, some of the men had families, and they trust me. I didn’t feel like I should value my life above my buddy’s, so I decided to stay with them and take care of as many of them as I could. I didn’t know how I was gonna do it. So I just kept prayin’, ‘Lord, please help me get more and more, one more, until there was none left, and I’m the last one down.’”
Desmond’s Medal of Honor citation reads like fiction. What he did simply doesn’t seem possible. But Desmond’s heroic over 22 days actions with the Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division, between April 29 and May 21, 1945, are well documented. In my humble opinion (though he would never have accepted such praise), Desmond’s citation is among the most awe-inspiring of all 3,514 Medals awarded since its inception.
“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 all 75 casualties one-by-one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands.”
But his unprecedented heroics did not end there.
“On May 2, 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 eight 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 May 5, 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 May 21, 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, by a sniper bullet while being carried off the field by a comrade, this time suffering a compound fracture of one 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.”
Desmond humbly estimated he rescued 50 men but his commanding officers estimated he lowered at least 100 men. His Medal citation settled on 75. He did so, never arming himself. “I knew if I ever once compromised, I was gonna be in trouble,” he Desmond, “because if you can compromise once, you can compromise again.”
Awarding Desmond his medal on October 12th, 1945, President Harry Truman referred to him as “the little skinny pharmacist’s mate.” Indeed, at slightly over 150 pounds, he would have qualified as a welterweight fighter, but he performed feats that, by his account, could only have been achieved by God’s intervening hand.
For his part, Desmond said, “I wasn’t trying to be a hero, I was thinking about it from this standpoint — in a house on fire and a mother has a child in that house, what prompts her to go in and get that child? Love. I loved my men, and … I just couldn’t give them up. I just kept asking, ‘Lord, please help me get just one more man.’”
Asked about the what his Medal of Honor meant to him, Desmond said “I am wearing it in honor of all the men who paid the supreme price for our country, and I thank God he enabled me to do what I did to save life.”
Recounting Desmond’s heroic actions, CPT Jack Glover, the Company Commander over Desmond’s unit who had relentlessly ridiculed him and endeavored to have him expelled from the Army, recounted in tears his actions on Okinawa — tears because Glover was one of the men Desmond pulled to safety.
According to Glover, “Even though I said those things to him…that he would never be by my damn side unless he had a rifle, I didn’t know him as the man. I knew him only has a skinny little kid who couldn’t carry the load. But he was one of the bravest people alive, and then to have him end up saving my life was the irony of the whole thing. … From the beginning of his first combat mission until his last one, he absolutely was fearless in regard to what was going to happen to him.
Glover, added, "When you look back over most medal of honor recipients, it’s because of one absolute incident … Doss’s [award] was for doing something that was so outstanding, not only once but time and time and time and time again.”
Indeed, Charles Googe, Director of the Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga (where Desmond’s original Medal is housed), affirms why his actions are unparalleled among Medal recipients: “Often times heroism is measured within a single or split-second act. Desmond Doss performed repeated unimaginable feats of bravery on Leyte and Okinawa. He left Okinawa with a severely fractured arm and 17 pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body.”
Googe notes further, “Once back in the States, he devoted much of his life in service to his neighbors and community. Desmond’s character was defined not by one single event, but by repeated acts of honorable service to his country throughout his life.”
Desmond died in 2006, and indeed, all who knew him remember him for his lifelong repeated acts of service.
In 1992, during one of Ronald Reagan’s last public addresses, he offered these words about honoring our legacy of Liberty: “My fondest hope for each one of you is that you will love your country, not for her power or wealth, but for her selflessness and her idealism. May each of you have the heart to conceive, the understanding to direct, and the hand to execute works that will make the world a little better for your having been here. May all of you as Americans never forget your heroic origins, never fail to seek divine guidance, and never lose your natural, God-given optimism. And finally, my fellow Americans, may every dawn be a great new beginning for America and every evening bring us closer to that shining city upon a hill.”
Those words sum up the life of Desmond Doss.
It took 70 years to bring Desmond’s story to the big screen, primarily because of his concern that Hollywood would give him the glory, rather than God. This Mel Gibson film gives God the glory! I should note that it is violent, but *not* gratuitously violent. Instead, the violence will elevates your understanding of the God-inspired heroism of this little man. It will be interesting to see if the Academy Awards honor his memory by recognizing this outstanding film with the awards it deserves.
Hacksaw Ridge is a big screen production that will introduce Millennials to the reality of genuine heroism and American Patriotism. I highly recommend you see it!
Pro Deo et Constitutione — Libertas aut Mors
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis