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.
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.
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.