Desmond Doss stands at the top of a cliff as enemy shells explode around him. The rest of his company runs for cover, but Doss stays put, determined to save the wounded. One by one, he hauls them down the hill to safety. It’s a brave gesture; one made even more courageous by a simple fact – Doss has refused to fire a single bullet in his defense.
Doss was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, on February 7, 1919. The son of a carpenter and a housewife, he was brought up as a strict Seventh-day Adventist. This, essentially, meant that a non-violent lifestyle and a vegetarian diet were important parts of his life.
However, when the Great Depression of the 1930s hit his family hard, Doss left school and sought employment in order to give them financial support. Initially, he found work with a local lumber company, and he later held a position in a shipyard as a joiner.
Then, on December 7, 1941, America entered World War II. Doss’ profession was essential to the war effort and so would have exempted him from the draft. What’s more, his religious convictions meant that he could abstain from active duty if he wished. However, Doss nevertheless enlisted for military service, and on April 1, 1942, he reported for duty at Camp Lee in Prince George County, Virginia.
Now, Doss was registered as a non-combatant conscientious objector. This meant that he would not be assigned to missions in which he would have to hurt others. However, his duties would still place him directly in the line of fire.
Yet despite the obvious dangers of entering a war zone without being armed, Doss was proud to serve his country. So, he trained with the 77th Infantry Division, before being stationed in 2nd Platoon, B Company, 1st Battalion in the 307th Infantry as a combat medic.
Then in 1944, while he was posted in Guam and the Philippines, Doss began to exhibit the exceptional bravery that he would soon be known for. Amazingly, he would head straight into the field of battle to care for the wounded – with little or no thought for his own safety and no weapon with which to defend himself.
However, the following year would take Doss and his company to Japan. It was the spring of 1945, and Germany was losing the war in Europe. In the Pacific, though, the battle still raged on as the Japanese army doggedly resisted the Allied advances.
Yet Allied forces were slowly but surely encroaching on Japan. In fact, they had their sights set on the island of Okinawa. A large island located around 340 miles off the south west coast of the Japanese mainland, it was seen as the perfect base for a large-scale invasion.
Consequently, starting on April 1, 1945, the Allies launched a huge, coordinated assault on the island. The 77th Division, and Doss along with them, joined forces with other Army and Marine Corps divisions. So, the unarmed medic once again found himself at the heart of the action.
Indeed, a major obstacle that stood between the Allies and their capture of Okinawa was the Maeda Escarpment. A sheer cliff of rock, it loomed over the invading forces by some 400 feet. To tackle it, the Americans would be forced to begin with a precarious climb to the top.
But tragically, when they attempted to take the escarpment on May 5, 1945, a full-on assault was waiting for them. Indeed, as the American troops came to the summit, they were immediately struck by the full force of the Japanese Army. Machine gun bullets rained down around them, while horrific traps caught the soldiers unawares.
Consequently, commanders soon ordered the beleaguered Americans to retreat, and many of the men slipped back down the cliff. Doss, however, could not leave his wounded comrades so easily. Instead, he remained on the cliff top, fully exposed to the enemy and without so much as a pistol at his side.
Slowly, then, Doss began retrieving the injured men from the battlefield. One by one, he dragged them away from the gunfire to the edge of the cliff. What’s more, he then loaded them onto a litter and sent them down on ropes to relative safety. Amazingly, Doss saved the lives of no fewer than 75 men in this manner.
And as if that wasn’t heroic enough, Doss’ bravery during the Battle of Okinawa didn’t end there. Eventually, the Allies succeeded in taking the Maeda Escarpment and began the bloody process of capturing the island. So, on May 21 Doss accompanied his comrades on a night attack.
Yet once again, he refused to seek cover. Instead, Doss stayed in the line of fire so that he could tend the wounded. Suddenly, a grenade exploded nearby, severely wounding Doss in the leg. Instead of risking another medic’s life by calling for aid, however, he treated his own wounds out on the battlefield.
What’s more, after holding on for five hours, Doss had time for one last heroic act. Indeed, when stretcher-bearers finally reached him, and after seeing another soldier with greater injuries than himself, Doss insisted that his rescuers attend to the other man first. While waiting for the stretcher-bearers to return, he was hit once again by enemy fire – this time, a bullet from an enemy sniper.
But incredibly, Doss managed to crawl 900 feet across the battlefield to safety. And as a result of his injuries, Doss was finally evacuated by sea. Against all odds, he had survived the war. So, in recognition of his bravery, he was awarded the Medal of Honor – the exalted military award in the United States.
On October 12, 1945, Doss received his medal from President Harry S. Truman. He was the first conscientiously-motivated objector to ever be awarded the medal. What’s more, there have only been two other Medal of Honor recipients in that category to this day.
Doss’ time in the Pacific would return to haunt him, however, and he developed tuberculosis as a result of the conditions there. But despite the illness leaving him with just one functioning lung, he remained a fighter to the end. Doss finally died at the age of 87 and is interred at the National Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tennessee – a fitting end for one of history’s most inspiring heroes.