You have probably never heard of him. He was born on February 7, 1919, and died on March 23, 2006. He was a Seventh Day Adventist, an ordinary man whose extraordinary faith and courage has left an indelible mark on the combat history of our nation. He never touched a gun or killed an enemy soldier, but the heroic exploits of Alvin York and Audie Murphy pale in comparison to what he did. He was the first conscientious objector to win our nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor. His name is Desmond T. Doss.
As a young boy growing up in a Christian home Desmond was appalled to learn of the story of Cain and Abel. He could not understand why a man would kill his own brother. He vowed to never take another man’s life.
When the attack on Pearl Harbor ushered the United States into World War II, Doss thought it was his patriotic duty to enlist. That first night in the Army barracks as he knelt beside his bunk to pray, his fellow recruits taunted him and threw their boots at him. When he refused to train on the Sabbath he was ridiculed. When it came time for rifle qualification he was belittled for refusing to touch a firearm. He enlisted to be a medic and refused to train with the .45 pistol issued to medics. Doss did not surrender his convictions and vowed while others would enter the battlefield to take lives he would be by their side to save lives. One of the commanding officers in his battalion, Captain Jack Glover, told him if he refused to carry a rifle he would never stand beside him in battle.
Despite the repeated humiliation heaped on him by the officers and men of the 77th Infantry Division, he never took offense nor compromised his faith. When the 77th was deployed to the Pacific Theatre, in one engagement after another, Doss distinguished himself in providing lifesaving aid to those who fell in battle.
Eventually the 77th was sent to Okinawa to reinforce the American troops attempting to take the island. The Japanese had retreated to the Shuri escarpment, a plateau three hundred feet above the island. The last fifty feet was a vertical climb. The Americans called it Hacksaw Ridge.
The Japanese were well entrenched. In nine successive assaults the Americans had reached the plateau only to be thrown back by withering artillery, mortar, and machinegun fire. On April 29, 1945, A Company tried again. As the day closed, A Company was forced to retreat leaving seventy-five casualties behind. During the next twelve hours, Doss climbed to the top, alone and under constant enemy fire, he bound the wounded and rescued every single man by dragging each one to the edge of the escarpment and letting them down by a rope. Doss later said that as he let each man down to safety he prayed, “Lord, let me get one more.”
A Company having failed and now decimated, B Company was charged with the next assault. Doss recommended the men pray before going into battle. Lt. Goronto called the men together saying, “Doss wants to pray.” Doss led the men in prayer. Then B Company climbed up for the assault. They were able amidst the fiercest fighting yet, to secure a foothold and stave off a Japanese counterattack. When the rear command asked how many casualties they had sustained, the B Company commander replied none of his men had been killed or wounded. Stunned by this report, the rear command asked how this had been done without a single casualty. Amazed himself, the B Company commander gave the only reply he could muster, “Doss prayed!”
As the Americans held their foothold on Hacksaw Ridge the Japanese repeatedly counterattacked attempting to throw them off the escarpment. In one of the ensuing battles Captain Jack Glover was felled on the battlefield by an exploding Japanese artillery shell. Slowly bleeding to death he was pleasantly surprised to see the face of Desmond T. Doss at his side. Doss had crossed two hundred yards of open ground under enemy fire to bind Glover’s wounds and drag him to safety. The man who said Doss would never stand by his side in battle was glad to see him crawl to his aid. Doss said of himself, “I was not a conscientious objector, I was a conscientious cooperator.”
Jesus declared, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).” This Memorial Day I pray we remember the sacrifices others have made to secure the freedoms we enjoy.