Thursday, March 23, 2006

Desmond Doss, a Christian pacifist who received the Medal of Honor for his heroics as an Army medic on Okinawa in World War II, died yesterday at his home in Piedmont, Ala. He was 87.

A devout Seventh-day Adventist, Mr. Doss at first sought conscientious objector status when the draft began after the attack on Pearl Harbor. But he then volunteered for service as a medic.

“Doss did not believe in using a gun or killing because of the Sixth Commandment … ‘Thou shalt not kill,’” said George Johnson, spokesman for the church’s North American division. “Doss was a patriot, however, and believed in serving his country.”

In the Army, Mr. Doss was at times threatened with disciplinary action for refusing to carry a firearm. But on May 5, 1945, he braved enemy fire to rescue an estimated 75 wounded soldiers.

He was the only conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II.

“We will be eternally grateful to the service Mr. Doss rendered to this nation,” Army spokesman Maj. Sheldon Smith said yesterday. “There are probably few who appreciated life and freedom more than he did. … Private First Class Desmond T. Doss was an American hero in the truest sense.”

When presenting Mr. Doss with his medal in October 1945, President Truman told him, “I consider this a greater honor than being president.”

Mr. Doss was the subject of a 1967 book, “The Unlikeliest Hero,” and a 2004 documentary, “The Conscientious Objector.” A feature film about him is planned.

In May 1945, Mr. Doss was a 26-year-old medic with Company B, 77th Infantry Regiment, which was attacking fortified Japanese positions on the Maeda Escarpment, a rocky hill on Okinawa.

In a sudden Japanese counterattack, dozens of American soldiers fell wounded and were pinned down by enemy fire on an exposed plateau.

The rest of the unit retreated but, acting alone under fire for 12 hours, Mr. Doss treated the wounded and carried them to a 40-foot-high cliff. There, using knot-tying skills he had learned as a boy in a church group, Mr. Doss lowered each wounded soldier to safety before returning to the battlefield to rescue more.

Capt. Frank Vernon estimated that the unarmed private had saved 100 men, but Mr. Doss protested that “there couldn’t have been more than 50.” His commander decided to “split the difference” and credit Mr. Doss with saving 75 men.

In later years, Mr. Doss was a favorite speaker at Adventist youth gatherings, often demonstrating how he tied a bowline knot to rig the rope harness he used to lower soldiers down the cliff.

“Desmond is considered to be a role model — especially to many of our members in the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” said Don Schneider, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America. “His decision to not bear arms in the most dangerous of times was a courageous and heroic decision that has in turn affected many lives.”

A native of Lynchburg, Va., Mr. Doss lived for many years after the war in Walker County, Ga., but had moved recently to Alabama to be near relatives.

He had been in poor health recently, but the cause of his death was not known, a family spokesman said yesterday. Mr. Doss is survived by wife Frances, son Desmond T. Doss Jr. and brother Harold Doss.

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