Desmond T. Doss was 23 years old when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942. The lanky Lynchburg, Va., native was much like other young men of the Greatest Generation, but one thing set Desmond apart from the other new troops. He was a devout Seventh Day Adventist and refused to touch a weapon. Some of the men in his training unit made jokes about him, others threatened him, but Desmond held firm to his beliefs.
The Army considered discharging him, but Desmond objected. “I’d be a very poor Christian if I accepted a discharge implying that I was mentally off because of my religion,” he told the review board. “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I can’t accept that kind of a discharge.” He was granted conscientious objector status and the former cabinetmaker trained as a medic. Desmond was assigned to the 307th Infantry Regiment of the 77th Infantry Division and sent to the Pacific theater. In 1944, he participated in the amphibious assault on Guam and tended to wounded soldiers though two weeks of hard jungle fighting. After the island was secured, Desmond was awarded the bronze star.
After several more combat landings, the 77th faced its most deadly challenge in Operation Iceberg, the battle for Okinawa. The battle began on April 1, 1945, and the “Typhoon of Steel” quickly became one of the highest casualty engagements of the war. Japanese defenders resisted to the last man from a system of cave complexes and underground tunnels. By the end of April, Army and Marine forces had become bogged down before formidable enemy defenses along a 400-foot-high jagged ridgeline called the Maeda Escarpment. The 307th Infantry Regiment was assigned to storm the ridgeline and break the back of the Japanese position.
On the morning the assault was launched, Desmond suggested to his platoon leader, Lieutenant Goronto, that the men say a prayer. “I believe prayer is the best life saver there is,” he said. “The men should really pray before going up.”
“Fellows, come over here and gather around,” the lieutenant said, “Doss wants to pray for us.” Actually, Desmond had meant that each man should observe his own moment of prayer, but the men of the unit humored him and stood by while Desmond read a passage from his Bible. Then they set about their grim business.
According to one participant, the assault on Maeda Escarpment was “all hell rolled into one.” It was seven days and nights of bitter struggle with rifles, bayonets, hand grenades, knives and fists. The men of Desmond’s battalion advanced to the top eight times, and each time they were driven back by furious Japanese counterassaults. But the ninth assault held, and the ridge was taken, yet at a terrible cost. The battalion had arrived on April 29 with 800 men; a week later, there were 324 left standing.
Desmond was in the thick of things throughout, the only medic assigned to the attack. As the battle line shifted across the top of the escarpment, Desmond stayed behind, retrieving wounded men in the face of enemy fire. He carried them to the edge of the escarpment and lowered them one by one on a litter suspended from a rope. Others who were too badly wounded to move he treated on the spot, sometimes within yards of enemy-held caves. Officers motioned for Desmond to come off the ridge but he refused. Throughout the brutal assault, when wounded soldiers cried “Medic,” Desmond Doss came.
Pfc. Doss continued his heroic actions through the battle on Okinawa, suffering numerous wounds. On May 21, during a night attack, he was giving aid to wounded soldiers when a grenade landed nearby and seriously wounded his legs. Five hours later, litter bearers came to rescue him, but on the way to an aid station they were attacked by an enemy tank and Desmond gave his place in the litter to a more seriously wounded troop. While awaiting help, he was wounded in the arm by a sniper, and knowing he could not stay any longer on the battlefield, he fashioned a splint out of a rifle stock and crawled 300 yards to safety. The men of his unit, who had thought Desmond was dead, wept when they saw him return.
Desmond Doss left the Army as a corporal, missing one lung, six ribs and classified as 90 percent disabled. His heroism had not gone unnoticed. In October 1945, President Truman presented Doss with the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony. He was credited with saving at least 75 lives on Okinawa. The citation read that his name “became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.” He was the first conscientious objector to receive this high honor.
“I wasn’t trying to be a hero,” Desmond said in a 1987 interview. “I loved my men, and they loved me. I don’t consider myself a hero. I just couldn’t give them up.” Desmond Doss died in March, 2006, and is buried in the National Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tenn. Today, Medal of Honor Day, is a time to remember, honor and be grateful for this nation’s many brave heroes.