Veterans Voice: Desmond Doss

Anyone who has seen the movie “Hacksaw Ridge” is familiar with the story of WW2 Medal of Honor winner, Desmond Doss. While the movie was intended to glamorize Doss, the real story is just as spectacular. 

Doss was born to a devout Seventh Day Adventist mother in Lynchburg, VA. His dad was a local carpenter. Desmond devoutly kept the Sabbath, followed a vegetarian diet, and did not believe in violence

Prior to the United States involvement in WWII, Desmond worked as a joiner at a shipyard in Newport News, VA. Working in a shipyard, he was offered a deferment from military service. But he felt obligated to help the war effort and wished to serve as a medic. He had a brother (Harold) who served aboard the USS Lindsey.
     Basic training was difficult for Desmond because of his beliefs. Both fellow recruits and camp officers ridiculed him. Despite this, he graduated from Basic, and was assigned as a medic in the 2nd Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, and 307th Infantry Division. He refused to carry a weapon. 

Although the movie focuses on his actions on Okinawa, his unit was involved in battles in both Guam and the Philippines. In both battles he received a Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor in serving wounded soldiers under fire, the same exploits for which he later earned the Medal of Honor. His Medal of Honor was won for his actions on the Maeda Escarpment, nicknamed “Hacksaw Ridge”. Below is his Citation: 

“Private First Class Desmond T. Doss, United States Army, Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. Near Urasoe-Mura, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, 29 April-21 May 1945. He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagges escarpment 400 feet high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar, and machinegun fire crashed into them inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving other back.  PFC Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying them one by one to the edge of the escarpment and lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of the cliff to friendly hands. On May 2nd, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and two days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards of enemy forces in the cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making four separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety. 

On May 5, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, PFC Doss crawled to the man where he had fallen 25 feet from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. 

On 21 May, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he himself was seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited five hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and PFC Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the return of the litter bearers, he was again struck, this time suffering a compound fracture of one arm. With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards over rough terrain to the aid station. Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions, PFC Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.”

When Doss was evacuated from the battlefield his body contained 17 pieces of shrapnel. His injuries eventually resulted in a military disability.

During the Medal of Honor ceremony, President Harry S. Truman held Doss’ hand for the entire reading of the citation, repeatedly expressing his admiration and gratitude. 

Doss received a number of honors following his military service including section of US 501 and Georgia Highway 2. A statue of Doss was dedicated at the National Museum of Patriotism in Atlanta, GA., and another in the Veterans Memorial Park in Collegedale, TN. He has been featured in articles in Time Magazine, NPR, People Magazine, Library of Congress, and Pritzker Military Museum and Library.

Doss had hoped to continue his career in carpentry, but found that the war damage to his arm prevented this. In 1946 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which he had contracted in Leyte. He underwent treatment for five and a half years, costing him a lung and five ribs. He eventually received 100% military disability.

He married Dorothy Pauline Schutte in 1942 and they had one child, Desmond “Tommy” Doss, born in 1946. Dorothy died in 1991 from a car accident.

     Doss died in April of 2006 in Piedmont, Alabama, and is buried at the Chattanooga National Cemetery in Chattanooga, TN. He is the only conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.      

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