Desmond Doss: The Unarmed Hero of ‘Hacksaw Ridge’

When Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson, was released in 2016, the world was reintroduced to a nearly forgotten tale of heroism, courage, and conviction, set during World War II. While the movie portrays the life of Desmond Doss with care, it’s necessary to dive deeper into the real story of the man who became a symbol of unwavering faith and selfless bravery. This is the true story of Desmond Doss.

Early Life: Setting the Scene

Desmond Thomas Doss was born on February 7, 1919, in Lynchburg, Virginia. His upbringing as a Seventh-Day Adventist played a profound role in shaping his beliefs, especially his strict adherence to the Ten Commandments. His religious background was to guide many of Doss’ choices in later life, including his decision to honor the Sabbath (every Saturday) and his choice never to bear a weapon.

His childhood in Virginia was marked by a particular incident that solidified his commitment against violence. Desmond once struck his younger brother, Harold, in the head, almost killing him. The altercation, reminiscent of the biblical story of Cain and his brother Abel, deeply affected Doss. It instilled in him a powerful belief in the sanctity of human life, foreshadowing his later decisions in the military.

Enlistment and Basic Training: Confronting Prejudices

When World War II began, many Americans were compelled to join the military and contribute to the war effort. While Doss felt this same pull, he had moral and religious reservations about carrying a weapon or killing another human being. Instead, he chose to enlist as a medic, believing he could serve his country, without compromising his principles.

Doss was sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training with the 77th Infantry Division. It was here that he would meet Jack Glover, his sergeant, who, along with other members of the military, initially had reservations about Doss’ role in the unit. Given Doss’ refusal to bear arms, his superiors viewed him with skepticism, dismissing his convictions as mere excuses or even cowardice.

However, the irony of the whole thing lay in the fact that Doss, despite being unarmed, would go on to become one of the bravest soldiers on the battlefield. In training, Private Desmond Doss faced significant adversity, from ridicule to outright threats. Yet, he remained undeterred, holding onto his Bible and his beliefs.

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Heroics in Combat: A Beacon of Hope

Desmond Doss’ commitment was truly tested on the battlefields of Guam, Leyte, and, most notably, the Battle of Okinawa. It was at the Maeda Escarpment, often referred to as Hacksaw Ridge, that Doss would solidify his legacy.

The battle at Hacksaw Ridge was brutal. The cliff, a 400-foot high escarpment, was a formidable strategic point, fiercely defended by Japanese soldiers. The 77th Infantry Division, including Doss’ combat medic unit, the 307th Infantry, faced an uphill battle, both literally and figuratively.

Amidst the chaos and flying bullets, Doss, without a weapon to defend himself, ventured into the heart of battle to rescue his wounded comrades. Using a litter, a stretcher typically used for transporting the wounded, and rope, Doss began lowering his fellow soldiers off the ridge to safety. In a remarkable feat, he saved 75 men, all while evading enemy fire and without the protection of a rifle, but with an unwavering faith in God.

On another occasion, after a grenade explosion, Doss treated his injuries and waited five hours before stretcher bearers could reach him. Even then, on their way to the aid station, he insisted on being set down to help another, more critically wounded soldier. Later, at the station, while awaiting treatment for a fracture to his arm and ribs, Doss crawled off his litter to help another injured soldier, using a rifle stock as a splint for his broken arm.

His actions on the battlefield, especially at Hacksaw Ridge, earned him the Medal of Honor, making him the first conscientious objector to receive this prestigious military accolade. It’s noteworthy that his citation for the medal specifically stated “none,” highlighting the fact that Doss achieved his remarkable feats without firing a single bullet.

Post-War Life: Triumphs and Trials

After the war, life was not without its challenges for Doss. He suffered from tuberculosis, contracted during his service. This ailment severely affected his lung and resulted in its removal in 1946. While he was initially given a prognosis of just a few years to live, Doss defied odds once again, living for several more decades.

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Despite the hurdles, including bouts of depression and alcoholism, Doss remained a beacon of hope and resilience. After his discharge, he worked in various capacities, including at a shipyard in Newport News as a mechanic and a carpenter. He dedicated a significant portion of his life to working with young people, sharing his story to inspire and educate.

Hacksaw Ridge: The Movie

Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is a spectacular, heartfelt homage to Doss’ life. With Andrew Garfield portraying Doss, the movie paints a clear picture of the medic’s challenges, beliefs, and dedication. Supporting characters include Sergeant Howell played by Vince Vaughn and Doss’ father, portrayed by Hugo Weaving. Teresa Palmer plays Desmond’s wife, Dorothy Schutte.

The couple were married for 49 years, until her untimely death in a car accident, in 1991. She was 70 years old. Desmond was driving her to a routine doctors appointment when he lost control of the vehicle, and plunged down an embankment.

The film, while taking some creative liberties, remains largely faithful to Doss’ journey, from his childhood in Lynchburg to his heroics on the battlefield. It’s impact is heightened by the real-life interviews and snippets of Doss and his comrades, woven into the closing credits, making it an even more emotional experience for the viewer.

Legacy and Beyond

Veteran Desmond Doss passed away on March 23, 2006, but his legacy lives on. A wonderful tribute to Doss, is the documentary by Terry Benedict, The Conscientious Objector, explores Doss’ life in depth. Moreover, various commemorations and tributes, from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to the White House, have honored the hero without a weapon.

Doss’ story is a truly inspiring tale of conviction and faith, and as the world remembers him, the irony of the whole thing is that the man who never fired a bullet, became one of the greatest heroes of World War II.

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