Desmond T. Doss seemed an unlikely candidate to become a war hero. As a
devout member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, he would not drill or train on Saturday
because his church recognizes it as their Sabbath Day. He would not carry a gun because he
believed all killing was wrong. He wouldnt even eat meat after seeing a chicken
flopping around with its head cut off.
Some of the stories he recalls actually would
have branded him a klutz rather than a smart, practical, and honorable leader. He did
learn many valuable lessons during his childhood, though, that shaped his thinking and
perhaps caused him to react the way he did during his time in the army.
|Doss, in November,
2000 with his wife, Frances (r) and Sandra Pinkoski (l), reporter for the Tennessee Star
Journal. Photo by Jim Pinkoski
Before Doss birth in 1919 his parents had purchased
a framed picture that contained both the Ten Commandments and the Lords Prayer in
illustrated form. Doss had been so fascinated by the pictures, especially the one
of Cain standing with a club in his hand over the dead body of his brother, Abel, that he
would drag his chair over to where the picture hung on the wall. He hated the idea
of one person killing another. He later commented that he was sure that it was this
picture that made him determined never to harm another person.
When he was school age, Doss went to a small church school where the
students were expected to help the teacher, Miss Ketterman, with the janitorial
chores. When his turn to clean the erasers rolled around, he figured that he could
just rub the erasers together to make it appear like they were clean. His teacher
caught him and said, "Desmond, anything that is not worth doing right to start with,
is not worth doing at all." As unspectacular as this event seems now, Doss
would often recall this statement as he struggled to help his fallen comrades on the
On one occasion during the Depression, Doss mother sent
him next door to get a quart of milk from his Aunt Ella. While walking across some
cobblestones, he tripped and fell. He did not want to break the bottle, so he held
tightly on to it. It shattered and he received a deep cut on his left hand.
When his mother got to him, he was bleeding badly, so she rushed him to the hospital. The
doctor there stitched him up but told Doss and his mother that because both tendons and
muscles had been cut, he would never have the use of his hand again. His mother
bowed her head and she prayed. Then she told her son to work those fingers, and she
massaged them until they hurt, but within days, he was able to move his fingers.
Doss seemed to be accident prone. One evening while playing
with friends on a rock wall he slipped and fell off. His leg hurt but he didnt
want to upset his mother, so he didnt tell her. Two days later he
couldnt even get out of bed. He was again taken to the hospital where the
doctor told them that it was so badly infected that he thought the only answer was to
amputate it. Again they prayed and started putting hot packs on his leg. Once
again, within a few days, he was up and about again. He learned about the power
of prayer and also that you can never give up.
Desmond also learned at a young age that you have to do things for
yourself. His family had very little money, so there was no possible way that he was
going to buy a new bicycle. Instead, he and his friend went to the dump and
scrounged enough bicycle parts that he was able to make a bike. He learned to make
do with what he had, a trait that would help him tremendously just a few short years
Prior to the time World War II had broken out Doss had been working
as a joiner at a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia. This was considered an essential
industry to the military so he had no worries of being drafted. He had begun dating
Dorothy Schutte and they had fallen in love, but they decided that they should wait until
after the war to get married. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he
knew he would be drafted if he did not enlist, so that is exactly what he chose to do.
His minister went with him to establish his status as a
non-combatant. The officer in charge told him there was no such thing, but that he
could register as a conscientious objector. Doss said he wasnt a conscientious
objector because he would gladly serve his country, wear a uniform, salute the flag, and
help with the war effort. He would gladly help tend sick or hurt people any day. Finally
he was convinced to accept the 1-A-O Conscientious Objector classification, so he could
join the army without fear of court martial.
"Youre in the Army now
On April 1, 1942 he was inducted into the U.S. Army and headed to
Ft. Jackson in South Carolina for basic training. Before he left Dorothy gave him a small
pocketsize Bible. Many times in the days ahead, that Bible would prove to be his lone
source of comfort and inspiration.
23-year-old Desmond Doss entered service as a medic for the
77th Infantry Division. From the beginning, the other men in his company made fun of Doss
for his beliefs. Even though he worked long, hard hours to make up for not working
on Saturday, the men cursed, ridiculed, and taunted him. Each night as he knelt
beside his bunk to pray, the men swore at him and threw their boots at him. When
Doss quietly read his small Bible, as he often did, the men cursed him even more.
One man even went so far as to tell him that he would personally kill Doss when they got
Not only did the men not like Doss, even though he did nothing to
them, but the Army just didnt know what to do with a soldier who would not work on
Saturday, who wouldnt carry a gun, and who didnt eat meat. At one point,
his commanding officer tried to initiate a Section Eight (unfit for military service)
discharge, but Doss vehemently fought the move, saying he really did want to serve his
country, he just didnt want to kill. He remained in the Army to the great
displeasure of most of his officers and fellow soldiers.
In July of 1944 on the island of
Guam Doss began to prove his courage and compassion for the very men who had taunted,
belittled, and even threatened him. Next came combat at Leyte in the Phillipines
during October of 1944. Here Doss braved enemy gunfire to go to the wounded and remove
them to safety. Doss proved his courage over and over. Without regard for
his own life he would help the wounded to safety. Some of his company looked on in
horror as they saw a Japanese sniper take aim at Doss as he helped a wounded
soldier. They could do nothing to stop the sniper because other soldiers were in
their line of fire. Miraculously, the sniper did not fire. (*Years later a
missionary in Japan told this story. After the service, a Japanese man told the
missionary the sniper could have been him. He remembered having a soldier in his
sites, but he couldnt pull the trigger.)
By now, his fellow soldiers were used to his reading the Bible and
praying, so it didnt seem unusual when, on that April 29th morning in 1945, he
suggested that they might want to pray. They were facing a sheer 400-foot cliff that split
the island of Okinawa known as the Maeda Escarpment. It would be necessary to attack
and capture this area. The men of Company B bowed their heads as Doss offered a
prayer for safety. Then they began to struggle up the sheer cliff face.
His unit captured the 400-foot Maeda Escarpment in an incredible
sweep in which not one man was killed and only one minor injury was sustained. When a
photographer arrived to capture the moment and asked how they pulled it off, Doss' company
commander answered, "Doss prayed!"
Above and beyond the call of duty
However on May 5th the tide turned against the Americans
as the Japanese launched a huge counterattack. Enemy fire raked Company B and almost
immediately 75 men fell wounded. The remaining troops who were able to flee,
retreated back down to the base of the escarpment. Left at the top of the cliff were
the wounded, the Japanese, and Desmond T. Doss.
For the next five hours, while his wounded comrades fought back
their attackers, Doss began to lower man after man to safety down the face of the cliff
using little more than a tree stump and a rope. Doss said that he just kept praying
that the Lord would let him rescue one more man. No one knows for sure how many men
Doss lowered to safety that day. The Army determined that this medic, whom no one
had wanted in the Army, had personally saved 100 lives. Doss humbly said it
couldnt have been more than 50. Because of Doss humble estimate, when
the citation for his Medal of Honor was written, they split the difference and he was
credited with saving the lives of 75 of his fellow soldiers.
On May 21st, the Americans again were under fire while Doss remained
in the open to help a wounded soldier. He and three other soldiers had crawled into
a hole to wait for the cover of darkness to escape when a grenade was thrown into their
hole. The other three men jumped out to safety but the grenade blew up just as Doss
stepped on it. Somehow he miraculously did not lose his leg but he sustained many
wounds. He didnt want to endanger anyone else so he bandaged his own wounds
and waited the five hours until daylight for help to arrive.
As he was being carried off the field they passed another critically
wounded soldier. Doss rolled off the litter and told the medics to take the other
man. He joined another wounded soldier and together they started to hobble off while
supporting each other. Doss had his arm across the other mans neck when he
felt a bullet slam into his arm. It shattered Doss upper arm, which in turn,
saved the other mans life.
On the way out to a hospital ship offshore, Doss discovered that he
had lost the Bible his wife Dorothy had given him. He sent word asking if the men could
keep an eye out for it. The word passed from man to man, and an entire battalion combed
the battlefield until Doss Bible was found. A sergeant carefully dried it out and
mailed it to Doss.
The Medal of Honor
On October 12,
1945, Desmond Doss, was invited to the White House to receive the Congressional Medal
of Honor from President Harry S. Truman for his brave service on May 5, 1945 - the first
noncombatant to ever receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. He would spend a
total of six years in hospitals as a consequence of his wounds and a bout with
tuberculosis. Today, almost totally deaf, Doss lives with his wife in the mountain
community of Rising Fawn, Georgia, where he serves his church with all the quiet
determination he once put at the service of his country.
Incidentally, May 5, 1945 was a Saturday, Doss Sabbath day.
* Authors note: A major source
of information for this story was the book Desmond Doss - In God's Care, by Frances
Doss, copyright 1998, The College Press, Collegedale, TN.