The unlikely hero behind ‘Hacksaw Ridge’

desmond doss cropped The unlikely hero behind Hacksaw Ridge

Army Pvt. Desmond Doss. (Department of Defense/National Archives photo)

By Katie Lange, DoD News, Defense Media Activity

Army Pfc. Desmond Doss served in World War II and his life and heroics were featured in the six-time Oscar-nominated film “Hacksaw Ridge.”

Spoiler Alert: You might not want to read further if you don’t know his story and still want to see the movie. For those who have, there are a few more details here that weren’t shared in the movie.

Doss grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, and was a Seventh Day Adventist, which meant he was a pacifist – he didn’t believe in violence and chose not to bear arms. His beliefs and his job as a defense industry worker provided him draft exemption during the war, but he dismissed that chance to defer. Doss wanted to serve his country, so he enlisted in the Army Medical Corps as a noncombatant.

But because of his conscientious objector status – including his refusal to handle duties on the Saturday Sabbath – boot camp wasn’t easy for him. He was threatened and harassed. Many of the other recruits threw shoes at him while he prayed, and they tried to have him transferred out of their unit.

They weren’t successful, though, and Doss proved them all wrong during his service with the 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division.

In late April 1945, 26-year-old Doss and his battalion were called upon to help fight near Urasoe Mura, Okinawa, in a campaign that would be one of the last and biggest in the Pacific. Using cargo nets, Doss’ battalion was tasked with climbing a treacherous, 400-foot-high jagged cliff, nicknamed Hacksaw Ridge, to get to a plateau. Waiting for them were thousands of heavily armed Japanese soldiers entrenched in hidden caves and holes.

During the month-long campaign, Doss treated several injured men, dressing their wounds right in front of the enemy before dragging them to safety.

About a week into the fight, Doss was the only medic available to advance with the rest of the men, who were close to taking the ridge from the enemy. It was his Sabbath, but Doss joined his men anyway, just as the Japanese concentrated massive artillery and other heavy fire on them.

The assault left many dead and injured soldiers in its wake. The remaining Americans were driven back down the escarpment, except for Doss. He was the only one to remain with the wounded.

Over the span of several hours, Doss treated the injured and, one by one, dragged them to the edge of the cliff, where he lowered them to safety in a rope sling. After each successful delivery, he reportedly said, “Dear God, let me get just one more man.”

By nightfall, he had rescued 75 soldiers, including many of the men who had berated him earlier in his military career.

His heroics didn’t end there, though.

Days later, as the Americans continued their slow advance, Doss was seriously wounded in the leg by a grenade. Instead of calling on another medic for help, he treated himself and waited five hours to be rescued.

As he was being carried back to an aid station, his unit was attacked again. Doss ended up insisting that another badly injured soldier take his spot on the stretcher.

As he continued his trek on foot, Doss was hit by a sniper, shattering his arm. He managed to make a splint out of a rifle stock, and he eventually made it to the aid station for treatment.

There was confusion over Doss’ whereabouts, though, so he was reported dead. The news even made it back to his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia, where it made the front page. Doss was able to clear up the confusion by writing a letter to his mother proving he was, in fact, alive.

In October 1945, Doss was brought back to the states and had the bullet removed from his shattered arm. After the surgery, he was taken straight to Washington, D.C., where President Harry Truman placed the Medal of Honor around his neck.

doss with medal cropped 525x350 The unlikely hero behind Hacksaw Ridge

Doss receiving the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman on Oct. 12, 1945. (Courtesy of the Department of Defense)

During his military career, Doss also received the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, all without harming another human being.

As for the men who had shamed him during boot camp? They had nothing but praise for him after the war.

“He was one of the bravest persons alive, and then to have him end up saving my life was the irony of the whole thing,” said Capt. Jack Glover in a documentary about Doss’ life. Glover had wanted Doss out of the unit when he first joined up.

Doss died in 2006 at the age of 87. He was always proud of his service, saying being a medic was “the most rewarding work there is.”

You can listen to Doss’ story in his own words through the Library of Congress Veterans History Project collections.

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