Desmond Doss walked into one of the bloodiest battles in World War II with nothing protecting him but his faith. As a conscientious objector, as the US army called him, Doss enlisted as a combat medic and refused to carry a weapon. In 1945, he was sent with the 77th battalion to the Battle of Okinawa, where he singlehandedly saved 75 American soldiers’ lives, all while risking his own.
The battle was brutal, and the mission deemed impossible, but Doss refused to leave any of his fallen soldiers behind. While his actions were beyond heroic, if you called Desmond Doss a hero, he would have most likely correct you. He was just doing what he thought was right.
This is the story of how one man stuck to beliefs and went on to become one of the greatest, yet unknown American heroes from WWII.
Desmond Doss was born on February 7, 1919, in Lynchburg, Virginia, right at the foothills of the Blueridge Mountains. His family were devout Seventh-day Adventists who followed a certain type of lifestyle. The Doss family kept the Sabbath, which meant that they viewed Saturday as a day of rest when they didn’t work.
Doss’ mother, Bertha, also preached a nonviolent and vegetarian lifestyle, and these values were deeply instilled into the future hero. From a young age, Doss radiated the same kind of empathy that he would display as a soldier later in life. As a child, he once walked six miles to donate blood to a complete stranger after hearing about the blood drive on a local radio station. A few days later, he donated more.
Doss’ hatred of weapons also began at a young age, and this continued well into adulthood, even during his time on the battlefield. This strong dislike of guns and violence stemmed from his religious upbringing, but it was also fueled by a violent incident in his childhood. His father, William, was so drunk one night that he pulled out a gun on Doss’s uncle.
Bertha managed to wrangle the 0.45 caliber revolver out of her husband’s hands and told Doss to run and hide it. William had an anger problem and Bertha feared that he might actually kill Doss’ uncle one day. The future soldier was so shaken up by this incident that he vowed never to touch a gun again in his life.
Doss spent most of his childhood like any other kid in the ‘20s. He flattened pennies on the railroad tracks near his home and was always wrestling his younger brother, Harold. Harold always said Desmond wasn’t that much fun to wrestle, but it wasn’t because Doss was particularly good at wrestling. According to Harold, Desmond never knew when to give up a fight.
He would keep on wrestling his brother without surrendering. Little did Harold, or anyone else for that matter, know that his physical resilience would help him earn the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic efforts during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II in the Pacific.
Doss went to school at the Park Avenue Seventh-day Adventist Church, but when he was in the eighth grade, the Great Depression started, and he was forced to drop out. To support his family, Doss found work at the Lynchburg Lumber Company. By the time World War II broke out, Doss was working as a joiner at a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia.
The military offered him deferment because of his shipyard work, but Doss turned it down. He believed in the war and wanted to do anything he could to help. So on April 1, 1942, Doss drafted into the US Army. He trained with the 77th Infantry Division, which had been reactivated following the outbreak of WWII.
But there was just one problem: Doss refused to hold a gun. His religious beliefs barred him from using a weapon. However, he still wanted to help fight for his country. Regardless of how motivated Doss was to join the cause, his fellow soldiers made his life very difficult. “It started out as harassment and then it became abusive,” says Terry Benedict, who directed the 2004 documentary about Doss called The Conscientious Objector.
His fellow soldiers considered him a pest, constantly questioned his sincerity, and even threw boots at him while he prayed. According to Benedict, Doss’ fellow soldiers saw him as someone who shouldn’t have been allowed into the army. They believed Doss was their weakest link, and they didn’t know if they could trust him on the battlefield.
It wasn’t just Doss’ fellow soldiers who had a problem with his staunch belief in the idea of “Thou shalt not kill,” it was everyone in the army. Captain Jack Glover, Doss’ commanding officer, even tried to get him transferred to a different battalion.
In the documentary, The Conscientious Objector, Glover says that Doss told him, “Don’t ever doubt my courage because I will be right by your side saving life while you take life.” But Glover didn’t trust Doss and answered “You’re not going to be by my damn side if you don’t have a gun.” The army tried its best to force Doss out of the army, but nothing they did worked.
Although he wanted to be a medic, the US Army assigned him to a rifle company, hoping this would force him to quit. Doss was almost court-martialed for refusing a direct order to carry a gun. His superiors also attempted to file a “Section 8” so he would be discharged on the grounds of mental health issues. But as hard as the army tried, they legally couldn’t force Doss to use a weapon.
A 1940 law allowed “conscientious objectors” to serve in the war in noncombat positions. Doss appealed the army’s decision all the way up the ranks until they made him a combat medic who didn’t need to carry a gun, when he completed training. But, even with the army’s official decision, his fellow soldiers didn’t understand why he was there.
From being teased mercilessly to “man up” and carry a rifle, to being hated for getting a free pass on the Sabbath, Doss had a very hard time during training. Nobody wanted to be his friend. Friends had each other’s backs. Without a rifle, everyone said, he couldn’t have their backs, even if he was a medic.
Doss was rendered useless. “He just didn’t fit into the Army’s model of what a good soldier would be,” Benedict said. Yet, Doss continued to rise above his company’s cruel behavior. He believed that his purpose in life was not only to serve God but to serve his country. All Doss wanted was to prove that these two ideologies weren’t mutually exclusive.
Undeterred by what everyone in the army thought of him, 26-year-old Doss traveled with his battalion to the Pacific in the spring of 1945. They were called upon to help fight near Urasoe Mura, Okinawa, in one of the largest and most dangerous battles in the Eastern Front. By the time soldiers landed on the island of Okinawa, the war on the “European Front” was coming to an end.
American soldiers had liberated most of occupied Europe, and they were just weeks from defeating Germany. But in the Pacific, it was a completely different story. Americans were still fighting to conquer Japan’s Home Islands, which was a daunting task. After the deadly Battle of Iwo Jima, Okinawa was the Allies’ last hurdle before conquering Japan.
To complete its mission, the US Army created the Tenth Army, which was a combination of Army and Marine divisions. The Tenth Army was a very unique division because it had its own Tactical Air Force, as well as several naval and amphibious forces. Basically, the US Army was doing everything it could to capture this island from Japan.
The Battle of Okinawa was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Theater, and it was also the deadliest. The battle was even given the nickname “typhoon of steel” because of the sheer amount of constant artillery that was fired at the island. There were kamikaze fighters, rainy weather, and fierce fighting on land, sea, and air, causing a huge death toll on both sides.
The 466 square miles of dense foliage and rocky hills made the island of Okinawa a very strategic point for whoever controlled it. Both the Japanese and Americans knew that if Okinawa fell, so would Japan. When the US army first attacked the island, they expected a battle deadlier than D-Day.
But to their surprise, the Japanese army wasn’t waiting for them on the beach and the US secured Okinawa’s shores without much resistance. However, the Americans could not stop wondering when they were going to encounter the Japanese army. Where were they hiding? What the Americans didn’t know was that they had walked into a trap; the Japanese army had them right where they wanted them.
Japanese soldiers had been instructed not to fire onto the Americans landing on Okinawa’s shores, but, instead, to wait and watch. The Japanese set up a triangle of defensive positions, known as the Shuri Defense Line, and patiently waited to surprise-attack the American troops. The US army eventually encountered the Shuri Defense Line, winning battle after battle.
However, these battles were far from easy. The Japanese army was entrenched in the thick foliage and had control over high vantage points, making these battles fierce and bloody. The Japanese also used Kamikaze tactics. While these tactics had been used previously, it was the first time that they were a major part of their defense. And it wasn’t just Kamikaze tactics that were immoral.
The Japanese also used 1,780 kid soldiers from ages 14 to 17 on the front lines. The Japanese army named these kid soldiers the Tekketsu Kinnōtai, which translates to the “Iron and Blood Imperial Corps.” While the Japanese claimed that the Tekketsu Kinnōtai were volunteer soldiers, military forces actually ordered schools to force their students to “volunteer.”
Sometimes, the military would even go as far as to counterfeit the necessary documents for these kid soldiers to fight on the front lines. The Japanese propaganda against the Americans also ran rampant, and many troops and Okinawa citizens believed that they would immediately be killed when captured by American soldiers. All of these factors made the Japanese ruthless fighters. And then there was Hacksaw Ridge…
Doss and the 77th battalion faced a daunting task. The Japanese had control over a plateau that stood 400-feet-high. Using cargo nets, Doss and his fellow soldiers were told to climb up the cliff, nicknamed Hacksaw Ridge, to reach the plateau. But the Japanese had a plan. They waited until the American soldiers had climbed up the ridge and then they opened fire.
This was almost a death sentence for Doss and his battalion. The Japanese army was heavily armed and their soldiers were hiding in caves and underground holes, waiting to surprise the American soldiers who made it up the dangerous cliff. The Japanese’s plan was good and it did work for a while, but what they didn’t know is that the Americans had Desmond Doss on their side.
Much of the fighting on the ridge was hand-to-hand and particularly ruthless. A week into the battle, Doss was the only combat medic left. The Americans were very close to capturing the plateau, and they just needed one final push.
On May 5, 1945, which was a Saturday and Doss’ day of rest, he was ordered to climb the ridge. Doss had one mission: treat as many wounded soldiers as he could. As soon as he reached the plateau, his job began. Doss knew that Japanese soldiers had a tendency to torture wounded US soldiers, and he refused to let that happen to his fellow soldiers. Under a constant barrage of explosions and gunfire and showing no regard for his own safety, Doss began his mission.
Doss crawled from wounded soldier to wounded soldier and then dragged them to the edge of the ridge. The combat medic would then tie a rope around their body and lower them down to the American base camp below. “I was praying the whole time. I just kept praying, ‘Lord, please help me get one more,’” Doss said in Benedict’s 2004 documentary.
The medic refused to leave even one single soldier behind, although his own life was at risk. He worked continuously for 12 hours amidst heavy artillery fire and dangerous hand-to-hand combat. Veteran Carl Bentley, who was also at Hacksaw Ridge, says, “It’s as if God had his hand on [Doss’] shoulder. It’s the only explanation I can give.”
Doss’ acts of bravery still astound the surviving members of his company today. The fearless combat medic held his ground on that plateau and treated wounded soldiers that many other medics would have left for dead. Doss saved 75 men that day, including his captain Jack Glover. The same soldiers who had shamed him in training now praised him.
“He was one of the bravest persons alive,” Glover says in the 2004 documentary. “And then to have him end up saving my life was the irony of the whole thing.” And not only did Doss not leave any soldier behind, he somehow escaped without serious injury. The next day, the Americans captured Hacksaw Ridge, but Doss’s heroic efforts didn’t stop there.
As the Americans continued their slow advance on the island, Doss was involved in another battle just a few miles away from the ridge. He was in the middle of treating wounded soldiers when a Japanese grenade landed in their foxhole. Doss attempted to kick the grenade away from his patients, but it detonated.
The medic had deep shrapnel wounds all down his legs and needed to be evacuated immediately. But rather than having another medic risk their life for him, Doss treated himself for shock and tended his own wounds. After sitting in the fox hole for over five hours, soldiers arrived with a stretcher. Just as Doss was being evacuated, his unit was attacked again.
The combat medic insisted that another badly injured soldier switch places with him on the stretcher, according to the US Army website. So Doss rolled off the stretcher and continued the trek to the aid station on foot. But as Doss and his unit trudged on, a Japanese sniper shot Doss, shattering all of the bones in his left arm.
Hacksaw Ridge director Mel Gibson reportedly left this section of Doss’ story out of the 2016 film because he felt that it was so heroic that audiences wouldn’t believe that it really happened. Doss’s mission was finally complete. He saved as many lives as he could and finally proved to his fellow soldiers that he had their backs. Doss also gained respect from another very important person.
While recovering in the hospital, Doss’ commanding officer told him that he had earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service, making him the first conscientious objector to do so. His commanding officer also brought Doss a gift: the Bible he had lost on the battlefield. After the US Army captured the island from the Japanese, every soldier swept through the rubble until they found it.
President Harry Truman awarded Doss with the Medal of Honor in 1945 for his heroic efforts in the Battle of Okinawa, reportedly telling him, “I consider this a greater honor than being president.” After the war, Doss wanted to continue his career as a carpenter, but gunshot wound to his left arm made him unable to do so. Then, in 1946, the combat medic received some terrible news…
Doss was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which he contracted while fighting on the Eastern Front. For five and a half years, he underwent treatment, which cost him five ribs and a lung. He was finally discharged from the hospital in 1951, with 90 percent disability. The military continued to provide Doss with treatment for his disability, but after he accidentally overdosed on antibiotics in 1976, he went completely deaf.
The former combat medic continued like this until he received a cochlear implant in 1988 to restore his hearing. But despite all of his injuries, Doss was able to raise a family on a small farm in Georgia. He married Dorothy Schutte in 1942 before the war, and they had one child, Desmond Doss Jr., who was born after the war in 1946. But things weren’t always easy.
Doss Jr. was unable to see his father for the first five years of his life. Doss had returned home with serious injuries to his legs and arms, and then this tuberculosis diagnosis kept him in the hospital until 1951. “The war is never over. It’s just never over,” Doss Jr. says. “It affects the people that were there but it goes way beyond that. It affects the families. It’s very disruptive to life.”
The medic’s son says that his life was far from normal. Like many veterans who return from war, Doss had a hard time leaving the memories of the bloody battles behind him. Doss Jr. also frequently found himself in a room with hundreds of Medal of Honor recipients and their families, which he says was “surreal.”
Forever scarred by the Battle of Okinawa, Desmond Doss lived to be 87 years old. He passed away in 2006 at his home in Alabama. His legacy lives on as the man who once saved 75 lives while risking his own. After returning home from the war, Doss turned down requests for film and book versions of his heroic actions.
“The reason he declined is that none of them adhered to his one requirement: that it be accurate,” Doss Jr. said of his father. “And I find it remarkable, the level of accuracy in adhering to the principal of the story in this movie.” Doss wanted to make sure that his life, war experiences, and his Seventh-day Adventist beliefs were portrayed not only accurately but sensationally.
In 2016, Mel Gibson directed a film titled Hacksaw Ridge, which was based on Doss’s military experiences in Okinawa. Actor Andrew Garfield starred as Desmond Doss and the film was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing. The film was very well received by critics around the world.
David Permut, the film’s producer, said that filmmakers were very careful to maintain the story’s integrity and keep parts of his religious upbringing. However, filmmakers changed some details of Doss’ story. In the film, the combat medic’s father was a World War I veteran and writers created a new character named Smitty, who was a combination of various soldiers from Doss’ training days.
There were other changes at the end of the film, most notably when Doss is placed on a stretcher and taken to safety. In real life, the combat medic had another wounded soldier take his place on the stretcher before he was shot in the arm by a Japanese sniper.
The film also omits Doss’s other battles in the Eastern Front, such as the Battle of Leyte and the Battle of Guam, where Doss was handed the Bronze Star Medal for his bravery in both battles. In real life, Doss received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic efforts at the Battle of Okinawa which lasted over three weeks, but the film leaves the impression that the battle lasted only a few days.
Producer Bill Mechanic told reporters at People Magazine that “[Mel Gibson and I] were very accurate with Desmond and what happened to him, but we were not accurate on some of the details around it.” While some people disagree with his and Gibson’s decision, Mechanic says that they had their reasons. “If you’re a slave to the complete facts, than you’re not making a movie that is compelling.”
Regardless of some of the film’s inaccuracies, Doss Jr. says that it was a “perfect” portrayal of his father. “I just couldn’t believe it,” Doss Jr. says. “I was just completely taken by it.” Desmond Doss was a true hero, and thanks to filmmakers, generations can watch his legacy over and over again.
Well, Desmond Doss wasn’t the only hero from WWII. Audie Murphy became the most decorated soldier in in WWII because of his heroic actions. But unlike Doss, Murphy went on to become a Hollywood sensation. Let’s check out his story!