The Most Unlikely Hero — Desmond Doss
When ordered to retreat, but one man refused. The account of his actions is coming to a theater near you!
"There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty, that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism." —Alexander Hamilton (1775)
But pause with me to read about an event that reflects infinitely more about the essential spirit of America than the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
On November 4th, there will be a big-screen release starring Andrew Garfield (Amazing Spider-Man) in the lead role. It is an action hero movie, but it will not feature a Marvel Comics character.
"Hacksaw Ridge" is the incredible story of Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss, a screen adaptation by Mel Gibson based on a screenplay that had been relegated to "development hell" for 15 years. The film's world premiere was earlier this month at the esteemed Venice Film Festival, where it received a 10-minute standing ovation.
So why does a script sit for 15 years and then receive an overwhelming reception by the industry's leading critics? Because its subject did not have a self-promoting inclination in his body, and the word "hero" is so overused today that its meaning is now a ubiquitous reference to virtually anyone in any uniform.
But this story reaffirms the rightful definition of heroism.
I first met Desmond Doss in 1995 when he was 76 years old. He was a local man whose name wasn't known to many, even in his small community. He and his wife, Frances, were simple people who lived a simple life on a small farm a few miles south of our family home in east Tennessee.
Desmond was humble and slightly built. He wore thick glasses and was virtually deaf. But he and Frances were warm and welcoming people.
So quiet and unassuming were these two souls that one would never suspect they had been more than five miles from their small homestead. But Desmond and Frances both exhibited a deep and unrelenting resolve rooted in their Christian faith, which became evident when in their presence.
Fifty years before we met, Desmond selflessly demonstrated that faithful resolve in repeated acts of heroism unparalleled among Medal of Honor recipients before or since.
Desmond was raised in a Christian tradition which taught that taking up arms to do someone harm was forbidden. When World War II began, he declined a religious exemption that would have allowed him to continue working in a Virginia shipyard. Instead, he became an Army medic. But he told his superior officers that his religious beliefs — his understanding of the Ten Commandments — prohibited him from picking up a weapon to kill someone.
I note that another Medal of Honor recipient, Tennessean Alvin York, held similar faith views. He was a Christian "pacifist." However, in the 1918 battle of Meuse-Argonne, York took up his weapon and masterfully used his backwoods marksmanship to defend men who were pinned down by machine gun fire — and captured 132 Germans in the process. Alvin would later say, "A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do."
Desmond was classified a "conscientious objector," though he preferred the term "conscientious cooperator" because he never objected to serving our country. According to Desmond: "I felt like it was an honor to serve God and country. I didn't want to be known as a draft dodger, but I sure didn't know what I was getting into."
Doss was viewed by officers and his fellow enlisted personnel as a coward. He never picked up a rifle, though he found himself in the heat of combat in places like Leyte and Guam in the Pacific. But it was his actions in May 1945, near Urasoe on Okinawa, that really distinguish his limitless courage and character.
Amid the most horrific fighting on that bloody island, Desmond refused an order of retreat and cover, because he knew there were many severely wounded soldiers above his position at the top of the Maeda Escarpment — a rocky cliff also known as Hacksaw Ridge. He scaled that high wall and, over the course of 12 hours, repeatedly crossed fields of Japanese machine gun, rifle and mortar fire and, one-by-one, pulled injured soldiers off the battlefield and lowered them 35 feet to safety via an improvised rope litter. When he finally came back down the escarpment, his fatigues were caked with blood.
"He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machine gun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying all 75 casualties one-by-one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands."But his unprecedented heroics did not end there.
"On May 2, 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 2 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 eight yards of enemy forces in a cave's mouth, where he dressed his comrades' wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety.In awarding Desmond his medal, President Harry Truman referred to him as "the little skinny pharmacist's mate." Indeed, at slightly over 140 pounds, he would have qualified as a welterweight fighter, but he performed feats that, by his account, could only have been achieved by God's intervening hand.
"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 him 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 May 21, 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 was himself 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 5 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 litter bearers' return, he was again struck, by a sniper bullet while being carried off the field by a comrade, 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."
For his part, Desmond said, "I wasn't trying to be a hero, I was thinking about it from this standpoint — in a house on fire and a mother has a child in that house, what prompts her to go in and get that child? Love. I loved my men, and ... I just couldn't give them up."
Years later, I heard a captain in Desmond's unit, one who had relentlessly ridiculed him, recount in tears Doss's actions on Okinawa — tears because he was one of the men Desmond pulled to safety.
Charles Googe, Director of the Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga (where Desmond's original Medal of Honor is housed), notes why his actions are unparalleled among Medal recipients: "Often times heroism is measured within a single or split-second act. Desmond Doss performed repeated unimaginable feats of bravery on Leyte and Okinawa. He left Okinawa with a severely fractured arm and 17 pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body."
Googe notes further, "Once back in the States, he devoted much of his life in service to his neighbors and community. Desmond's character was defined not by one single event, but by repeated acts of honorable service to his country throughout his life."
Desmond died in 2006, and indeed, all who knew him remember him for his lifelong repeated acts of service.
In 1992, during one of Ronald Reagan's last public addresses, he offered these words about honoring our legacy of Liberty: "My fondest hope for each one of you is that you will love your country, not for her power or wealth, but for her selflessness and her idealism. May each of you have the heart to conceive, the understanding to direct, and the hand to execute works that will make the world a little better for your having been here. May all of you as Americans never forget your heroic origins, never fail to seek divine guidance, and never lose your natural, God-given optimism. And finally, my fellow Americans, may every dawn be a great new beginning for America and every evening bring us closer to that shining city upon a hill."
Those words sum up the life of Desmond Doss.
Hacksaw Ridge is a big screen production that will introduce Millennials to the reality of genuine heroism and American Patriotism.
Pro Deo et Constitutione — Libertas aut Mors
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis