By Mr. Ronald W Wolf (Army Medicine)October 19, 2016
DEFENSE HEALTH HEADQUARTERS, FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- The U.S. military honors its greatest combat heroes by awarding medals of valor, giving military ships or streets their names, and erecting statutes in their honor. Our National Cemeteries, where many of our military heroes are interred, are some of our most sacred places.
A great honor, though, can be paid to heroes by making sure their story continues to be told.
"Hacksaw Ridge" -- Mel Gibson's latest film -- tells the story of Pfc. Desmond T. Doss, Army medic and Medal of Honor recipient for his courage and commitment to saving the lives of soldiers on Okinawa during World War II.
With "Hacksaw Ridge" scheduled for general release in early November, it's time to revisit and remember the courage of Doss and his commitment to his fellow soldiers.
Born in Lynchburg, Va., Doss was a medic with the Army Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. He received the Medal of Honor for his courage near Urasoe Mura, Okinawa, during combat from 29 April to 21 May 1945.
Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist and a conscientious objector who refused to carry a rifle. He could have worked in a defense plant but choose to serve instead. "I didn't believe in taking a life," he said in a 1987 to the Army Medical Department historian as part of interviews with Medal of Honor recipients. "I felt like God gave life, it wasn't for me to take."
Initially, his refusal to carry a rifle, let alone shoot one, did not stand him in good stead with his platoon in basic training. "They would throw shoes at me while I was praying overnight and make all kinds of sarcastic remarks," Doss said. "I don't care to repeat some things they said. They just gave me a hard time."
Doss's refusal to handle duty on his Sabbath--Saturday--didn't help him with his commander who tried to court martial him.
The resentment toward Doss changed after arrival in the Pacific.
He was a company aid man during a late April assault on a jagged 400-foot escarpment where Japanese soldiers were hidden deep in caves and tunnels. After American troops reached the summit by climbing up a cargo net suspended down a cliff, they were slammed by mortar and machinegun fire; in short order there were about 75 American wounded, and those who could dropped back and off the cliff.
Doss did not retreat and remained under fire with the wounded, carrying them one at a time to the edge of the escarpment; he lowered them down the face of the cliff using a rope.
After each rescue, Doss prayed to God to "let me save just one more," and he kept returning to the fire zone through the night. "One more" eventually became 75.
On 2 May, ignoring rifle and mortar fire, he rescued a wounded man 200 yards forward of the front line on the same escarpment; two days later he treated four men cut down while assaulting a cave, advancing through a hail of grenades to within eight yards of Japanese soldiers in the cave. Doss made four separate trips under fire to carry them one at a time to safety.
On 5 May, he braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages and then moved his patient to protection.
That same day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from another cave, Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet from the enemy and carried him under fire 100 yards to safety.
On 21 May, in a night attack, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, risking the chance that he would be mistaken for a Japanese soldier, and provided aid until he was wounded in the legs by a grenade blast.
Rather than call another aid man from cover, he dressed his own injuries and waited 5 hours before two litter bearers carried him toward safety. The trio was caught in an enemy attack, and Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter and directed the litter bearers to help the wounded man.
While Doss waited for the litter bearers to return, he was shot, resulting in a compound fracture of an arm. He used a rifle stock as a splint on his arm and then crawled 300 yards over rough ground to the aid station.
Doss's bravery and grit saved lives. "With the 77th division and with the 307, I couldn't serve with a better group of men," he said. They felt the same about Doss.
Doss died in 2006 and is buried in Chattanooga National Cemetery. He was always proud of his service as a medic, saying "it's the most rewarding work there is."
Gibson has turned in a notable tribute with "Hacksaw Ridge." The rest of us are left to tell the story of Desmond Doss and our other heroes to future generations, so they too will learn the names of our selfless heroes.