Desmond Doss was the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor (Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, 1996; Doss, 1998). By being a conscientious objector, Desmond Doss refused to kill or carry a weapon into combat. This was spurred by his personal beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist. During World War II, Desmond Doss became a medic, and helped his country by saving the lives of scores of his companions in the Pacific theatre. Throughout the entire war, Desmond adhered closely to his religious convictions, and compromised only when the lives of his comrades were in direct danger. Because of this, Desmond Doss’ faith, military valor and legacy serve as stellar examples for noncombatant Seventh Day Adventist Servicemen and women.
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Desmond Thomas Doss was born on February 7, 1919 in Lynchburg, Virginia (Doss, 1998; Benedict, 2004). His parents were Tom and Bertha Doss, and Desmond was their second child. Desmond’s father worked as a carpenter, however, the Great Depression would leave him jobless and in an almost constantly inebriated state (Benedict, 2004). With no father figure, Desmond would rely on his mother, who had recently joined the Seventh-day Adventist church, to guide him on the path to manhood (Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, 1996; Doss, 1998). Desmond’s mother did her best to instill the values of the Seventh-day Adventist church in her son, dutifully taking him and his three siblings to church every Saturday morning. Having been raised in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Desmond was tremendously influenced by the bible and its teachings. The story of Cain and Abel was particularly of interest to young Desmond (Doss, 1998; Benedict, 2004). To him, it was incomprehensible that a man would willingly kill his own brother. It was during that critical juncture that Desmond took the 6th commandment, “thou shall not kill”, to heart and vowed to never end the life of a fellow man.
Desmond’s aversion to the use of guns was also instilled within him at a very young age. During an altercation between his intoxicated father and uncle, Desmond’s father, Tom Doss, brandished a pistol against his brother-in-law. Were it not for the intervention of Desmond’s mother, Tom would have shot him (Benedict, 2004). After Tom was arrested and taken away by the authorities, Desmond contemplated the situation, and the story of Cain and Abel had hit much too close to home. Desmond could not believe that men still turned against their own brothers, to the point of cold-blooded murder. This experience was extremely traumatizing to young Desmond, and it was at that time that he vowed to never wield a weapon (Doss, 1998; Benedict, 2004; Doss, 2005).
Much of Desmond’s younger life is shrouded by history, however, the facts become much more apparent at around the time he turned 23. It was at this time, in 1942, that Pearl Harbor was assaulted by the Japanese, which would result in over 2500 civilian and military casualties for the American forces. Desmond was employed by the New Port News Shipyard, and watched as his country rose to the challenge presented by the Japanese (Doss, 2005). Even after being offered a draft exemption by his employer, Desmond was enthusiastic to join the armed forces. Desmond, spurred by the courageous actions of his fellow Americans, voluntarily enlisted himself with the United States Army. However, because of his refusal to wield a weapon, the Army labeled him as a conscientious objector, which Desmond did not agree with (Doss, 1998; Benedict, 2004; Doss, 2005). Desmond, although unwilling to use or carry a weapon, did not object to his fellow comrades taking the lives of the enemy and in doing this, he believed he was a “conscientious cooperator.”
A high-resolution scan of a photograph of Desmond Doss, taken shortly before his deployment to the Pacific theatre in 1944. (Okinawarelics.com, 2002)
Life in the military was not easy for Desmond. He was continuously mocked and ridiculed by fellow soldiers and even by his superiors for not carrying or using a weapon. After being erroneously placed with a rifle company, he was transferred to a medical unit, yet his problems did not cease. Desmond’s comrades also held disdain towards him for his Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. Other soldiers would attack Desmond because of his unwillingness to work on the Sabbath, believing that he was only using his religious beliefs as a reason to get out of work. Eventually, his commanding officers even began to reject Desmond’s requests for a Sabbath break (Doss, 1998; Doss, 2005). It was found that this was in breach of the Constitution, and Desmond was, grudgingly, granted his Sabbath leaves of absence. Despite the protests and attempts at getting Desmond discharged from the Military, Desmond Doss was there to stay.
After a taxing conditioning in the painted deserts of Arizona, the 77th division, which was home to Desmond, prepared to deploy. After being shipped to the Pacific Theater in the summer of 1944, the 77th division engaged Japanese forces in both Guam and Leite. It was in these arenas of war where Desmond’s valor and fearlessness was revealed. His bravery, which bordered on recklessness, was notorious (May, 2005). Although the enemy specifically singled out medical personnel as targets, Desmond would daringly crawl on his hands and knees towards his injured teammates.
The culmination of Desmond’s bravery would take place in Okinawa, the location of many of the War’s most vicious battles. Okinawa’s Hacksaw Ridge was infamous for it’s brutal and merciless Japanese defenders (May, 2005). The Americans had lost an untold number of men in securing the Ridge, and had brought in the 77th Division to support the beleaguered American forces. The concluding act of the battle was to take place on a Saturday, and Desmond’s comrades knew that Desmond would not work on his day of rest. Responding to the pleas of his friends and teammates, Desmond agreed to aid them, but only if they would allow him a period of time to read his Bible (Herndon, 2004). The battle began, and everyone, Desmond included, would be fighting for their lives.
Maeda Escarpment in Okinawa was also informally known as Hacksaw Ridge. It saw some of the most intense fighting in the Pacific theatre. Desmond Doss treated over 75 wounded and dying American soldiers in the final stages of the Battle at Hacksaw Ridge. (Okinawarelics.com, 2002)
Desmond would go on to treat, save and remove seventy-five wounded, dying and dead men from the treacherous mountain ridge. During the anarchy, Desmond would lower his men down the cliffs, back into the relative safety of the American front. However, near the latter stages of this strategic campaign, Desmond was injured by shrapnel from a grenade detonation (Sterner, 1999; May, 2005). While being carried on a litter back to the American forces, Desmond rolled off the litter and treated a wounded comrade (Benedict, 2004; Herndon, 2004). While treating this man, Desmond was struck once more by a sniper, and made a makeshift splint from the fragments of a rifle butt, the only time Desmond would hold a rifle during World War II (Doss, 1998; May, 2005). Despite never carrying a weapon, Desmond had become the Division’s greatest asset.
The stories of Doss’s valor are now the things of legend. In the documentary, The Conscientious Objector, several men recounted the heroism that Doss exhibited. They described the actions of Doss as borderline lunatic, with Desmond crawling into enemy territory in order to retrieve the bodies of his fallen comrades. Even during the dead of night, when operations were discouraged by his commanding officers, Desmond would go out and attempt to save as many soldiers as he could. Another fellow soldier relates a story from a Japanese soldier who took aim at the exposed Doss (who was the only medic in his unit). The Japanese soldier repeatedly pulled his trigger, only to have his gun jam every single time. Doss would even lower soldiers down the cliff face entirely by himself, an amazing feat even for the larger men in his division (Benedict, 2004). Throughout the nightmare that was Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond relentlessly prayed that he could save just “one more man” (Doss, 1998; Benedict, 2004; Doss, 2005) By the end of the Pacific campaign, more than 150 men could say that they owed their lives to the bravery of the conscientious cooperator.
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A photograph of Desmond on top of Hacksaw Ridge, 04 May 1945. The rope visible in this photo is the one used by Doss to lower over 75 wounded and dying men down the ridge to safety. Photographers would not take pictures any closer because of the heavy incoming fire from Japanese forces. (Okinawarelics.com, 2002)
More than 15,000 men would lose their lives on Hacksaw Ridge, making it one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Desmond was sent home to the United States, slowly recovering from his wounds and from tuberculosis, which he had contracted while overseas (Doss, 1998; Doss, 2005). He returned to a grateful country, and to President Truman, who awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest commendation for valor during wartime. Records show that upon bequeathing the medal to Doss, President Truman told him, “I’m proud of you, you really deserve this. I consider this a greater honor than being president” (Doss, 1998; Herndon, 2004; May, 2005).
A colorized picture of President Truman placing the Medal of Honor on PFC Desmond Doss, 12 October 1945.
Academies, camps, charities, highways, and memorials have been created and named in honor of Desmond Doss and his heroic accomplishments. Because of his fragile health, he remained bedridden and near-death for quite some time after his return to America (Doss, 1998; Doss, 2005). Desmond, in time, would go out into the world, and spread his message of “conscientious cooperation” around the world. He made it a point to go wherever he was invited, and tell the audience of his harrowing experiences (Sterner, 1999). Of course, the witnessing and sharing of the “good news” that Doss had exemplified while in service was not confined to the world at large. Doss was an active member in his local community, never failing to attend local town halls or contribute to the debates that would affect him and his neighbors (Doss, 2005). Even near the end of his life, Doss came out of his peaceful sanctuary of Rising Fawn, Georgia to assist in documentaries and in fundraising for the Civilian Defense Rescue Service in Walker County, Georgia. When a group of Boy Scouts went missing in the hills of Georgia, Desmond Doss spent more hours in the hills and caves than any other volunteer (Doss, 2005).
This biography would not be complete without mention of Desmond’s wife, Dorothy.
Dorothy Doss (neé Schutte) was Desmond’s constant companion. They were married shortly before Desmond was deployed to Guam, and her frequent correspondence with Desmond kept him balanced, despite his witnessing of the atrocities of war. Many of their exchanges consisted of Desmond telling her about the things he had witnessed, and her responses to them. In several letters, Desmond would write to Dorothy and tell her “this may be my last letter to you, but not because I don’t love you anymore” (Benedict, 2004; Doss, 2005). It was Dorothy who nursed Desmond back to health upon his return to the United States, and it was her who would stand by his side for almost fifty years (Herndon, 2004; Doss, 2005). Throughout his travels, whenever possible, Desmond would bring Dorothy along. Dorothy was devoted fully to her husband, and was always present to help Desmond, who needed her constant vigilance because of his fragile health. In 1982, Dorothy was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Following a car accident in which Desmond was driving, the already weakened Dorothy would soon succumb to the cancer that had plagued her for over nine years (Sterner, 1999). The heartbroken Desmond, who had relied on his wife because of severe hearing problems (brought about by the aforementioned tuberculosis), was lost. However, even in the depths of his darkest time, Desmond knew that God would not forget one of his faithful helpers. A few years after Dorothy’s death, Doss remarried, and along with his new wife (Frances Doss), he would continue the ministry that he had started decades before with Dorothy (Sterner, 1999).
A memorial to Desmond Doss and all conscientious objectors at the Veterans Memorial Park in Collegedale Tennessee. It was unveiled in 2007.
Noncombatancy was, and has been a major issue for the emergent Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Many early pioneers believed that to aid the government in any capacity would be akin to breaking Sixth Commandment. James White’s igniting article in August of 1862 touched upon the question of war, and how Seventh-day Adventist men and women should respond to it. He believed that “the requirements of war conflicted with the fourth and sixth commandmentsâ€¦and if church members were drafted, he believed that the “government assumes the responsibility of the violations of the law of God, and it would be madness to resist”” (Knight, 1999; Wheeler, 2003). In resisting, members of the church would risk “suicide by government,” and face execution for treason (Knight, 1999; Wheeler, 2003). Decades and decades of debate have shown that this issue was, is, and will be a controversial issue for Seventh-Day Adventists.
Even though Desmond Doss would join the military and fight in World War II decades after the great founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church debated the biblical validity of noncombatancy, his unyielding determination and commitment to “conscientious cooperation” stands as a magnificent example for any Seventh-Day Adventist who desires to join the armed forces while preserving their religious beliefs. The ridicule, laughter, and blunt discrimination that Doss endured has opened up the path for new generations of Seventh-day Adventist servicemen and servicewomen. His sacrifices, in addition to those of the “white-coats” (who sacrificed their very lives for the testing of experimental drugs by the United States Army (Rubin, 2007)), gave Seventh-Day Adventists and other peace churches a way of contributing to the safety of this country without the taking of life. Seventh-Day Adventist men and women will never again have to experience the scorn of reluctant superior officers signing off on their Saturday work exemptions. They will never have to be publicly degraded in front of their comrades for having beliefs that weren’t “mainstream.” Without having to compromise their religious beliefs, “conscientious cooperators” can and will be just as effective in carrying out their duties as their armed counterparts.
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