Hacksaw Ridge – An Unlikely Hero of Uncommon Valor

By Casey Allen

While the majority of the attention Hollywood has paid to WWII has been focused primarily on the European theatre Mel Gibson’s latest directorial effort Hacksaw Ridge centers around the less-remembered Pacific campaign. The film is based on the true story of Army Medic then-Private First Class Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist born and raised in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Doss, the son of an abusive alcoholic father and WWI veteran, entered the Army as a conscientious objector shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Doss was hazed throughout basic training for refusing to touch a weapon. Deemed a coward and a liability, Doss was eventually court-martialed for insubordination and narrowly avoided being sentenced to Leavenworth for refusing to obey a lawful order. Despite immense pressure from his commanding officer and his fellow privates Doss remained true to his beliefs and is allowed to deploy with the Army’s 77th Infantry Division to the Battle of Okinawa.

The combat scenes, while as visceral and violent as any, are unique in the sense they glorify the heroism of saving lives more so than the glory taking of them. This theme reflects the essence of Doss’s character, with his most notable quote being “please God, please, help me get one more”. Doss’s prayer was answered no less than 75 times, each time under enemy fire from the heavily-entrenched Japanese. With each life Doss saved the cowardly stigma previously bestowed upon him by his bothers in arms was proven false. The highlight of the film—at least for me—was seeing these unwarranted prejudices change over the course of the battle.

For his actions on Okinawa President Truman awarded Doss the Medal of Honor, the United States of America’s highest military decoration, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty. Doss was the first conscientious objector to receive such an honor.

Doss’s Medal of Honor Citation reads as follows:

 The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Private First Class Desmond Thomas Doss, United States Army, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty from April 29 - 21 May 1945, while serving with the Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, in action at Urasoe Mura, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands. Private First Class Doss 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 artillerymortar 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. 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. 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.