Childhood & Early Life
Desmond Doss was born on February 7, 1919, in Lynchburg, Virginia, USA. His father, William Thomas Doss, (1893-1989) was a carpenter, while his mother, Bertha Edward Doss, (1899-1983) was a homemaker, and shoe factory worker. Desmond had an older sister named Audrey and a younger brother named Harold. He grew up in the Fairview Heights area in the city of Lynchburg, Virginia.
His mother had a strong influence on him when he was young. She raised him as a devout Seventh Day Adventist Christian and instilled in him the values of observing the Sabbath, nonviolence, and following a vegetarian diet.
He hated weapons from his childhood. According to him, the last time he held a weapon was when his mother asked him to hide his father’s 0.45 caliber revolver. His mother feared that his father might kill his uncle as he hardly had control over his anger.
As a child, he was very compassionate and helpful. He once walked six miles to donate blood to an accident victim after learning about the accident from a local radio station.
He was resilient and relentless right from his childhood. He spent his childhood flattening pennies on railway tracks and wrestling with his brother. His brother Harold did not want to wrestle with him because Desmond did not know when to give up. According to Harold, he would keep on wrestling without surrendering.
He went to ‘Park Avenue Seventh-day Adventist Church’ school in his hometown and studied until the eighth grade. He left school during the ‘Great Depression’ and found a job at the ‘Lynchburg Lumber Company’ to contribute to his family’s income.
Continue Reading Below
In March 1941, he started working as a ship joiner at Newport News shipyard in Virginia. In 1942, when the United States entered the ‘Second World War,’ he volunteered to join the ‘US Army’ despite being given an option of deferment because of his work in the shipyard. He joined the ‘US Army’ on April 1, 1942, in Virginia.
He was sent to Fort Jackson in South Carolina to train with the ‘77th Infantry Division’ which had been reactivated following the outbreak of the war. He later said that he wanted to help those who were fighting for the country even though his religious beliefs did not allow him to bear weapons. He preferred to call himself a ‘conscientious cooperator’ instead of ‘conscientious objector.’
Due to his staunch belief in the Biblical idea of ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and his belief in observing the Sabbath, he came into conflict with his superiors in the Army right from his training days. He was often bullied and insulted for his religious views in his Army unit. Though he wanted to become a combat medical soldier, he was assigned to a rifle company because his superiors wanted him to quit the Army. He was almost court-martialed for refusing a direct order to carry a rifle. There was also an attempt made to file a ‘Section 8’ charge against him so that he could be discharged from the Army on mental health grounds. However, he survived these attempts and continued his training.
He endured the bullying and the insults from his fellow soldiers during the training and kept on appealing the decision of his superiors. He often requested his superiors to allow him to train as a combat medic. Eventually, his superiors decided to train him as a combat medic and exempted him from duty on Saturdays.
After completing his training, he was assigned to the 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, of the ‘US Army’ as a combat medic. His division was assigned to serve on the ‘Eastern Front’ in Asia to fight the Japanese.
He was recognized as a fearless combat medical soldier who did not care for his life while tending to the injured on the battlefield. He earned a reputation of going fearlessly into the battlefield to help and evacuate his injured comrades without bothering much about the flying bullets or exploding shells around him. While serving with his unit in the Philippines and Guam, in 1944, he was awarded a couple of ‘Bronze Star Medals’ with a ‘V’ device for his heroic service and meritorious achievement in the battlefield.
In May 1945, he participated with his platoon in the ‘Battle of Okinawa.’ A part of his division was ordered to capture Maeda Escarpment, a steep plateau slope called ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ by the American soldiers. His platoon was part of the assault force that was deployed to secure Hacksaw Ridge.
On May 5, 1945, his division helped soldiers trying to climb up the plateau. The Japanese, on the other hand, adopted the strategy of offering minimum resistance until the American soldiers climbed up the plateau. When all the American soldiers of the assault division successfully climbed up the Hacksaw Ridge plateau, the Japanese launched a counterattack in which the Americans suffered many casualties.
Desmond Doss was part of the assault force on Hacksaw Ridge. He had climbed up the plateau with the assault force and was taken aback by the Japanese counterattack. Showing no regard to his own safety, he tended to the injured American soldiers on the ridge and single-handedly lowered each and every injured soldier from the plateau. He refused to leave behind even a single soldier, although his own life was at risk. He worked continuously for 12 hours amidst heavy gunfire, exploding artillery shells, and hand-to-hand combat to save as many soldiers as he could. In the end, he managed to bring back all the injured soldiers to safety. Miraculously, he did not suffer any serious injury and was the last man off the plateau. The Americans were eventually able to capture Hacksaw Ridge after the initial failure.
Two weeks after the incident, he was part of a night assault conducted by his division a few kilometers away from Hacksaw Ridge. He was treating injured soldiers in a foxhole when a grenade landed near his feet. He tried to kick the grenade away but it exploded, leading to severe shrapnel injuries all over his legs. Without worrying much about his injuries, he continued to tend to the injured soldiers. While he was treating the injured soldiers, a sniper shot him on his left arm. Despite being left with broken bones on his left arm, he crawled 300 yards to reach the aid station to ask the other platoon’s help in evacuating his patients. After five hours, a team arrived to rescue him from the foxhole but he refused to leave before the evacuation of the injured soldiers.
While he was recovering at the hospital, his name was recommended for the ‘Medal of Honor,’ the highest US gallantry award. His commanding officer visited him in the hospital to break the news to him when the award was confirmed. He had finally earned the respect and admiration of his colleagues and superiors by proving that his religious beliefs and military service could co-exist. While awarding him the ‘Medal of Honor’ on October 12, 1945, President Harry Truman said, ‘I consider this to be a greater honor than being the President of the United States of America.’ *After the war, he settled down with his wife and son in Rising Fawn, Georgia, and later moved to Piedmont, Alabama, along with his family. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1946, which resulted in the removal of one of his lungs. He lost his hearing due to an antibiotic overdose in 1976, but regained it after a cochlear implant in 1988. He passed away on March 23, 2006, at his home in Piedmont, Alabama.
Awards & Achievements
For his services and gallantry, he was honored with several awards, including ‘Congressional Medal of Honor,’ ‘Purple Heart’ with two Oak leaf Clusters, ‘Bronze Star Medal’ with an Oak leaf Cluster and V Device, ‘Combat Medical Badge,’ ‘Army Good Conduct Medal,’ ‘American Campaign Medal,’ ‘Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal’ with arrowhead device and three bronze stars, ‘Philippine Liberation Medal’ with one bronze service star, and ‘World War II Victory Medal.’
Family, Personal Life & Legacy
Desmond Doss married Dorothy Pauline Schutte on August 17, 1942, just before leaving for his Army training. They had one son, Desmond ‘Tommy’ Doss Jr., born in 1946. His wife, Dorothy Doss, died in a car accident in 1991. Thereafter, he married Frances May Duman, in 1993.
In 2016, actor and director Mel Gibson made a film titled ‘Hacksaw Ridge,’ which was based on his life.
He proved that his religious beliefs could go hand in hand with his military service. Interestingly, he believed that God saved him at Hacksaw Ridge. According to him, the guns of Japanese soldiers stopped working miraculously whenever they took aim at him on the Hacksaw Ridge. May 5, 1945, the day he saved 75 lives on the Hacksaw Ridge was Sabbath. It was also the day on which he was not supposed to work as per his religious beliefs.
He lost his Bible on the battlefield during the night raid when he was severely injured. After the battle, his platoon searched and found it. His commanding officer gave his Bible back to him when he was recovering in the hospital after the war.