The movie Hacksaw Ridge is a leading contender for several entertainment industry awards. It tells the remarkable story of Desmond Doss, a U.S. Army soldier who set an example that he was ridiculed for at first, but ultimately highly rewarded for in the end.
What can we learn from Doss’s example?
This soft-spoken Southerner volunteered to serve in the military during World War II, yet at the same time he refused to carry a gun. For over two years his commanders and the army tried to kick him out of the service, but at war’s end a grateful nation awarded this most unlikely of heroes its highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor—along with two Bronze Stars for bravery and three Purple Hearts for being wounded in action.
Doss’ actions were based on his heartfelt convictions. His actions and convictions serve as an example of how to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”
Yes, that’s right—this one man earned six medals for heroism and exemplary service. This hero without a gun waged a different kind of fight. Meet Desmond Doss.
But I don’t want you to meet him as just one more aging veteran from the conflict of long ago, because you really can’t. You see, he died in 2006. But neither do I want you to immediately meet him in a foxhole of long ago and far away. No, let’s go back to events and values that molded Corporal Doss to become worthy of our notice.
How could one brother kill another?
Doss grew up in a typical Depression-era family. One of his earliest memories was staring at an illustrated picture of the Ten Commandments hanging on the living room wall. One caption that vividly stood out in his mind was the scene of Cain beating Abel next to the inscription of the Sixth Commandment: “You shall not kill.”
At a young and tender age, it startled Doss that one brother could kill another. Family members would recall how the lad would reach out and touch that illustration. These simple images on a country home’s wall would shape and define his character a half a world away in years to come.
One specific occasion in his youth solidified his belief regarding firearms. His father and uncle got into a tussle and a gun was drawn. His mother got in between his dad and her brother to stop the fight.
Both men backed down because they didn’t wish her harm. But all Doss could see through his wide-open eyes was a reenactment of the vivid picture of Cain attacking Abel. His mother gave him the gun and asked him to dispose of it. After that event, Doss vowed never to touch a gun again.
Call me a “conscientious cooperator”
When World War II arrived, he chose to become a combat medic. Even though he had a job in a shipyard that gave him a deferment from serving in combat, Doss felt that he should not be spared while others risked and gave their lives for their country.
When he enlisted, he made his position clearly known. He would not carry a gun even though most medics did. He refused to call himself a conscientious objector. He preferred to be called a “conscientious cooperator.” Yet right from the beginning he got one clear message: “You’re in the army now. We’ll tell you, you don’t tell us!”
The officers attempted to break his morale by assigning him to a rifle company. There he would either cave in to peer pressure, or he would be considered a pest and be pushed out of the service due to intolerable peer abuse.
Most simply didn’t “get” this soft-spoken and easygoing person with his strange beliefs. He was ostracized. One of his fellow soldiers threatened, “If we go into battle together, I’ll shoot you.” Sadly, most of his fellow soldiers didn’t realize he had chosen to be there as a medic to save lives—theirs!
Honoring the seventh-day Sabbath
In training at Fort Pickens, another of Doss’ beliefs would become an issue. He was a seventh-day Sabbath-keeper. He would not work on the Sabbath. He would pray and meditate on that day, as well as attend Saturday church services. At nighttime he would study from the pocket-sized Bible his wife had given him.
His fellow soldiers would curse him and throw their boots at him as he knelt by his bed to pray. It just seemed as if he had too many privileges—even though he would work around the clock on Sunday and be given the grimiest of chores to break his morale.
Matters came to a head at an Arizona training camp. A commanding officer ordered Doss to receive a gun from him on threat of court-martial, even though it specifically stated on his papers that he did not have to carry a gun. He was given two chances. He refused both times. He knew he would be in trouble if he only compromised once, because he would then do it again and again.
The officer tore up the furlough pass for Doss to visit his wife and brother. It was a low moment for him. Finally, his officers were put on notice regarding an Act of Congress that they must respect the rights of conscientious objectors.
The man whom they tried to drum out of the service on the issue of “mental instability” was the same “conscientious cooperator” who had repeatedly told his officers: “Don’t doubt my courage. As you take life, I’m going to be right by your side saving life. I’ll be just as good a soldier as you.”
Those words were about to come true as his unit was shipped off to the Asiatic-Pacific Theater in the summer of 1944 to participate in the brutal island-hopping campaign against Japan.
The legacy begins
From Guam to the Philippines to Okinawa, this different breed of warrior would develop, day by day and person by person, an incredible legacy. As the men of the 77th Division fought battle after battle and island after island, Desmond Doss was right beside them and often out in front of them.
Early on he was alerted to the danger of not carrying a firearm. The enemy had chosen to intentionally target the easily identified medics as they performed their courageous labor so as to demoralize the troops.
But out he would go anyway, again and again, among the wounded. He did most of his work at night, crawling from person to person in the muddy tropical landscape. In one battle on Guam, as Doss moved forward without a firearm along with the troops, the same officer who had threatened a court-martial fled the battle scene.
Ultimately, the 77th was given orders to replace the decimated 96th Division on Okinawa. The task before them was to take Hacksaw Ridge on a looming 400-foot-high escarpment. Nine times in seven days the troops were driven off the escarpment. Eight commanders were lost in 36 hours!
Finally the orders came down: “Hacksaw Ridge— do or die!” Volunteers were requested to drape a cargo net on the ridge so men could rapidly charge up the cliff. Three volunteered. Doss was one. A photograph shows the lone figure of Doss standing at the top of the ridge, cargo net in place. It was the last recorded impression, as the photographers would advance no further due to the fierce fighting.
On April 30, 1945, Doss requested that he might pray for his comrades before the next assault. On that particular day, not one man died in Company B.
“Lord, help me get one more”
On the third assault of the escarpment, the Japanese launched a major counteroffensive. U.S. troops were being bayoneted and shot as they fled down the net. But many soldiers remained on top, unable to flee. Doss was there among them to save lives. He knew the enemy would torture and kill the wounded men, so he refused to leave.
Over the next 12 hours, he would drag the wounded, one by one and sometimes two by two draped under his arms, several hundred feet to the cliff’s edge. There he would then lower them one by one, 75 in all, down the 70-foot cliff by rope.
Each time he returned for another comrade, he would simply pray, “Lord, help me get one more!” Years later, one Japanese veteran during an interview stated, “I believe that man was in my sights, but each time I would shoot, the gun jammed.”
The final assault on Hacksaw Ridge was planned for a few days later. However, the date happened to be a Saturday. Yes, the Sabbath! All were ready to go except one person—Doss! He was the only medic in the vicinity.
Another commanding officer who had tried to drum Doss out of the service put the entire offensive operation on hold. By now, Doss had become the “safety blanket” of the 77th.
Lost without his Bible
Later in that deadly back-and-forth battle, Doss and several others took shelter for the night in a foxhole. Suddenly a Japanese grenade fell into the foxhole. The others scrambled out, but Doss instinctively put his boot on the grenade to cover it. It exploded, hurling him out of the foxhole and leaving his leg gashed and bleeding from many wounds.
Rather than call for another medic who might risk his own life to help him, Doss bandaged his own leg and waited five hours for daybreak. When stretcher bearers arrived at dawn and began to carry Doss to safety, they passed another soldier with more critical injuries. Doss told them to put down the stretcher and carry the other man instead.
Joined by another injured soldier, Doss and the other man leaned against each other as they tried to hobble their way to safety. But as they did, a bullet struck Doss’ wrist and lodged in his upper arm. Had it not hit his arm, which was draped across his follow soldier’s shoulders, it likely would’ve struck his wounded compatriot in the neck and killed him. Doss splinted his useless arm with a rifle stock and together they crawled to safety.
As he was being taken to a hospital ship, he realized something precious had been lost on the battlefield. His Bible was out there! His source of strength was missing, and without it he felt lost. He wrote to the men of Company B and asked if they might help. Some of the same men who had jeered at him, thrown their boots at him and made his life miserable went into the field of battle and found his “sword,” the Word of God (Hebrews 4:12 Hebrews 4:12For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
American King James Version×), and mailed it back to him.
Surgeons removed 17 pieces of shrapnel from Doss’ leg and put his arm in a cast to heal. His war was over. He’d fought his own good fight in his own way, never compromising his convictions. On his return to the United States, President Harry Truman personally awarded this “hero without a gun” the nation’s highest military honors for valor. As the President stood facing the courageous corporal, he said, “I would rather have this Medal than to be the President.” He then hung the Medal of Honor around the neck of this very different breed of warrior.
“Desmond did that every day!”
But Doss’ good deeds came at a cost. His wounds would leave him 100 percent disabled. Wrong doses of treatment for tuberculosis contracted in the islands would leave him nearly deaf.
In a documentary titled The Conscientious Objector, one of Desmond Doss’ wartime companions said it best about this different breed of warrior. He said that some men are awarded the Medal of Honor for one moment in time in which they perform an incredible act of courageous daring on behalf of their fellow man. Yet, he remarkably added, “Desmond did that every day!”
The corporal’s saga recalls the time when the Israelite patriarch Joseph, having advanced by God’s favor to the highest levels of government in Egypt, told his brothers who had sold him into slavery years before: “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:19-20 Genesis 50:19-20 19 And Joseph said to them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God?
20 But as for you, you thought evil against me; but God meant it to good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.
American King James Version×).
Doss’ determination in the face of possible severe punishment echoes the words of three men in Babylon who would not join in false worship on pain of death: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18 Daniel 3:16-18 16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer you in this matter.
17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.
18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods, nor worship the golden image which you have set up.
American King James Version×).
Our spiritual battles
Doss’ actions were based on his heartfelt convictions. His actions and convictions serve as an example of how to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:3 2 Timothy 2:3You therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.
American King James Version×) in the day-to-day struggles confronting us. This man’s light and the savor of his convictions (compare Matthew 5:13-14 Matthew 5:13-14 13 You are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his flavor, with which shall it be salted? it is thereafter good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. 14 You are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
American King James Version×) slowly turned the wrath of his comrades into admiration until they couldn’t advance without him.
It brings to mind the future prophetic reality of Zechariah 8:23 Zechariah 8:23Thus said the LORD of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you.
American King James Version×, which speaks of a time when “ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you. ’”
Desmond Doss lived his faith in the crucible of war. Christians are called to fight a different warfare than the wars of this world. Our calling is to stand for the One who said, “My purpose is to give life in all its fullness” (John 10:10 John 10:10The thief comes not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.
American King James Version×, New Living Translation 1996) and who leads us as the Captain of our salvation.
The apostle Paul often pointed out as examples those who stood in harm’s way to crystallize and galvanize our own Christian walk. It is in that spirit and intent that we can learn from this “different breed of warrior” about the lesson of “this is the way, walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21 Isaiah 30:21And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk you in it, when you turn to the right hand, and when you turn to the left.
American King James Version×).
It was from the mouth of one who once despised him that this echoing lesson of Isaiah can be heard. Some men are awarded the Medal of Honor for one incredible act of courageous daring, but “Desmond did that every day!”