Desmond Doss: The Famous Army Medic of World War II

Updated on July 15, 2019
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Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree in History at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Desmond Doss; Famous Army Medic; Medal of Honor Recipient
Desmond Doss; Famous Army Medic; Medal of Honor Recipient | Source

Desmond Doss

Birth Name: Desmond Doss

Date of Birth: 7 February 1919

Place of Birth: Lynchburg, Virginia

Date of Death: 23 March 2006 (Eighty-Seven Years of Age)

Place of Death: Piedmont, Alabama

Place of Burial: Chattanooga, Tennessee

Spouse(s): Dorothy Schutte (Married in 1942; Died in 1991); Frances Duman (Married in 1993; Died in 2009)

Children: Desmond Doss Jr. (Son)

Father: William Thomas Doss

Mother: Bertha Edward Doss

Siblings: Audrey Doss (Sister); Harold Doss (Brother)

Religious Views: Seventh Day Adventist

Occupation(s): Army Medic; Farmer

Military Service: United States Army, Medical Department (Company B, 1st Battalion, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division

Years of Military Service: 1942-1946

Highest Rank Achieved: Corporal

Nickname(s): “Preacher”

Awards/Honors: Medal of Honor: Bronze Star; Purple Heart; Army Good Conduct Medal; American Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; Philippine Liberation Medal; Army Presidential Unit Citation; Meritorious Unit Commendation;

Doss, following World War II.
Doss, following World War II. | Source

Early Life of Doss

Desmond Doss was born on 7 February 1919 to William and Bertha Doss in Lynchburg, Virginia. Doss was one of three children, including his brother Harold and sister Audrey. His father performed carpentry work, whereas his mother was both a homemaker and shoe-factory worker in the community. Doss was raised with a strong religious upbringing, and was a devout Seventh-Day Adventist for his entire life. At the encouragement of his mother, Doss was instilled at an early age with a strict devotion to Sabbath-keeping, non-violence, as well as vegetarianism. Growing up during the “Great Depression” era, Doss was forced to work at an early age with the local Lynchburg Lumber Company. He later found employment at a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia before the outbreak of World War Two.

Hacksaw Ridge

Picture of Doss atop Hacksaw Ridge. It is here that Doss lowered over 75 injured soldiers down to safety.
Picture of Doss atop Hacksaw Ridge. It is here that Doss lowered over 75 injured soldiers down to safety. | Source

Outbreak of World War II: Doss Joins the United States Army

While Doss was still working at the Newport News shipyard, Pearl Harbor came under attack by Japanese forces. Despite being a conscientious objector (and being offered a deferment for military service due to his shipyard duties), Doss felt compelled to join the military, and to serve his country in some form. On 1 April 1942, Doss enlisted into the United States Army at Camp Lee, Virginia, and was later sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina to complete training with the 77th Infantry Division. Because of his religious convictions and refusal to kill (or even carry a weapon), Doss faced an uphill battle with the Army high-command, as his desire to serve in the military was at odds with traditional service requirements. Nevertheless, Doss continued in his training, becoming an Army medic assigned to 2nd Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division.

Picture of Desmond Doss receiving the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman.
Picture of Desmond Doss receiving the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman. | Source

Hacksaw Ridge

As the Second World War waged on, Doss and his unit participated in the campaigns to capture Guam and the Philippines. For his courage, he was awarded two Bronze Stars after aiding numerous wounded soldiers under enemy fire. It wasn’t until the Battle of Okinawa, however, that Doss made a name for himself in the history books. During the battle, American forces were locked in heavy fighting with the Japanese along a ridge known as the “Maeda Escarpment” (also known as “Hacksaw Ridge” the Americans due to the strong enemy resistance there). Using cargo nets to ascend the nearly 350-foot high ridge, American troops attempted to assault the Japanese-held ridge on several occasions, with tremendous casualty rates.

In one ill-fated attempt, Doss and his battalion were sent up the ridge only to be repelled by enemy mortar, artillery, and machine-gun fire. With dozens of American troops cut down by the Japanese forces, and with no way to rescue the men left behind during the retreat, Doss decided it was his duty to remain on the ridge; completely alone, and in enemy territory. Facing the prospect of imminent death (or capture by the Japanese), Doss quietly sifted through the fallen American troops, providing medical aid to any survivors he came across. Then, courageously, Doss dragged each of the wounded soldiers back to the edge of the cliff, where he lowered them down by rope to the American forces below. One after another, Doss brought his wounded comrades back to safety, praying, “Lord, please help me get more and more, one more, until there are none left, and I’m the last one down.”

Despite being sighted by the Japanese (and undergoing extreme mortar and machine-gun fire on his position, Doss managed to drag approximately seventy-five wounded soldiers back to friendly lines, before lowering himself down the steep ridge to safety. In total, Doss spent nearly twelve hours on top of the ridge, rescuing men (an average of one person every ten minutes).

Doss never took the opportunity to rest after this ordeal, and insisted on continuing onward with his battalion in their ongoing assault on Okinawa. During the campaign, Doss was wounded four times, suffering a left-arm fracture (from a sniper’s bullet), and had nearly seventeen pieces of shrapnel embedded within his body from a grenade blast before he was evacuated on 21 May 1945.

For his courage and steadfast devotion to saving American lives, Doss was later awarded the Medal of Honor on 12 October 1945 by President Harry Truman. During the ceremony, Doss later recalled that “when my time came, I went up…President Truman…came out and he stepped over the line, he caught me by my hands, shook my hand like I was an old-time friend, somebody he had known all his life. He didn’t even give me a chance to get nervous.”

Desmond Doss in later life.
Desmond Doss in later life. | Source

Post-WWII Life

Following the war, Doss faced numerous challenges in readjusting to civilian life. Because of his combat wounds, he was declared ninety-percent disabled, and spent nearly six years in and out of VA hospitals for various medical problems related to the war. As a result of the war, Doss had also lost five ribs and one of his lungs due to tuberculosis that he had contracted on the island of Leyte during the campaign in the Philippines. For this, Doss was forced to take high-doses of antibiotics for several years; a fact that later made him completely deaf (1976). After living in complete silence for nearly thirteen years, Doss was later able to receive a cochlear implant that provided him with a renewed sense of hearing.

Doss received a modest pension from the military for the remainder of his life. The funds proved inadequate for his family, however, as his wife Dorothy was forced to work full-time as a nurse to provide additional income for her husband and their son, Desmond Junior. The small family later used one of Doss’s Government life insurance policies to purchase a four acre farm in Rising Fawn, Georgia where Doss grew fruits and vegetables and worked part-time as a cabinetmaker and salesman.

Tragically, Doss’s wife died during a car-accident in 1991. He later remarried in 1993 to Frances Duman, who he remained with for the remainder of his life. Doss later died in 2006.

“So I just kept praying, Lord, please help me get more and more, one more, until there was none left, and I’m the last one down.”

— Desmond Doss

Desmond Doss Fun Facts

Fun Fact #1: Doss was almost killed on several occasions at Okinawa. One Japanese soldier later recalled having Doss in his sights on numerous occasions, but was unable to fire because his gun kept jamming.

Fun Fact #2: Doss was extremely humble about the number of men he saved on “Hacksaw Ridge” in 1945. Although he estimated that the number of people he saved was only around fifty, his commanding officer believed that the number was closer to 100 men. To remedy the large discrepancy in numbers, the pair later compromised, claiming that seventy-five men were saved.

Fun Fact #3: While aiding the men atop Hacksaw Ridge, Doss even treated enemy soldiers that were wounded. Doss’s comrades later recalled how they came across enemy soldiers with American bandages on them.

Fun Fact #4: After enduring over twelve hours atop Hacksaw Ridge, Doss agreed to accompany his battalion back up the ridge for a final assault. Because the assault was on a Saturday (the Sabbath for Seven Day Adventists), however, Doss requested that he be allowed to read his Bible before advancing. In honor of his heroic deeds, the chain of command put the assault on hold until Doss finished his devotions. He later lost his Bible after being wounded during the battle.

Fun Fact #5: When Doss first joined the Army, he faced tremendous ridicule and abuse from his fellow soldiers for his refusal to carry a gun. The other troops often made fun of him, particularly for his prayer-time and devotionals. On a few occasions, some of the soldiers even threw shoes and other objects at him. Nevertheless, Doss remained undaunted by the torment, and remained steadfast in his devotion and beliefs.

Fun Fact #6: Apart from Doss’s religious upbringing that stressed nonviolence, Doss later recalled that his desire to refrain from weapons and violence was shaped at an early age. As a young boy, Doss watched as his father and uncle got into a fight (after a heavy night of drinking). After his father pulled a gun on his uncle, Doss’s mother stepped in and managed to hand the gun off to young Desmond. He promptly hid the weapon, and vowed that it would be the last time he ever touched a gun.

Desmond Doss Quotes

Quote #1: “I can’t stay here while all the other people are fighting for me.” (Quote by Doss before he enlisted in the United States Army)

Quote #2: “I couldn’t picture Christ with a rifle killing people.”

Quote #3: “My dad bought this Ten Commandments and Lord’s Prayer illustrated on a nice frame, and I had looked at that picture of the Sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ There’s a picture that had Cain and he killed his brother Abel, and I wonder how in the world could a brother do such a thing? I’ve pictured Christ for saving life, I wanna be like Christ, go saving life instead of taking life and that’s the reason I took up medicine.”

Quote #4: “When the train pulled out, I waved goodbye to her, and I tell you, it leaves you a very low feeling, knowing you may have seen your wife for the last time. I tell you, it’s hard to keep from crying, but I tried not to cry because we wanted to be brave to encourage each other. But the tears came through after the train pulled out.”

Quote #5: “I didn’t have enough rope to do the job like it should be done. Then the Lord brought to my mind that knot I learned in West Virginia that I’d never seen or heard of before.” (Doss recalling his decision to use rope for lowering wounded men down Hacksaw Ridge)

Quote #6: “So I just kept praying, Lord, please help me get more and more, one more, until there was none left, and I’m the last one down.”

Quote #7: “When you have explosions and bursts so close you can practically feel it, and not get wounded up there when I should have been killed a number of times, I know who I owe my life to as well as my men. That’s why I like to tell this story to the glory of God, because I know from the human standpoint, I should not be here.”

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Conclusion

In closing, the story of Desmond Doss and his actions during the Second World War is one of courage and heroism in the face of danger. Doss's actions along Hacksaw Ridge serve as a true testament to his love for God, his love of country, and his love for those fighting by his side. Doss's actions helped save many lives on Okinawa that would have otherwise been lost, if not for his desire to stay with those who were wounded and in need. As with all heroes of times past, may we never forget the story of Desmond Doss and his heroism in the face of adversity.

Works Cited:

Books / Articles:

Wikipedia contributors, "Desmond Doss," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Desmond_Doss&oldid=903503958 (accessed July 3, 2019).

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Larry Slawson

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      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        12 days ago from North Carolina

        Thank you Liz! I had never heard of him before I watched the movie, "Hacksaw Ridge" a few weeks ago. Quite an incredible story.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        12 days ago from UK

        This is an inspiring article. I had not heard of Desmond Doss before.

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