“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” (Proverbs 3: 5-6) This was the favorite saying from the Bible that Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist, chose to live by during his service time in World War II. The Adventist church taught its members that they shouldn’t join the military or be violent in any way towards anyone, as they believe in being totally non-violent. Desmond Doss, a man devoted to his religion and to God, chose to do something that most people wouldn’t understand during a time of war: he chose not to handle a weapon or to ever use one while he served. Doss was considered a conscientious objector, or a person who refused to bear arms while he served in the military because of his religious beliefs. Doss’s devotion to his religion led him to refuse to ever carry a gun for any reason.1
Before Doss joined the Army, World War II had already begun in Europe. Hitler had taken the war to the French and British in 1940, and then to the Soviet Union in 1941. Then came Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, which escalated the war to its global dimensions. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor sank multiple ships and killed thousands of Americans, prompting the United States to enter the war. The US first declared war against the Empire of Japan, and then, after Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, it declared war against all of the Axis Powers. The military draft had already been instituted before the war (and in case of war), and millions of men were called up to fight. Once drafted, many were sent to either the European theater of war or to the Pacific Theater.2
Doss eventually got called to join the Army. On April 1, 1942, he was sent to boot camp with the 307th Infantry in the 77th Division, where he would always be through out his military career as a medic. When he arrived at boot camp and got all his gear, he was excited to be able to serve his country, but was unprepared for what was to come. Because he was an Adventist, he could not work on Saturdays, because it was his Sabbath and he needed leave to attend church. He faced many obstacles in trying to get leave to go to church. His Captain refused to let him leave, but he always got around him by talking to Chaplain Stanley, a man who understood his need to go to church. He believed that God would protect him in every way possible, and that he would therefore never need a weapon. When commanded by an Army Lieutenant during his time at Fort Jackson to take a carbine, Doss told the Lieutenant that he would rather put his trust in the Lord than in a carbine.3 Desmond didn’t face many problems in the beginning, but when his Unit was shipped out to Fort Sill, Desmond began to face many challenges. Here Desmond faced the challenge of many others telling him that he couldn’t go to church and that he would have to work on his Sabbath, to which he refused and went anyways. After this incident, Doss was court-martialed, and they tried to find a way to get him discharged. They tried to discharge him with a Section Eight, claiming that he was mentally insane.4
Doss fought the charge. He stated that he could not be discharged because of his religion or declared mentally insane, because he wanted to go to church and that he would be a poor Christian if he accepted this discharge without it being true. So, he refused to be discharged, to which the committee agreed that Washington wouldn’t allow them to discharge him based on his beliefs.5
Instead of discharging him, they transferred him to the infantry, where they tried to make him carry a weapon; but he refused and was transferred back to the medics. Two years after this, Doss and his unit were sent to Hawaii. From there they were sent to the Marshall Islands, specifically to Agat Bay, Guam, where they were put into combat for the first time.6
Doss and his unit were in the Pacific for months. In July 1944, they fought in the Battle of Guam, until the U.S. had been victorious and won the land back from the Japanese. After a couple of months, they were shipped out again to Leyte, an island in the Philippines. While there, Doss was able to save many soldiers that had been hurt during battle. One day, he was told by a runner about two men who had been trapped on top of a hill. Desmond ran to see them and was able to help the first soldier, who had a wound on his forehead and blood in his eye, believing that he had gone blind. Desmond then went to the second soldier. He knew him. His name was Glenn. He was unconscious but still breathing. Desmond and the runner began to carry him to the aid station. On the trek to the station, they were shot at by Japanese, and the runner was hit. Doss got help from some others that happened to be nearby in a jeep. Once again, they were shot at, and the driver began to pull away while Desmond was still trying to get the wounded men into the jeep. Hanging on by his fingertips to the jeep as it drove off, Doss felt as if he flew all the way to the aid station. There, his friend Glenn died, and Desmond would remember what that felt like for a long time. Desmond saved many others and lost some others too. Days later, Doss was walking near the front line when he saw a man and ran to save him, but lost him due to his injures. He saved another soldier that had been shot in the stomach and needed surgery to survive. He later saw the man, who thanked Desmond for saving his life. He saved another man while being watched by a sniper. His sergeants told him not to go to the man, because they might, out of fear of friendly fire, hit him if they had to shoot, but Desmond went anyway, and saved the man. In a story told by a Japanese soldier years later, he told of how he saw Desmond in his sights, but he just couldn’t shoot him. During the times Desmond was being shot at, he thanked God for protecting him after each occurrence happened.7
After leaving Leyte, when it was safely in the hands of the U.S., Desmond and his unit were shipped out to Okinawa, miles away from Japan. The Battle of Okinawa was already in process. When the unit arrived, they saw the mountain they were meant to climb, the last barrier between the allies and the Japanese, the Medea Escarpment.8
They were sent to capture it, but it would be a challenge, as it was a protected slope topped by a forty-foot cliff. The Japanese were using it as a hiding spot so that Americans wouldn’t be able to see them from the other side of the mountain when they attacked.9 The battle of the escarpment began on April 29, 1945, when the men of Doss’ unit and himself began their climb up the mountain by cargo nets that they roped together. When the unit got to the top, they couldn’t tell where the Japanese were because the Japanese had had time to dig trenches and fox holes so that the Americans couldn’t see them. Before they went up, Doss told his Lieutenant that the men should pray for themselves so that God would protect them, but the Lieutenant had other ideas and told the men that Doss wanted to pray for them. Desmond and the men gathered around, and he began to pray. Doss asked that the Lord give the Lieutenant the right orders so that he could guide the men in the right direction as their lives were in his hands. And he prayed that God would help them come out alive when the battle ended. They began their climb up the ropes and were under fire as soon as they got to the top. Company A went first and many of them were killed once they reached the top. When Company A came back down, orders came for Company B to go up. Upon reaching the top, Company B killed eight Japanese, but none of them were hurt. When asked how they did it, they replied that it was Doss’ prayer that had saved them from being killed or hurt.
Everything for Doss changed on May 5. He was reading his Bible and praying when his Captain asked him if he could go up the escarpment, because he was the only medic left. He asked the Captain if he could finish praying before they went up, to which his Captain replied that they didn’t have the time. Doss and the men in Company B went up the escarpment. Everything went wrong once they got to the top. The men in Company B began to throw bags of TNT at the Japanese, but the Japanese pulled out the fuses before they exploded. The men began putting gas cans in the foxholes containing Japanese soldiers, and the Lieutenant in the Company threw a grenade. The grenade exploded and made a chain reaction; the bags of TNT blew up, followed by the gas cans, causing the entire hill to explode along with an ammunition dump. They thought that this had stopped the Japanese with the explosion, but the Japanese rushed them in a surprise attack soon after the explosion settled.10
The Japanese were coming from foxholes and trenches, running at the Americans. The Company was told to retreat in an orderly fashion, but it didn’t go as planned. Doss was on top of the escarpment with the other men who were going down the escarpment, but he couldn’t just leave with the wounded still up there; he was a medic, and that was his job, to help those who had been hurt. He had to be careful as he ran to get through the field to each soldier, as the Japanese targeted medics the most. He ran to the nearest soldier, who had been hurt badly. Desmond dragged him to the edge of the cliff and looked for something to lower him down. Desmond had found some rope and used a special double bowline knot that he learned by mistake during training and lowered the soldier down from the top of the cliff to safety at the bottom. Doss believed that God reminded him of the knot and had helped him lower the men down easier by placing a tree stump nearby to let him lower them. Desmond continued to run all over the field looking for wounded soldiers that he would send down to the aid station.11
Over a course of five hours, Desmond had saved many soldiers that were all over the field, and had lowered them down to help. He was shot at, but he was never hit nor wounded in any way. Every time he went back for another soldier, he said, “Lord, help me get one more.”12 At the end of the five hours, Doss came down untouched by a single bullet and unhurt. He changed into clean fatigues and went straight to his Bible to thank God for saving him and allowing him to save the other soldiers from dying on the battlefield. A General, by the name A. D. Bruce, had come from the 77th Division headquarters and suggested that Doss receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Doss had saved over seventy-five men from being left on top of Medea Escarpment alone.
Two weeks after his heroic act, Doss was injured while helping soldiers during a night mission. A grenade was thrown at him and three other men, he put his heavy boot on top of the grenade. When it exploded, he went into the air, and the explosion left pieces of shrapnel in his leg. While he was being carried away to the aid station, he saw another soldier with worse injuries, and so he rolled off the stretcher so that the other man could use it. While Doss was waiting for someone to come back and take him to the aid station, he was shot by a Japanese sniper. The shot broke his arm in two places and left him with damaged nerves. He had no equipment to mend his arm with, so he grabbed a rifle and took off the Barrel and made a makeshift splint. This was the only time during the entire war that he had touched a gun.13
Desmond was taken to a field hospital days later where his injuries were treated. They treated his broken arm and took seventeen pieces of shrapnel out of his leg. He was sent back home to recover. Months later, Doss would come to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving seventy-five soldiers and putting his own life at risk in the process. On October 12, 1945, a month after WWII had ended, President Truman presented Doss with the medal. Doss said that he owed his life to God, who saved him on multiple occasions and allowed him to complete what he did during the battles. Because of his injures, Doss was no longer able to work. Instead, he devoted his time to the church.14
Desmond Doss was able to save many lives during his time in WWII, though many didn’t believe he would. His choice to choose God over a weapon saved his life and many others lives as well. He vowed to never touch a weapon or to hurt another person and that’s exactly what he did.