This U.S. Army Medic Fought A War Without A Weapon
Soldiers diving headfirst into enemy territory without a rifle on hand is a phenomenon unheard of. For Desmond Doss, however, this was routine. Taking the biblical verse, “Thou shall not kill,” to be the only driving force behind his actions, Doss managed to fight three vicious battles unarmed. Surprisingly, he not only made it out alive but also fought tooth and nail to ensure that others did too. By doing so, he unintentionally laid down a new meaning to the word ‘war’ by proving it to be something that did not necessitate violence.
A Rocky Start
Born as a devout Seventh-day Adventist, it was only natural that Doss’s distaste of weapons and violence was rooted in his religious upbringing. His beliefs dictated that he not only live a life of non-violence but also indulge in a strictly vegetarian diet — both of which would prove crucial in his battle endeavors.
The start of WWII came with a dilemma for Doss; while he believed that war was necessary, the use of violence, however, was not. Regardless, following his patriotic wishes, he enlisted for the US Army on April 1st, 1942. Part of the 77th division, Doss was assigned a rifleman’s role, despite his classification as a Conscientious Objector. He protested and asserted that he should be made a medic instead, and soon after, the regimental chaplain gave in to the protests.
Unsurprisingly, even for medics, it was common practice to carry an M1911A1 pistol for self-defense. Doss, however, refused. He had also requested that keeping in line with his faith, he should be given Saturdays off instead of Sundays and was ultimately granted that request. This made Doss wildly unpopular in his division as not only his religious beliefs were made a mockery of, but he was also seen as ‘having it easy.’
Many claimed that he “got more passes than the general.” To make matters worse, his dietary preferences were also unusual, and he was so despised by his division that one soldier even threatened him by saying, “When we go to combat, Doss, you’re not coming back alive. I’m gonna shoot you myself.”
Battle of Guam 1944
Doss’s first taste of battle came with Guam’s recapturing — a US territory held by 20,000 Japanese troops. According to the Geneva Convention rules, firing at a medic who bears a visible insignia is considered a war crime. Almost counterproductively, the insignia also represented valuable and easy targets, and so medics were immediately fired at by the Japanese snipers and gunmen. This was the first time Doss was exposed to the cruel realities of a warzone. He spent every day not only evading bullets but also saving lives.
It was on one of these days that a young recruit spotted a fountain pen lying on the ground. As soon as he went to pick it up, a blinding explosion immediately engulfed the area. A booby trap flawlessly placed. The grenade explosion had left the young man with a gaping wound in his chest with shards of metal jutting out of it. Somehow working his magic, Doss managed to stabilize his condition by administering immediate first aid and also saved three other lives during this fiasco.
Battle of Leyte
The next crucial event in his military career came with the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines on October 19th. Kicked off by a US coastal bombing, the battle aggravated the more inland the US troops went. The story begins with a medic, Clarence Glenn, responding to a call by a fellow medic who had been fired at by a machine gun. Glenn ran off into no man’s land to get the medic the help he required.
While doing so, he was himself shot and fell to the ground. Because Glenn was Doss’s close friend from back home, he couldn’t leave him alone. And thus, setting a commendable example of friendship and bravery, he convinced another medic to accompany him on a dangerous journey to save the two wounded. Doss focused his attention on the machine gunner, who had several gashes across his face. Making use of creativity and quick thinking, he improvised a stretcher from tree branches to carry the man back to the aid station.
Unfortunately, his friend, Glenn, would not be so lucky and died on the way to the station. Doss’s loss was only made worse by the unbearable hunger he felt consumed by, mainly because he couldn’t eat the meat rations. As such, he would often settle for bland crackers or coconuts he found on the ground. Perhaps, a happy surprise for him in such devastating times was to see the same soldier who had threatened to kill him earlier come to him for guidance and ask him to pray for him.
Battle of Okinawa
For Doss, this battle, lasting 81 days, epitomized bloodshed of a kind he had never known before. On April 29th, 1945, the US troops were tasked to climb a 400 feet high cliff called the Mighta escarpment. Before the soldiers set to climb the cargo net, Doss said a prayer for his comrades. As they reached the top of the cliff, the US army came under an intense military attack and was fired at by both small arms and machine guns. On May 4th, as the attacks were ongoing, Doss managed to aid 4 of his injured comrades.
The lieutenant leading the attack had tried to throw a grenade when he was shot at. This delayed the throw, and the grenade blew his hand off and injured many others. Despite having to go dangerously close to the enemy lines, Doss successfully evacuated these soldiers and brought them back to his own lines. The next day, he also went to aid a wounded artillery officer in a shell hole. Avoiding bullets by mere centimeters, Doss administered him first aid but to no avail; the officer did not make it out alive.
Today, as his remarkable life becomes the subject of books, documentaries such as Conscientious Objector and films such as the Hacksaw Ridge, his mantra rings true in the hearts of all those who yearn for peace even in such trying times of conflict and vulnerability; “While others are taking life, I will be saving it.”