How the Real Spiderman Saved 75+ Lives During World War II
A case study on courage, integrity, and ability to transport people in midair with a knotted rope
During World War II, a skinny, unassuming young man from Virginia became an unlikely hero when he single-handedly rescued over 75 wounded comrades from an exposed escarpment under enemy fire, with nothing but a knotted rope.
He was the real Spiderman.
His name was Desmond Doss.
In 2016, Desmond Doss was portrayed by Andrew Garfield in the critically acclaimed biographical war film, Hacksaw Ridge (Garfield earlier played the lead role in “The Amazing Spiderman”).
In the movie, Garfield’s Doss demonstrates Hollywood-worthy heroism, performing superhuman feats of valor that would eventually earn him (the real Doss) the Bronze Medal and the Medal of Honor — the only conscientious objector to be thus honored.
But it was Desmond’s courage and integrity under pressure (not to mention his skill with rope tying) that made him a real superhero — and not the mutant ability to shoot webs out of his wrists.
The question remains: How did this blue-collar country kid become such an unlikely superhero, saving the lives of over 75 men under active enemy fire…without a single weapon?
1. He had a simple faith
Desmond Doss was raised a Seventh Day Adventist by his mother, a devout Christian. For his entire life, he practiced the principles with which he was raised, including:
- Helping others: he used to walk miles out of his way to donate blood
- Keeping the Sabbath: Doss believed in practicing all of the Ten Commandments, and when he refused to work on the Sabbath, even during war training, he was bullied.
- And refusing to kill: Doss believed so strongly in not taking human life, that he wouldn’t even touch a gun.
In short, Desmond had faith in God and a set of strong, positive beliefs, and he lived it. He didn’t dither or make compromises — he just walked the walk.
2. He did his duty
When America entered WWII, Doss had the opportunity to be let out of the draft because of his work in a shipyard.
As an Adventist Christian and conscientious objector, he knew he would face complications, misunderstandings, and trouble if he enlisted.
But he believed it was his duty to protect his country, so he refused his boss’s offer to get a pass, and volunteered anyway — as a combat medic.
3. He set a good example
Once, while Doss was still undergoing military training, a stranger went up to him and said, “I know where you live, where you work, and where you go to church. I know you’re a seven day boy and you don’t smoke or fight.”
This incident sounds kind of creepy, but it shows that our lives are more visible than we think — even to strangers. Doss had nothing to hide. He lived openly, honestly.
4. He stuck to his (non) guns
Doss had two unusual convictions that made him stick out like a sore thumb in the barracks:
First, he believed in keeping the Sabbath by going to church and not working on Saturdays.
Second, he believed in the sanctity of human life and refused to even hold a weapon — not even to clean it.
Doss’ superiors tried to make him compromise on his convictions by making it hard for him to go to church or trying to force him to hold a gun. He refused.
As a result, he was hated by both peers and authorities, who threw shoes at him, laughed at him, and tried to get him tossed out of the army on a Section 8 “mental incompetence” discharge.
Doss stuck it out, however, and later proved his worth on the battlefield, saving the lives of some of his former tormentors.
5. He didn’t hold grudges
Desmond Doss never returned insult for insult.
During the infamous battle on the Maeda Escarpment (aka “Hacksaw Ridge”) in Okinawa, Desmond stayed behind after being ordered to retreat, single-handedly rescuing at least 75 wounded soldiers by dragging them away from enemy fire, tying them securely with a two-pronged knot he invented himself, and lowering them one by one to safety, three hundred and fifty feet below.
Some of the men he rescued were the very people who had made his life miserable during training.
In fact, Doss even treated enemy soldiers. After the heat of battle, Doss’ fellow soldiers reported seeing American bandages on Japanese corpses — apparently Doss was treating all the wounded, not just the soldiers on “his side.”
6. He was modest
After Doss’ heroic feat in Okinawa, his commander told him that he rescued 100 men. Doss said that the number could only be 50 at most. So the official compromise was 75.
Later, when he returned home, movie producers clamored to turn Desmond Doss’ life into a movie.
Instead of jumping at the chance to become rich and famous, Doss refused multiple movie proposals, concerned that Hollywood would not do justice to his faith in its portrayal of his story.
It wasn’t until near the end of his life, when a producer promised to respect Doss’ beliefs, that Doss finally agreed to let his story hit the big screen.
7. He endured patiently when life hurt
One would think that life would cut Desmond Doss a break after everything he’d gone through and achieved during the war.
But even after the war, Doss continued to suffer and face hardships, just like everyone else.
Desmond Doss lost several close friends in the war and came home injured after stepping on a grenade to save his friends, then being hit by a sniper.
Once home, he discovered that he’d contracted tuberculosis and had to be quarantined from his wife and son for years. Eventually, the doctors had to remove one of his lungs, and the experimental medications they used to treat his TB left him totally deaf.
Moreover, Doss’ wife had a mental breakdown from all of the stress she was under, and later in life developed breast cancer, then passed away in a car accident.
Through it all, Doss bore the tragedies without becoming angry, bitter, or discouraged. Instead…
8. He cared for others
In addition to saving 75 men on the Maeda Escarpment, Doss also rolled off a litter to treat a wounded soldier after Doss himself had been wounded by a grenade. Doss gave up his place on the litter to the other soldier and crawled 300 yards under enemy fire to the medic tent, broken leg and arm notwithstanding.
Then, after the war, Doss used money people donated to him to build a church for the use of others in the community.
Doss also spoke at youth camps and churches, spending time and effort teaching, inspiring, and mentoring young people.
How does Doss’ story apply to us today?
We all face a myriad of decisions, every day, many of which have long-term effects on our character, our lives, and on others’ lives as well.
Some of those decisions might involve risking or sacrificing your reputation, comfort, or livelihood.
They may mean swallowing your pride when someone wrongs you.
Or they may mean facing ridicule, bullying, or hatred from those who disapprove of your convictions.
Doss overcame all of these trials, and more. He didn’t start out as a superhero, but each decision he made — to practice his convictions and stick to his principles — strengthened his character and helped him develop the superhero qualities of courage and integrity.
Like Doss, it’s important for us to develop courage, figure out what we believe, and stick with it, so that one day when we DO face a life-altering decision, we will be able to stand strong.
Life guarantees difficult decisions. We must be prepared.
Calling All Superheroes
Today, most of us don’t need to fight in wars or risk our lives to defend our country. At least, not physically. But we all still need courage.
Courage doesn’t just happen on battlefields or in explosions of glory. That’s just where it’s most visible. But courage is built through the myriad mundane decisions you and I make every day.
When you choose to refuse the easy way out of a sticky situation, when you ignore the pressure from bullies trying to intimidate you into betraying your convictions, you are building moral courage and integrity.
And that accumulated courage will be there for you when you need it one day — maybe even in a Hacksaw-Ridge-like situation.
At that moment, you may just find, as Desmond Doss did, that you have a superhero inside you, too.
Thank you for reading!
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To learn more about Desmond Doss, you can watch 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge, which did a fairly good summary portrayal of his story. But for the more complete, accurate story, I recommend the documentary (free on YouTube) The Conscientious Objector, or the biography written by his second wife, Frances Doss — Desmond Doss: Conscientious Objector (Click here to read the first chapter free)