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Hero Without a Gun

The Biography of Desmond T. Doss

by Matthew C. Soper

May 2000

Desmond T. Doss, the only noncombatant ever to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor, was hardly considered a hero as a child. He did learn many valuable lessons during his childhood though that shaped his thinking and perhaps caused him to react the way he did during his time in the army. Some of the stories he recalled actually would have branded him a clutz rather than a smart, practical, and honorable leader. Included below are a few of the stories he thought about as he made the long trip across the ocean to where he would be marked as a hero. Before Desmond was even born in 1919, his parents had purchased a framed picture of the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer in illustrated form. As a small child, he would drag his chair over to where the picture hung on the wall. He was so fascinated by the pictures, especially the one of Cain standing, with a club in his hand, over the dead body of his brother, Abel. He later commented that he was sure that it was this picture that made him determined never to harm another person. When he was school age, Desmond went to a small church school where the students were expected to help the teacher, Miss Ketterman, with the janitorial chores. When it was his turn to clean the erasers, he figured that he could just rub the erasers together to make it look like they had been cleaned. His teacher caught him and the statement she made to him helped the molding process that would make him a hero. She said, Desmond, anything that is not worth doing right to start with, is not worth doing at all. One time, during the depression, Desmond's mother sent him next door to get a quart of milk. While walking across some cobblestones, he tripped and fell. He did not want to break the bottle so he tightly held on to it. It shattered. When his mother got to him, he was bleeding badly so she rushed him to the hospital. The doctor there stitched him up, but told them he would never have the use of his hand again. His mother, was a God-fearing woman, so they prayed. Then she told Desmond to work those fingers and she massaged them until they hurt, but, within days, Desmond was able to move his fingers. Desmond seemed to be accident prone. One evening, while playing with friends on a rock wall, he slipped and fell off. His leg hurt, but he didn't want to upset his mother so he didn't tell her. Two days later he couldn’t even get out of bed. He was again taken to the hospital where the doctor told them that it was so badly infected that he thought the only answer was to amputate it. Again they prayed and started putting hot packs on his leg. Within a few days, he was up and about again. He learned that you can never give up. Desmond also learned at a young age that you have to do things for yourself. His family had very little money so there was no possible way that he was going to get a bike. He and his friend went to the dump and scrounged enough bicycle parts that he was able to have a bike. He learned to make do with what he had, a trait that would help him while in Okinawa. After World War II broke out, Desmond was working in the shipyard, which was considered an essential industry to the military, so he had no worries of being drafted. On December 7, 1941 he and a friend who was in the service, were driving down a winding road to the base where the friend was stationed. He recalled going to sign up for the draft when he was 18. His minister had gone with him to establish his status as a non-combatant. The officer in charge told him there was no such thing, but that he could register as a conscientious objector. He said he wasn't that because he would gladly serve his government, wear a uniform, salute the flag and help with the war effort. He just would not work on Saturday because he was a Seventh-day Adventist, and he would not carry a gun because he believed all killing was wrong. (He wouldn't even eat meat - especially after seeing a chicken flopping around with its head cut off.) He would gladly help tend sick or hurt people on any day. He finally was convinced to take the 1AO classification so he could join the army without fear of court-martial. On April 1, 1942 he was inducted into the U.S. Army. He was 23 years old. He was headed for Ft. Jackson in South Carolina for basic training. From the beginning the men made fun of Desmond for his beliefs. Even though he worked long hard hours to make up for not working on Saturday, the men cursed, ridiculed and taunted him. Each night as he knelt beside his bunk to pray to his God, the men swore at him and threw their boots at him. When Desmond regularly read the small Bible his new wife had given him for a wedding present, the men cursed him. One man even went so far as to tell Doss that he would personally kill him when they got into combat. Not only did the men not like Desmond, but the Army didn't know what to do with someone who would not work on Saturday, who wouldn’t carry a gun and who didn’t eat meat. They finally decided to give him a Section-8 discharge, but Doss wouldn't agree to that because he said he really did want to serve his country, he just didn’t want to kill. He refused the discharge so the Army was stuck with him. Shortly after that, the men saw their first combat in Guam. It was here that Desmond began to prove his courage and care for his fellow soldiers. Next came combat at Leyte. Here Doss braved enemy gunfire to go to the wounded and remove them to safety. Some of his company looked on in horror as they saw a Japanese snipe take aim at Desmond as he helped a wounded soldier. They could do nothing to stop the sniper because other soldiers were in the line of fire. Miraculously, the sniper did not fire. (Years later a missionary in Japan told this story. After the service, a Japanese man told the missionary the sniper could have been him. He could remember having a soldier in his sites, but he couldn’t pull the trigger.) Desmond proved his courage over and over. Without regard for his own safety, he would help the wounded to safety. His fellow soldiers were used to him reading the Bible and praying by now, so it didn't seem unusual when he suggested that they might want to pray before facing the 400 foot sheer cliff that split the island of Okinawa. On that April 29th morning in 1945, everyone felt that perhaps prayer was in order. This cliff was know as the Maeda Escarpment and was filled with caves, tunnels and enemy guns. It would be necessary to take this area. The men of Company B bowed their heads as Doss offered a prayer for safety. Then they began to struggle up the sheer cliff face along with Company A. Company A reached to top first and sustained heavy casualties. Company B was told they would have to take the cliff alone. By the end of the day, they did emerge victorious - and not a single life was lost and there were not even any wounded. When an inquiry was made the next day about how this could happen, there was only one explanation given and that was that Doss prayed! Doss proved himself to be a true hero each time there was a battle. However, on May 5th, he showed the true colors of a hero and earned his right to the Medal of Honor. Enemy fire began to assault Company B and almost immediately 75 men fell wounded. The remaining troops had to retreat to the base of the escarpment. The only soldiers still at the top of the cliff were the wounded, the Japanese, and Desmond T. Doss. Doss was determined to help his wounded comrades. Despite the sounds of battle, Doss began to lower man after man to safety by using little more than a tree stump and a rope. For five hours, Doss lowered soldiers down the face of the cliff. He said that he just kept praying that the Lord would let him rescue one more. No one knows for sure how many men Desmond lowered to safety. The Army determined that this medic that no one had wanted in the Army had personally saved 100 lives. Doss said it couldn't have been more than 50. Because of Doss's humble estimate, when the citation for his Medal of Honor was written, they split the difference and he was credited with saving 75 of his fellow soldiers. On May 21st, the Americans were under fire when Doss remained in the open to help a wounded soldier. He and three other soldiers had crawled into a hole to wait for the cover of darkness to escape when a grenade was thrown into their hole. The other three men jumped out to safety, but the grenade blew up just as Doss stepped on it. He did not lose his leg, but he sustained many wounds. He didn't want to endanger anyone else, so he bandaged his own wounds and waited for five hours for daylight and help to arrive. He was being carried off the field when they passed another critically wounded soldier. Desmond rolled off the litter and told the medics to take the other man. He joined another wounded soldier and together they started to hobble off supporting each other. Desmond had his arm across the other man's neck when he felt a bullet hit his arm. It lodged itself in Desmond's upper arm, thus saving the other man's life. These wounds would put Doss out of commission and send him home. When he was being treated, he discovered that the little Bible he always carried in his pocket was no longer there. After the fighting was over, Company B soldiers once again climbed the escarpment. This time they fanned out and searched until they found Desmond's precious Bible. They had come to respect the man who had fought his way, without compromising his strong beliefs. On October 12, 1945, Desmond Doss was invited to the White House to receive the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman. After the way that Desmond Doss served his country, his fellowman and his God, it is truly fitting that Desmond T. Doss, the only noncombatant in the United State's history, should receive our nations highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Desmond Doss is truly an American Hero!

Information for this paper was taken from:

Desmond Doss In God's Care,

by Frances Doss ; copyright 1998

The College Press, Collegedale , Tennessee

Desmond T. Doss story