Coming soon to a theater near you: a blockbuster movie about an American hero who once lived in our area.
Desmond Doss’s story isn’t widely known outside a handful of local veterans, but that is about to change.
“Hacksaw Ridge” was directed by Mel Gibson, and stars Andrew Garfield as Doss. Early reviews are positive, and some entertainment industry insiders say the movie will draw big audiences and win major awards. One of the producers is Terry Benedict, who lives in the Chattanooga area. He befriended Doss in the early 2000’s, and produced a documentary on his life, which inspired the movie.
For many years until his death in 2006, Doss lived in Walker County on Lookout Mountain. I met him at the Medal of Honor Museum in Chattanooga in the 1980s. I found him to be a quiet and humble man, very appreciative of the honors bestowed on him decades after his heroism in World War II. His then-wife Dorothy was a vocal cheerleader on his behalf, beaming with pride when a north Georgia highway was named in his honor.
The movie depicts Doss as a quiet participant in the war effort, though firmly against using a weapon. A devout Seventh Day Adventist, Doss looked for other ways to serve his country. Although Doss didn’t talk much about it later in life, he was subjected to taunts from his fellow soldiers for his refusal to carry a gun.
He also faced harassment for his devotion to prayer. At one point an officer sought to have him discharged on the ground of mental illness.
He became a medic, the only way he could follow the Sixth Commandment (Thou shalt not kill), as well as the Fourth Commandment (to honor the Sabbath). Seventh-day Adventists consider Saturday the Sabbath, but Doss felt he could serve as a medic every day because he said, "Christ healed on the Sabbath."
In late April and early May of 1945, Doss’s skills were put to the test in Okinawa, on the jagged Hacksaw Ridge, some 400 feet high. The conscientious objector became an active participant, saving the lives of many of his fellow soldiers in the US Army’s 77th Infantry Division.
His Medal of Honor proclamation reads in part, “As troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machine gun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving others back. Private First Class Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the stricken, carrying them one-by-one to the edge of the escarpment and lowering them on a rope-support down the face of a cliff to friendly hands.
He was exposed to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards forward. Two days later he treated four men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within eight yards of enemy forces in a cave's mouth, where he dressed his comrades' wounds before making four separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety.
He braved enemy shelling to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. When an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, he crawled to him, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire.”
His heroics didn’t end there. “On May 21st, in a night attack, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, aiding the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. He cared for his own injuries and waited five hours before two rescuers could come to his aid. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Private First Class Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, directed his bearers to aid the other man. Awaiting their return, he was again struck, this time suffering a compound fracture of one arm. With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards over rough terrain to the aid station. Through his outstanding bravery, he saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.”
President Harry S Truman presented Desmond Doss with the Medal of Honor on October 12, 1945 calling him “one of the few objectors who was on the level.” After the war, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. This resulted in years of treatment and the loss of one lung. An overdose of antibiotic damaged his hearing, which was partially restored in 1991 with a cochlear implant. In later years, he became more interested in sharing his story, especially with younger people who could not imagine the horrors he endured.
“Hacksaw Ridge” producers say the movie shows the graphic, disturbing reality of war. Hopefully it will put Desmond Doss’s name into the forefront of war heroes who have become household names.