Who was Desmond Doss?

Introduction

Desmond Thomas Doss (07 February 1919 to 23 March 2006) was a United States Army corporal who served as a combat medic with an infantry company in World War II.

He was twice awarded the Bronze Star Medal for actions in Guam and the Philippines. Doss further distinguished himself in the Battle of Okinawa by saving 75 men, becoming the only conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honour for his actions during the war. His life has been the subject of books, the documentary The Conscientious Objector, and the 2016 Oscar-winning film Hacksaw Ridge.

Refer to Thomas W. Bennett, the second conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honour (posthumously).

Early Life

Desmond Doss was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, to William Thomas Doss (1893-1989), a carpenter, and Bertha Edward Doss (née Oliver) (1899-1983), a homemaker and shoe factory worker. His mother raised him as a devout Seventh-day Adventist and instilled Sabbath-keeping, nonviolence, and a vegetarian lifestyle in his upbringing. He grew up in the Fairview Heights area of Lynchburg, Virginia, alongside his older sister Audrey and younger brother Harold.

Doss attended the Park Avenue Seventh-day Adventist Church school until the eighth grade, and subsequently found a job at the Lynchburg Lumber Company to support his family during the Great Depression.

World War II Service

Before the outbreak of World War II, Doss was employed as a joiner at a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia. He chose military service, despite being offered a deferment because of his shipyard work, on 01 April 1942, at Camp Lee, Virginia. He was sent to Fort Jackson in South Carolina for training with the reactivated 77th Infantry Division. Meanwhile, his brother Harold served aboard the USS Lindsey.

Doss refused to kill an enemy soldier or carry a weapon into combat because of his personal beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist. He consequently became a medic assigned to the 2nd Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division.

While serving with his platoon in 1944 on Guam and the Philippines, he was awarded two Bronze Star Medals with a “V” device, for exceptional valour in aiding wounded soldiers under fire. During the Battle of Okinawa, he saved the lives of 50-100 wounded infantrymen atop the area known by the 96th Division as the Maeda Escarpment or Hacksaw Ridge. Doss was wounded four times in Okinawa, and was evacuated on 21 May 1945, aboard the USS Mercy. Doss suffered a left arm fracture from a sniper’s bullet while being carried back to Allied lines and at one point had seventeen pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body after a failed attempt at kicking a grenade away from him and his men. He was awarded the Medal of Honour for his actions in Okinawa.

Post-War Life

After the war, Doss initially planned to continue his career in carpentry, but extensive damage to his left arm made him unable to do so. In 1946, Doss was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which he had contracted on Leyte. He underwent treatment for five and a half years – which cost him a lung and five ribs – before being discharged from the hospital in August 1951 with 90% disability.

Doss continued to receive treatment from the military, but after an overdose of antibiotics rendered him completely deaf in 1976, he was given 100% disability; he was able to regain his hearing after receiving a cochlear implant in 1988. Despite the severity of his injuries, Doss managed to raise a family on a small farm in Rising Fawn, Georgia.

Doss married Dorothy Pauline Schutte on 17 August 1942, and they had one child, Desmond “Tommy” Doss Jr., born in 1946. Dorothy died on 17 November 1991 in a car accident (Desmond was driving and lost control of the vehicle). Doss remarried on 01 July 1993, to Frances May Duman.

After being hospitalised for difficulty breathing, Doss died on 23 March 2006, at his home in Piedmont, Alabama. He was buried on 03 April 2006, in the National Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Frances died three years later on 03 February 2009, at the Piedmont Health Care Centre in Piedmont, Alabama.

Awards and Decorations

Rank and organisation: Private First Class, United States Army, Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division.

Place and date: Near Urasoe Mura, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, 29 April 1945 to 21 May 1945.

Entered service at: Lynchburg, Virginia.

Birth: Lynchburg, Virginia.

G.O. No.: 97, 01 November 1945.

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, 03 March 1863, has awarded in the name of The Congress the MEDAL OF HONOUR to

PRIVATE FIRST CLASS DESMOND T. DOSS
UNITED STATES ARMY

for service as set forth in the following

Citation: Private First Class Desmond T. Doss, United States Army, Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. Near Urasoe-Mura, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, 29 April – 21 May 1945. He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Private First Class Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying them one by one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands. On 02 May, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and 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. On 05 May, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small-arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Private First Class Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. On 21 May, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited five hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Private First Class Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers’ 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 and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Private First Class Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.

  • Combat Medical Badge.
  • Medal of Honour.
  • Bronze Star Medal with 1 Oak leaf cluster and “V” Device.
  • Purple Heart with 2 Oak lead clusters.
  • Good Conduct Medal.
  • American Campaign Medal.
  • Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with arrowhead device and 3 3/16″ bronze stars.
  • World War II Victory Device.
  • Philippine Liberation Medal with 1 3/16″ bronze service star.
  • Army Presidential Unit Citation.
  • Meritorious Unit Commendation.

Other Honours and Recognition

  • A portion of US Route 501 near Peaks View Park is named “Pfc. Desmond T. Doss Memorial Expressway.” Local veterans of the area honor him by decorating the signs marking this portion of road several times during the year, particularly around patriotic holidays.
  • In 1951, Camp Desmond T. Doss was created in Grand Ledge, Michigan to help train young Seventh-day Adventist men for service in the military.
    • The camp was active throughout the Korean and Vietnam Wars before the property was sold in 1988.
  • In the early 1980s, a school in Lynchburg was renamed Desmond T. Doss Christian Academy.
    • The school was founded by the Lynchburg Seventh-Day Adventist Church, the home church of Desmond Doss during his years in Lynchburg.
    • The church wanted to honour Doss for standing strong in his faith despite facing great adversity.
    • Doss visited the school that bears his name three times before his death.
  • On 10 July 1990, a section of Georgia Highway 2 between US Highway 27 and Georgia Highway 193 in Walker County was named the “Desmond T. Doss Medal of Honor Highway.”
  • On 20 March 2000, Doss appeared before the Georgia House of Representatives and was presented a special resolution honouring his heroic accomplishments on behalf of the country.
  • On 04 July 2004, a statue of Doss was dedicated at the National Museum of Patriotism in Atlanta, Georgia, which remained until the museum’s closure in July 2010.
  • In May 2007, a statue of Doss was dedicated at Veterans Memorial Park in Collegedale, Tennessee.
  • In July 2008, the guest house at Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington, D.C., was renamed Doss Memorial Hall.
  • On 30 August 2008, a two-mile stretch of Alabama Highway 9 in Piedmont was named the “Desmond T. Doss Sr. Memorial Highway.”
  • On 25 October 2016, the City of Lynchburg, Virginia, awarded a plaque in his honour to Desmond T. Doss Christian Academy.
  • On 07 February 2017, PETA posthumously honoured Doss with a Hero to Animals award in recognition of his lifelong commitment to vegetarianism.
  • On 07 May 2019, the US Army Health Clinic-Schofield Barracks in Hawaii was renamed the Desmond T. Doss Health Clinic in honour of him.
  • On 12 October 2020, the Lynchburg Virginia Area Veterans Council dedicated a plaque at his former childhood home to commemorate the Desmond T. Doss Veterans Home.
    • The home is Doss’ birthplace and is now used as a homeless and displaced veterans shelter.

In Popular Culture

Television and Film

On 18 February 1959, Doss appeared on the Ralph Edwards NBC TV show This Is Your Life.

Doss is the subject of The Conscientious Objector, an award-winning 2004 documentary by Terry Benedict.

The feature film Hacksaw Ridge, based on his life, was produced by Terry Benedict and directed by Mel Gibson. The film was released nationwide in the US on 04 November 2016, to positive reviews. Doss is portrayed by Andrew Garfield, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance, and won Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Actor in an Action Movie, and Satellite Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture. Desmond’s wife, Dorothy, is played by Teresa Palmer.

Doss was profiled in a three-part TV series by It Is Written in November 2016.

In 2018, World Media Rights Productions in conjunction with ITV Studios produced an episode of Real Story Of… that concentrated on Hacksaw Ridge and Desmond Doss. The series was broadcast on Reelz, and featured British actor Chris Coxon as Doss.

Print

Doss is the subject of four biographical books:

  • Herndon, Booton (2004). The Unlikeliest Hero: The Story of Desmond T. Doss, Conscientious Objector Who Won His Nation’s Highest Military Honour. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
  • Desmond Doss Conscientious Objector: The Story of an Unlikely Hero (2015) by Frances M. Doss.
  • Redemption at Hacksaw Ridge: The Gripping True Story That Inspired The Movie (2016) by Booton Herndon.
  • The Birth of Hacksaw Ridge: How It All Began (2017) by Gregory Crosby and Gene Church.

Doss was featured in the Medal of Honour Special comic written by Doug Murray and published by Dark Horse Comics. The comic was a special edition of the series Medal of Honour, published 01 April 1994. The title was sanctioned by the United States Congressional Medal of Honour Society. The issue features Corporal Desmond Doss along with another Medal of Honour recipient, Lieutenant Charles Q. Williams.

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