On this day two years ago a hero died and most Americans didn't notice. Like me, they had no idea that he even existed, yet he was one of the bravest participants in World War II. He was a conscientious objector who didn't want to be called or treated like a conscientious objector. Though he refused to carry a gun he desperately wanted to serve his country in the titanic struggle of that time. He wasn't willing to kill for his country, but he was more than willng to die for it. This hero was Army medic Desmond T. Doss, the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, America's highest military medal.
I first heard of Desmond Doss totally by accident. It was Memorial Day weekend '06, if memory serves, and I was channel surfing trying to find something to ease my boredom. I landed on the Christian tv station Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) and a movie caught my eye. I soon realized that the movie wasn't a movie at all but a documentary. Not in the mood for anything serious, I was going to change channels when something said don't. I put down the remote and soon became engrossed in the unlikely story of Desmond Doss, a pacifist who joined the United States Army.
Desmond Doss' story moved me deeply. Naturally, the sheer unlikeliness of a pacifist becoming a war hero drew me in, but it was Doss himself who touched my heart. As he told his story he revealed a gentleness, kindness, and humility that most people usually associate with the Amish. How could such a harmless soul win the Congressional Medal of Honor? Listen.
Desmond Doss was a devout Seventh Day Adventist who took the Ten Commandments, especially the sixth one, seriously. He resolved in childhood never to harm another human being. Yet when WWII broke out Doss was eager to serve his country, but the Army didn't want him. It had no need, it thought, of a soldier who wouldn't carry a gun. An effort was made to send him to a conscientious objectors' camp but Doss refused. He didn't consider himself a conscientious objector because he wanted to wear the uniform and serve his country, he just didn't want to kill anyone. So he kept trying to get into the Army until he was finally allowed to enlist and was assigned to the 77th Infantry Division as a medic. That's when his trouble started.
This was the hardest part of the documentary for me to watch. It almost made me cry. Once Desmond Doss was in the barracks with his fellow soldiers he was badly mistreated by them. He was cursed. He was taunted. He was ridiculed. He had boots thrown at him. His life was even threatened. All because he prayed every night, was a vegetarian, and refused to work on Saturday, the Adventists' sabbath. And because he wouldn't carry a gun. Listening to Desmond Doss recount this abuse in his humbly dignified way, free from all bitterness, sent chills down my spine. It made me understand what real strength he had and why he walked off the battlefields of the Pacific with two Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts, and the nation's highest military honor. All without firing a shot.
Desmond Doss got to show his mean-spirited "brothers" just what he was made of when facing combat on Guam and in the Phillipines in 1944. Medic Doss braved enemy fire repeatedly to treat and rescue the wounded, many of them the same men who'd abused him. The soldiers who'd vehemently objected to serving with a devoutly Christian, vegetarian pacifist now gave him their deepest respect. And it soon got deeper.
On April 29, 1945 American forces won control of the Maeda Escarpment on Okinawa but on May 5 the Japaness lauched a fierce counterattack. The Americans were forced to retreat, leaving their wounded, and medic Doss, on the escarpment. While those wounded who could fought off the Japanese, Doss lowered soldier after soldier down the escarpment using a rope and a tree stump, saving at least 50 men. Doss continued his courageous and non-violent service to his country until he was injured by a grenade on May 21. Now it was his turn to be rescued. While being carried to safety, though, Doss slid off the stretcher so a more gravely wounded man could be moved first. When he was finally on his way to a hospital ship Desmond realized he'd lost the Bible his wife, Dorothy, had given him. Upon learning that the men in his battalion searched the battefield until Doss' Bible was found. They lovingly cleaned it as best they could, dried it, then mailed it to the man they'd once scorned but now loved and admired.
On October 12, 1945 Doss, who would spend the next 5 years in and out of the hospital due to his injuries and a bout with tuberculosis, was awared the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Truman. After his distingushed service to a nation that initially spurned his desire to serve, Doss lived out his life in the mountain community of Rising Fawn, GA. There he and Dorothy raised a son, Desmond, Jr., and Doss continued to help any who asked. In 1965 he formed the Civilian Defense Rescue Service for Walker county, GA. The CDRS proved it's mettle a year later when it helped rescue seven Boy Scouts and their leader who'd gotten lost in a cave. Desmond spent more consecutive hours searching the cave than anyone else.
Desmond Doss was a shining example of courage and conviction. After serving his country with nearly superhuman courage, surviving his wounds, raising a son, burying his first wife and marrying a second, and in everything remaining faithful to God, Desmond Doss, America's peaceful warrior, went home to his Maker on March 23, 2006.
Farewell gentle soldier, and thank you for your service and your faith.
If you want to learn more about Desmond Doss you can order the documentary "The Conscientious Objector" at http://www.desmonddoss.com/.