The expression ‘war is hell’ is especially true for the men and women who have fought on the front lines in our many wars. I’ve spoken to men who served on the battle fields in World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War and have listened to them describe the horrors they experienced. I’ve known some of them that refused to talk about their experiences of war due to the horrific things they witnessed.
One man whom I first met in junior high school was drafted and sent to Vietnam. His unit sat and watched as the Vietcong physically tortured residents of a village. They were ordered not to fire, even to defend the village residents until they were first fired upon. The first aggressive action the Vietcong made against his unit was a mortar shell that landed near Bob and blew his leg off. He told me about that day and his losing his leg, but he would never describe the torturing he witnesses of the innocent villagers. Afterwards, Bob became a conscientious objector and protested against American involvement in Vietnam.
People become conscientious objectors for a variety of reasons, but many do so because of their religious faith. That was the case with Desmond T. Doss, a young man who was a conscientious objector due to his being a 7th Day Adventist when he was drafted in World War II.
Doss did not like the term conscientious objector and didn’t want to be known as a draft dodger, so he referred to himself as a conscientious cooperator as he felt the need to serve his country. After being drafted into the Army, Doss refused to learn how to shoot a rifle and was assigned to first the 307th Infantry Division and then the 77th Infantry Division as part of the medical detachment.
Doss saw action at Leyte in the Philippines and Guam before being assigned on Okinawa where he saw and was involved in very fierce fighting with the Japanese.
On this day, October 12, 1945, Private First Class Desmond Doss was invited to the White House where President Harry Truman presented him with the Congressional Medal of Honor. According to the official citation:
“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. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying them 1 by 1 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 2 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 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety. On 5 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, Pfc. 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 5 hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Pfc. 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 1 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 Pfc. 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.”
Doss became the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. After the war, he wanted to attend a trade school and become a florist. He would have seen his dream come true had he not contracted tuberculosis which eventually cost him one of his lungs.
In the 1970s, Doss became deaf as a result of the heavy and harsh medications he was given for this TB.
In 1987, Doss was asked why he put himself in harm’s way, he responded:
“I wasn’t trying to be a hero. I was thinking about it from this standpoint — in a house on fire and a mother has a child in that house, what prompts her to go in and get that child?
“Love. I loved my men, and they loved me. I don’t consider myself a hero. I just couldn’t give them up, just like a mother couldn’t give up the child.”
On March 23, 2006, 87-year-old Congressional Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss succumbed to a respiratory ailment and died, never considering himself to be a hero.
Sources for the above includes: Congressional Medal of Honor Society; Conscientious Objector Wins Medal of Honor; Desmond T. Doss, 87, Heroic War Objector, Dies; Desmond T. Doss; Army Cpl. Desmond T. Doss; The Courage of their Convictions: Three Conscientious Objectors and the Heroism that earned them the Medal of Honor; Lauded Conscientious Objector Desmond T. Doss Sr.