The struggle between Hollywood and history seems to never end. However, Hacksaw Ridge has received plaudits for its historical accuracy. The movie was fantastic despite Mel Gibson being its director. It tells the story of Desmond Doss, an army medic who saved 75 men without ever touching a gun.
As I did researched Doss, I was surprised to see that Hacksaw Ridge gets the story of Desmond Doss almost entirely correct. At its premiere, it received a 10 minute standing ovation for its portrayal of Doss. Other than a few chronological details, it was remarkably accurate. Accuracy was something that Doss himself required for any portrayal of his feats. He died in 2006 and never saw the film, but he had turned down many book and movie requests over the course of his life; his son said that “I find it remarkable, the level of accuracy in adhering to the principal of the story in this movie.”
Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist, and believed that he was forbidden not only from killing, but from even touching a weapon. However, he believed that World War II was justified and forsook his deferment because he wanted to serve as a medic. Although he was classified as a “conscientious objector,” he fancied himself more of a “conscientious cooperator.” Many of his fellow soldiers and his commanding officers were annoyed with his observance, which also included the belief that Saturday was the Sabbath. Doss received threats from soldiers at his training camp, with “one fella, he told me, ‘I swear to God Doss, you go into combat, I gonna shoot you.’” A battalion scout observed that Doss would “say his prayers at night and everything, and some guys took their shoes and threw shoes at him and threw things at him, made fun of him right out in the open. I don’t think I could have taken what that guy did. I don’t think I could have taken it, but he hung in there. He hung in there regardless of what they said or what they did.”
Some of his superiors were similarly intolerant of his beliefs, with Captain Jack Glover not only wanting him out of his battalion, but out of the army altogether. Doss went on to save Glover’s life, and by the end of the war Glover’s opinion of Doss had completely changed: “He was one of the bravest persons alive, and then to have him end up saving my life was the irony of the whole thing.” Sergeant Howell additionally tried to have Doss kicked out of the army due to mental instability on a Section 8 charge, but since the sole grounds for the expulsion were religious, he relented when he realized that no one in Washington, D.C. would sanction such an eviction.
Even before the events of Hacksaw Ridge, Doss had already received two Bronze Stars for his incredible heroism:
Doss’s first chance to prove himself came during the American assault on the Japanese-controlled island of Guam in 1944, when he courageously charged through knee-deep mud in driving rain on multiple occasions to reach wounded men anywhere on the battlefield, any time of the day or night, seemingly utterly oblivious to any bullets or mortars that happened to be choking the battlefield at the time. With his Medic insignia prominently displayed on his helmet and sleeve – an emblem that made him a big, meaty target for Japanese snipers eager to crush the American morale by capping their doctors – Doss accompanied hundreds of missions through the dense jungles of the small Pacific island over the course of several months of intense combat, routinely going out with search-and-destroy patrols even when he hadn’t actually even been assigned as the Medic for the unit. For his repeated bravery dragging wounded and dying men out of ultra-deadly killzones and giving them life-saving first aid, Doss earned his first of two Bronze Stars.
After a brief stopover in New Caledonia, Doss was next shipped out to the Philippine island of Leyte in December ’44, this time as a stretcher-bearer rather than a field medic. One again, he showed everyone that you don’t need to make fools’ heads explode to be badass, earning his second Bronze Star for an action where he ran a hundred or so yards through wide-open brush to save two critically-wounded soldiers who had been caught in a deadly crossfire from two hardened Japanese machine gun positions. Doss somehow made it to the men in one piece, realized one was dead, and then single-handedly carried the other man back through ankle-deep mud to the safety of the jungle, where he built a stretcher out of bamboo and dragged the wounded soldier to safety while Japanese snipers used his skull for target practice.
By 1945, Doss was trained as a medic and had arrived at Okinawa, which the United States was trying to take from the Japanese to be able to use as a base for invading the Japanese mainland. The Japanese had been in place in Okinawa for years, and had converted it into a massive fortification. The Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest in the Pacific for the Americans, and the mission that Doss and his company was assigned was viewed as all but impossible.
Okinawa was dangerous for anyone, but medics in particular were at risk. The Japanese targeted them intentionally to demoralize their opponents, so Doss removed anything on his person that indicated that he was a medic, all while never carrying a gun.
The movie gets its name from Maeda Escarpment’s nickname, which was Hacksaw Ridge. Hacksaw Ridge is 350 feet high and runs most of the length of the island of Okinawa, and during the Battle of Okinawa the gunfire was so fierce at times that men would sometimes be cut in half by the hail of bullets.
The Americans set up a cargo net to allow for them to scale the sides of the ridge, and Doss was one of three volunteers who set it up. The fighting was incredibly fierce, but Doss never picked up a weapon in anger. One night on the ridge, Doss was trying to get some sleep when he and a friend heard some Japanese soldiers not too far from them, and even though he could have killed many of them with the toss of a hand grenade, Doss remained put. “Between me and my buddy was these hand grenades. All I had to do was just pull the pin and I knew I had some Japanese. I thought of what I heard before, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ God gave life and I didn’t want to take life.”
At one point during the battle, the Americans retreated from the ridge and left dozens of wounded to fend for themselves at the top of the ridge. Doss refused to leave the wounded to almost certain death and ultimately rescued approximately 75 men. His logic was that “I had these men up there and I shouldn’t leave ’em. They were my buddies, some of the men had families, and they trust me. I didn’t feel like I should value my life above my buddy’s, so I decided to stay with them and take care of as many of them as I could. I didn’t know how I was gonna do it.” Over the course of 12 hours, Doss averaged saving about one man every 10 minutes. However, he was confronted with a problem: he lacked enough rope to let them all down the 350 foot drop. Improvising, Doss used a knot that he learned in basic training to lower them to safety below. Every time Doss lowered another wounded man to safety he prayed to God to let him get one more. “I just kept prayin’, ‘Lord, please help me get more and more, one more,’ until there was none left, and I’m the last one down.”
Doss must have known that he was putting his life in immense jeopardy, but he likely did not realize that a Japanese soldier continually had him in his sights during the course of his rescue mission, but that every time he tried to take a shot at Doss his gun jammed. For the rest of his life, Doss always wanted to “give all the glory to God and never seemed to acknowledge his role.” In an interview decades after the war, Doss said that “from a human standpoint, I shouldn’t be here to tell the story. All the glory should go to God. No telling how many times the Lord has spared my life.”
After a night of unbelievable heroics, Doss was not done, and neither was the Battle of Okinawa. On Saturday, May 5th, 1945, the battle over Hacksaw Ridge ended, with the Americans taking it for good. However, it started a few minutes later than initially planned. It was Doss’s Sabbath, and the Americans waited for him to finish his prayers before ascending the ridge a final time. Doss was the last medic remaining and agreed to go up again with the rest of the forces.
While the battle for Hacksaw Ridge was over, Doss and many others remained on Okinawa, and a few weeks after the fighting over Hacksaw Ridge concluded, Doss was almost blown up by a hand grenade. Despite receiving 17 shrapnel wounds from the blast, he continued to treat soldiers until his arm was shattered by a Japanese sniper. After the grenade went off, Doss was being carried to safety when he saw another wounded man. He gave his spot on the stretcher to him and while he was waiting a Japanese sniper shot Doss in the arm, and he used a rifle stock as a splint and crawled by himself to safety. In the course of these events he lost the Bible his wife had given him, and his comrades went back at immense risk of death and recovered it for him.
Although he never liked the term “conscientious objector” being used to describe him, Doss became the first “conscientious objector” to receive the Medal of Honor for his immense heroism in the Battle of Okinawa. Although he could have compromised his beliefs for convenience or even survival, he never did, believing that “I knew if I ever once compromised, I was gonna be in trouble, because if you can compromise once, you can compromise again.”
Doss’s Medal of Honor citation reads:
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.
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