Corporal Desmond Doss of the 77th Infantry Division is, as far as I can tell, one of the only people in American history to receive the Medal of Honor – the country's highest award for military bravery in the face of thousands of fanatical enemy combatants psychotically unloading a hellacious cloud of bullets in your direction with varying degrees of accuracy – not only without ever actually firing a shot in anger, but without ever even actually carrying a weapon into combat in his entire life. Not a rifle. Not a knife. Nothing.
He didn't need one to save the lives of at least 50 men in a single battle and become the first Conscientious Objector to ever earn the Medal.
Desmond Doss was born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1919 to a super-religious family of hardcore Bible-thumping Seventh-Day Adventists. A firm believer in the Sixth Commandment (that's the one about not murdering other people), Doss had a marginally difficult time reconciling his desire to serve his country in World War the Second with his disinclination to shoot other human beings in the face at close range with a thirty-aught-six slug delivered from the piping-hot barrel of a bayonet-equipped M1 Garand. He registered for the draft on his 18th birthday like every patriotic red-blooded football-watching American man was supposed to do, and he took a decent civvie job working on Navy ships at the Newport News docks, but then just to be safe he went out and took a little bit of medical training as well so that in case his number actually got called he could be sure he wouldn't have to be packing heat when he was deployed into a hellacious overseas war zone.
When Doss's number came up in 1942 and he was ordered to report to the Army recruiting office, he didn't try to defer or punk out or cry or any stupid nonsense like that. He was, however, still unwilling to compromise his principles re: inflicting ridiculous amounts of violent brutal death on the enemy, so when he got there Doss requested "non-combatant" status on his enlistment paperwork. Since that's not a real thing, the Army stamped him "Conscientious Objector" instead – a classification that allowed Doss to get away with not carrying a rifle into combat, but one that also kind of lumped him in with that all-too-popular notion of flag-burning, America-hating hippies who would much rather quietly cry themselves to sleep listening to indie folk music than hack someone's arms off with a machete and drink their blood out of a melted combat boot.
It's also not a classification that makes you a hell of a lot of friends when you're sitting in a foxhole with a bunch of guys who are fighting and dying for the flag.
Desmond Doss's refusal to carry even so much as a combat knife on his person at any time meant that he took a lot of crap from his comrades early on in his career, because, as you can guess, it makes your typical G.I. a little uneasy when the guy who's supposed to be watching his back would be severely outgunned by a gang of third-graders armed with slingshots and water balloons. Soldiers threw their boots at him. One Sergeant tried to get him court-martialed for disobeying a direct order to carry a rifle. Another officer tried to transfer him out of the unit, then, when that failed, attempted to have him discharged as a mental case.
Doss sat there, took the abuse, completed his Medic training, and then when the bullets started flying he showed them all that he had the biggest, brassiest balls in the entire Division. Because sure, anyone can stare at the enemy down the iron sights of a trusty rifle, but only a truly fearless badass would sprint towards them with a bulls-eye painted on his helmet and armed with nothing more than a box of Band-Aids and tube of Neosporin.
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 Caldeonia, 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.
And, honestly, that was like a typical Wednesday for a combat medic in Leyte.
"I made It a practice to go out on patrol with the men. The non-com warned me not to,
but I told him, it may not be my duty but it was what I believed in.
I knew these men; they were my buddies, some had wives and children.
If they were hurt, I wanted to be there to take care of them.
And when someone got hit, the others would close in around me while I treated him,
then we'd all go out together."
But it was in the hell of Okinawa in 1945 where Cpl. Desmond Doss would perform the ridiculously-over-the-top act of desperate death-despising balls-outitude he would come to be remembered for in the annals of American military history. His unit, B Company of the 1st Battalion, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, had been ordered to take part in the massive operation to capture the Maeda Escarpment – a 400-foot-high ridge overlooking the entire south side of the island that was virtually packed solid with boulders, machine gun nests, booby traps, concrete pillboxes, and winding caves filled with angry gun-wielding Japanese people. Every step of the battle was hell, as the Japanese contested every square centimeter of the hill with their lives. Doss and B Company climbed ropes up sheer cliff faces, advanced through dangerously-wide-open minefields, and cleared out enemy positions with flamethrowers and satchel charges as the tenacious defenders hammered them with machine guns and mortars relentlessly day and night without mercy, vowing to die where they stood rather than concede a single handful of dirt to the American assault. It was during this fight, on the night of April 30th, 1945, Desmond Doss performed one of many feats of heroic bravery when a 5-man squad of B Company soldiers charged up a 40-foot cliff and were mowed down at extreme close range by a Japanese machine gun team: Doss, never one to leave a wounded man behind, got on his belly and army-crawled to his injured comrades – who, by the way, were less than 15 feet from the machine gun (!) – on four separate occasions, each time dragging a soldier to safety.
Just four days after this mind-blowing act of selfless heroism, Doss and 1st Battalion were on the move again, continuing their inexorable advance up the Maeda Escarpment. This time, however, the Japanese had a trap waiting for them – the moment the Americans moved into a dangerously-exposed position, two camouflaged trenches filled with Japanese troops threw off their camo netting and opened up with a deadly enfilading fire that raked the American patrol from two directions at once. 500 of the 800 men in 1st Battalion were killed or wounded in action, the rest broke and withdrew in panic, and when the smoke cleared only one American was left standing on the blood-soaked battlefield.
"We had a lot of wounded lying around, and I had my buddies there,
and I couldn't give up. I had a Japanese aid kit, two American aid kits,
and my pockets were stuffed with bandages. I couldn't just abandon my men.
They knew if there was any way possible I could take care of them, I would."
Desmond Doss, alone, aided only by covering fire from the surviving members of the battalion, ran back and forth through a Japanese killzone for FIVE HOURS STRAIGHT, pulling wounded soldiers out of the battlefield, dragging them over to the only means of escaping the death field – a 40-foot cliff at the edge of the Escarpment – and then lowering them down to safety using a juryrigged pulley system he tied himself out of ropes. As rifle fire whizzed over his head from both directions, Doss crawled through the crossfire, sometimes to within 30 feet of the Japanese front lines, grabbing the wounded Americans and pulling them back in a Herculean display of hardcore badassitude. The official record states that over the course of five hours of constant work, Doss pulled 75 wounded men out of the battlefield and hand-lowered them 40 feet off a cliff to waiting ambulances below. Doss, always humble, thinks the number is more like 50. The Army Medal of Honor citation initially read 100. I'd argue it doesn't really matter that much – it's not the number that counts, it's the fact that this guy ran through a brutal war-torn hellhole, completely unarmed, and dragged badly injured men to safety until he was physically unable to move his legs any more.
Two weeks after single-handedly saving 75 human lives, Desmond Doss was back in action again, this time at a position a couple miles past the Escarpment. Unfortunately, that battle wouldn't end up as well for him – a planned American sneak attack went haywire when U.S. artillery started landing on friendly positions, and before long the Japanese were counterattacking and Doss was ducked down in a foxhole trying to give first aid to wounded men. When a Japanese grenade landed in the hole with him, Doss tried to kick it away, but the explosive blew and peppered his legs and back with 17 white-hot shrapnel wounds. Doss treated himself for shock, took care of his wounds, then turned down the opportunity to be evacuated by stretcher because he believed there were other wounded men who needed it more. Instead, he went right back to doing what he did best – helping the wounded – running back into the fight and dragging men to safety until a sniper round shattered all three bones in his left arm. Badly wounded, bleeding, and without a usable arm or leg, Doss still managed to walk back to the aid station under his own power.
His biggest regret? The Bible his wife gave him had fallen out of his pocket when he was blown off his feet by the grenade, and he hadn't recovered it before saving a bunch of lives and walking away from life-threatening injuries.
It worked out pretty well, though. When his commanding officer came by the hospital to visit Doss and inform him that he was going to receive the Medal of Honor, he brought a present – a waterlogged, semi-charred pocket Bible. Apparently after the hill had been captured from the Japanese, every man in the Company scoured the field until they'd found it for him.
NY Times Obit
Bruce's History Lessons
Collier, Peter and Nick Del Calzo. Medal of Honor. Artisan, 2011.
Willbanks, James H. America's Heroes. ABC-CLIO, 2011.
Smith, Larry and Norman Schwarzkopf. Beyond Glory. W.W. Norton, 2004.