Desmond Doss, 87; WWII Hero Who Refused to Carry a Gun

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Times Staff Writer

Desmond T. Doss was an unlikely World War II hero.

A conscientious objector who served as an Army medic in the Pacific, he was ridiculed and cursed in boot camp by fellow soldiers for refusing to carry a weapon.

Instead he carried a pocket-size Bible on Guam, Leyte and Okinawa and when not treating the wounded, the Seventh-day Adventist from Virginia would read Scripture.

But although his religious beliefs forbade his taking of lives, Doss did what he could to save the lives of comrades.


For his heroic actions on Okinawa, including braving heavy enemy fire to single-handedly rescue 75 wounded infantrymen and lower them one by one down a cliff to safety, he received the nation’s highest military award -- and he did it without ever firing a shot.

“What I did,” he later said, “was a service of love.”

Doss, the first conscientious objector -- and the only one during World War II -- to be awarded the Medal of Honor, died Thursday at his home in Piedmont, Ala.

He was 87 and had been in failing health for some time, said Ken Wetmore, communication director for the Georgia-Cumberland Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

“Desmond was a very humble man,” Pastor Les Speer, a longtime friend, told The Times. “He was not proud of himself for what he had done; he was proud that God was able to use him to save so many lives.”

A native of Lynchburg, Va., Doss was working in a Newport News, Va., shipyard when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Offered a deferment from military service to continue his work, he turned it down and registered for the draft as a conscientious objector.

Doss, however, preferred to be considered a “conscientious cooperator,” telling the draft board that, although he was not willing to kill, he was more than willing to serve.


“I felt like it was an honor to serve God and country,” he told the Richmond Times Dispatch in 1998. “I didn’t want to be known as a draft dodger, but I sure didn’t know what I was getting into.”

His religious convictions made him an immediate misfit in boot camp, where he was exempt from KP and other duties on Saturdays because his denomination’s Sabbath runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

“The other men hated him for not pulling KP on Saturday,” said Speer, adding that Doss was forced to make up for it during the week by doing extra KP and cleaning latrines.

Fellow soldiers threw shoes at Doss when he knelt beside his bunk and prayed. An officer threatened to have him court-martialed and at one point even tried to have him discharged as “mentally unfit.”

Doss’ refusal to carry a weapon so angered some in boot camp, he recalled, that one soldier vowed, “When we go into combat, Doss, I’m gonna shoot you myself.”

As a medic in the Pacific, however, Doss quickly earned the respect of fellow soldiers in the 77th Infantry Division.


He had already earned a Bronze Star for valor for putting himself at risk to care for wounded men on Leyte, in the Philippines, when his unit moved on to Okinawa in late April 1945.

As a company aid man for the 1st Battalion of the 307th Infantry, he was part of the battalion’s assault on the heavily fortified Maeda Escarpment, a boulder-strewn slope that rises sharply and ends with a 30- to 50-foot-high rock cliff.

At the summit, the soldiers were met with heavy artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire. Those not killed or wounded were quickly driven back.

Doss, however, refused to leave the dozens of wounded behind.

His Medal of Honor citation says that Doss “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.”

As he made his way to each wounded man, Doss later recalled, he prayed, “Dear God, let me get just one more.”

In the 1998 interview, he remembered that “I just caught them by the collar and dragged them. You made yourself as small a target as you could and just hoped and prayed [the Japanese] didn’t hit you.”


The Army originally said Doss rescued 100 troops that day, but he believed he could not have lowered more than 50 men down the cliff.

The Army then “compromised” and credited him with saving 75 lives.

But that wasn’t the only action on Okinawa between April 29 and May 21 that led to Doss’ Medal of Honor.

He repeatedly braved enemy fire to aid the wounded and move them to safety. Then, during a night attack on May 21, Doss was tending to the wounded when a grenade exploded, shattering his legs.

Rather than calling for help, Doss treated his own injuries and waited five hours before two litter bearers reached him.

On their way to an aid station, the trio was caught in an enemy tank attack.

Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter and told the bearers to pick up the other man.

While waiting for the litter bearers to return, Doss was hit in an arm. Using a rifle stock as a splint for his shattered arm, he crawled 300 yards over rough terrain to the aid station.


For Doss’ actions on Okinawa, his citation reads, “His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far and beyond the call of duty.”

After returning from the war, Doss spent nearly six years in hospitals.

In addition to his wounds, during his service he had contracted tuberculosis, which led to the removal of a lung and five ribs.

Antibiotics given to help clear up his TB, he believed, ruined his hearing and by 1976, he was completely deaf.

A cochlear implant in 1988, a procedure donated by Loma Linda University Medical Center and performed there, significantly improved his hearing.

Because of his wartime wounds and post-war illness, Doss received a military pension and was never able to hold a full-time job. To help support the family, his wife, Dorothy, whom he had married before being shipped to the Pacific, worked full-time as a nurse.

She later developed breast cancer and died in a car accident while Doss was driving her to a hospital in 1991.


Doss was the subject of director Terry Benedict’s 2004 documentary “The Conscientious Objector” and Booton Herndon’s 1967 book, “The Unlikeliest Hero.” A feature film on Doss’ life is in the works.

A monument on Okinawa also bears his name, as does an Adventist school in Lynchburg and a 20-mile stretch of road through Walker and Catoosa counties in Georgia.

During the dedication ceremony of the Desmond T. Doss Memorial Highway in 1990, Gov. Joe Frank Harris said Doss did not use his unwillingness to kill as an excuse not to serve his country, “he used it as an opportunity to serve.”

Doss is survived by his second wife, Frances; his son, Desmond T. Doss Jr.; his brother, Harold Doss; and his stepchildren, Tom Duman, Maryln Shadduck and Mike Duman.