BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. Desmond Thomas Doss (February 7, 1919 – March 23, 2006) was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor and one of only three so honored (the others are Thomas W. Bennett and Joseph G. LaPointe, Jr.). He was a Corporal (Private First Class at the time of his Medal of Honor heroics) in the U.S. Army assigned to the Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. He died the same day as another Medal of Honor recipient, David Bleak.
Doss Sr. was born in Lynchburg, Va., on February 7, 1919. His father was a carpenter, and his mother worked in a shoe factory. For decades after the war, Doss lived in northwestern Georgia, near the Tennessee border.
Drafted in April 1942, Doss refused to kill, or carry a weapon into combat, because of his personal beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist. He consequently became a medic, and by serving in the Pacific theatre of World War II helped his country by saving the lives of his comrades, while also adhering to his religious convictions. Doss was injured twice during the war and shortly before leaving the Army he was diagnosed with tuberculosis which cost him a lung. He left the Army in 1946.[ He spent five years undergoing medical treatment for his injuries and illness.]
As a conscientious objector he was immediately rejected by the officers and men of his unit. Several tried to have him discharged from the Army, but he explained he really wanted to serve his country, he just could not kill anyone. He remained in the service to the great displeasure of his unit’s soldiers and officers.
Doss and his unit, the 77th Infantry Division, left San Francisco on 24 March 1944 for Guam. He would prove himself as a medic with no fear during the battles at Guam and Leyte. Private Doss’s next adventure was on the island of Okinawa and it was on the Maeda Escarpment 05 May 1945 (his Sabbath day) that he would prove himself to the world.
The Maeda Escarpment was a 400 foot cliff that stretched across the island of Okinawa. It rose steeply for the first 360 feet and then there was a 50-60 foot sheer face to the top. The entire escarpment was tunneled through by the Japanese army containing caves, pillboxes, machine gun and artillery emplacements, etc. On 04 May his unit had scaled the escarpment successfully.
On 05 May the Japanese counterattacked his unit and overran the summit of the escarpment. His unit retreated and the only humans on the top of the cliff were the Japanese, wounded American soldiers and Medic Doss. Doss crawled around the escarpment, dragging wounded men over to the cliff and lowered them with the rope to waiting hands below. It took him over five hours to complete his task and he was not wounded in this miraculous event.
Doss’s unit never mentioned his conscientious objector status again. They knew that they had a brave man who cared enough to risk his life to save his fallen comrades. The story of his deeds on the escarpment spread and soon the commanding general, General A. D. Bruce of the 77th Infantry Division, told Private Doss’s once doubting officers to put him in for the Medal of Honor.
Doss would later be severely wounded on Okinawa and was sent home. He was the first conscientious objector (of three) to receive the Medal of Honor. He received it from President Truman on the White House lawn on 12 October 1945, but he would spend the next five and a half years in the VA hospital system recovering from his wounds. Doss lived most of his remaining life on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga,Tennessee, where he died on 23 March 2006.
Medal of Honor citation
G.O. No.: 97, November 1, 1945.
He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet (120 m) 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 all 75 casualties 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. On May 2, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards (180 m) 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 (7.3 m) 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 May 5, 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 (7.6 m) from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards (91 m) to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. On May 21, 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, by a sniper bullet while being carried off the field by a comrade, 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 (270 m) 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.
// Harry Truman // President //
Pfc. Desmond Thomas Doss died at his home in Piedmont, Alabama after being hospitalized for breathing troubles. ]He is buried in Chattanooga, Tennessee‘s National Cemetery. Survivors include his wife of 12 years, Frances Duman Doss of Piedmont; a son from his first marriage, Desmond Doss Jr. of Astoria, Oregon ; three stepchildren; a brother; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.