The Real 'Hacksaw Ridge' Soldier Saved 75 Souls Without Ever Carrying A Gun

Nov 4, 2016
Originally published on November 4, 2016 11:15 am

Desmond Doss is credited with saving 75 soldiers during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II in the Pacific — and he did it without ever carrying a weapon. The battle at Hacksaw Ridge, on the island of Okinawa, was a close combat fight with heavy weaponry. Thousands of American and Japanese soldiers were killed, and the fact that Doss survived the battle and saved so many lives has confounded and awed those who know his story. Now, he's the subject of a new film directed by Mel Gibson called Hacksaw Ridge.

A quiet, skinny kid from Lynchburg, Va., Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who wouldn't touch a weapon or work on the Sabbath. He enlisted in the Army as a combat medic because he believed in the cause, but had vowed not to kill. The Army wanted nothing to do with him. "He just didn't fit into the Army's model of what a good soldier would be," says Terry Benedict, who made a documentary about Doss called The Conscientious Objector.

The Army made Doss' life hell during training. "It started out as harassment and then it became abusive," Benedict says. He interviewed several World War II veterans who were in Doss' battalion. They considered him a pest, questioned his sincerity and threw shoes at him while he prayed. "They just saw him as a slacker," the filmmaker says, "someone who shouldn't have been allowed in the Army, and somebody who was their weakest link in the chain."

Doss' commanding officer, Capt. Jack Glover, tried to get him transferred. In the documentary, Glover says Doss told him, " 'Don't ever doubt my courage because I will be right by your side saving life while you take life.' " Glover's response: " 'You're not going to be by my damn side if you don't have a gun.' "

But hard as they tried, the Army couldn't force Doss to use a weapon. A 1940 law allowed conscientious objectors to serve the war effort in "noncombatant" positions, so Doss went with his company as a medic to the Pacific theater. And at Okinawa in the spring of 1945, Doss' company faced a grueling task: Climb a steep, jagged cliff — sometimes called Hacksaw Ridge — to a plateau where thousands of heavily armed Japanese soldiers were waiting for them. The terrain was treacherous. "It was full of caves and holes and the Japanese were dug in underground," says Mel Gibson, who re-created the battle in Hacksaw Ridge. "...The Japanese called it 'the rain of steel' because there was so much iron flying around."

Under a barrage of gunfire and explosions, Doss crawled on the ground from wounded soldier to wounded soldier. He dragged severely injured men to the edge of the ridge, tied a rope around their bodies and lowered them down to other medics below. In Benedict's documentary, Doss says: "I was praying the whole time. I just kept praying, 'Lord, please help me get one more.' "

Veteran Carl Bentley, who was also at Hacksaw Ridge, says in the documentary, "It's as if God had his hand on [Doss'] shoulder. It's the only explanation I can give."

Doss saved 75 men — including his captain, Jack Glover — over a 12-hour period. The same soldiers who had shamed him now praised him. "He was one of the bravest persons alive," Glover says in the documentary. "And then to have him end up saving my life was the irony of the whole thing."

President Harry Truman awarded Doss the Medal of Honor in 1945. He died in 2006.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific during World War II, Desmond Doss is credited with saving 75 soldiers. And he saved them without ever carrying a weapon. Desmond Doss is the subject of "Hacksaw Ridge," a new movie directed by Mel Gibson. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this story of the man who inspired the movie.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: By just about any logic, Desmond Doss should not have been on the battlefield. A quiet, skinny kid from Lynchburg, Va. - a Seventh-day Adventist who wanted to join the war effort as a medic but wouldn't touch a weapon or work on the Sabbath.

TERRY BENEDICT: He just didn't fit into the Army's model of what a good soldier would be.

BLAIR: And for that, the Army made his life hell during training, says Terry Benedict, who made a documentary about Doss called "The Conscientious Objector."

BENEDICT: It started out as harassment. And then it became abusive.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR")

UNIDENTIFIED VETERAN #1: He was regarded, very frankly, as a pest.

BLAIR: Benedict spoke to several World War II vets who trained and served with Doss.

UNIDENTIFIED VETERAN #2: A lot of people thought this guy was putting on an act. You know, what kind of religion - you can't do this? You can't do that, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED VETERAN #3: You know, he'd say his prayers at night and everything. And some guys took the shoes and threw shoes at him and made fun of him right out in the open.

BLAIR: In one scene in the new feature film "Hacksaw Ridge," a soldier taunts Doss.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HACKSAW RIDGE")

LUKE BRACEY: (As Smitty) So how come you don't fight? You think you're better than us?

ANDREW GARFIELD: (As Desmond Doss) No.

BRACEY: (As Smitty) What if you was attacked?

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAPPING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Whoa.

BRACEY: (As Smitty) Say, like that? Bible says to turn the other cheek, don't it? See, I don't think this is a question of religion, fellas. I think this is cowardice.

BLAIR: Army leaders threatened to have Doss court-martialed or discharged for being mentally unfit. In the documentary, Captain Jack Glover says he tried to get Doss transferred.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR")

JACK GLOVER: And I told him, you're not going to be by my damn side if you don't carry a gun.

BLAIR: But the army could not force Doss to use a weapon. A law passed in 1940 allowed conscientious objectors to serve the war effort in non-combatant positions. So Doss went with his company as a medic to the Pacific Theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HACKSAW RIDGE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As unidentified soldier, speaking Japanese).

BLAIR: On Okinawa, Doss' company faced a grueling task, climb a steep, jagged cliff, Hacksaw Ridge, to a plateau where thousands of heavily armed Japanese soldiers were waiting for them. "Hacksaw Ridge" director Mel Gibson recreated the battle.

MEL GIBSON: The Japanese called it the rain of steel because there was so much iron flying around. And so we tried to emulate what it must have been like from accounts and from war footage.

BLAIR: Under a barrage of gunfire and explosions, Doss crawled on the ground, caring for wounded soldiers. He dragged severely injured men to the edge of the ridge, tied a rope around their bodies and lowered them down to other medics below. Here's Desmond Doss from the documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR")

DESMOND DOSS: I was praying the whole time. I just kept praying, Lord, please help me get one more.

BLAIR: Doss is credited with saving 75 men over a 12-hour period. The same soldiers who'd shamed him praised him. One of the men Doss rescued was Captain Jack Glover.

GLOVER: In the long run, finding out that 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.

BLAIR: President Harry Truman awarded Desmond Doss the Medal of Honor in 1945.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.