Friday, June 10, 2016

Desmond Doss: WWII conscientious objector, Medal of Honor winner

To end this week, when there has been so much talk about Muhammad Ali and his place in history, I thought it might be nice to spend a few minutes on Desmond Doss, a man who ought to be known far more than he is. Perhaps he is; I was not familiar with him before today, when I read that Mel Gibson was directing a movie about him, and I consider myself a fairly well-read man, but maybe most people have heard of him and I've had my head in a hole or something.

Pfc Desmond Doss served as a medic in World War II. He was a conscientious objector, due to his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs, but he did not refuse induction, nor did he spend the war behind a desk. In 1945, he was involved in the battle for Okinawa, one of the most brutal actions in the Pacific Theater. By the time it was all over, Doss had earned two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts, as well as the Congressional Medal of Honor - the first time the Medal of Honor had ever been awarded to a conscientious objector. At this point, I think it's helpful to look at the citation that accompanied the award:

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.

Incredible, isn't it? Doss was discharged from the Army in 1946 and spent five years undergoing medical treatment for those injuries.

What this shows? Two things: first, Desmond Doss was a true hero, one who acted selflessly and with great courage. It's not reasonable to assume there are very many like him, or else everyone who served in the military would have the Medal of Honor. Second, You don't need to take up a weapon to be a hero. You don't need to kill your enemy to demonstrate your bravery. You don't have to shun military service altogether to be true to your beliefs.

So as you read the countless articles and listen to all the words spilled out in praise of Muhammad Ali, I thought it might be nice to remember men like Desmond Doss as well. Conscientious objector, Medal of Honor awardee, American hero.

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