Sometimes not even the world's most creative minds can dream up stories as unbelievable as real events. From The Passion of Joan of Arc to Gandhi, Hollywood always has a soft spot for the insane true stories mankind has to offer.
In the fall 2016 alone, we will see films that depict the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who landed a plane in the Hudson, in Sully, the NSA leaks perpetrated by Edward Snowden in Snowden, and the controversial relationship and subsequent trial of interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving in Loving.
During its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival this past weekend, Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge shocked the industry by earning rave reviews and garnering a 10-minute standing ovation. The biopic boasts an all-star cast, including Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer and Vince Vaughn.
Gibson's apparent triumphant return, after a decade of questionable personal and career choices, tells the story of World War II soldier Desmond T. Doss, the first-ever conscientious objector to receive the United States Medal of Honor.
Doss's heroic efforts have been well-documented and admired for some time, but for many audiences the story has still been swept under history's dusty rug — until now. So let's explore the almost-unbelievable life and heroism of Desmond T. Doss.
Desmond T. Doss
Desmond Doss was born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1919 to a carpenter, William Thomas Doss, and his wife Bertha. Doss was raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist, which meant he observed Saturday as the sabbath and strictly adhered to the Ten Commandments. However, it was the sixth commandment, "thou shalt not kill" that defined his character and shaped the path of Doss's life.
As a young boy, Doss went through a traumatic incident that further solidified his non-violent stance. One day, his father and uncle got into a drunken argument that resulted in his father drawing his gun. Bertha was able to step between them and force the gun out of her husband's hand before he could murder her brother.
Desmond's mother gave him the gun and told him to hide it from his father. From that moment on, Desmond vowed to never again lay a hand on a weapon.
Drafted Into The Military
Knowing he would have to reconcile his religious convictions with his patriotic duty and despite being offered deferment, Doss was still eager to register for the draft on his 18th birthday. He served on a Navy shipyard for a few months prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. To ensure he would be useful in combat, Doss also took up medical training in the hopes of someday becoming a combat medic.
In a 1987 interview as a part of the Medal of Honor Oral History, Doss recounted his entry into the military, stating:
"I felt it an honor to serve my country, God and country, same as the rest of them. The only thing, I just didn't want to take life. I wanted to save life instead of taking life and for them to look at my records, which they did."
In 1942, Doss reported to the Army recruiting station. Due to his religious beliefs, he was sent to the camp with men who didn't want to provide their service in war.
Still ardent in his desire to serve the U.S. Military, Doss persevered and he was ultimately allowed to serve in the regular army, but deemed a "Conscientious Objector," which he considered a shameful classification.
"[T]he Army didn't seem to know too much about that classification at that time and I got stuck in the infantry right off the bat. And I wouldn't take no gun, wouldn't take training, so with my classification I was able to get into the medical corps."
Unfortunately, this reassignment made him a target of ridicule and criticism from his peers. Instead of a weapon, Doss carried with him a small bible which gave him strength. No matter how poorly he was treated and alienated, he never bent to peer pressure and was eventually able to complete his medical training.
World War II
In 1944, Doss said goodbye to his wife Dorothy and left to serve in Japan with the Statue of Liberty division. While in Guam, Desmond never ran, but never fought. Doss went out on hundreds of missions, even when he wasn't the assigned medic, in an attempt to save as many lives as possible.
"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."
He would go out under the cover of night night and keep on the lookout for soldiers in need though it was against the rules. Doss took care of as many men as he possibly could and treated all soldiers — even, in some instances, enemies.
In the documentary The Conscientious Objector, one of his peers recounted hearing stories of Desmond:
"[C]ombat after combat, action after action, there was always some story in regard to Desmond T. Doss, the medic, that just absolutely refuses to allow wounded soldiers to not be treated. Refusing to withdraw under any circumstances."
In 1945, Doss's unit was sent to Okinawa to partake in the effort to capture the Maeda Escarpment. What appeared to be a certain death trap, especially for someone who remained unarmed, ended up leading to Doss's greatest feat of bravery.
The Maeda Escarpment was 350-foot wall that ran across nearly the whole island and acted as a headquarters for the Japanese military. It was so well defended that U.S. soldiers could not get past the structure. As five men from Doss's company attempted to charge the 30 to 50 foot cliff, they were met with machine gun fire. Doss singlehandedly went into close range of being hit and brought them all to safety.
In a later attempt, they faced a booby trap where over 100 of his fellow soldiers were killed or injured. Over the course of the next five hours Doss pulled men from the trenches and lowered them to safety.
Medal Of Honor
On November 1, 1945, Desmond T. Doss became the first ever Conscientious Objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, which he received from President Harry Truman.
According to his Medal of Honor citation:
"[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."
Though the military believed he saved upwards of 100 men, Doss was far more humble and suggested the number was closer to 50. Eventually, the two parties settled and his record officially states he saved the lives of 75 men.
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Injuries And Military Discharge
After returning to combat, Doss was seriously injured after a grenade landed in the foxhole where he was treating men. He treated his shattered leg, but promptly refused to be evacuated so that he could continue helping others.
Five hours later, he was finally rescued on a stretcher. However, his heroism persisted after an enemy tank stopped them where he saw a more critically injured soldier in their path. Doss commanded the two litter bearers leave him behind to use his stretcher to aid the other man instead. While pulling himself the 300 yards to safety, Doss was shot in the arm.
Just before he was set to be discharged, Doss suffered from tuberculosis which cost him a lung. In 1946, he was finally discharged. Desmond Doss spent the next 5 years receiving treatment from the injuries and illnesses he sustained while serving the military. Needless to say, Doss was a fighter and went on to live many more years.
Remembering Desmond Doss
On March 23, 2006, Desmond Doss passed away at the age of 87 in Piedmont, Alabama. According to his obituary in the LA Times, he was 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."
With this incredible story as a source of inspiration, I can see why Hacksaw Ridge received such a warm response at the Venice Film Festival.
To learn even more about Demond Doss, watch Terry Benedict's 2004 documentary The Conscientious Objector, which features interviews with him before his passing, and read the 1967 book The Unlikeliest Hero, by Booton Herndon, which chronicles his exploits.
Hacksaw Ridge will be released in theaters on November 4, 2016.