This week (Oct. 12) in 1945, Private First Class Desmond Doss received the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery under fire during the invasion of the Japanese island of Okinawa. That made Doss the first conscientious objector in American history to receive the nation’s highest military award.
A devout Seventh Day Adventist, Doss would not carry a weapon because his religion taught that killing was wrong, yet when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Doss attempted to enlist, finally being classified as a conscientious objector so he could serve in any capacity that did not involve firing a weapon.
He became a medic in the 77th Infantry Division, where he was subjected to constant ridicule and taunting by his fellow soldiers. At night when he read his ever-present Bible his bunkmates swore at him and threw objects at him. An officer even tried to have him discharged as unfit for military service, but Doss resisted, insisting that he could serve his country; he just couldn’t kill for it.
His chance to serve came in 1944 in the Far East, first on Guam and the Philippines, where Doss repeatedly braved enemy gunfire to rescue and treat his fellow soldiers. Then, on Okinawa in 1945, after Doss’s Company B had finally captured a 400-foot cliff called the Maeda escarpment, the Japanese launched a massive counterattack, wounding many G.I.s and sending all but one of the others scurrying back down the cliff.
Private Doss was that one. For the next five hours, he exposed himself to constant enemy fire as he used a rope to lower his wounded comrades, one by one, down the cliff. Eventually, Doss himself was critically wounded — a grenade shattered his leg — yet when he was at last rescued and put on a litter, he spotted a more critically wounded soldier, got off the litter and directed that the litter carriers take his wounded comrade first. Still later Doss was again hit, suffering a compound fracture of his arm, but at least he finally found a good use for a rifle — as a crutch to hobble to safety.
Unsurprisingly, Doss became a hero to his fellow soldiers, and when he was subsequently evacuated to a military hospital he discovered that his Bible, a cherished gift from his wife, was missing, so he sent word asking his comrades to look out for it. They did — an entire battalion combed the battlefield until it was found, carefully packaged and delivered to him.
How many men Doss ultimately rescued in battle remains unclear. The Army said it was 100 men. Doss, ever humble, said it was no more than 50. So his Medal of Honor citation split the difference at 75.