Desmond Doss: Soldier without a Gun

Stella Fernandes

My grandmother loves to tell me stories about all sorts of brave men and women–ordinary people, just like you and me, united by their faith. And although I treasure every single one of those stories, the one that strikes me the most is the story of Desmond Doss, the not so unsung hero who wouldn’t lay his hands on a weapon. Religious or not, I think there is something everyone can appreciate from a story of a man who so willingly defied everyone’s expectations and emerged a national hero in the process.


On October 12, 1945, President Truman presented Private First Class Desmond T. Doss with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military award for valor. To this day, he remains the only conscientious objector to have received this award.

The soft-spoken Virginian native had been working at a naval shipyard the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. Despite being offered a deferment, Doss’s desire to better serve his country drove him to enlist in the military. There was just one problem: Doss wouldn’t carry a gun.

Raised a Seventh-Day Adventist, Doss believed in keeping all the Ten Commandments. This especially included the sixth, which condemns murder. Despite such an evident barrier, Doss felt a strong sense of duty towards his country and hoped to enlist as a combat medic. He was soon placed in the 77th Infantry Division at Fort Jackson to receive basic training.

Unfortunately, not everyone was accepting of Doss’s religious convictions. Many perceived his refusal to bear arms as weakness and proceeded to harass him because of it. “I was a joke,” Doss would go on to say in the 2006 documentary, The Conscientious Objector. “They made fun of me.” Fellow infantry members tossed shoes at him while he prayed, called him names, and otherwise made his life miserable. All the while, Doss remained as unmoving and strong-willed as ever, igniting the frustrations of even his superiors. In a desperate attempt to get him out of the army, commanding officer Jack Glover threatened to court-martial Doss if he refused to pick up a gun. Doss did refuse–twice. Luckily, Doss’s stance was upheld by law and he was allowed to remain.

Even more baffling to his peers was Doss’s observance of Saturday as his religious day of rest, as compared to Sunday. Doss firmly believed that was what the Bible instructed and was unwilling to compromise. “If you compromise once, you can compromise again,” he would later remark. Consistent with his beliefs, Doss sought to rest from his duties on Saturdays. Weekly, he would request a special pass from his superiors despite being under constant threat of court-martial. Doss’s fellow infantry members, who thought he was skirting responsibility, became all the more bitter because of it. In reality, Doss was making up for his lost time on Sunday. More than that, he was often given especially rough details. This still wasn’t enough for many of the soldiers. One man particularly threatened by Doss swore that he’d shoot him once they entered combat.

Despite the growing opposition Doss faced, he still held strong in his faith. “I will be by your side saving life while you take life,” he later recalls telling his peers. Very soon, he would prove them all wrong.

In late April of 1945, Doss and his battalion joined the fighting in what would eventually become known as the bloodiest battle in the Pacific: the Battle of Okinawa. The dense foliage, hills, and trees made it an ideal location for the Japanese to protect their motherland. Conquest of the island was key to American victory in the Pacific theater. Yet, brutal war tactics and horrible conditions made fighting extremely difficult.

The key to victory on the island was the capture of the Maeda Escarpment, otherwise known as Hacksaw Ridge. Doss’s battalion was tasked with climbing the ridge to the plateau at the top using cargo nets, all while being shot at by the Japanese hidden in a network of caves. During this period of time, Doss was one of the only medics available.

While most might think to treat the least injured first, Doss went straight to those deemed least likely to survive, often treating them amid the open fire. Using a special knot he had perfected during training, Doss would then lower them to the ground from the top of the plateau and jump back into the fray. The entire time a single prayer ran through his head: “Lord, please let me get just one more.” Altogether, Doss saved a total of 75 men, many of whom were those who had mocked him earlier in his career. He did this all without carrying a single weapon.

Despite being seriously injured by a grenade and later a sniper’s bullet, he still insisted that others be treated before him, demonstrating true selflessness of character.

At the age of 87, Doss died on March 23, 2006.