“Fellows, come over here and gather around. Doss wants to pray for us.”

True and inspiring story of a Conscientious Objector awarded the Medal Of Honor in World War II.

Corporal Desmond Doss, the lanky medic, cringed inside.  This was not what he had meant when he’d suggested prayer to Lieutenant Goronto.  Faced with an assault on the 400 foot sheer cliff that split the island of Okinawa, Doss had merely meant that each soldier might want to spend a few moments in personal, private prayer, before the attack began.

Prayer certainly was in order that April morning in 1945.    Doss’s 77th Division had landed on Okinawa after fierce fighting in Guam and Leyte.  The Japanese were dug in all over the island.   Presenting an additional barrier was the Maeda Escarpment, the 400 foot cliff that stretched across the island.  The escarpment rose with a steep, rugged rise for the first 360 feet, then rose another 40-50 feet as a sheer face.  Honeycombed throughout were multi-story caves, tunnels, and enemy gun emplacements.  Wresting control of the escarpment from the enemy would be a major struggle, the Americans fighting not only a well entrenched and often camouflaged enemy, but formidable terrain.  When the order to attack had come, Doss told Lieutenant Goronto, “I believe prayer is the best life saver there is.  The men should really pray before going up.”

It really shouldn’t have surprised anyone in Doss’s company that he would suggest prayer.  Doss was always praying…or reading his Bible.  From the first day of training everyone could tell he was different.   A devout Seventh-Day Adventist, the first night Doss knelt beside his bunk in the barracks, oblivious to the taunts around him and the boots they threw his way, to spend his time talking to God.  Regularly he pulled the small Bible his new wife had given him for a wedding gift, and read it as well.  Among the men of the unit, disdain turned to resentment.  Doss refused to train or work on Saturday, the Lord’s Sabbath.   Though he felt no reservation about caring for the medical needs of the men or otherwise helping them on the Sabbath, he refused to violate it.  The fact that he worked overtime to make up for it the rest of the week made little difference.  Doss was teased, harassed, and ridiculed.  And it only got worse.

When it came time for the men of Doss’ training company to begin qualifications on weaponry, Doss refused.  He had entered the service as a medic, to heal the wounded, not to kill.  As a small boy he had seen a poster showing Cain standing over the body of his dead brother.  From that moment on Doss determined that he would never, under any circumstances, take another life.

So what do you do with a soldier who won’t train on Saturday, eat meat, or carry a gun or bayonet?  Doss’ commanding officer knew what to do.  Paperwork was initiated to declare him unstable, a miss-fit, and wash him out of military service with a Section-8 discharge as “unsuitable for military service.”  But Doss wanted to serve his country, he just refused to kill.  He performed all of his other duties with  dedication, was an exemplary a soldier in every other way.  At his hearing he told the board, “I’d be a very poor Christian if I accepted a discharge implying that I was mentally off because of my religion.  I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I can’t accept that kind of a discharge.”   So the Army was “stuck” with Desmond Doss.

Doss returned to his fellow soldiers and they weren’t any happier to still be stuck with him either.  One promised Doss, and not in jest, that when the soldiers faced the inevitable combat with the enemy, “I’ll kill you myself.”  Doss didn’t doubt him.  That first taste of combat came at Guam, where Doss began to prove his courage in going to any length to treat and care for his fellow soldiers.  Then came Leyte.

Time after time at Leyte Doss braved enemy fire to go to the wounded, and to remove them to safety.  Once he darted into the open to treat and rescue a wounded man even while the area was alive with sniper fire.   From a distance his fellow soldiers watched in horror as a Japanese sniper leveled his rifle at the fearless medic.  Because of the sniper’s position they could not return fire for fear of injuring some of their own.  Doss treated the wounded man, evacuated him to the rear, and returned to his position.  One of the sergeants told him, “Doss, we expected to see you killed any second.  We couldn’t shoot the sniper without killing our own men, and he had his machine gun aimed right at you.   Didn’t you see him?”

(Years later a missionary in Japan related the story of Doss’ brush with death that day.  After the service a Japanese man in the back of the room told one of the deacons, “That could very well have been me.  I was there, and I remember having a soldier in my gun site, but I couldn’t pull the trigger.”)  Doss not only survived Leyte, for his repeated heroism he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.  So as Corporal Doss stood before the men of Company B at the base of the Maeda Escarpment on Okinawa, they were beginning to believe in the prayers of the medic whose only weapon was his Bible.

“Time to go men,” Lieutenant Goronto told his troops.  Doss had prayed, finished with his Amen, and the rest would be in the hands of God.   The soldiers struggled up the incline, reaching the sheer face that comprised the last fifty feet.  Naval cargo nets were used to scale its surface.  Upon reaching the summit, Company B was immediately pinned down by heavy enemy fire.  To the left Company A was fighting to scale their sector as well.  The first five men were killed and casualties mounted to the point that Company A could proceed no further.   Headquarters radioed Company B for a report of their own casualties.  So far there had been none.  So the order was given that Company B would have to take the escarpment themselves.  Sweeping across the escarpment the men of Doss’ company engaged the enemy in a fierce struggle, knocking out eight or nine pillboxes.  By day’s end they emerged victorious.  Not a single man was killed and the only wounds were sustained by one soldier in Company B whose hand was damaged by a falling rock.   It was incredible…even miraculous.

The next day a follow-up inquiry was made to determine how Company B had accomplished the miraculous assault on the Maeda Escarpment without a single casualty.  A photographer arrived to take a picture and Lieutenant Goronto sent Desmond to the top to pose.  (The photo at right is the US Army photo taken that day, and Desmond Doss is the man at the top.)  As far back as Army headquarters in the States, everyone asked how Company B had pulled it off.   No one could find a reasonable explanation.  Finally, with no other way to conclude the report, the official answer was filed…all the way back to the United States.  The official answer: doss_escarpment2.jpg (79485 bytes)

“Doss prayed!”

Desmond Doss died at age 87 March 25 2006


About Well of Knowledge Tour Guide

I am a public policy thinker and amateur historian. My interests are seeking knowledge in all areas of life.
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