Desmond Doss the Angel of Hacksaw Ridge

Desmond Doss, born on February 7, 1919 and passed away on March 23, 2006, was a United States Army corporal and served as a combat medic with an infantry company during World War II.

The battle for Okinawa was among the Pacific War’s most brutal. The Americans encountered fierce resistance from Japanese defenders in bunkers, caves, and tombs, leading to numerous acts of bravery and sacrifice. Yet, one Medal of Honor story stands out.

Private Desmond T. Doss, a Lynchburg, Virginia native and a medic in the 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, became an unlikely hero. As a devout Seventh Day Adventist, he refused to carry or use a rifle. His conscientious objector status limited his military options, but he found his calling in saving wounded comrades, offering medical aid, and praying for their safety.


Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge, a 500-foot-high plateau, lies in southern Okinawa and stretches about 4,200 yards from east to west. Its face features a sheer rock wall, scalable only with ladders or special gear. Narrow, jagged ribbons of rock cover the entire mass, with Japanese guns targeting it precisely.

Did you know that on the screening of Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond Jr. son of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) was moved to tears with the accurate portrayal of his dad?

To the east, the ridge culminates in a massive monolith called “Needle Rock” by the GIs. Nearby are Hill 150 and Hill 152, also known as Conical Hill and Kochi Ridge. To the west, a Japanese defense nestles in a maze of low coral and limestone ridges, dubbed “Item Pocket” on U.S. maps. These elements together form a Japanese defense zone, part of their second defensive line in southern Okinawa.

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Only later in the battle did it become known that thousands of heavily armed Japanese troops defended Hacksaw from deep recesses. Hacksaw effectively functioned as a massive underground fortress, which some historians describe as an “underground battleship.”

The plateau contained a vast cave system, with some caves large enough to house hundreds of men. Passageways linked these caves and provided access to the ridge top.

The Japanese had carved out hidden gun ports and firing positions throughout. In the village of Maeda behind the ridge, concrete buildings had been transformed into fortified bunkers. Behind these lay Japanese artillery, mortars, and machine-gun emplacements, all with direct access to Hacksaw.

“Deadeyes” Division

The 96th Infantry “Deadeyes” Division, activated on August 15, 1942, trained at Fort Lewis, Washington. They sailed to Hawaii in July 1944 for further training. The division assaulted Leyte, Philippines, participating in the entire campaign.

Machine gun crew of the 1st Bn., 381st Infantry, keep on the alert for enemy movement on Okinawa. 19 April 1945
Machine gun crew of the 1st Bn., 381st Infantry, keep on the alert for enemy movement on Okinawa. 19 April 1945

In late March 1945, they headed to Okinawa, joining the Tenth U.S. Army’s April 1st invasion. Under Major General James L. Bradley, they fought along Okinawa’s west coast.

They cleared Cactus and Kakazu Ridges, repelling a major Japanese counterattack. After the 27th Infantry Division relieved them at Kakazu Ridge, they battled at Nishibaru and Tombstone Ridges. Finally, they faced Hacksaw Ridge.

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American intelligence learned that Japanese defenses in Okinawa featured concentric circles of fortifications designed to delay enemy advances. These defenses aimed to buy time for Kamikaze raids to weaken the supporting American fleet. The goal was to force the fleet’s withdrawal, potentially saving Okinawa and delaying an invasion of Japan. Hacksaw Ridge was a crucial part of this defense strategy.

The battleship USS Idaho shelling Okinawa on 1 April 1945
The battleship USS Idaho shelling Okinawa on 1 April 1945

On April 28, Company K of the 381st Infantry advanced through the 27th Infantry Division’s area to attack the “Apartment House,” a significant Japanese stronghold south of the escarpment.

Led by First Lieutenant Albert Strand, a former South Dakota insurance salesman, Company K faced severe casualties, leaving only 24 survivors. The 381st Infantry Regiment’s heavy losses led to merging Companies K and I into one unit, totaling 70 officers and men, under half of a full-strength company.

Desmond Doss

Days later. on May 2, Pfc. Desmond Doss of the 1st Battalion, 307th Infantry, started heroic acts earning him the Medal of Honor.

As his battalion retreated from the clifftop, leaving American wounded behind, Doss, the sole surviving medic of Company B, chose to stay. Under heavy fire, he treated the wounded and single-handedly lowered each of them down the cliff, saving 75 lives.

The next day, Doss braved 200 yards into enemy territory to save another wounded soldier. Days later, he rescued four men under fire near an enemy cave. Doss treated a wounded officer under artillery fire, staying until safe evacuation. Later, he saved a man shot near another cave, carrying him 100 yards to safety under enemy fire.

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Drafted in 1942, Doss declared his objection to killing but differentiated this from supporting the war, terming himself a “Conscientious Cooperator.” Rejecting alternative service, he enthusiastically joined the U.S. Army. For draft purposes, he reluctantly accepted the title of conscientious objector.

Doss, adhering to his beliefs, refused to carry a weapon, leading to unpopularity and harassment in the Army for his anti-violence stance. Though his role was noncombatant in theory, Doss faced challenges from both fellow soldiers and the brutal reality of the Pacific Theater.

“Stonewall” Jackson

The role of the combat medic is historically privileged in warfare. During the Civil War, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson declared Union medical officers under his capture as noncombatants. The First Geneva Convention later codified protections for medical personnel.

Article 25 of its Chapter VI states that armed forces trained as medical staff should be respected and protected when engaged in medical duties, even if captured by the enemy. It is also considered a war crime to deliberately target medical personnel.

Desmond T. Doss (1919-2006),
Desmond T. Doss (1919-2006),

Unarmed yet protected by war conventions, Doss faced dangers equal to, if not greater than, combat infantrymen. Army medics, like him, endured the same harsh conditions and were targeted by Japanese soldiers and snipers. Japan, not adhering to the Geneva Convention, encouraged attacking medical staff for battlefield advantage. Doss himself recounted these experiences by saying:

“The Japanese were out to get the medics. To them, the most hated men in our army were the medics and the BAR men… they would let anybody get by just to pick us off. They were taught to kill the medics for the reason it broke down the morale of the men, because if the medic was gone they had no one to take care of them. All the medics were armed, except me.”

Desmond doss Under Fire

As mentioned previously, on May 2, Doss risked his life under heavy rifle and mortar fire to rescue a wounded man 200 yards ahead on the same escarpment. Two days later, he treated four men injured during a cave assault, advancing through grenade fire to dress their wounds. He then made four trips under fire to evacuate them to safety.

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On May 5, Doss bravely faced enemy shelling and gunfire to help an artillery officer. He bandaged the officer, moved him to a safer spot, and administered plasma amidst falling shells.

Later, when an American was wounded near a cave, Doss crawled 25 feet from the enemy, provided aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety under continuous enemy fire.

On May 21, during a night attack near Shuri, Doss stayed exposed while his company took cover, risking being mistaken for an enemy.

He aided the injured until a grenade wounded his legs. Choosing not to call for help, he treated himself and waited five hours for litter bearers.

During evacuation, they encountered a tank attack. Doss, seeing someone more injured, crawled off the litter and insisted the bearers help the other man first. While waiting, he suffered a compound arm fracture.

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Doss used a rifle stock as a splint for his arm and crawled 300 yards to an aid station. His exceptional bravery and determination under dangerous conditions saved many lives, making his name a symbol of gallantry in the 77th Infantry Division. Doss once had seventeen shrapnel pieces in his body from trying to kick a grenade away from himself and his comrades. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions in Okinawa.

Desmond Doss: His Citation Reads:

Private First Class Desmond T. Doss, United States Army, Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. Near Urasoe-Mura, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, 29 April – 21 May 1945. 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.

Private First Class Doss refused to seek cover and 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. 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 two days later he treated four men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within eight yards of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making four separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety.

Corporal Doss receiving the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman on October 12, 1945
Desmond Doss receiving the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman on October 12, 1945

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, Private First Class 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 five hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Private First Class 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 one 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 Private First Class 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.

After the War

After the war, Doss intended to continue carpentry, but an injured left arm prevented this. In 1946, he contracted tuberculosis in Leyte, leading to a 5.5-year treatment that cost him a lung and five ribs. Discharged in August 1951, he had a 90% disability rating.

Desmond Doss was buried on April 3, 2006, in the Chattanooga National Cemetery, Tennessee

The military continued treating Doss until an antibiotic overdose caused deafness in 1976, increasing his disability to 100%. A cochlear implant in 1988 restored his hearing. Despite these challenges, Doss raised a family on a farm in Rising Fawn, Georgia.

Doss married Dorothy Pauline Schutte on August 17, 1942; they had a son, Desmond “Tommy” Doss Jr., in 1946. Dorothy passed away in a car accident in 1991. Doss remarried Frances May Duman on July 1, 1993.

Doss died on March 23, 2006, in Piedmont, Alabama, after hospitalization for breathing difficulties. He was buried in Chattanooga National Cemetery, Tennessee, on April 3, 2006. Frances passed away in 2009 at the Piedmont Health Care Center.