True Courage 1: Unarmed and Dangerous
Of all human virtues, nothing inspires me quite like courage.
Courage is contagious. As Billy Graham once said,
"When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened." [i]
If that is true, then someone has to be the first. What does it take to lead the way, to show courage when everyone else is faltering, to inspire bravery in others, to risk all?
The remarkable life of Desmond T Doss, whose story was brought to light in the film ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, has answered these questions for me like no other [ii].
Whenever a film claims to be based on a true story, I am sceptical until I’ve checked the facts. I take the old-fashioned view that a film which is, ‘based on a true story’ should actually be based on the true story and Hollywood isn't known for its commitment to historical accuracy.
Yet Hacksaw Ridge was, for me, a real triumph. No film is perfect and there are moments of poetic license, but it succeeds in capturing the raw, unmitigated courage of Desmond Doss and for that I rejoice.
What did he do that so inspired?
Desmond Doss was a conscientious objector [iii]. In simple terms that means he didn’t believe in fighting, whether in a street brawl or a war. It’s a tolerated attitude in peace-times, but such brazen-faced morality faces stiff opposition when an enemy is at the gates and innocent lives need defending. In war-times, conscientious objectors are often referred to by a shorter title.
In deepest America, at the height of the Pacific war, conscientious objectors were viewed by many as national traitors, betrayers of freedom or at best, just weak-kneed cowards.
Desmond Doss knew all these titles, yet rather than stay at home when war raged on the far side of the Pacific, he enlisted to join the army and serve his country… without a weapon.
He applied to be a medic, reasoning that he wouldn’t need a weapon if he was busy treating the wounded. His logic was simple, he would go into the thick of battle unarmed and undefended, find the injured men, tend to their wounds, drag them off the field and save as many lives as he could.
In a living hell where everyone was intent on taking lives and inflicting misery, he didn’t think it unreasonable that one man should be intent on saving lives and healing wounds. That would be his service to the country.
His comrades thought differently. The prevailing view was, ‘How will Doss save me, when he can’t even defend himself?’ Some were even harsher. One soldier told him,
"I swear to God, Doss, you go into combat, I’m gonna shoot you." [iv]
He was seen as a liability to the unit, an embarrassment to the army and in the eyes of his brothers, nothing more than a coward.
They would soon learn.
At first, they tried to discharge him on grounds of insanity, but when that failed, they resorted to good old-fashioned bullying. At least they knew he wouldn’t defend himself. Soldiers recall watching him knelt by his bed saying his prayers at night, while boots hurtled across the dorm at his head.
He was relentlessly mocked and inflicted with the worst labour in the barracks to break him out of his ‘religion’. It’s a tough call, preparing to face an enemy, knowing that your own men have already made you their enemy too.
He was threatened with a Court Marshall for disobeying direct orders to fire a weapon but after a long and lonely battle, in the end, he got his way. It’s an account you rarely hear in the US - the story of an American hero who won the right to not bear arms.
It’s a funny definition of winning too. His prize was the permission to march into enemy-fire, unarmed and unsupported.
Why did he do it?
Doss was a devout Christian and for him the command, ‘Do not murder’ was simply that. Whether in war or in peace, in attack or defence, murder was murder and he would not disobey God.
Other soldiers had similar values but they argued that defending your country in war is an exception. To fire at an enemy in open warfare isn’t murder, it’s defence, or duty, even courage. Doss wasn’t convinced.
As a Seventh Day Adventist he also didn’t believe in working on a Saturday. Unsurprisingly, the army weren’t exactly supportive of this either. For them, it seemed that his audacity knew no bounds. Yet against all the opposition, the day finally arrived in 1945 when Doss stood shoulder-to-shoulder and his fellow men from 77th Infantry, staring up at a 350 ft escarpment in Okinawa, Japan.
An unsophisticated rope ladder stretched precariously over the edge of the cliff, inviting them onto a small island where thousands of Japanese soldiers in elaborate tunnels and reinforced shelters would gun them down the second they stepped over the ridge. Welcome to war.
Survivors recall seeing men enter machine gun fire so heavy, they thought it would cut them in half.
The Japanese referred to the battle for Okinawa as the ‘typhoon of steel’ due to the sheer scale of the armoury involved and the intensity of fighting [v].
It is widely believed to be the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War [vi]
Neither side were happy to be there. Many residents of Okinawa resented being thrown into a hellish battle by a government in Tokyo nearly 1000 miles away. They were often mistreated by the Japanese army and the conflict claimed up to a third of the island’s population [vii].
Turns out, war is less glorious than many films want us to believe.
The Americans viewed Okinawa as a strategic island from which to launch an attack on the mainland 340 miles North, so the Japanese threw everything at defending it. The intensity of previous assaults, the vulgarity of tactics and the immense death-toll made it a formidable invasion for the young American soldiers.
What got them over the ridge that day?
Maybe it was the belief that they were fighting for freedom, maybe it was sheer lion-hearted determination or perhaps it was the fierce camaraderie among the men. If every soldier gave 100%, then no man wanted to be seen holding back, they were brothers-in-arms.
Only one brother was un-armed.
To make matters worse for Doss, their opponents prided themselves on taking out a medic. If a doctor was shot down, the hearts of the other soldiers would sink, for it removed their only hope of rescue. To crush the enemy, it helps to crush their spirits first.
Doss had a bigger target on his head than all the others. He couldn’t have been more vulnerable or less equipped if he tried, (and he really had tried).
For Doss, it was nothing more than simple obedience to the God he served.
He wasn’t completely unarmed. Doss took a little Bible with him into battle, safely tucked in his top pocket, to read in the trenches between battles. It was the Bible his wife Dorothy had given him before he left and in his opinion, it was the only weapon he needed.
His comrades thought differently.
Despite the odds against them, on the first assault of the ridge they took significant ground, albeit with multiple casualties on both sides. In the midst of the horror of war, there was a small degree of bravado among the men for their bravely-fought victory.
But pride comes before a fall and the following day, the Japanese responded with massive retaliation. Doss’s battalion were forced into a hasty retreat as soldiers everywhere were driven back to the edge of the ridge with blood and steel raining down upon them. Men dropped like flies as a few lucky survivors pealed over the escarpment to safety below.
Scores of wounded soldiers lay in the mud, clutching their bullet-wounds and screaming for help. But their cries fell on deaf ears, for there was no-one left to bring aid. The order had come to retreat and every able-bodied soldier had left the ridge. Except for one man.
As an entire unit disappeared over the ridge, one man turned around and went back into enemy fire.
In Doss’s own words,
"I had these men up there and I shouldn't leave 'em. They were my buddies, some of the men had families, and they trusted me. I didn't feel like I should value my life above my buddy's, so I decided to stay with them and take care of as many of them as I could. I didn't know how I was gonna do it." [viii]
Creeping and crawling through mud and ditches, desperately avoiding the watchful gaze of the enemy, Doss tracked down every injured man on the field.
He would bandage and tourniquet their wounds, administer a syrette of morphine and then carry (or sometimes drag) each one back to the ridge, before lowering them down on a rope to safety below using a sling he had learned years before while rescuing flood-victims in Virginia. [ix]
Every time he lowered another man to safety, he would pause, exhausted and dehydrated and cry a simple, selfless prayer, ‘LORD please help me get one more’. Then he would drag himself up and go looking for another man.
He persevered until the job was done.
Doss pulled 75 injured soldiers off the ridge that day, single-handedly, one-by-one, unarmed.
The last man to leave the ridge was himself.
He personified courage.
For me, Doss’s own words capture the story best of all,
“I just kept prayin', 'Lord, please help me get more and more, one more, until there was none left, and I'm the last one down.'"
Click here for True Courage 2: Honour and shame
[i] Billy Graham (July 1964), “A Time for Moral Courage”, Readers’ Digest [ii] Official site of the film, ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ [iii] Official website of the life and legacy of Desmond Doss [iv] “The Conscientious Objector” Documentary (2004), Directed by Terry Benedict [v] “Okinawa: The Typhoon of Steel”. American Veterans Centre 1st April, 1945 [vi] William Manchester (June 1987). "The Bloodiest Battle of All". [vii] The Okinawa Prefecture recorded 149,425 deaths of Okinawa origin (June 2016). [viii] Medal of Honour Recipient (1945). [ix] Thanks to the writers at ‘History vs Hollywood’ for their research into details like this and for clearing up the areas where the facts differ from the film.