True Courage 3: The Hero's Hero
Doss was born and raised in Virginia, the son of a carpenter, William Doss. The skinny country-boy with a slow drawling accent from a nowhere-town in the hills, showed up in Fort Jackson, claiming to love his neighbour and stand unswervingly on his convictions.
It’s not hard to see why the men didn’t take him seriously, I guess that’s the trouble with first impressions.
He built his life on the words and works of another carpenter’s son from a nowhere-town in the hills. 1st Century Nazareth was the object of scorn among Roman soldiers and Jesus experienced this first-hand, not unlike the way American soldiers scorned the small-town boy from Virginia.
Like Doss, Jesus would've had a regional accent which invited abuse on more than one occasion. [i] Yet even in his hometown of Nazareth, where everyone would have spoken like him, Jesus still made enemies, ironically for his teaching on God's love for their enemies. [ii]
After his first sermon in Nazareth, the crowds turned on him and tried to throw him off a cliff.
But Jesus walked back through the midst of them and lived to die another day, eventually laying down his life as a ransom for many on a hill at the edge of Jerusalem.
For Doss, standing on a ridge, two thousand years later, he too walked back into the thick of it, ready to lay down his own life for the love of many, on a hill on the edge of Japan.
He must have taken some solace from that other carpenter he read about in his Bible. Jesus knew exactly what awaited him in Jerusalem, it wasn’t just the possibility of suffering, it was dead certainty. He knew that ultimately, he would be left all alone, paying a ransom with his blood to redeem his friends, his neighbours and his enemies.
Jerusalem lay at the crossroads of four cultures, Persian, Greek, Roman and Jewish. All four agreed that death on the cross was not merely a painful means of execution but a mark of absolute shame, [iii] reserved for only the most despised in the land - the traitors, the cowards and those cursed by God.
Jesus set out to resolutely endure this shame, to pay the price that would turn sinners into saints.
Only love gave him the steel to go forward.
The guilt of his trial and the shame of his execution was of course, utterly undeserved, just as the shame attached to Doss by his own men in Fort Jackson turned out to be unwarrented.
All of us have undoubtedly known moments of disobedience at times, moments of cowardice, moments when the love of self has eclipsed the love of our neighbour, I have known many.
But not Jesus. The most innocent, selfless and compassionate individual to have graced the earth, willingly surrendered his life to pay the price for the sins of all, every war ever fought over greed and land and prejudice, every evil act ever committed, every sin except his own.
Why would the creator laid down his life for those he created? Now there’s a mystery.
This is the man that Desmond Doss read about in the little book he carried into battle in his top pocket, the story he studied in the trenches, shortly before he put his own life on the line to single-handedly rescue his brothers. In Doss’s own words,
“I wanted to be like Christ and save life instead of taking life”. [iv]
He never boasted of his achievements, preferring to honour God for saving his life out there in the heat of battle, when all the odds were against him.
Did God really protect this unarmed soldier?
In an interview with Japanese soldiers for the ‘Conscientious Objector’ documentary in 2004, one of them recalled having Doss in the cross-hairs as he lowered casualties down from the ridge.
‘Every time I went to fire, my gun jammed up’, he said. [v]
The director of ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, Mel Gibson decided to leave scenes like that out of the movie, because despite the fact that it would've made a perfect ‘Hollywood moment’, some of the details were so remarkable, he thought people simply wouldn’t have believed it.
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.
What if God really did have Doss’s back out there? What if that’s what can happen when an individual shows such courageous faith, such sacrificial obedience, such unconditional love?
In Doss himself later explained,
"When you have explosions and bursts so close you can practically feel it, and not get wounded up there when I should have been killed a number of times. I know who I owe my life to as well as my men. That's why I like to tell this story to the glory of God, because I know from the human standpoint, I should not be here."
The exact number of lives saved by Doss stands at 75, but even that was a compromise between Doss and the army. They originally attributed 100 lives to his heroism, but Doss, honest and humble as ever, claimed, ‘It can’t have been more than 50’. They agreed to meet him halfway and the official record stands at 75.
The citation from his Medal of Honour reads,
“Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying all 75 casualties 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”.
It finishes with this testimony,
“His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.”
Maybe that’s what courage really is – outstanding gallantry far and above the call of duty.
Maybe it’s the ability to sacrifice reputation and the approval of those around you for the steely determination to do what’s right.
Maybe it’s simply the willingness to lay down your life for that of your neighbours’.
Maybe it’s all of the above. But true courage is easier to see than describe, it’s better caught than taught. I’m eternally grateful to Desmond T Doss and to his own hero, Jesus Christ, for showing us what true grit looks like when all else seems lost.
Their bravery has strengthened my spine, I hope they have strengthened yours.
[i] John 1:46; Matthew 26:73; John 7:15,52; Acts 4:13
[ii] Luke 4:14-30
[iii] The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero, translated by CD Yonge (1856). Also, Martin Hengel, (1977) "Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross". London and Fortress Press
[iv] Medal of Honour Recipient (1945)
[v] “The Conscientious Objector” Documentary (2004), Directed by Terry Benedict