Soldier For God,
Hey, look at the preacher!" a sarcastic voice shouted across the wide wooden Army barracks at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Company D's new recruits turned and stared at a young, slender figure kneeling beside a low bunk. The soldier's mouth moved silently as he prayed.
"He's probably asking God to get him out of the Army!" another called. Laughter erupted from the crowd of men in green fatigues.
Suddenly a heavy Army boot sailed over the praying man's bunk and smashed into a metal cabinet standing against the wall. More shoes arched through the air, accompanied by a foul stream of mocking remarks.
The mournful strains of taps quieted the assault as men flopped into bed. The lonely recruit with the dark wavy hair whispered an emotional amen and slipped under the thin olive-drab blanket. Private Desmond T. Doss's first day in the United States Army had ended. The year was 1942.
Desmond Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist–had been all his young life. He'd grown up on Bible stories of men and women who had stood up for their religious beliefs, even in the face of danger and death. But never had he thought he'd be called upon to demonstrate his faith so boldly.
Japan's attack on Hawaii's Pearl Harbor in December 1941 had thrown the United States into World War II. Doss had reported immediately upon receiving his draft notice.
"I'll be happy to serve my country," Desmond told the military officer signing him in, "but I will not carry a gun. Let me work as a medic to treat wounded men on the battlefield."
He quickly learned how to use whatever material was at hand to form splints for broken arms and legs. He was taught how to administer blood plasma in the thick of battle, what to do for shock, and when to provide water to the injured.
But hard work and dedication weren't enough to appease his tormentors.
"You guys are all alike," a sarcastic sergeant jeered one day. "You talk big about religious freedom, but when your country needs you to help protect that freedom, you chicken out."
"I love this country just as much as you do, Sergeant," Desmond responded respectfully. "I just refuse to kill, that's all."
There was another reason for Doss's unpopularity. He insisted on keeping the fourth commandment.
"Now what?" his superior groaned as the youthful non-combatant approached with a smart salute.
"Sir, I'd like to attend church services this Saturday, as my beliefs dictate."
"Saturday!" The man chuckled. "You're a little confused, Private. The Army already allows its fighting force time off on Sunday."
"I understand, sir," the slender recruit pressed. "But I believe in the Bible Sabbath. That's the seventh day of the week, Saturday. God asks us to keep it holy by worshiping Him and refraining from all work. I'll be happy to do double duty on Sunday."
Reluctantly the man issued the Saturday pass to Desmond. In the battle of wills between the United States Army and Private Desmond T. Doss, someone would have to back down. And it wouldn't be Desmond.
Reveille pierced the hot morning air. "Rise and shine, you mama's boys," the sergeant roared. "Today we've got 25 miles of full field-pack marching waiting for your enjoyment."
"Hey, Preacher, you've got it made," a familiar voice growled as the men assembled on the training ground. "No rifle, no ammo–maybe you can stop and pick some flowers along the way."
Doss grinned but didn't bother to respond. His two canvas first-aid kits matched a rifle's weight and were twice as awkward. His Christian beliefs were cutting him no slack this day.
The march began. Soon sweat caused field uniforms to stick to their wearers like moist glue. As midday approached, the soldiers staggered like zombies, eyes red, faces pale.
Suddenly a man fell. Desmond rushed to his side. His instructor's words echoed in his ear. "Clammy skin. Pulse barely readable. That's heat prostration."
Doss made the victim as comfortable as possible and turned him over to the ambulance that followed some distance behind. Then he had to run to catch up with his company.
High noon brought a lunch break. K-rations quickly disappeared down hungry throats. As Desmond took his first bite, another soldier slumped under a small tree and called for help. The man was examining a large blister on his heel.
"Do something," he pleaded.
"I'll try," Desmond reassured his comrade. He quickly pricked the blister with a sterile needle, doused the injured area with Merthiolate, then dressed it tightly with gauze. As he was finishing, another voice called out for help. Then another.
Injuries kept Desmond hopping during the break and for the entire return trip. Despite his running around, he finished the march with the platoon. Even while lined up waiting for dismissal, three men passed out cold. Desmond hurried to their aid.
Later all the soldiers were in their bunks with their shoes off. Desmond Doss still didn't rest. He checked every foot.
That morning some had jeered him, calling him names. Now, lying exhausted, they watched the soft-spoken medic kneel by their bunks and treat their feet.
"Hey, Preacher," one said, respect in his voice, "you're OK."
The jeering stopped, replaced by hesitant words of thanks and friendship.
For Desmond Doss and the other members of Company D, the future would hold another test. On a distant Pacific island, Okinawa, unimagined horrors waited.
Soon his company is shipped to the island of Okinawa, where the fighting is intense. Men, it's up to us." An officer pointed north to a tall cliff guarding a narrow neck of land. "We'll climb up there and rip that piece of real estate right out of the hands of the enemy!" One by one men scaled the steep bank, then crept along on their bellies, collecting loose stones and pushing them together, trying to form a protective rock wall a few feet back from the edge of the cliff. A rope was thrown down, allowing another squad of men to climb the vertical rampart. Whump! Whump! Enemy knee mortars sent volleys high into the air, followed by earth-shattering explosions as the shells slammed into the soil. From this ground-based aerial attack there was no defense for the helpless members of Company D. "Pull back!" the command rang out. "Retreat to the base!"
The next morning another attack was staged. With a newly installed rope cargo net now in place, the entire platoon could swarm the cliff as one body.
"This is going to be a dangerous mission, Doss," a superior admitted to his battle-weary medic. "You don't have to go."
Desmond nodded. "Sir, I may be needed. But I'd like to ask a favor before we start.
I believe that prayer is the biggest lifesaver there is. Every man should have a word of prayer before he goes up."
The lieutenant turned and called out to his men. "Bow your heads," he commanded. "Doss is going to pray for us before we go."
Desmond was taken by surprise. He had meant that all should have a personal prayer. But he bowed.
"Our Father," he prayed, "please give our lieutenant wisdom and understanding so he can give us the right orders, because our lives will be in his charge. Give each of us wisdom, too, so we can be safe, if it be Thy will. Please, Lord, may we all come back alive. If there are any here who are not prepared to meet their Maker, let them prepare themselves now through prayer before they climb the cliff. We ask all this in Jesus' name."
The war on the escarpment stood still as the men remained motionless. Then confidently they turned to the cargo net and started up the cliff.
The assault succeeded. When the fighting stopped, the Maeda escarpment was in American hands. Through it all Desmond Doss's company had sustained only one minor injury. The men were amazed. Doss wasn't. Hadn't they prayed?
But a few days later the fortunes of war turned. Out of secret holes in the ground and caves in the rocks enemy soldiers poured forth. Their chilling screams, the rat-tat-tat of automatic weapons, and the flat thud of exploding hand grenades filled the air.
The American soldiers suddenly found themselves on the run. At first the retreat was orderly; then the line broke as men ran for the cliff and scrambled down the cargo net. Men hit by bullets and shells were left where they'd fallen, wounded or dead.
Doss, now the only remaining medic in the whole battalion, ran from fallen man to fallen man, doing what he could. He didn't have time to think about the Japanese soldiers on the hilltop with him, closing in with each second.
Friendly fire stopped the enemy advance literally dozens of feet from the lip of the cliff. Protected somewhat by the short stone wall his company had erected days before, Desmond Doss found himself alone on the hilltop, surrounded by dead and dying men. He was caught in the crossfire with nowhere to go but over the cliff.
But what about the wounded? He couldn't just leave them there. They'd surely die at the hands of the approaching enemy.
"God," the soldier with no gun cried out above the din of battle, "please help me!"
The answer to his prayer came not as a gun-silencing miracle, but as a voice speaking quietly to his heart. Above the roar of battle he heard his heavenly Father whisper, "The men, Desmond. Save the men around you."
He responded immediately. Grabbing a wounded soldier nearby, Doss pulled him to the precipice. Securing a rope around the man's waist and chest, he tested the knots. Satisfied, he simply pushed the moaning combatant over the edge.
"Take him off!" Doss shouted down at the men trying to steady the swaying form hanging at the end of the rope far below. "I've got more wounded up here. Get him to the aid station fast! He's dying."
The injured soldier cried out in pain as hands loosened the knots and lowered him gently onto a waiting stretcher. The soldier caught a quick glimpse of the end of the rope speeding back up the cliff.
Doss squirmed on his belly behind the protective rock wall. Enemy bullets sparked and chipped away at the stones inches above his head. But the medic didn't pause.
He slipped another man's legs through loops in his rope and pulled him to the edge. Quickly he passed the tether around the soldier's chest and tied a secure knot.
The men at the base of the cliff saw another form slip from the summit and drop along the rough earthen face, loosening dirt and pebbles as it slid in their direction. Desmond strained, his heels digging into the stony soil, trying to keep the injured man from picking up too much speed. The medic's fingers burned as the rope slid through his palms.
"Get him back to the aid station nonstop!" Doss shouted above the rattle of machine guns and the thump-thumping of mortars. Heavy dust thrown up by exploding shells drifted along the cliff, making his work even more dangerous.
As quickly as he could Desmond lowered one man after another to the base of the escarpment. Several times he had to lift his head above the protective wall in order to fasten his rope around a wounded man. Why no Japanese bullet slammed through his helmet he didn't know. God must be with me was all he could think.
Doss remained on top of the cliff for five hours until he'd lowered every wounded soldier to safety. The unofficial count placed the total lives saved at 100 men. "Couldn't have been more than 50," Desmond humbly insisted later. For the official war record the number was a compromising 75.
Only after all the wounded had reached the bottom of the escarpment did the soft-spoken medic who refused to carry a gun scramble down the cargo net. Desmond had single-handedly saved the lives of more than half the men who'd taken part in the assault.
During a later battle Desmond Doss was seriously wounded while trying to save a fellow soldier's life. He was sent home to recover.
On October 12, 1945, President Harry Truman presented Desmond Doss with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the United States' highest award for bravery in battle.
But Desmond's greatest reward is yet to come. Heaven will be filled with heroes. And Desmond Doss will join the songs of praise to the One who, long ago, showed the world how to place others first and self last.