When Mel Gibson unveiled his upcoming World War II drama about the first conscientious objector to be awarded a Medal of Honor, he had five words to describe the soldier: ‘Real heroes don’t wear Spandex.’
Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Seventh Day Adventist Desmond Doss, who enlists in the Army determined to save lives on the front line as a medic, but refuses to carry a gun on moral grounds.
Doss, who died in 2006, was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman in 1945 for single handedly saving the lives of more than 75 of his comrades during the Battle of Okinawa.
During the battle, the 1st Battalion was assaulted on top of a towering 400-foot cliff, which the film’s title is named after – Hacksaw Ridge.
The US soldiers scaled the escarpment only to be met by Japanese machine gun fire and flamethrowers.
As others retreated, Doss – a Private First Class medic played by Andrew Garfield in the film – refused to seek cover and instead took care of the wounded.
One by one, he carried men to the edge of the cliff and lowered them down – on a rope-supported litter he had devised – into friendly hands.
Doss, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia. When he was a child, his father purchased a framed poster of the Ten Commandments one of which always stood out to him: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’
‘I wondered, how in the world could a brother do such a thing? It put a horror in my heart of just killing, and as a result I took it personally: “Desmond, if you love me, you won’t kill,”‘ he once told Larry Smith in Beyond Glory, an oral history of Medal of Honor winners.
Doss grew up in a small town on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, where he saw his drunk father abuse his mother.
Hacksaw Ridge shows an incident from his childhood, in which Doss got into a fight with his brother and hit him in the head with a brick. The event left him full of sorrow.
Soon after, Doss became a pacifist and found a growing interest in medicine, though he did not have the education background to pursue the topic.
In April 1942, Doss was 23 and working at a shipyard when he was called to the draft.
He was given conscientious objector status after declining to bear arms due to religious principles. He then enlisted as a medic.
He chose to become a medic in order to adhere to both the Sixth and Fourth Commandment – honoring the Sabbath.
Though Seventh-day Adventists consider Saturday the Sabbath, Doss believed he could serve as a medic seven days a week, claiming that ‘Christ healed on the Sabbath’.
‘I felt like it was an honor to serve God and country,’ he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1998. ‘I didn’t want to be known as a draft dodger, but I sure didn’t know what I was getting into.’
Just before going into active duty in August 1942, Doss married his girlfriend, Dorothy, a nurse.
Doss faced harassment from other soldiers while training in the states, due to his devotion to prayer, refusal to handle weapons and eat meat and his observation of the Sabbath.
At one point, according to the New York Times, an officer tried to have him discharged on the ground of mental illness.
Doss’s pacifism causes him to be threatened with a court martial, but the issue is resolved and he heads to war.
He first went overseas with the 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division in 1944, where he served as a combat medic in Guam and at Leyte in the Philippines, where he received a Bronze Star, which is awarded for heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.
He then took part in the Battle of Okinawa in the Spring of 1945. It was on Saturday, May 5 – his Sabbath – when Doss and the troops he was accompanied scaled Hacksaw Ridge.
He lowered stranded injured soldiers off the cliff with a rope-supported litter he had devised using knots he had learned as a child and used a tree stump as an anchor.
After every wounded man was lowered to safety below, Doss came down from the ridge uninjured.
While he’s credited for saving more than 75 soldiers, he later said that the number was likely closer to 50.
Just over two weeks later, on May 21, Doss was injured in the legs by a grenade explosion during a night attack when he remained in exposed territory to give aid to others.
According to his Medal of Honor citation, he cared for his own injuries rather than call another aid man from cover.
He waited five hours until two of his comrades could reach him and carry him to cover.
The three men were then caught in an enemy tank attack, and when Doss saw a more critically injured man nearby, he crawled off his litter and directed the litter bearers to give attention to the other man.
But while waiting for the litter bearers to return, he was struck again and fractured his arm. He created a splint out of a rifle stock and crawled 300 yards to the aid station.
On October 12, 1945, Truman presented Doss with a Medal of Honor for his actions in Okinawa.
‘Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers,’ his Medal of Honor citation read. ‘His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.’
For the next five years, Doss was in and out of hospitals being treated for his wounds. He also lost a lung to tuberculosis.
Because of his ailments, he was unable to find steady work and instead devoted himself to his religion.
He worked with young people in church-sponsored programs in Georgia and Alabama.
In the 1950s, Doss and his wife, Dorothy, then moved to Lookout Mountain in northwestern Georgia, where he built a home and they raised their son, Desmond Jr, according to the Library of Virginia.
Dorothy died in a car accident in 1991, and Doss went on to marry Frances May Duman, a widow with three adult children, in 1993.
Doss died, aged 86, in March 2006, after suffering a respiratory ailment. He was buried in the Chattanooga National Cemetery in Tennessee.
Garfield, the actor playing Doss in the upcoming film after shooting to fame with the movie The Amazing Spider-Man, said Doss was much more inspiring than the web-weaving hero, whose Spandex costumes prompted Gibson’s jibe.
‘The fact that this man, who is built as skinnily as I am, dragged men across the most rugged terrain under gun fire, sniper fire, the possibility of motors and shells, and then lowered them down a 75-foot escarpment… that’s like when you hear about mothers who lift trucks off babies,’ said Garfield.
‘He had a knowing in his heart and core that he wasn’t supposed to take a man’s life, but wanted to serve something greater than himself, and found his personal genius path to do that,’ he added.
Hacksaw Ridge will be released in theaters on November 4. A screening at the Venice Film Festival last week ended with a standing ovation.
Based on reviews published thus far, Gibson’s portrayal of Doss’s story is gruesome, but appears to follow Doss’s real life sincerely.