Desmond Doss – First Conscientious Objector to Earn Medal of Honor

Jan 6, 2023 | Articles, People, Personal Triumphs

On October 12, 1945, US Army medic Desmond Doss became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. That made history. Who is Desmond? What did he do? What does the term conscientious objector signifies?
Desmond, a fearless World War II medic, he single-handedly saved the lives of 75 American soldiers on the Maeda Escarpment of Okinawa in 1945. He never carried a weapon. During the feat, he treated his own serious injuries to save stretchers for others.

What is a Conscientious Objector?

During World War II, more than 70,000 men were designated conscientious objectors. They were mostly men whose religious beliefs made them opposed to war. Some of them refused to serve. But more than 25,000 joined the US Armed forces in noncombat roles, mostly medics and chaplains. Desmond was one of them.

The definition of conscientious objector is “an individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion”.
In some countries, these people are assigned to an alternative civilian service as a substitute for conscription of military service.
On March 8, 1995, the United Nations Commission of Human Rights resolution 1995/83 stated that “persons performing military service should not be excluded from the right to have conscientious objections to military service”.
It was then re-affirmed in 1998, with the new resolution 1998/77 recognizing that “persons [already] performing military service may develop conscientious objections”.
This is why many organizations celebrate May 15 International Conscientious Objection Day.

Desmond’s Road to the Army

Born in 1919, Desmond was raised with a strong belief in the Bible and the Ten Commandments. He attended a Seventh-day Adventist church. Desmond had strong views against killing and working on Sabbath.
In 1942, Doss felt a calling to serve his country and help his fellow men. Drafted in the spring of 1942, he did not refuse enlistment on the grounds of being a conscientious objector. In fact, he believed the war was just and desired to do his part, but for him that meant saving lives. This is why he often described himself as a conscientious cooperator.

Despite his status, he was required to undergo the usual basic training. He was allowed to forgo weapons training. He was a willing participant. But he was still verbally harassed. Boots and other items were sent flying his way while he prayed at night.
Soldiers made several attempts to remove the man they felt was a coward and a detriment to the unit.

Saving his Army Friends

In 1944, he was shipped out, bound for the Pacific as a member of the medical detachment of the 307th Infantry Regiment. His action on Okinawa were not his first battle.
By the time he arrived with his unit on Okinawa, any reservations his fellow unit soldiers had for him turned into respect. Many of them knew he was there for them and would easily run into enemy fire to save them.
His infantry regiment moved into the line on Okinawa on April 29, on the top of the Maeda Escarpment. That area was a cliff roughly 400 feet high. The top 34 feet created an overhang, where cargo nets had been necessary for the men to reach the top.
There, his unit fought the Japanese for days. Doss treated the wounded under enemy fire. He was smart enough to remove any markings indicating he was a medic, so that Japanese soldiers would not target him.
By May 5, the fighting intensified. Men were ordered to retreat, but Doss refused. He knew there were 75 people left behind too wounded to retreat under their own power.
So, he decided not to leave them behind. In fact, he rescued all of them trapped at the top of the escarpment. He did this by lowering them with a special knot he knew. And miraculously, he had not been wounded and stayed in the fight.
On May 21, he was wounded by grenade fragments and a sniper’s bullet through his arm. Even then, he continued to put others first, refusing treatment before those more seriously wounded. He was eventually evacuated in late May and returned home.

Post War Life

Following the war, Doss spent years recovering from this founds and from tuberculosis. He planned to continue his career in carpentry. Yet, the damage to his left arm made him unable to work.
In 1946, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. For five and a half years, he underwent treatment for his disease. But that disease cost him a lung and five ribs. In August 1951, he was discharged from the hospital with 90% disability.
The military continued to treat him. In 1976, an overdose of antibiotics rendered him completely deaf and he was given 100% disability. Despite the severity of his injuries, Desmond managed to raise a family on a farm in Rising Fawn, Georgia.

In March 2006, he finally passed away at his home in Piedmont, Alabama.

Awards and Legacy

On October 12, 1945, President Harry S. Truman presented Desmond with the Medal of Honor. He was the first and only conscientious objector to earn the award during World War II. During the ceremony, he said, I feel that I received the Congressional Medal of Honor because I kept the Golden Rule that we read in Matthew 7:12. ‘All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.’”
Desmond was also awarded the Bronze Star Medal for actions in Guam and the Philippines. In April 2019, DDHC’s first building turned 100 years old. That pivotal moment in history called for a name change, and the US Army Health Clinic changed its name to Desmond T. Doss Health Clinic.
In 1951, Camp Desmond T. Doss was created in Grand Ledge, Michigan to train young Seventh-day Adventist men for service in the military.

Desmond’s life has been subject of books, the documentary The Conscientious Objector, and the 2016 Oscar-winning movie, Hacksaw Ridge.

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Thomas B.