'Hacksaw Ridge': A War Movie About Love

No Hollywood script crafted for "Hacksaw Ridge" could match what was actually said by commanders in admitting they were wrong about the World War II Medal of Honor recipient they once scorned as "unfit" for combat duty.

Pfc. Desmond T. Doss "was so different" from any other soldier he had come across, Col. Gerald Cooney said in trying to explain his initial decision to toss him out of the Army's 1st Battalion, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division.

In 1959, on an episode of "This Is Your Life" honoring Doss, Cooney admitted he had almost made a "big mistake" but tried to explain his reasoning about the conscientious objector.

Doss, who preferred the term "conscientious collaborator," would become the first conscientious objector to receive the nation's highest award for valor. Previous Medal of Honor recipient Alvin York had tried to claim conscientious objector status during World War I but was denied.

Unfit for Combat Duty

In 1944, the division was in Hawaii, preparing for the war in the Pacific. The time had come for Cooney to decide who was mentally or physically unfit for combat. Cooney, portrayed by actor Matt Nable in "Hacksaw Ridge," put Doss on his list.

"Doss was so different," Cooney said again, "that in 1944, when our regiment was in Hawaii, I considered sending him back to the States. That was our last chance to weed out the few men we thought were unfit for combat duty.

"I knew Doss was a medic and, you know, the fighting in the Pacific was so deadly and treacherous we even had to arm our medics. Now Doss being a conscientious objector -- he had such a strict feeling about his religion [Seventh Day Adventist]. He refused to take weapons training, and the fact of the matter is he wouldn't even touch a weapon. Naturally, I was concerned for his safety."

Others in the outfit came forward to argue against sending Doss back, and Cooney relented. On national TV, he thanked them for "keeping me from making a big mistake."

Doubts Were Erased

Capt. Jack Glover, played by Sam Worthington in the movie, was another who went on the TV show to say his doubts about Doss were erased on Okinawa. Glover had earlier gone to Cooney, and "I suggested that, in my opinion, Doss should be transferred."

Glover would become one of the estimated 75 soldiers whose lives were saved by Doss.

The main objective for Company B of the 1st Battalion was the "Maeda escarpment [Hacksaw Ridge in the movie], and "we fought many days on the escarpment there," Glover said. "We'd get a foothold on the top and then get kicked off."

During one fierce battle atop the escarpment, the company was forced to leave behind the wounded while withdrawing down a cargo net they had put up to reach the top. Glover was among the wounded, hit in in the left lung and knee. "Doss was the only medic left at the time," he said.

"All we had there was one able-bodied man that refused to withdraw and that was Doss," Glover said. "He came down and gave me courage and dressed my wound. Doss, I owe you my life."

The rail-thin, almost painfully shy Doss, wearing his Medal of Honor and old Army uniform, quietly accepted the accolades and happily greeted his old antagonists. "Wonderful to see you again, sir," he told Cooney.

Doss, who died in 2006 at age 87, was always vague on what drove his "conspicuous gallantry" on Okinawa, according to his son, Desmond T. Doss Jr.

Finding Inspiration

Doss himself could not account for how he managed to lower dozens of wounded down the escarpment on a makeshift litter, other than to praise God for inspiration.

"How did I get all those men off that escarpment? Sometimes the Lord answers prayers before we ask, sometimes immediately, sometimes a little later. I feel like this is one of those experiences," Doss said in an interview with the Army's Medical Department Regiment in 1987.

"I only had one rope," which had been used to pull supplies and ammunition up the ridge, and he'd now have to rig a way to use that rope to lower the litter. "I said, 'Lord help me.' Then I thought of a knot I had never seen or heard of before in my life."

As a youth, he knew of the bowline knot, but admitted he sometimes had trouble making it. "So I just doubled the rope and made myself an end by doubling the rope. As a result, with the bowline, with the rope double, I end up with what I referred to as a double bowline knot. I don't know if they even had such a thing as a double bowline at that particular time."

'One More, One More'

In an interview with James Barber of Military.com, Doss' son was asked what motivated his father. "I would love to answer that question myself," he said. "What motivates a person to do that. I asked him about it. I asked my father about it. I never really got the answer. What was going on in your mind?"

In an attempt to answer, his father would respond: "One more, one more" -- if he could just hold on long enough to save one more of the wounded.  

"To me, it's a love story," Doss Jr. said of the movie. "This is a story all of us can learn from. The contrast is profound: Destruction and hate on the one hand, and this consistent and loving person on the other hand. He loved his fellow soldiers, even if they didn't care so much for him at times."

"I can't say I blame them," his father said in the Army interview of the abuse he sometimes took from other soldiers. "I felt it an honor to serve my country, God and country, same as the rest of them. The only thing, I just didn't want to take life.

"They would throw shoes at me while I was praying at night and make all kinds of sarcastic remarks. I don't care to repeat some things they said.  But anyhow, they just gave me a hard time," Doss said.

A  Different Kind of War Movie

In his review of "Hacksaw Ridge," James Barber wrote that it was a "different kind of war movie," and director Mel Gibson has said much the same thing in numerous interviews since its release.

Despite graphic scenes of combat, Doss' unvarnished love of his fellow soldiers dominates the movie, Gibson said.

"He goes in and performs acts of love," he said on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America," and "that's why I think it's a love story, not a war movie."

But the love forged from the bonds of combat can be a burden on the homefront, Gibson said. "A lot of people can't understand what these guys are suffering from" when they return. "I hope the film can focus on that, show everybody what our veterans go through."

In World War I, it was called "shell shock;" in World War II, "combat fatigue," and the name given it for today's veterans is post-traumatic stress. It has been described as the "invisible wound" -- the one that makes some vets yearn for the closeness and commitment they could find nowhere else but the battlefield.

A Bond Forged in Battle

Marine Cpl. Eugene Sledge, who survived hellish combat on Okinawa, saw that terrible longing in the letters he would receive from members of his unit who had returned to the States. Sledge cited the letters in his unsparing war memoir, "With The Old Breed."

"Occasionally, we received letters from old Company K buddies who had returned to the States. Their early letters expressed relief over being back with family or with 'wine, women and song.' But later the letters often became disturbingly bitter and filled with disillusionment," Sledge wrote."Some expressed a desire to return if they could get into the old battalion."

The letters conveyed a "feeling of alienation from everyone but their old comrades. It was hard to believe that some of our old friends who had wanted so much to return home actually were writing to us that they thought again of volunteering for overseas duty. (Some actually did.)"

"Our buddies who had gone back were greeted enthusiastically -- as those of us who survived were received later on," Sledge wrote. "But the folks back home didn't, and in retrospect couldn't have been expected to, understand what we had experienced, what in our minds seemed to set us apart forever from anyone who hadn't been in combat."

Set Apart

In the Army interview, in the documentary "The Conscientious Objector," and in appearances for his church, Doss often reflected on what set him apart from other soldiers and brought on their rejection, and what eventually brought them together despite his being true to his code -- "I won't kill anything or anybody."

"I think God 'abled me to do what I did," he said. "I stayed there. I stayed on top until I got my last man out. I was trying to take the safest precautions I could, but I felt like my life should be no more important than my buddies."

The slights and humiliations that had been heaped upon him were forgotten. In battle on Okinawa, "My men reminded me of my family," Doss said. "There's something about combat that actually makes you more closely tied to each other. I think you are almost your own blood kin. Those men trusted me."

He had to return their trust "even though I knew it might cost me my life. I thought if I could just save one more man," and again, "if I can just save one more man. The Lord, blessed, was with me to where I was able to take care of one more until I finally got my last man off."

On Oct. 12, 1945, Doss was at the White House to receive the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman.

"President Truman came up and shook my hand like he'd known me all my life, shook my hand like an old-time friend," Doss said. "He didn't even give me a chance to get nervous."

But to his mind, Doss had already received a greater honor: "When your buddies come to you and say they owe their life to you, what better reward can you get than that?"

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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