Lauded Conscientious Objector Desmond T. Doss Sr.

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 26, 2006

Desmond T. Doss Sr., 87, an Army medic on Okinawa during World War II who saved more than 75 wounded soldiers at great personal peril and became the first conscientious objector to the receive the Medal of Honor, died March 23 at his home in Piedmont, Ala. He had a respiratory ailment.

Mr. Doss was one of only two conscientious objectors to receive the Medal of Honor. Thomas W. Bennett, who was an Army corporal and medical aidman during the Vietnam War, also received the medal, according to Carol Cepregi, administrative assistant with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Bennett died while serving in Vietnam.

Alvin C. York, a World War I sergeant about whom a patriotic movie was made, applied for conscientious objector status but was turned down.

Mr. Doss grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose tenets forbid bearing arms. However, when he was called to the draft, the lanky native Virginian declined a religious exemption that would have allowed him to continue working in a shipyard.

He served in the Army with the designation of conscientious objector, but he detested that phrase. He preferred "conscientious cooperator."

Still, he refused to learn to shoot a rifle.

"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."

Sent to the Pacific, he saw combat on Leyte and Guam. His actions between April 29 and May 21, 1945, near Urasoe on Okinawa, were cited when he received the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor.

At the time, he was in the medical detachment of the 77th Infantry Division. A battalion of his comrades was fired on by the Japanese as its members scaled a 400-foot escarpment.

Refusing cover, Mr. Doss carried each of the 75 casualties one-by-one to the edge of the cliff and helped lower them by rope to safety.

He continued similar rescue missions over the following days, also tending to the wounded by administering plasma as mortar fire struck around him.

During a nighttime attack May 21 near Shuri, he received injuries from a grenade blast. Instead of risking the larger mission, he spent hours nursing his wounds. Seeing a soldier in worse condition nearby, he directed help to tend to that man first.

Still in range of enemy fire, he was hit and suffered a compound fracture in an arm.

"With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards over rough terrain to the aid station," his Medal of Honor citation read.

"Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers," the citation continued. "His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty."

In October 1945, then-Cpl. Doss received the medal from President Harry S. Truman during a White House ceremony.

At the time, Mr. Doss spoke of attending a trade school and becoming a florist. However, he developed tuberculosis and spent years in hospital wards undergoing treatment, including the removal of a lung.

Unable to work a full-time job, he spent considerable time talking about the war and working with Seventh-day Adventist scouting programs. He went deaf in the 1970s, which he attributed to strong antibiotics that fought the tuberculosis.

Desmond Thomas Doss Sr. was born in Lynchburg, Va., on Feb. 7, 1919. His father was a carpenter, and his mother worked in a shoe factory. For decades after the war, Mr. Doss lived in northwestern Georgia, near the Tennessee border.

He was the subject of a biography, Booton Herndon's "The Unlikeliest Hero" (1967), and a film documentary, "The Conscientious Objector" (2004), by Terry L. Benedict.

"I wasn't trying to be a hero," Mr. Doss told the Associated Press in 1987. "I was thinking about it from this standpoint -- in a house on fire and a mother has a child in that house, what prompts her to go in and get that child?

"Love," he said. "I loved my men, and they loved me. I don't consider myself a hero. I just couldn't give them up, just like a mother couldn't give up the child."

His wife of 49 years, Dorothy Schutte Doss, died in a 1991 car accident.

Survivors include his wife of 12 years, Frances Duman Doss of Piedmont; a son from his first marriage, Desmond Doss Jr. of Astoria, Ore.; three stepchildren; a brother; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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