The story so far: Desmond T. Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist, serves as a medic in World War II. At first he’s harassed for his religious beliefs, but his fellow soldiers gradually come to respect him. 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.
Epilogue: 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.
Reprinted from Randy Fishell, editor, Guide’s Greatest Stories (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1994).
Written by Charles Mills
Illustrated by Mark Texiera