By Charles Mills
Read the previous chapter here.
Take him off!” Doss shouted down at the men trying to steady the swaying form hanging at the end of the rope. “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 stietcher. He 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 stop or even pause in his desperate attempt to reach the other conscious and unconscious wounded lying all along the crest of the war-ravaged escarpment.
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 its 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 bound 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 thump-thump 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 today was all he could think.
Doss remained on top of the cliff until he’d lowered every wounded man 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.
The war in the Pacific ground on, taking a terrible toll in lives, both American and Japanese. During one battle Desmond Doss was seriously wounded while trying to save a comrade’s life. For the gentle noncombatant, the war was finally over.
Sent home to his family, friends, and wife, Doss was welcomed by a thankful nation. When he was well enough to travel, he received an invitation he’d never forget.
“The President? of the United States?” The young man’s mouth dropped open. “That’s right,” a visitor named Colonel Conner said with a nod. ”I’m to inform you that you’ve been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, our country’s highest honor.”
So it was that on October 12, 1945, on the White House lawn in Washington, D.C., President Truman stood before Desmond Doss, extending a grateful hand. With a smile the President turned to the assembled crowd and proudly listened as a citation outlining the Seventh-day Adventist medic’s heroism was read for all to appreciate.
But the story doesn’t end there. There were many more battles waiting for Desmond Doss. Not on some fire-swept enemy island in the Pacific. Not on a cliff top where the scream of ricocheting bullets ripped the air.
The new battles came silently. Doss contracted tuberculosis several years later, underwent dozens of painful surgeries and treatments for his war wounds, and faced financial ruin when a business he started with his life savings was accidentally destroyed.
Desmond Doss faced each battle with the same God-fearing determination he’d shown under fire. During those years of personal and financial war, he helped in the creation of a Seventh–day Adventist military medical training camp in Michigan. Here Christian young men and women learned how to save lives in war instead of destroying them. Church officials insisted on naming the facility “Camp Desmond Doss.”
Thousands of children and older folk thrilled at the stories Desmond told while traveling from camp meeting to camp meeting across the nation. He always gave the glory to God. And today, if you were to attend the little Seventh-day Adventist church in Rising Fawn, Georgia, you’d sit in a simple sanctuary built, log by log, by the man who saved 75 lives that day on the escarpment.
Ingredients of a hero
“What made you a hero?” Desmond has been asked that question many times. He has an answer primed and ready.
“When I was very young,” he begins, his soft southern drawl made just a little raspy by the years, “I attended a small brown-shingled school operated by my church in Lyncheburg, Virginia. We had only one teacher for all eight grades. We were few in number.
“My favorite time was when we’d recite our lesson for the class. It gave me a chance to stand by the warm potbellied stove near the teacher’s desk. On cold winter days we all looked forward to the recitation period.
“Our teacher, Mrs. Nell Ketterman, was kind and loving to us all. When classmates were too shy to recite, she’d encourage them gently. I remember a time when I just couldn’t write letters and numbers very well. Mrs. Ketterman stayed after school to help me learn. I practiced and practiced until my chicken scratches became beautiful words and clear, unmistakable numbers.
“One day it was my turn to wash the blackboards and dust the chalk off the erasers. I slapped the erasers together a couple times and put them down. Mrs. Ketterman frowned. ‘Desmond,’_ she said, ‘if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.’ Those words embedded themselves in my brain. From then on, whenever I had a job to do, I’d hear my dear teacher repeating those words. Not even the noise of battle could drown out her loving advice. “You see, a hero isn’t just born into the world. He or she is taught how to be heroic by watching and listening to the many people who pass through life. I’m a hero only because I was taught how to be a hero by people who loved me and cared for me.
“Any boy or girl, any man or woman, can be a hero if that person just puts the needs of other people first, over his or her own. That’s what a true hero is someone who thinks of others first and self last and does as good a job as he or she can no matter what.”
Desmond’s wife, Dorothy, wrote him a short letter and placed it in his Bible—the one he carried through the war. He read her words often as the bullets whined overhead and the night was filled with dying men’s screams. Here’s what it said:
Dearest Desmond, as you read and study the precious promises found in the word of God contained in this little Bible, may you be strengthened in whatever trials may come to you.
May your faith in God bring comfort and peace of heart to you, that you may never be sad or lonely no matter how dark the way seems. If we do not meet another time on this earth, we have the assurance of a happy meeting place in heaven. May God in His mercy grqnt us both a place there.
Your loving wife, Dorothy.
Heaven will be filled with heroes. And Desmond Doss will lead the songs of praise to the One who, long ago, showed the world how to place others first and self last.