I recently saw a movie, for those of you who know me or have ever taken a class from me the fact I saw a movie may come as a shock. The movie was “Hacksaw Ridge”. The story was about a World War II conscientious objector, Desmond Doss who served as a combat medic. After viewing the movie I was so intrigued I did some research on Corporal Desmond Thomas Doss.
I am going to give you my thoughts is a series of articles, because one of my team members gave me a mnemonic TLDR, it stands for “too long didn’t read”. So I am going to divide my thoughts up into three articles: Corporal Doss’s story & his Commitment, Heroism, and Bravery as it relates to the fire service.
We throw around the term commitment rather freely today in the Fire Service. Does the term commitment have the same meaning in our industry as it did to Desmond?. Is it acceptable in today’s world to have blind commitment or is a more educated commitment required? I for one do not believe the majority of the Fire Service uses the same definition that was used in some of our previous generations.
Let me tell you Desmonds story and you can decide.
Desmond Doss received the nation’s highest award for his bravery and courage under fire. Of the 16 million men in uniform during World War II, only 431 received the Congressional Medal of Honor. One of these was placed around the neck of a young Seventh-day Adventist, who during combat had not killed a single enemy soldier. In fact, he refused to carry a gun. His only weapons were his Bible and his faith in God.
President Harry S. Truman warmly shook the hand of Corporal Desmond Thomas Doss, and then held it the entire time his citation was read aloud to those gathered outside the White House on October 12, 1945. “I’m proud of you,” Truman said. “You really deserve this. I consider this a greater honor than being president.”
The journey that had brought young Desmond to this day had been a challenging one. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, he was working at the Newport News Naval shipyard and could have requested a deferment—but he wanted to do more for his country. He was willing to risk his life on the front lines in order to preserve freedom.
When he joined the Army, Desmond assumed that his classification as a conscientious objector would not require him to carry a weapon. He wanted to be an Army combat medic. As luck would have it, he was assigned to an infantry rifle company. His refusal to carry a gun caused a lot of trouble among his fellow soldiers. They viewed him with distain and called him a misfit. One man in the barracks warned him, “Doss, as soon as we get into combat, I’ll make sure you won’t come back alive.”
His commanding officers also wanted to get rid of the skinny Virginian who spoke with a gentle southern drawl. They saw him as a liability. Nobody believed a soldier without a weapon was worthwhile. They tried to intimidate him, scold him, assign him extra tough duties, and declared him mentally unfit for the Army. Then they attempted to court martial him for refusing a direct order—to carry a gun. But they failed to find a way to toss him out, and he refused to leave. So they ostracized him, bullied him, called him awful names, and cursed at him. His commanding officers also made his life difficult.
Things began turning around when the men discovered that this quiet unassuming medic had a way to heal the blisters on their march-weary feet. And if someone fainted from heat stroke, this medic was at his side, offering his own canteen. Desmond never held a grudge.
Desmond served in combat on the islands of Guam, Leyte, and Okinawa. While others were taking life, he was busy saving life. When the cry, “medic” rang out on the battlefield, he never considered his own safety. He repeatedly ran into the heat of battle to treat a fallen comrade and carry him back to safety. All this, while enemy bullets whizzed past and mortar shells exploded around him. Several times, while treating a wounded soldier, Desmond was so close to enemy lines, he could hear the whispering of Japanese voices.
In May, 1945, Japanese troops were fiercely defending, to their last man, the only remaining barrier (Okinawa and the Maeda Escarpment) to an allied invasion of their homeland. The men in Desmond’s division were repeatedly trying to capture the Maeda Escarpment, an imposing rock face the soldiers called Hacksaw Ridge. After the company had secured the top of the cliff, the Americans were stunned when suddenly enemy forces rushed them in a vicious counterattack. Officers ordered an immediate retreat. Soldiers rushed to climb back down the steep cliff. All the soldiers accept one.
Less than one third of the men made it back down. The rest lay wounded, scattered across enemy soil—abandoned and left for dead, if they weren’t already. One lone soldier disobeyed orders and charged back into the firefight to rescue as many of his men as he could, before he either collapsed or died trying.
Eventually, the Americans took Hacksaw Ridge. Okinawa was captured inch by bloody inch. Several days later, during an unsuccessful night raid, Desmond was severely wounded. Hiding in a shell hole with two riflemen, a Japanese grenade landed at his feet. The explosion sent him flying. The shrapnel tore into his leg and up to his hip. He treated his own wounds as best he could. While attempting to reach safety, he was hit by a sniper’s bullet that shattered his arm. His brave actions as a combat medic were done. But not before insisting that his litter-bearers take another man first before rescuing him. Wounded, in pain, and losing blood, he still put others ahead of his own safety. He would choose to die so another could live.
Commitment in todays fire service, to me is more of an educated obligation. Our people will make the commitment if they are told why and they believe that it is worth the risk. But, they must understand and believe in the why or you will receive push back. In previous generations they did what they were told with very little explaination, because it was what they were told to do. Any pushback was done covertly, not like today when pushback is mostly overt and vocal.
I believe that communication is critical in todays society to get the commitment required to accomplish our critical tasks in the protection of life and property.