Mennonites like me have traditionally refused to participate in war as a matter of conscience, and this tradition was profoundly challenged during my college years at a Christian school where I grew in my faith under the tutelage of a number of godly veterans. Recently I learned a story that I believe will challenge every believer regardless of one’s convictions on this issue.
On Saturday, May 5, 1945 the entire 77th Infantry Division of the United States Army stood still at attention for 15 minutes while a young G.I. named Desmond Doss quietly prayed. The final do or die assault on Hacksaw Ridge, a 400 foot precipice crossing the island of Okinawa, was about to begin. The 77th army had come to relieve the 96th Army that had been decimated by the defending Japanese army. On the march the week previous they had seen truck after truck of dead bodies being returned home while the accompanying naval fleet could be seen off shore being hit by waves of kamikaze aircraft.
As of this date, May 5, the 77th army had already been thrown back three times with heavy losses, and orders had come to take the ridge today at any cost, as the entire army’s progress was being held up by the resistance at the top of Hacksaw Ridge. In a quiet place Private Doss prayed. Doss was a conscientious objector who served as the medic for his unit. As a Seventh Day Adventist, Doss had refused to train or fight on any Saturday in addition to his refusal to carry a weapon. During training he had been universally despised and abused, and virtually none of the officers wanted him in their unit. According to a liter-bearer named Ralph Baker, “I don’t think he had a friend.”
But Doss refused to accept a discharge, and in the end a call to his Congressman from his own father assured his place in the army. After hostilities began his comrades saw a different man than they had imagined Doss to be. His courage and conviction that had enabled him to withstand ridicule and rejection from his own side was now tested with live ammunition from the enemy, and the infantrymen who had previously despised Desmond began to put their faith in this man who while refusing to carry a weapon, yet persistently went beyond the call of duty in terms of acceptable risk in order to rescue anyone lying wounded on the battlefield.
On this particular Saturday, Commander Jack Glover came to request Doss’ participation. Could Desmond compromise this one time to work on a Sabbath. “Just give me 15 minutes to pray,’ was the response, and the request went quickly all the way to division headquarters.
“Doss wants 15 minutes to pray.” Immediately the response– “Request granted.”
So the world stood still and the entire army waited for Private Doss to pray. Later Desmond reported that it suddenly occurred to him that since Jesus healed on the Sabbath, he, Desmond Doss could save lives on the Sabbath too, and so he agreed to go to work. During this battle Desmond carried his wounded Commander, Jack Glover, off the battlefield along with an estimated 75 others, all in one day’s work. The army had estimated 100 rescues, but Desmond didn’t agree with that number; so the report came in at 75.
On October 12, 1945 President Harry Truman awarded Desmond Doss the Congressional Medal of Honor for bringing those 75 wounded soldiers off the battlefield under heavy mortar and rifle fire during a 24 hour battle when Hacksaw Ridge was taken. Nothing but the miraculous intervention of Almighty God can possibly explain Desmond’s survival. While the Medal of Honor arrogantly ignored the participation of Almighty God in the outcome, Doss did not. Desmond reported that after each wounded man was let down by rope over the 400 foot ledge he had prayed, “Lord, help me rescue one more man,” a prayer he repeated each of 75 times. Later one Japanese soldier reported having had Doss in his rifle sights, but the weapon had refused to fire. According to Captain Jack Glover, “From the beginning of his first combat mission until the last one, he absolutely was fearless in regard to what was going to happen to him. You can go back over medal of honor winners, and it’s because of one absolute, instant decision, and Doss was a constant doing of something that was so outstanding, not only once, but every time, and time, and time again.”
Desmond’s story for me crystallizes what it means to be in the world but not of it, and the price required for doing this well. Desmond himself was hit a few days later and spent the rest of his life as a disabled veteran. Clearly the One who controls all human destiny had called him to Hacksaw Ridge and revealed his glory, but what was revealed was neither acknowledged or even seen by the “powers that be.” Instead they only knew to immortalize the man, and did not even acknowledge the Immortal One who’s Holy Spirit lived in Desmond Doss.
NEXT TIME: SOME LESSONS FOR DISCERNMENT IN ETHICAL MATTERS