Going unarmed into World War 2’s bloodiest Pacific battle, dodging fire from kamikaze bombers, heavy mortar, artillery and machine guns to save 75 wounded soldiers single-handed is the stuff of miracles and legends.
Desmond Doss, true-to-life hero of Hacksaw Ridge (played by Andrew Garfield) was a devout Seventh Day Adventist, born in Lynchburg, Virginia, the son of a carpenter. He was 23 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942. Skinny, vegetarian and unwilling to train on Saturdays – his Sabbath – let alone carry a gun, he was a “conscientious objector” who served as a “non-combatant” medic.
“The Japanese were out to get the medics,” the real-life Desmond recounted. “They would let anybody get by just to pick us off to break down the morale of the men, because if the medic was gone they had no one to take care of them. All the medics were armed, except me.”
Before, Desmond’s fellow soldiers ridiculed and abused him, believing he’s a dangerous liability. They tried hard to drive him out of the army.
That was until they discovered that he can heal the blisters on their march-weary feet. And if someone fainted from heat stroke, he’d aid the afflicted man and offer water from his own canteen.
Desmond never held a grudge. With kindness and gentle courtesy, he treated those who had mistreated him.
He first went overseas with the 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division in 1944, serving as a combat medic.
In Guam, he charged through knee-deep mud in driving rain to retrieve wounded men on the battlefield and earned his first Bronze Star.
The second Bronze Star, he earned in the same year in the Philippines, where he ran through wide-open brush in Leyte to save two critically-injured soldiers caught in the crossfire of Japanese machine guns.
“I knew these men. They were my buddies, some had wives and children. If they were hurt, I wanted to be there to take care of them,” he recounted. “And when someone got hit, the others would close in around me while I treated him, then we’d all go out together.”
In the spring of 1945, Desmond took part in the decisive Battle of Okinawa, the “Typhoon of Steel”, which lasted 82 days and killed over 100,000 men on both sides.
On a Saturday, May 5, his Sabbath – Desmond and his unit scaled the Maeda Escarpment, aka Hacksaw Ridge – a steep 400-foot-high cliff fortified with machine-gun nests, booby traps, concrete pillboxes and desperate Japanese soldiers entrenched in caves.
After the Americans secured the cliff top, the Japanese staged a vicious counter attack which nearly wiped them out – 500 of the 800 men in 1st Battalion were killed or wounded in action. Less than one third of the men made it back down.
Desmond’s unit retreated but he stayed.
Under heavy fire, unarmed in the middle of the kill zone, Desmond retrieved his stranded injured comrades one by one and lowered them off the cliff face with a rope-supported litter he devised using knots he had learned as a child, rescuing flood victims, and anchored on a tree stump. He saved at least 75 men.
Over two weeks later, during a night raid, Desmond was hiding in a shell hole with two riflemen when a Japanese grenade landed at his feet. He kicked the explosive but it blew up, embedding 17 shrapnels in his leg.
He treated his own wounds and waited for five hours to be evacuated. When two of his comrades reached him, he saw a more critically injured man nearby, crawled off his litter and insisted that the other man be rescued first.
While waiting for the litter bearers to return, a sniper’s bullet shattered his arm. He fashioned a splint out of a rifle stock and crawled 300 yards to the aid station.
Half a century later, in a cinematic landscape overrun with fictional “superheroes,” director Mel Gibson thought it was time to celebrate the life of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the U.S. Medal of Honor.
“I was astounded by the extent of his sacrifice. Here was a man who repeatedly risked his own life to save the lives of his brothers. Desmond was a completely ordinary man who did extraordinary things. It was a privilege and an honor to tell this story.”
Sadly, Desmond did not live to see his life re-enacted on the big screen. He died in 2006, aged 87.
While he lived, he didn’t trust Hollywood with his tale.
“I grew up in a house with an endless stream of people coming through the door wanting to make a movie, write a book,” revealed his only child, Desmond Jr.
His father turned them all down, insisting that the “real heroes” were the ones under the ground.
Still “I find it remarkable, the level of accuracy in adhering to the principal of the story in this movie,” the son commented.
The film wasn’t 100 per cent accurate though.
It didn’t mention Desmond’s sister, Audrey, or the fact that he remarried after the love of his life, Dorothea “Dorothy” Schutte (played by Teresa Palmer) succumbed in a car crash.
In fact, Dorothy was not a nurse when Desmond ran into her. They first met in church in Lynchburg, Virginia. She didn’t get her nursing degree until the war was over, when she needed to provide for her family because Desmond was disabled from his war injuries and can’t hold a full-time job.
The movie changed the time line of their marriage too. He didn’t miss their wedding day because he was denied a pass and then put in a holding cell. Truth is, they tied the knot before he went on active duty.
Although fellow soldiers picked on Desmond, the movie’s antagonist, Smitty (Luke Bracey), is a fictional character, a composite of his tormentors.
And there’s no record of Desmond ever getting pulled out of bed and beaten in the night.
In the film, Desmond treated an enemy soldier inside the cave and lowered two wounded Japanese from the cliff face. That could be partly true. Some of his own comrades did find an American bandage on an enemy soldier.
Desmond himself recalled an instance where he tried to help a wounded Japanese. “The fellas pulled a gun on me. They used some strong language. ‘If you use that stuff on blankety-blank, we’ll kill you!’ And I knew they meant it. So I knew better than to try to take care of a Japanese.”
Furthermore, in the film, he immediately got back the Bible that Dorothy gave him before he was stretchered out of the battlefield.
The Bible fell out of his pocket when he was blown off his feet by a grenade. “It was my main source of strength all during the war and in the service,” Desmond said later, “and then when I lost it, I was lost.”
In reality, he got it back much later.
When his fellow soldiers learned it was missing, they scoured the ridge after they captured it from the Japanese. When his commanding officer came to the hospital to inform Desmond he was being awarded the Medal of Honor, he handed back the waterlogged, semi-charred pocket Bible.
Producer Bill Mechanic defended the film’s revisions on reality. “If you’re a slave to the complete facts, than you’re not making a movie that is compelling,” he argued.
Overall, the film’s realism is visceral – gory even – blown away legs, fountaining blood, rats gnawing in the body cavities of corpses.
But war is like that.
As the actual soldiers who fought in the Hacksaw Ridge described it, the Japanese swarmed everywhere, in caves, tunnels, holes and pillboxes. The Americans stacked the bodies of their fallen comrades as high as they could reach and waded through 200 yards of mud puddles saturated with blood. The machine gun fire was so thick, men are cut in half as they get hit.
Indeed, screenwriter Robert Schenkkan carved secondary characters from amalgams of real people and streamlined events from Desmond’s early life to make for a fast-paced movie.
But he stuck as close to the factual record as much as possible when it came to Desmond’s incredible feats on Hacksaw Ridge.
Of the 16 million men in uniform during World War II, only 431 received the Congressional Medal of Honor – and one of them was pinned on Desmond, who never carried a gun and never killed a single enemy soldier in combat.
Strangely, for me, one of the film’s most moving moments came at the end – the clip of the real Desmond Doss as an old man, recounting what he did on Hacksaw Ridge. “I just kept prayin’, Lord, please help me get more and more, one more, until there was none left, and I’m the last one down.”
Modest as he was, Desmond estimated he saved 50 men. His commanding officer credited him with saving 100. So, they compromised at 75.
And Desmond really should have died on that ridge. But his God never left him.
He spent 12 hours on the escarpment, rescuing injured soldiers, averaging one man every ten minutes. All that time, the Japanese had a clear shot of him as he lowered each down the cliff face.
What the movie never mentioned was that one Japanese soldier recalled having Desmond in his sights. But every time he fired, his gun jammed.