Mel Gibson-directed movie, 'Hacksaw Ridge,' honors Tenn. war hero
By BARRY COURTER | Chattanooga Times/Free Press, Tenn. | Published: October 27, 2016
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Tribune News Service) — Over a 12-hour period on April 30, 1945, U.S. Army medic Desmond Doss ignored gunfire, exploding mortar shells, blood-soaked mud, bodies and even commands from his superiors as he returned to the battlefield on a ridge in Okinawa, Japan, to help any wounded men he could.
Over and over, Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist who refused to touch a weapon, much less carry one, went back without giving a thought to his own well-being.
He stopped only long enough to offer up a prayer: "Lord, please help me get more and more, one more, until there was none left, and I'm the last one."
At least 75 times, he went back to where the heavy fighting was and carried or dragged wounded soldiers to the edge of the Maeda Escarpment, which was honeycombed with tunnels manned by Japanese soldiers, before lowering the injured soldiers by rope to help.
The entire episode and the events surrounding it are recounted in the new movie "Hacksaw Ridge," which hits theaters around the country Nov. 4. It's directed by Mel Gibson and stars Andrew Garfield as Doss, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths, Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughn.
Vaughn, who plays an officer who wants Doss to carry a gun or get out of the Army, said the movie is much more than a story about a war hero. It is about a man with a deep religious belief who touched many lives, not only through his heroism but through his faith.
"He had a belief system," Vaughn said in a telephone interview.
"It's one thing to do something heroic in a battle once. This was not a one-time event. He went back over and over for those men. But he also lived his life the same way every day."
Terry Benedict is a filmmaker who served as a producer on the film. Now a Chattanooga resident, he made a documentary, "The Conscientious Objector," about Doss in 2004. He first met the man in 1971 at a church camp as a 12-year-old boy who had read of Doss' exploits. He said Doss was unwavering in his beliefs and in how he treated people.
"You didn't think he cared about you, you knew he cared about you," he said. "That was just him.
"He was very constant in how he lived his life. One of the things that fascinated me was that in Hollywood, the lead character, the protagonist, starts at Point A and has a character arc and goes through some change. Desmond doesn't do that. Desmond's character doesn't change. Like a rock."
Doss' act of valor that day in Okinawa earned him the Medal of Honor on Oct. 12, 1945. He was put up for the honor by the same men who months earlier wanted him out of their company and out of the Army because they doubted his sincerity and questioned his toughness.
In presenting the award, President Harry S. Truman said, "You really deserve this. I consider this a greater honor than being president."
Doss' medal and a few other personal items are on display at the Charles H. Coolidge Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Northgate Mall.
Desmond Thomas Doss was drafted into the U.S. Army in April 1942. He could have taken a deferment because of his job at the Newport News naval shipyard, but he chose to go, even though he had sworn as a boy to never touch a gun after witnessing his father pull one on his uncle during an alcohol-influenced fight.
He also was deeply moved as a child by a framed illustration of the Ten Commandments that hung in his family's home. He vowed to follow all of them, including "Thou shalt not kill" and "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy," which for Seventh-day Adventists is Saturday.
Refusing to carry a gun or to work on Saturdays did not endear him to his fellow soldiers or commanding officers. Part of his story is the abuse he took from his fellow soldiers. Vaughn said those men acted the same way many people would have.
"It stands to reason that they wouldn't want to be in a foxhole with a guy who wouldn't carry a gun or fight," he said.
Doss was classified as a conscientious objector, though he called himself a conscientious cooperator. He wanted to serve and wanted to be as close to the actual fighting as he could, even if that meant being on the front lines unarmed.
Doss was nearly blown up by a grenade, which left him with 17 pieces of shrapnel in his body, near the escarpment almost a month after his heroic act, and was later shot by a sniper. The wounds, as well as tuberculosis contracted while on Okinawa, left him 90 percent disabled.
He was treated with antibiotics, but an overdose left him deaf for years, though he was later fitted with a cochlear implant that restored some hearing.
Long after the war, Doss was an in-demand speaker for military events but also for church-related events. Hollywood was interested in telling his story, though Doss refused the film projects because he insisted the glory go to God, and that wasn't always the narrative some of the projects wanted to tell.
Benedict spent three years on his documentary, and Gibson used it extensively for "Hacksaw Ridge," Benedict said.
"He made everyone — cast and crew — watch it at the same time," Benedict said.
"It really mobilized everyone about what the mission was. It was easier for everyone to understand after seeing it."
He credits Gibson for understanding the importance of faith in the Doss story.
"Mel is a man of faith, obviously, and I think that the power of what Desmond did, whether training and all of the abuse he went through or then going into a dire war environment, he believed that faith can always carry you through."
Benedict said audience members who have seen the film all seem to come away evaluating themselves and asking how they might have reacted.
"Would I stand up for my beliefs?"
Doss was discharged in 1951 and moved with his wife, Dorothy, to a small farm in Rising Fawn, Ga., where they grew and sold fruits and vegetables to make a living. She died from brain cancer in 1991, and Doss married Frances Duman in 1993.
Doss died in 2006 and is buried in Chattanooga National Cemetery.
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