The First Conscientious Objector Medal of Honor Recipient

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President Truman places the Medal of Honor on Private First Class Desmond Doss, 12 October 1945.

As we approach the Medal of Honor convention here in Charleston beginning next week, the next in a series on Medal of Honor recipients is one of the most amazing, the story of a conscientious objector who insisted on serving his country without a gun and despite all odds saved the lives of many Americans who fought with a gun.

On 01 April 1942 (April Fool’s Day) Desmond Doss was inducted into the U. S. Army at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. As a conscientious objector he was immediately rejected by the officers and men of his unit. Several tried to have him discharged from the Army, but he explained he really wanted to serve his country, he just could not kill anyone. He remained in the service to the great displeasure of his unit’s soldiers and officers.

Desmond and his unit, the 77th Infantry Division left San Francisco on 24 March 1944 for Guam. He would prove himself as a medic with no fear during the battles at Guam and Leyte. Private Doss’s next adventure was on the island of Okinawa and it was on the Maeda Escarpment 05 May 1945 (his Sabbath day) that he would prove himself to the world.

Maeda escarpment viewed from east end of Kakazu Ridge.

The Maeda Escarpment was a 400 foot cliff that stretched across the island of Okinawa. It rose steeply for the first 360 feet and then there was a 50-60 foot sheer face to the top. The entire escarpment was tunneled through by the Japanese army containing caves, pillboxes, machine gun and artillery emplacements, etc. Click here for a large-scale chart… On 04 May his unit had scaled the escarpment successfully.

Below is a picture of Private Doss on the escarpment.

Doss on top of the Maeda escarpment 04 May 1945. The rope seen in the picture is the one used by him to lower 75 wounded soldiers down the cliff on the following day.

On 05 May the Japanese counterattacked his unit and overran the summit of the escarpment. His unit retreated and the only humans on the top of the cliff were the Japanese, wounded American soldiers and Medic Desmond Doss. Private Doss crawled around the escarpment, dragging wounded men over to the cliff and lowered them with the rope to waiting hands below. It took him over five hours to complete his task and he was not wounded in this miraculous event.

Desmond’s unit never mentioned his conscientious objector status again. They knew that they had a brave man who cared enough to risk his life to save his fallen comrades. The story of his deeds on the escarpment spread and soon the commanding general,  General A. D. Bruce of the 77th Infantry Division told Private Doss’s once doubting officers to put him in for the Medal of Honor.

Desmond would later be severely wounded on Okinawa and was sent home. He was the first conscientious objector (of three) to receive the Medal of Honor.  He received it from President Truman on the White House lawn on 12 October 1945, but he would spend the next five and a half years in the VA hospital system recovering from his wounds. Desmond Doss lived most of his remaining life on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga,Tennessee, where he died on 23 March 2006.

Desmond Doss at home on his small farm on Lookout Mountain.

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