While surfing for fresh material for today’s blog entry—taking a pass on the obvious today (Good-by Columbus)—I came across one story that struck deeply and personally home.
Desmond T. Doss was a private in B Company of the 1st Battalion, 307th Infantry Regiment 77th Division on Okinawa serving as a medic in May of 1945 when over the course of several days he performed serial action of stupefying bravery under fire personally saving the lives of as many as 75 men. And he did so totally unarmed. He became the first Conscientious Objector (CO) ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor and the only one ever to survive to accept it. Two Vietnam medic COs died saving lives.
My Dad Willard Maurice (W.M.) Murfin was a Medical Corps officer in the 77th Divisions serving as commanding officer of forward battalion aid stations and like Doss participated in campaigns on Guam, Leyte in the Philippines, and finally on bloody Okinawa. Did they know one another? I don’t know it was a big war, but in some ways surprisingly intimate. Soldiers knew the members of their squads, companies, and details with which they served but not necessarily those under the same command fighting a few hundred yards away. Still they experienced much of the same horror. And each acted bravely under fire to save doomed men.
In other ways their stories were very different.
Doss was born on February 19, 1919 in Lynchburg, Virginia into an intensely devout Seventh Day Adventist family. As I child he was deeply impressed by a large poster his father had on the wall of their home of Cain holding a club with the slain Abel beneath him with the text of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. He internalized the Sixth Commandment—“Thou Shalt Not Kill” personally beyond even the customary Adventist commitment to pacifism.
When war came, the young man knew he would be called in the Draft. Like others of his faith he was determined not to take up arms. Adventists were the largest single group of religious objectors in World War II, surpassing the Quakers and Mennonite peace churches. And they tended to be, you should pardon the expression, militant about it. Many refused not only to bear arms, but to any uniform service that could be seen as abetting war. Others refused to cooperate in any way with the Selective Service System or the government. As a result by the largest group of COs sentenced to prison for Draft Resistance were Adventists.
Doss to a less adamant position. He decided in advance that when drafted he would be willing to serve as a medic under the strict condition he must never be armed. He was willing to save lives, not to take them. He also knew that Draft Boards were taking a dim view of religious objection and often rejected claims and that even if approved the Army might assign him to other duty it considered non-combatant but did not meet his strict conditions. In either of those cases he was quite prepared to go to prison.
Waiting out the inevitable Draft all, Doss went to work in a Navy Shipyard and took First Aid and basic medical courses at night hoping that would help get him the assignment he hoped for.
My father was six years older and a married man when the war broke out. Still in draft age, but in the early going at least, not likely to be called for combat service. He had grown up in Missouri and had been an Eagle Scout. He continued as an adult Scout leader through most of the ‘30’s. He was an expert outdoorsman, woodsman, and hunter. Despite a good job at long last and his own home in Hardin, Montana he enlisted in the Army weeks after Pearl Harbor.
He hoped that his experience would get him a place as a scout or in a Ranger unit. Instead, to his initial disappointment, he was assigned to the Army Medical Corp. After training at Fort Douglas in Illinois and in the California desert, his Field Hospital unit found itself onboard ship headed to North Africa. He was Top Sargent of the unit which was attached to British and Commonwealth troops in Egypt. He was with Field Marshal Montgomery’s army as it pushed west across the desert breaking out at El Alamein and chasing Rommel across Libya. After that service he was tapped for Officer Candidate School and sent stateside for training.
When he was called in the Draft in the spring of 1942, Doss was granted CO status and accepted for medical service. The requirement that he be on duty on the Sabbath gave him pause. Adventists, who celebrate their Sabbath on Saturday, require strict avoidance of all work on that day to devote it to worship and prayer. Finally he concluded that since Jesus performed healings on the Sabbath, it was safe for him to do so.
Doss had a hard time in the army. COs were not popular. Those who adamantly refused to carry arms even less so. Although forbidden by the Geneva Convention many commanders pressured their CO to arm themselves and the men didn’t trust those who the thought might “not have their back” in a tight situation. He was subject to intense hazing, ridicule, and even assault. His commanding officer tried to get rid of him as a mental case. But Adventists were trained from childhood to withstand scorn and abuse, to wear it as a personal badge of honor for fidelity to God’s commandments.
Doss persisted and shipped out with his Division for service in the Pacific. He proved himself first on Guam in 1944. It was a grueling four month campaign in dense rain forest and rugged terrain. Unlike most Medics, Doss refused to remove or obscure the Red Cross on his helmet and other Medical Corps insignia. He later described the risks:
The Japanese were out to get the medics. To them, the most hated men in our army were the medics and the BAR men… they would let anybody get by just to pick us off. They were taught to kill the medics for the reason it broke 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.
He went beyond the customary dangers to any front-line medic however. He volunteered over and over to accompany dangerous long-range patrols that seldom went out with medics. He routinely rescued or treated men under fire for which he was awarded the first of two Bronze Stars. And the former pariah finally won the respect and admiration of the men with whom he served. My bet is they were all calling him Doc by the time it was over.
After a rest Doss was off to Leyte in December 1944 and another intense jungle campaign. This time, for some reason, he was assigned as a stretcher bearer rather than a medic. The designation did not faze him. He carried a full medic’s kit anyway supplemented by bandages and supplies he scrounged where he could. He earned his second Bronze Star by sprinting 200 yards under intense machine gun fire to rescue two injured men. One was dead. The other he carried to the relative safety of a tree line where he fashioned a make-shift stretcher out of bamboo and a blanket then dragged him under sniper fire to friendly lines. Although cited for this action, it was typical of almost any day under fire.
After completing OCS and a brief stateside assignment at Ft. Lewis in Washington state, Dad was assigned duty with the 77th Division. Like Doss he saw intense action on Guam and Leyte. Unlike Doss, he quickly learned to take the Red Cross off his helmet and ditch his identifying shoulder patches, pins, and officer’s insignia. He also was not shy of carrying—and apparently using—a gun. I have a picture of him on Leyte with a .45 Colt Automatic in a shoulder holster. He also brought home from the war an M-1 Carbine and a mean looking Bolo Knife, both of which I assume he used.
And like Doss he earned a Bronze Star for a similar rescue of wounded men under intense machine gun fire. Like I said before, almost routine for front line medical personnel.
Then after a short rest the Division and both men were bound to Okinawa, the last stepping stone to the Japanese Home Islands. Resistance was long and fierce as the Japanese retreated into caves that honeycombed the rugged mountains of the island. Whatever happened to my Dad, it was so traumatic that he would not speak of it. Except once. Watching a documentary on TV footage of Japanese civilians jumping to their deaths from cliffs rather than surrender came on the screen. Dad got agitated like I had never seen him. He had to leave the room. Later he explained only that he had “seen that.”
Things were even tougher for Private Doss. On April 29, 1944 his company was part of an assault on Maeda Escarpment, a 400-foot-high ridge overlooking the entire south side of the island infested with machine gun nests, booby traps, concrete pillboxes, and winding caves. The initial assault had Doss and his company scaled ropes up the sheer cliff face. Always under intense fire from hidden positions, the men tried to dig the enemy out cave-by-cave, hole-by-hole using flame throwers and grenades.
Early in the morning of April 30 a five man squad from the company was charging a machine gun nest was mowed down just 15 feet from their objective. Doss crawled forward under that same fire four different times to drag survivors to safety. It was just the first of a string of extraordinary acts of bravery that stretched over the next several days.
Most Medal of Honor winners are cited for a single action. Doss’s citation was epic citing six actions over almost a month. Let it speak for itself.
… He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet (120 m) high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying all 75 casualties one-by-one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands. On May 2, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards (180 m) forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards (7.3 m) of enemy forces in a cave's mouth, where he dressed his comrades' wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety. On May 5, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet (7.6 m) from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards (91 m) to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. On May 21, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited 5 hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Pfc. Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter; and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers’ return, he was again struck, by a sniper bullet while being carried off the field by a comrade, this time suffering a compound fracture of 1 arm. With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards (270 m) over rough terrain to the aid station. Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.
Whew! It is exhausting just to read. Doss’s wounds were grievous, life threatening. But he seemed most concerned with the loss of a pocket Bible his wife had given him. After action in front of the caves subsided the whole company combed the ground until they found the Bible and returned it to the injured man as he was awaiting evacuation to a Hospital Ship. Before he left his commanding officer informed him that he was submitting his name for the Medal of Honor.
The Medal was officially approved in November as Doss was recovering from his wounds. Promoted to corporal, Doss received his medal personally from President Harry Truman when he was well enough to stand through the brief ceremony.
After a spell in the Philippines after the end of the war, my father returned to Montana and his wife Ruby a changed and restless man. The first two years home were difficult. He couldn’t sleep well and often woke up screaming. He could not settle into his old life as a bank teller. Instead he concocted a scheme to purchase a bunch of surplus 1903 Springfield Rifles, mount them with scopes and make them the prizes for the punch boards he peddled to saloons across the state. It kept him moving and drinking. He also disappeared into the mountains for long periods on fishing and hunting trips.
Slowly he got a grip on himself and opened a sporting goods store and hunting guide service in West Yellowstone that led unexpectedly to a career as a Chamber of Commerce manager. By 1949 he and Ruby could adopt the twin boys they would raise as their own. He became part of the so-called Greatest Generation which came home and started remaking America.
Doss’s injuries were so severe that he spent the next five years mostly convalescing in Veterans’ Hospitals. When he finally came home to his family he could not work at a steady job. His wife and child lived on his slim disability payments. He lived in Georgia and later Alabama using his abundant free time as a church volunteer and youth leader. His first wife died in 1991, and he remarried.
When interviewed from time to time he would tell his story plainly without embellishment. But he was evidently more comfortable talking about his experiences than my Dad.
Doss died March 27, 2006 at the age of 86 at his home in Piedmont, Alabama. He was buried in the National Cemetery at Chattanooga, Tennessee.
My father was long gone by then. He died of brain cancer in a Missoula, Montana hospital on December 17, 1989 at the age of 76. He was given both American Legion and Masonic funeral services. His ashes were scattered by surviving brother Masons and hunting buddies from Hardin on “the sunny side of the mountain overlooking his favorite trout stream.
Doss was interviewed for the 2001 TV series Medal of Honor and profiled in Conscientious Objector, a 2004 documentary. In 2012 there were reports that director Randall Wallace was developing a feature film about Doss for Walden Pictures.
My father lives on in fading photographs on the wall of my study.