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Private First Class Desmond T. Doss Interview
(17 JANUARY 1919 - MARCH 23, 2006)
PFC Doss received the Medal Of Honor for actions performed 29 April - 21 May 1945.
PFC Doss is the only Conscientious Objector of World War II to receive the Medal of Honor. His deeds are quite remarkable and you can view the full citation.
NOTE: At the time of this interview, PFC Doss was almost completely deaf and, at times, his comments were inaudible and could not be captured.
This interview was conducted 20 March 1987.
Interviewer: Mr. Doss, can you tell us how you got into the army?
Mr. Doss: Well, I got in the service like most of the others [unclear]. I was working in Newport News, Virginia, in a shipyard in defense work. I could have been deferred. In fact, my boss even offered to defer me, but I was in good health and I felt like it would be an honor to serve God and country. So I didn't want to be known as a 4-F so I would rather go in.
From that, the big question is about my classification of 1-AO. The reason I got the classification of a 1-AO is a seventh day Adventist. I didn't believe in taking a life.; I felt like God gave life, it wasn't for me to take. When I was growing up I was the [unclear] child. My mother had a picture of the ten commandments illustrated and showed a picture of Cain, and Cain killed his brother Able and I wondered how in the world could a brother do such a thing. That had some impression. And then I’ve always been interested in medical work so I took my first aid, red cross, first aid [unclear] when I received my degree from Uncle Sam and I felt like when I got my call I was no better than anyone else going in at $21 a month [unclear] and I didn't want to be known as a 4-F so I was happy I could go in. But what happened was, I didn't know what I was headed for.
Back at that time there was a lot of conscientious, well I don't know if there was a lot, but was a number of conscientious objectors [unclear] demonstrations like they were doing the Vietnam situation. I tell you the conscientious objectors didn't have a very good name [unclear]. I can't say I blame them. When I went in the service, I went in with two others. I don't know what happened to the other two. I was also threatened with being put in a conscientious objector's camp but I told them that I wasn't that type of objector. I felt it an honor to serve my country, God and country, same as the rest of them. The only thing, I just didn't want to take life. I wanted to save life instead of taking life and for them to look at my records, which they did. Now, as a result the Army didn't seem to know too much about that classification at that time and I got stuck in the infantry right off the bat. And I wouldn't take no gun, wouldn't take training, so with my classification I was able to get into the medical corps. So, while they're certainly different than what they have today, [unclear] Fort Jackson [unclear] and medical personnel taught us medics. We had no place like Fort Sam to receive medical training. We had to learn. While they were taking infantry training, we were learning medical. Then when we went out on the field, just what little medical training we did, we had to have the infantry be our guinea pigs. We had to learn on our men as we took our training. So there were things, I’m still learning. I never have completed my medical training yet, it's still going. So when I got to Fort, so now I got into the medical corps, I received my training, all the medical training I had. Then from, see, anyhow, from then, well, we completed our training at Fort Sam, I mean at Fort Jackson, then we made tours all over the country and we just have to do our training, [unclear], swabs, what have you. So that was more or less my main part of my medical training.
Interviewer: What unit were you assigned to overseas when you went over there?
Mr. Doss: I was assigned to a New York division, statue of liberty division. And there, they sort of sandbagged, one such word, but you know you have good, bad and all [unclear]. Well, the military is made up of civilians, let's put it that way. [unclear] Some of the fellows says you don't start living until after midnight. And with my classification of an objector I was part of the Army. They would throw shoes at me while I was praying over night and make all kinds of sarcastic remarks. I don't care to repeat some things they said. But anyhow they just gave me a hard time, but one thing about it, after I was with them for a time, they found out I was a conscientious, I was conscientious and I like to call myself a conscientious cooperator instead of objector because we believe in serving our country in every way possible, same as anyone else. Only thing we didn't want to do is take life, like I mentioned before. God gave life, Christ is our example, I want to be him. [unclear]. So do good seven days a week. That was the other part of my problem. It seemed to me the old classification was this. I was going in with a reservation because I couldn't do unnecessary types of work on my Sabbath, but basically like for the medical work, that's something you can do seven days a week. But if I was in the engineers, I couldn't. So with the 77th division and with the 307, I couldn't serve with a better group of men. I feel it a real honor to have been with the statue of liberty division and I couldn't serve with a better group of men. The main thing is they had to learn that I was a conscientious. They knew it. They trusted me, I trusted them, we worked together and after we first went overseas no problem. I was completely on my own and the fellows just couldn't be nicer. I did run into one problem. I was attached to company B of the 307. This commander, he was all soldier. He didn't tell his men to do anything he couldn't do himself. But I was only attached to him and he gave me an order to go out on a patrol [unclear] for the place was secure. To go meant that I would probably be shot by my men [unclear]. If it was the Japanese, I would say here I am, shoot me. I refused. He got mad at me, he threatened to court martial me. So I went to see my doctor. I said listen doc, you only attached me, I’m taking orders from you. So he told me to go back to the company. So he says the thing to do, you let me know, I’ll see about having him demoted. Now, [unclear] I never had any trouble from that time on. He had a bad name both for the doctors as well as the medics that couldn't bear repeating. So [unclear], to cut things short, so anyhow what happened he got jungle rot and I was busy taking care of him. He got to where he couldn't walk. I went and took care of him. I wrapped the bandages [unclear], he got along all right. And from that time on, when they ran out of medics I volunteered, went back [unclear] he says if he can't appreciate a good man I will. So I was a liter bearer. So I became a company aid man back with B company again and captain Vernon came to me, he tried to apologize. He said, doc, anything in this company [unclear] you let me know and I’ll say this, anything I say is good as law. I couldn't have had better friends from that time on. [unclear] on Okinawa that was knocking at the Japanese back door, one of the main fortifications. We came to the main escarpment [unclear]. When we got to this place, well, I’d like to tell you several stories. I'd like to bring out what the Lord does for us. [unclear] is not over. Captain Vernon came to me, he said, Doss, you know you're on [unclear]. [unclear] wouldn't mind going up to the men on the escarpment [unclear] I says no but first I’d like to finish reading my bible and having proper devotion. And I go. So I just, I was [unclear]....following Christ. Now at first I went to the base of the escarpment and I told lieutenant [unclear], the platoon leader, I thought prayer was the greatest life saver there was and I didn't think a man should go up this cargo net. These cargo nets we got from the navy, used two by fours spliced together and made a long ladder. At the top of this cliff stuck out about five [unclear]. So I told him I didn't think we should go up this [unclear]. He called the platoon together and said doggone it pray for us. That wasn't what I had in mind. What I had in mind was remind the men we had no assurance we would return and if they weren't prepared to meet their maker that they should be before they went up that, before we went up this net. So I prayed to the Lord to give the Lieutenant wisdom and knowing. I had to [unclear] his orders because our lives were in his charge. And if any of us, and help us to take all safe precaution necessary that we all come back alive if it be his will and if any of us weren't prepared to meet our maker that we would be before we went up this ladder. I sincerely believe that all my men prayed with me before. At this same time cause there is no such thing as infidel when you're facing death. I know cause I've had some of the men come to me and ask, pray for me, even though they gave me a hard time in times past. When I finished praying I went up, push up, I pushed over against these Japanese positions. Got pinned down, we couldn't move. While we were pinned down and couldn't move A company was over to our left and they was supposed to come over to help us, meet us to try and knock these Japanese positions. [unclear] Japanese had wooden ladders that come up from the pathways in the mountain, up to that pillbox where the machine guns and the emplacements, what looked like natural terrain. What looked like natural terrain [unclear] looked like the enemy positions and the other things that looked like enemy positions was natural terrain. Most [unclear] of anything I ever seen in my life. [unclear]. That's what we were pinned down against and couldn't move. Then the battalion wanted to know what our losses were and I didn't have any, so naturally I sent a report, I said fine. It wasn't long before word came back that sustained heavy loss [unclear]. And so we had to take that [unclear]. You can imagine being pinned down and can't move and receiving orders like that. Uncle Sam has to sacrifice lives for a very important objective and this was a very important objective. So with the help of the Lord we did move forward and we began to [unclear]. We had demolition squad, we had flame throwers, bazookas, [unclear], machine guns, we had the works. [unclear] move forward [unclear] we could knock out these things one by one. When a fellow got up close enough [unclear]. [unclear] charge and get back and another person flame. The Japanese never had a chance [unclear]. [unclear] halfway down for the mountain. [unclear]. I think it was about eight of those positions we knocked out before we contacted A company. When we contacted A company then [unclear] killed. When the day was over I used to say I didn't have any men wounded and killed but when [unclear] wrote my book down, like a zero, [unclear] I understand I did have one man wounded and killed. But the main thing I want to bring out now is the comparison between this experience and for what I got the medal for. This piece of work I just told you was such an outstanding piece of work, but the [unclear] up onto the escarpment [unclear] up on top, [unclear] and wasn't going to. And he didn't come up. I'm sure thankful he didn't come up because at that time our [unclear] was saved. But the next day everything went wrong. [unclear] very concerned persons. [unclear] push off. I didn't realize what the Lord done for us the day before, and I thought this was going to be what you would call a pushover job now. We had this [unclear] just two small jobs I thought to clean up. The Lord had something to teach me too. I'm sorry to say I didn't pray like the rest of them. And as I say, everything was [unclear]. We had these, over on the Japanese side here, we throwed all type of high explosives [unclear]. Satchel charges, [unclear], set charges, you name it. Japanese pulled the fuse out he couldn't do a thing with them. so they got some tins and [unclear] pour some gasoline on them and that didn't work. [unclear] I think it was the Lieutenant or the sergeant, he fixing to throw a hand grenade to try to keep the Japanese pinned down while we was trying to put the [unclear]. Blew his hand off, blew his right hand off and got the other three men with him so I was [unclear] in the operation. Then I had [unclear] there's only one thing to do and that is to take these five gallon army water cans, filled with high tech gasoline and they just literally threw it over onto the Japanese position. I understand the Lieutenant threw a white phosphorus grenade and when that gasoline hit that, hit that gasoline that whole mound just seemed to quiver. You didn't think anything could survive it. To our surprise what looked harmless the day before, those trenches are still there today. They were dug in on both sides of those trenches and stayed there just plain old suicide. They just came over on it, it was impossible to stay up there and they just throwed the whole works at us. So as a result they tried to credit me in rescuing a hundred men and Ii said there's no way, wanted to know how many I took in. I says I don't know. I would say it had to be over 50 but they officially made it 75. But the thing is this. If....
Interviewer: How did you save the lives?
Mr. Doss: Okay, I'll finish. So I told them it couldn't, [unclear] so, 50, so they officially made it 75. [unclear] if the Lord hadn't performed on my behalf I don't know how I ever got the men off that escarpment. Now, that brings up a big question. How did I get all those men off that escarpment?. [unclear] the Lord. you know how hard [unclear] about prayer, sometimes the Lord answers prayers before we ask, sometimes immediately and sometimes later. I feel like this is one of those experiences. I had to get these, I only had one rope. That was to pull up the ammunition and supplies up onto this escarpment. That's why I had to use all the men. I had a liter and I was going to try to lower the men off the liter. I [unclear] best I could, but like I say, the [unclear] what we did then below. And I got real scared because the fellow's arms came up and I thought he was [unclear] but the rope held firm on his legs and arms. But then a thought came to my mind. I said Lord help me. Then I thought of a knot that I had never seen or heard of before in my life. When we was in West Virginia, and our lives was depending on our knot tying, we had to [unclear] each other over cliffs, across streams, out of trees and what have you, and you better know what you're doing. The lieutenant in charge, he thought I was pretty good at knot tying. He had me instruct some of the others. But I remember, I used to have a little trouble with that bow line and I wanted to get some extra practice on it so I just doubled the rope and made myself an end by doubling the rope. As a result, with the bow line, with rope double, I end up with what I referred to as a double bow line knot. I don't know if they even have such a thing as a double bow line at that particular time. [unclear] recommend should have a double bow line knot, but I ended up with two loops and I prayed that the Lord would [unclear] rope I tied double. I put a leg through the loop, tied a rope underneath the arm here. I had a rope to act as a guideline to hold the fellows out from the cliff. Started to improvise, a little tree out here [unclear] and just slack off on the rope. When it got to the men, the most serious men I gave non stop. [unclear] liter bearers. So I assigned six men non stop. [unclear] four men. All that could walk, as they walked I gave them some assistance. I saw [unclear]. We went up with 150, 155 men. When we went back [unclear] about 50 or 55 of us left. And I was the only medic. That's why they [unclear] such a high number, cause I was the only medic to take care of all B company as well as the attached units. So I want to give the glory to God where the glory is due. Now the reason I want to emphasize this, in evacuating these men, in trying to get these men off the top, what I had [unclear] been blown up or shot up and I was trying to take care of them on top of that escarpment, [unclear] my own men, men having to throw hand grenades over me while the Japanese are trying to [unclear] on me. And [unclear] my men was just inches of me, just few feet of me, and bullets so close I could almost feel them. I went through that experience on that escarpment and I never was wounded on top of that escarpment. I was wounded four times on Okinawa, but the, but on top from another experience [unclear] I should have been killed. I didn't get wounded.
Interviewer: I understand that you stayed on top of the hill and that your own men, for a minute, mistook you for one of the Japanese soldiers.
Mr Doss: That's true. I stayed there [unclear]. I stayed on top until I got my last man out. I had a, I prayed and I'm sure my wife, my mother and a lot others were praying for me. I was trying to take the safest precautions I could, but I felt like my life should be no more important than my buddies. [unclear] My men reminded me of my family. There's something about combat that actually makes you more closely tied to each other. I think you are almost your own blood kin. Those men trusted me. I just [unclear] even though I knew it might cost me my life. I didn't feel like I was going to be killed. I thought if I could just save one more man it would be worth getting [unclear] if I can just save one more man. The Lord blessed, was with me to where I was able to take care of one more until I finally got my last man off. And then we were being pushed off.
Interviewer: By the Japanese?
Mr Doss: [unclear] Japanese still coming. One thing about it, I’d like to make this clear. I did have some help. Everybody [unclear] there at one time. I did have to use some of them [unclear] but now one thing about it. To get off, they were interested more number one in getting off that escarpment with their lives. Those cases of grenades were left up on the edge like cliff. There's nothing to keep the Japanese using them on us.
Interviewer: Let me ask you a question. What kind of injuries did the soldiers that you were taking care of have, and Ms. Doss will write it down.
Mr Doss: Most of them was bullets and grenades mostly from explosives because [unclear] because like you say, see what we thought was safe from the Japanese positions, the top wasn't flat, it was sloping towards the Japanese side. A lot of these positions [unclear] they had a clean sweep at us. Another thing the Japanese did, they would let us take these positions and make us feel good [unclear] making some headway and then they'd throw artillery. That's what happened with Colonel [unclear], a full fledged Colonel, I took off. A shell made a direct hit on us, went right through him. Took large battle dressing and he was bleeding through his chest. I sent for blood plasma. So then I realized I was just a dead duck out in the open field there, cause I looked and I could see the open, so I had to get off that escarpment. So I had to call for help and we had to take the fellow off. When we got down below I got blood plasma and I was giving the Colonel blood plasma when I noticed what was happening. Then I had to get him out. Tried to move him [unclear]. I sent for the doctor and the sergeant. They came up [unclear]. So I suggested they rush him to the hospital because we weren't making any headway but I don't think he made it to the aid station or to the hospital. He was too far gone.
Interviewer: So it was mostly bullet wounds that you were treating?
Mr Doss: They used artillery [unclear] on the escarpment there. The Japanese knew where our placement, we had our machine guns up there trying to keep the Japanese pinned down. They would throw artillery shell in. They nearly blew one of my men out. The fellow's hand was separated with the part of the machine gun in his hand. He was blown up, [unclear] legs. I couldn't get back to the cargo net with him and I had to take a chance evacuating him between A and B company. When I went back there 25 years later, I found out I evacuated the fellow over a wooden ladder, right over this position to get him off that and evacuate [unclear] of a cave there and I never was fired on.
Interviewer: Let me ask you another question. If you had to give some advice to today's medics, what kind of advice would you give to them, the medics that are training now?
Mr Doss: The best advice I can give is put your heart and soul into your work. If you like what you're doing, the Lord will bless. I know some thought I was better. Well I felt like I was. We put our heart and soul into our work. I feel like, especially for the medics, it's the most rewarding work there is. We can't save all but like I told you before about the experience, about the fellow that I took care of that I said I wouldn't give a plug penny for his life, [unclear]. I'm sorry to say I [unclear] shot of morphine [unclear] cause he said he didn't want it. He died of shock. Couldn't die of anything else [unclear]. [unclear] a long ways to the aid station, I didn't think there was any chance of him to get to the aid station. But at our reunion, 307 reunion, [unclear] Pennsylvania, who is at my table but the fellow that I got the [unclear] to show to him these many years later. So you can imagine how good it is to be able to say that you had the privilege these many years later to meet some of the men that the good Lord enabled you to help save the life of. So, my advice is, put your heart and soul in your work and another thing, think about your having [unclear]. What the Lord did for me he can do for other people. I know [unclear] I can tell my story today. That's why I like for the glory to go to God. Another thing is this, like EMT work, you have to also sometime [unclear] what they call the front line doctor. But you also have to be chaplain, especially when you know they're not going to make it back, not going to get back alive today, chances are not likely they're going to get back to the aid station or back to the states alive, so you have to be able to speak words of encouragement to these people also. So, I feel like my work has been rewarding work. I have no regrets. I'm just thankful I had the honor and privilege to serve God and country.
Interviewer: Thank you very much.