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Hacksaw Ridge: The men who went to war without firing a single bullet

Mel Gibson’s latest movie explores the history of Desmond Doss, one of three conscientious objectors to have won the US Medal of Honour

Clarisse Loughrey
Tuesday 17 January 2017 15:45 GMT
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Andrew Garfield has been nominated for a Bafta for his portrayal of Doss in this cinematic tribute
Andrew Garfield has been nominated for a Bafta for his portrayal of Doss in this cinematic tribute

Three conscientious objectors have been awarded the Medal of Honour, the United States of America's highest military honour: three men who have been distinguished by their country for saving countless lives without firing a single bullet. One of them, Desmond Doss, is the subject of a new film, Hacksaw Ridge. Directed by Mel Gibson, Andrew Garfield (now Bafta-nominated for his role) plays Doss in a cinematic tribute to his incredible bravery in the face of a hail of death, saving 75 lives during the Battle of Okinawa.

During the Second World War, the US allowed conscientious objectors to serve in noncombatant military roles; with most working as medics within the army, allowing them to serve without wielding a weapon. Doss was such an individual; a Seventh-day Adventist drafted into the military in April 1942 and given the status of conscientious objector, enrolling as a medic in the 77th Infantry Division.

Doss faced harassment from his fellow soldiers, with his commanding officer attempting to initiate a Section-8 discharge (used when a serviceman is judged mentally unfit for service); though Doss refused: “I’d be a very poor Christian if I accepted a discharge implying that I was mentally ‘off’ because of my religion,” he said.

He first entered into the midst of combat in the summer of 1944, serving on both Guam and Leyte in the Philippines, and receiving the Bronze Star. Hacksaw Ridge, however, focuses on the events which took place when his unit landed on Okinawa. After Doss’s prayers, the 77th managed to almost miraculously capture the intimidating, 400ft Maeda Escarpment without a single death and only one minor injury. When a photographer arrived at the scene to capture the moment, asking how the feat was pulled off, the soldiers answered: “Doss prayed!”

However, things would take a dark turn for the unit in the coming month. On 5 May, the Japanese launched a counterattack, driving the Americans off the Escarpment; leaving stranded behind a known 75 wounded soldiers.

Corporal Doss receiving the Medal of Honour from President Harry S Truman on 12 October 1945

But Private Doss remained. Amongst the constant threat of enemy fire, he tended to the wounded and carried them, one by one, to the edge of the ridge; lowering them down on a rope-supported litter, tied with the double bowline knots he had learned as a young man. He returned unscathed that day, engaging in additional rescue efforts over the next two weeks, eventually being wounded by a grenade that embedded him with shrapnel, though he carried on alone for a further five hours with his injuries.

His Medal of Honour citation – presented to him by President Harry S Truman on 12 October 1945 – credits him with having saved the lives of all 75 men that day.

Hacksaw Ridge Official Trailer

Two conscientious objectors would later receive the same honour during the Vietnam War, Thomas W Bennett and Joseph G LaPointe Jr; both, like Doss, held religious convictions which posed a moral crisis in the face of their call to military service – choosing also to serve as medics on the field. Bennett and LaPointe, however, did not survive their experiences.

Bennett’s platoon was ambushed in the midst of the thick, triple-canopy jungle; everyone dived for cover, except Bennett, who rushed to aid the injured. Under near-constant assault, he aided and comforted his wounded comrades over the next day or so; before being shot as he jumped up to dart the 30 feet to an injured platoon, choosing to risk exposing himself to heavy rifle fire.

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Joseph G LaPointe was a medical aidman attached to the 101st Airborn Division; his patrol coming foul of an enemy bunker while assisting with a combat helicopter assault mission. Hearing the call for aid, LaPointe crawled through enemy fire – in plain view of the bunker – to assist two wounded comrades, shielding them with his own body.

Repeatedly wounded and knocked down, each time LaPointe would return to his position and continue to administer aid to the two soldiers while shielding them with his body. All three were killed by an exploding enemy grenade before LaPointe could stabilise them and evacuate them to safety.

Both Bennett and LaPointe were awarded their Medal of Honours posthumously, in 1970 and 1971 respectively. Doss, Bennett, and LaPointe may have found their place in the historical records; but it’s up to us to keep their memory, and the memory of their actions, alive.

‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is in UK cinemas from 27 January

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