PIEDMONT — Driving north into Piedmont on Alabama 9, one sees little but scattered houses, a few churches and lots of land. But through that open countryside on the outskirts of Calhoun County, a two-mile stretch is assigned to the memory of a man few remember.
Motorists whiz by with likely no more than a moment’s glance at the clear, green marker that reads “Desmond T. Doss Memorial Highway: Medal of Honor Recipient.”
After years of failing health, Desmond T. Doss Sr. died in March 2006 at his home in the Vigo community east of Piedmont. At the age of 87, he was a man of God, faith and family. And in 1945, at 26 years old, he saved the lives of at least 75 men in the Pacific theater of World War II — all while refusing to carry a weapon.
This weekend, the country observes Memorial Day to honor men and women killed while serving in the military. But amidst the remembrance of war-torn loss, some remember a man who not only entered one of the bloodiest conflicts the U.S. had ever seen, but did so without taking a single life.
“He was very open about his experience,” Doss’ pastor, Rick Blythe, said. “He saved a lot of lives, but never ended anyone’s. It was a horrible ordeal, but that helped him.”
As a Seventh-day Adventist, Doss was a pacifist. When he was drafted into the Army in 1942 he served as an unarmed medic. Many use the term “conscientious objector” to describe those whose beliefs lead them to reject taking up arms in combat. Doss never liked the term, according to those who knew him, because he thought people who didn’t understand his beliefs used it as a pejorative. Subjected to jokes and a superior’s attempt to discharge him, Doss held his ground with the pocket-sized Bible his wife Dorothy gave him.
In early May 1945, Doss and his battalion gained footing on a sharp cliff on the coast of Okinawa only to be met with heavy Japanese artillery and machine-gun fire. Driven back by the attack, more than half of the unit was forced down, leaving at least 75 wounded men on top.
Doss refused to leave or find cover and crawled through the open area, retrieving each man and lowering them to the rest of the unit, one by one. Later that month, Doss was injured by shrapnel in an uncovered territory. He treated his own wounds, not wanting to risk exposing another medic to open fire. When he was finally reached and carried out, Doss heard the groaning of another soldier. Hopping off the stretcher, he directed his rescuers to care for “the more critically wounded,” his Medal of Honor citation read.
“We went around when I was a child, all around the [country] so he could speak about his extraordinary experiences,” Doss’ son Desmond Doss Jr. said. “People were really anxious to hear him talk. They wanted to hear his story and his motivations.”
In an interview with the Associated Press in 1987, Doss said his motivation was love.
“In a house on fire and a mother has a child in that house, what prompts her to go in and get that child?” he said. “Love. I loved my men, and they loved me. I don’t consider myself a hero. I just couldn’t give them up, just like a mother couldn’t give up the child.”
Doss received his medal the following October and was considered the chaplain for Medal of Honor recipients since then. Doss was honored by that consideration even more so, Blythe said.
“He was a very quiet, humble man,” he said. “But he had a great sense of humor. At one point, he was asked what he would do if someone broke into his house, threatened to kill his wife. Would he have shot them? And all he said was, ‘No, but I would’ve made them wish they were dead.’”
Doss contracted tuberculosis in the South Pacific, which eventually claimed his left lung and five ribs. Though the TB was cleared through antibiotics, the at-the-time experimental medication caused his hearing to deteriorate until he was completely deaf by 1976. He received a cochlear implant in 1988.
Because of his war wounds and illnesses, Doss was not able to work a full-time job. His first wife, Dorothy, helped support the family alongside Doss’ military pension as a nurse. She developed breast cancer in the late ’80s and died in a car accident in 1991.
In 1993, Doss married Frances Duman, with whom he moved to Piedmont in 2004 to be closer to his stepson, Michael. There, he helped plan and found the Piedmont Seventh-day Adventist Church on Alabama 9, which was dedicated in 2006.
“Whenever the church was open, he would be there,” Blythe said. “He could barely hear, but he and his wife were there every week. I would be preaching and I would see [Frances] taking notes and he would pull out his magnifying glass to read them.”
He signed his name into the book of charter members for the church within the last weeks of his life.
Doss’ dedication to conveying his love of God and life did not completely diminish the mental scars that affect most soldiers who return from war or conflict.
“The war is never over for people like him,” the younger Doss said. “Wars come and go, but for the people directly affected — the soldiers, the heroes, the wounded both emotionally and physically — their war goes on year after year. Whatever you think about war, you can’t look past it when it comes to the human element. They’re real human beings.”
In his co-written autobiography, Doss referred to himself as an “unlikely” hero. But for friends, family and the lives he saved, he was as likely as any.