During World War II, a skinny, unassuming young man from Virginia single-handedly rescued over 75 wounded comrades from a 300-foot escarpment under furious enemy fire, with nothing but a knotted rope.
He was the real Spiderman.
His name was Desmond Doss.
In 2016, Desmond Doss was portrayed by Andrew Garfield in the critically acclaimed biographical war film, Hacksaw Ridge* (Garfield earlier played the lead role in “The Amazing Spiderman”).
But how did this blue-collar country kid save over 75 men under active enemy fire…without a single weapon?
And how does his story apply to you?
1. Do your duty
“It isn’t right that other men should fight and die, that I would just be sitting at home safe. I need to serve.” — Hacksaw Ridge (Desmond Doss)
When America entered WWII, Doss had the opportunity to avoid the draft because he worked in a shipyard.
As a Christian who refused to kill, Doss knew he would face complications, misunderstandings, and trouble if he enlisted.
But he believed it was his duty to protect his country, so he refused his boss’s offer to get a pass, and volunteered anyway — as a combat medic.
2. Stay true to your faith
“Most of these men don’t believe the same way you do, but they believe so much in how much you believe.” — Hacksaw Ridge (Capt. Glover)
Desmond Doss was raised a Seventh Day Adventist by his mother, a devout Christian. For his entire life, he practiced the principles with which he was raised, including:
- Helping others: he used to walk miles out of his way to donate blood.
- Keeping the Sabbath: Doss believed in practicing all of the Ten Commandments, and when he refused to work on the Sabbath, even during training, he was bullied for his convictions.
- And refusing to kill: Doss believed so strongly in not taking human life, that he wouldn’t even touch a gun.
In short, Doss lived out his faith and beliefs with integrity. He didn’t dither or make compromises — he just walked the walk.
3. Stick to your (non) guns
“I don’t know how I’m going to live with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe” — Hacksaw Ridge (Desmond Doss)
Doss had two unusual convictions that made him stick out like a sore thumb in the barracks:
- First, he believed in keeping the Sabbath by going to church and not working on Saturdays.
- Second, he believed in the sanctity of human life and refused to hold a weapon — not even to clean it.
Doss’ superiors tried to make him compromise on his convictions by making it hard for him to go to church or trying to force him to hold a gun. He refused.
As a result, he was hated by both peers and authorities, who threw shoes at him, laughed at him, and tried to get him tossed out of the army on a Section 8 “mental incompetence” discharge.
Doss stuck it out, however, and later proved his worth on the battlefield, saving the lives of some of his former tormentors.
4. Don’t hold grudges
“Please, Lord, help me get one more!” — Desmond Doss, while rescuing the wounded during the battle in Okinawa
Desmond Doss never returned insult for insult.
During the infamous battle on the Maeda Escarpment (aka “Hacksaw Ridge”) in Okinawa, Desmond stayed behind to save others when he was ordered to retreat.
He single-handedly rescued more than 75 wounded soldiers by dragging them away from enemy fire, tying them securely with a two-pronged knot he invented himself, and lowering them one by one to safety, three hundred and fifty feet below.
Some of the men he rescued were the very people who had made his life miserable during training.
In fact, Doss even treated enemy soldiers.
After the heat of battle, Doss’ fellow soldiers reported seeing American bandages on Japanese corpses — apparently Doss was treating all the wounded, not just the soldiers on “his side.”
5. Be humble
“We had 155 men go up and only 55 men got down the hill on their own. So you must have saved 100 men.” — “Couldn’t be. It couldn’t have been more than 50. I wouldn’t have had time to save 100 men.” — Desmond Doss: Conscientious Objector (Desmond Doss)*
After Doss’ heroic feat in Okinawa, his commander told him that he rescued 100 men. Doss said that the number could only be 50 at most. So the official compromise was 75.
Later, when he returned home, movie producers clamored to turn Desmond Doss’ life into a movie.
Instead of jumping at the chance to become rich and famous, Doss refused multiple movie proposals, concerned that Hollywood would not do justice to his faith in its portrayal of his story.
It wasn’t until near the end of his life, when a producer promised to respect Doss’ beliefs, that Doss finally agreed to let his story hit the big screen.
6. Endure suffering patiently
“But those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary” — Isaiah 40:31
One would think that life would cut Desmond Doss a break after everything he’d gone through during the war.
But even after the war, Doss continued to face hardships, just like everyone else:
Desmond Doss lost several close friends in the war and came home injured when he stepped on a grenade to save his friends, then was hit by a sniper.
Once home, Doss discovered that he’d contracted tuberculosis and had to be quarantined from his wife and son for years. Eventually, the doctors had to remove one of his lungs, and the experimental medications they used to treat his TB left him totally deaf.
Then Doss’ wife had a mental breakdown from all of the stress she was under, and later in life, she developed breast cancer, then passed away in a car accident.
Through it all, Doss bore the tragedies without becoming angry, bitter, or discouraged. Instead, he would…
8. Care for others
“I’m prepared to give my life for my men.” — Hacksaw Ridge (Desmond Doss)
In addition to saving 75 men on the Maeda Escarpment, Doss also rolled off a litter to treat a wounded soldier after Doss himself had been wounded by a grenade.
Doss gave up his place on the litter to the other soldier and crawled 300 yards under enemy fire to the medic tent, broken leg and arm notwithstanding.
Then, after the war, Doss used money people donated to him to build a church for the use of others in the community.
Doss also spoke at youth camps and churches, spending time and effort teaching, inspiring, and mentoring young people.
He never made a big deal out of his sacrifices, but he was always looking out for others, and that showed in his actions.
How does Doss’ story apply to YOU?
“With the world set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to put a little bit of it back together.” — Hacksaw Ridge (Desmond Doss)
You all face a myriad of decisions, every day, many of which have long-term effects on your character, your life, and on others’ lives as well.
Some of those decisions might involve risking or sacrificing your reputation, comfort, or livelihood.
They may mean swallowing your pride when someone wrongs you.
Or they may mean facing ridicule, bullying, or hatred from those who disapprove of your convictions.
Doss overcame all of these trials, and more.
He didn’t start out as a superhero, but each decision he made — to practice his convictions and stick to his principles — strengthened his character and helped him develop the superhero qualities of courage and integrity.
Like Doss, it’s important for us to develop courage, figure out what we believe, and stick with it, so that one day when we DO face a life-altering decision, we will be able to stand strong.
Life guarantees difficult decisions. We must be prepared.
Calling All Superheroes
Today, you probably don’t need to fight in wars or risk our lives to defend our country. At least, not physically. But you still need courage.
Courage doesn’t just happen on battlefields or in explosions of glory. That’s just where it’s most visible. But courage is built through the myriad mundane decisions you make every day.
When you choose to refuse the easy way out of a sticky situation, when you ignore the pressure from bullies trying to intimidate you into betraying your convictions, you are building moral courage and integrity.
And that accumulated courage will be there for you when you need it one day — maybe even in a Hacksaw-Ridge-like situation.
At that moment, you may just find, as Desmond Doss did, that you have a superhero inside you, too.
*Desmond Doss’ story is told in:
- The award-winning 2016 movie Hacksaw Ridge**
- The free YouTube documentary The Conscientious Objector
- Redemption at Hacksaw Ridge by Booton Herndon**
- The biography written by his second wife, Frances Doss: Desmond Doss: Conscientious Objector** (**affiliate links)