The following is a guest post by Owen Rogers, Liaison Specialist for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP).
To date, nearly 5,000 men (and one woman) have received the Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military decoration. Within this exceptional minority, however, only one recipient was awarded with this honor while serving under conscientious objector status. In anticipation of the Hollywood biopic, “Hacksaw Ridge,” you can listen to his story, in his own words, through the VHP collections.
During the Second World War, Desmond Thomas Doss dismissed several opportunities for military deferment. As a war industry worker at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, and a Seventh Day Adventist, both his profession and personal beliefs afforded draft exemption. Morally conflicted, he said, “I felt like it was an honor to serve God and my country, according to the dictates of my conscience.” In accordance with his values, which forbade “participation as a combatant in war in any form, but whose convictions are such as to permit military service in a non-combat status,” he registered for the draft as a conscientious objector, and was sworn into the Army in 1942.
The difference between these designations is significant. Men who are classified as “1-0” conscientious objectors do not serve in the military in any capacity. On the other hand, non-combatants enlist in the armed forces and receive the classification 1-A-O. This exemption removes personnel from roles in which they may cause harm, however, their assignments may nevertheless place them in direct combat. In the case of Desmond Doss, his peaceful nature contradicted the violence he witnessed through multiple island campaigns of the Pacific War.
Donning the yoke of a combat medic, Doss saw service in the Marianas, Philippines, where he received a Bronze Star, as well as the Ryuku Islands campaigns, where his actions merited the Congressional Medal of Honor. On the Japanese home island of Okinawa, Doss rescued 75 wounded soldiers who were stranded atop the Maeda Escarpment. Improvising a rope extraction system, he lowered each wounded man to the safety of their comrades below.
By war’s end, Doss received the Purple Heart with two Oak Leaf Clusters, a Bronze Star with an Oak Leaf Cluster and the Congressional Medal of Honor, all without taking the life of another human being. In memory of his service, the manuscripts, media and memories that he donated to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project are available as part of the institution’s permanent collections.
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