NEWS FEATURE: Adventist WWII Vet, Conscientious Objector, Medal Winner, Reflects at Memorial

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c. 2004 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ He won a Congressional Medal of Honor without firing a single shot, and last week (July 27) Desmond Doss got his first look at the new memorial dedicated to fellow World War II veterans.

“Sometimes I wondered if I’d ever see it,” Doss said. “So this is very special for me.”

Because of his Seventh-day Adventist beliefs, Doss refused to carry a gun or work on Saturday. A Protestant denomination founded in America in the 1800s,Seventh-day Adventists pattern their lives on a literal interpretation of the Bible and believe in Christ’s imminent return to earth.

The Adventists have a history of nonviolent military participation going back to the Civil War, said Reger Smith, a spokesman for the denomination.

During World War II, many, like Doss, served as medics and ambulance drivers. Others volunteered for medical research, during which they were infected with biological agents by scientists seeking effective antidotes.

The convictions of his faith did not make Doss a popular guy in stateside bootcamps. Soldiers threw shoes at him while he prayed; and officers tried to court-martial him. They even tried to get him dismissed as “mentally unfit,” Doss said in an interview at the World War II Memorial.

But all that changed, Doss said, when his unit, the 77th Infantry Division, shipped out to war. On May 5, 1945, in Okinawa, Japan, while his battalion was under heavy fire, and 75 soldiers lay wounded, “Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying them one by one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands,” the citation for Doss’ medal of honor reads.

“Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.”

Doss is believed to be the only person to receive the Medal of Honor for noncombat activities in World War II and one of only two conscientious objectors ever awarded the country’s highest military decoration, according to officials at the Library of Congress and Victoria Leslie, who runs a museum dedicated to the medal.

Doss’ wife, Frances, said he never did like being called a conscientious objector. He preferred the designation of “noncombatant.”

“They (conscientious objectors) didn’t want to salute the flag or wear a uniform _ they were just nasty. But he wasn’t like that at all. He wanted to serve his country, he just didn’t want to carry a gun or kill anybody,” she said.

A wheelchair user, Doss still is spunky at age 85. He has lost most of his hearing _ the result of an overdose of antibiotics he was given for his tuberculosis _ but his presence is very much in demand as he and Frances travel regularly across the country, speaking at church events.

As mall tourists and onlookers crowded around Doss to thank him for his service, his wife sighed and smiled.

“This happens everywhere we go,” she said. “Usually, they’ll ask us to stick around for a half hour and talk to everyone _ and it usually winds up being at least an hour. Everybody just wants to talk to him and shake his hand.”

The faith that sustained Doss through foxholes and forbade him from bearing arms was nurtured in his youth. His parents had a poster that depicted scenes from the Bible. One particular scene _ of Cain beating Abel with a club _ is partly responsible for his horror of killing, Doss said.

“That’s why I wanted to get into the medical unit,” Doss said. “Just to do the kind of work _ the kind of work that I believe Jesus would be doing if he was here at the time _ the work of saving lives. There’s no better honor than to have somebody say to you: `I owe you my life.’ Now some of these fellas, their lives weren’t worth a plug penny, but when I see them at the reunions and such I’m just so happy to see them.”

One biblical passage has always been close to Doss’ heart, Frances said. It is Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”


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