The Real 'Hacksaw Ridge' Soldier Saved 75 Souls Without Ever Carrying A Gun Conscientious objector Desmond Doss became a World War II hero during one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater. Now he's the subject of a new film directed by Mel Gibson.
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The Real 'Hacksaw Ridge' Soldier Saved 75 Souls Without Ever Carrying A Gun

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The Real 'Hacksaw Ridge' Soldier Saved 75 Souls Without Ever Carrying A Gun

The Real 'Hacksaw Ridge' Soldier Saved 75 Souls Without Ever Carrying A Gun

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific during World War II, Desmond Doss is credited with saving 75 soldiers. And he saved them without ever carrying a weapon. Desmond Doss is the subject of "Hacksaw Ridge," a new movie directed by Mel Gibson. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this story of the man who inspired the movie.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: By just about any logic, Desmond Doss should not have been on the battlefield. A quiet, skinny kid from Lynchburg, Va. - a Seventh-day Adventist who wanted to join the war effort as a medic but wouldn't touch a weapon or work on the Sabbath.

TERRY BENEDICT: He just didn't fit into the Army's model of what a good soldier would be.

BLAIR: And for that, the Army made his life hell during training, says Terry Benedict, who made a documentary about Doss called "The Conscientious Objector."

BENEDICT: It started out as harassment. And then it became abusive.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR")

UNIDENTIFIED VETERAN #1: He was regarded, very frankly, as a pest.

BLAIR: Benedict spoke to several World War II vets who trained and served with Doss.

UNIDENTIFIED VETERAN #2: A lot of people thought this guy was putting on an act. You know, what kind of religion - you can't do this? You can't do that, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED VETERAN #3: You know, he'd say his prayers at night and everything. And some guys took the shoes and threw shoes at him and made fun of him right out in the open.

BLAIR: In one scene in the new feature film "Hacksaw Ridge," a soldier taunts Doss.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HACKSAW RIDGE")

LUKE BRACEY: (As Smitty) So how come you don't fight? You think you're better than us?

ANDREW GARFIELD: (As Desmond Doss) No.

BRACEY: (As Smitty) What if you was attacked?

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAPPING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Whoa.

BRACEY: (As Smitty) Say, like that? Bible says to turn the other cheek, don't it? See, I don't think this is a question of religion, fellas. I think this is cowardice.

BLAIR: Army leaders threatened to have Doss court-martialed or discharged for being mentally unfit. In the documentary, Captain Jack Glover says he tried to get Doss transferred.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR")

JACK GLOVER: And I told him, you're not going to be by my damn side if you don't carry a gun.

BLAIR: But the army could not force Doss to use a weapon. A law passed in 1940 allowed conscientious objectors to serve the war effort in non-combatant positions. So Doss went with his company as a medic to the Pacific Theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HACKSAW RIDGE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As unidentified soldier, speaking Japanese).

BLAIR: On Okinawa, Doss' company faced a grueling task, climb a steep, jagged cliff, Hacksaw Ridge, to a plateau where thousands of heavily armed Japanese soldiers were waiting for them. "Hacksaw Ridge" director Mel Gibson recreated the battle.

MEL GIBSON: The Japanese called it the rain of steel because there was so much iron flying around. And so we tried to emulate what it must have been like from accounts and from war footage.

BLAIR: Under a barrage of gunfire and explosions, Doss crawled on the ground, caring for wounded soldiers. He dragged severely injured men to the edge of the ridge, tied a rope around their bodies and lowered them down to other medics below. Here's Desmond Doss from the documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR")

DESMOND DOSS: I was praying the whole time. I just kept praying, Lord, please help me get one more.

BLAIR: Doss is credited with saving 75 men over a 12-hour period. The same soldiers who'd shamed him praised him. One of the men Doss rescued was Captain Jack Glover.

GLOVER: In the long run, finding out that he was one of the bravest persons alive and then to have him end up saving my life was the irony of the whole thing.

BLAIR: President Harry Truman awarded Desmond Doss the Medal of Honor in 1945.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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