Unlikely heroes

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Harry A. Davis, Jr.
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing Director of Staff
The place: Maeda Escarpment on the island of Okinawa, Japan. The man: Pfc. Desmond T. Doss, medic, Company B, 77th Infantry Division. The situation: Surrounded by heavily-armed Japanese forces, the 155 men of Company B began to lose the ground gained during the initial advance. Almost immediately, 75 men fell wounded, and the remaining men had to fall back and retreat to the base of the escarpment, leaving only the wounded, the Japanese and Private Doss. What ensued May 5, 1945, and over the next 16 days, was nothing short of a miracle, and the quintessential demonstration of selfless service and going the extra mile.

On that fateful day, as the bullets were flying and artillery shells were bursting all around him, Private Doss began tending to his wounded comrades. As the Soldiers who escaped to the base of the escarpment sat helplessly amidst the sound of the battle raging above, they all of a sudden, to their utter amazement, saw a wounded Soldier appear over the face of the escarpment. Soon another came. And then another. One after the other, each one being lowered by the tall, lanky medic from Alabama, who, heedless of the advancing Japanese soldiers, continued his intrepid work of sending each Soldier to safety at the bottom of the cliff.

For five hours Doss lowered soldier after soldier using little more than a tree stump with which to wind the rope he used to lower the wounded men. Throughout those grueling and perilous five hours, Desmond had only one thought: he prayed, "Lord, help me get one more; just one more!" How many men Pfc. Doss saved that day, no one exactly knows. One hundred and fifty-five Soldiers went up the Maeda Escarpment that day, and only 55 were able to retreat without assistance. The Army determined that the conscientious objector (who had almost been court-martialed as unfit for military service) had saved 100 lives. "Couldn't be," Desmond replied. "It couldn't have been more than 50. I wouldn't have had the time to save 100 men." And for this perilous act of selflessness and valor, Private Doss was awarded our nation's highest distinction for heroism in combat -- the Medal of Honor.

Is there a "Private Doss" among you? Have you seen him? Have you seen her? Perhaps it's the NCO who selflessly covers the shift for his teammate who needs some time off to tend to the needs of her family. Or maybe it's the lieutenant who makes 10 trips from town to the base over the weekend as an Airmen Against Drunk Driving volunteer. Perhaps it's the Phoenix Spouse who ensures the families of the deployed military members in her unit receive a friendly call every week simply to say, "How're you doing?"

What is it that drives these people to take that extra step? Money? Honor? Social accolades? Probably not. People who reach out to serve others seldom do so for selfish reasons or for the purpose of receiving temporal rewards. Many of these "heroes in action" are driven by a deeper principle; an innate standard such that their deeds are not simply things they do, rather, they reflect who they are at the very core.

For Private Doss, that innate standard was his strong faith. His service went beyond the precept, "and whosoever shall compel you to go a mile, go with him two." There was no compulsion to begin even the first mile of his valorous act, much less the second. He did it because he devoted himself to a higher calling, one which intrinsically bore the values of integrity, service and excellence.

Of the 16 million men and women in uniform during World War II, only 431 displayed gallantry of such magnitude they were awarded the Medal of Honor. Of those heroes, all of whom engaged in actual conflict with the adversary, only one man refused to even touch a weapon during his entire military career. He never killed an enemy soldier; he never took an enemy position. Yet his almost incredible feats of bravery under the heaviest of enemy fire have earned the awe and admiration of presidents and generals, soldiers and civilians.

Surely Pfc. Desmond Doss must be America's unlikeliest hero. In the same way, those who espouse excellence and altruistically give of themselves without desire of reward, status, or honor, are those who may, as Pfc. Doss, be rightly called "second-mile leaders."