When he recently visited a historic site in Fairview Heights, Virginia Desmond Doss Jr. walked in the arboretum with the manager, a man named Mike.
“You know I met your father when I was just a little boy,” Mike said, referring to the only conscientious objector to earn a Medal of Honor, a combat medic who refused to carry a gun but single-handedly saved the lives of at least 75 men during three weeks in the Battle of Okinawa. The story of Desmond Thomas Doss was depicted in the 2016 movie directed by Mel Gibson, “Hacksaw Ridge.”
Mike proceeded to tell Doss Jr., who lives in Ilwaco, how his father had visited his school and commented on the “ferocious-looking shark” on Mike’s T-shirt.
“Yeah, it’s Jaws,” Mike responded.
Doss asked the boy, “What is the most destructive creature on earth?”
“Well, the shark.”
“No,” the Army veteran responded.
“Oh, it would be a tiger.”
“No, not a tiger.
“Oh, a dinosaur,” the boy said.
“No, not a dinosaur.”
“What is the most destructive creature on earth?” the boy asked.
“My father told Mike, he said, the most destructive creature on earth is man,” Doss Jr. said during the World War II and Pearl Harbor Survivors’ dinner at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis Dec. 9. “He said, but not all men are destructive. He said some men are constructive.”
He then asked Mike, “What kind of man are you going to be?”
Doss Jr., who said that story “sends chills down my back,” added, “I want to be a constructive person.”
He mentioned that veterans like his father, through unconditional love for other people, have gifted us with the ability to live our lives to the highest potential. Failure to do so is almost a sign of disrespect to them, he said.
“My dad was rather a unique person,” Doss Jr. said. “He didn’t carry a gun. He wouldn’t touch a gun. He wouldn’t train with a gun.” When a sergeant asked where he thought he was, Doss responded, “Well, I want to serve my country. I want to be a soldier. I just don’t want to kill anybody.”
When he speaks at schools, the man who followed his father into the military as a conscientious objector and medic who never saw combat, wants young people to understand the cost of freedom.
“I think it’s incumbent upon me to live my life to its very highest potential if I really want to honor my father,” he said.
His father, who died March 23, 2006, at the age of 87, was awarded the Bronze Star twice for actions in Guam and the Philippines. A devout Seventh-day Adventist nicknamed “Preacher” while serving in the Army’s 77th Infantry Division, Doss was promoted to corporal just before he was awarded the Medal of Honor Oct. 12, 1945. He suffered extensive damage to his left arm and contracted tuberculosis in 1946, the same year his only child was born. Doss Jr. said he didn’t even know his father until he returned home from a sanitarium after more than five years—minus a lung and five ribs. He was discharged with a 90 percent disability, increased to 100 percent in 1976.
Growing up with a war hero as a father gave Doss Jr. an opportunity to travel and meet other Medal of Honor recipients and high-ranking government officials, but his father was simply his dad. A normal human being.
The movie, which grossed $175 million worldwide and cost $40 million to produce, was extremely accurate to the true story of his father’s life and actions, Doss Jr. said. His father refused many offers to write or film his life story because he worried they wouldn’t portray him or his beliefs accurately.
One incident was removed from the movie because the producers thought people wouldn’t believe it, even though it was true. The movie shows Doss hauled out on a stretcher when in fact he gave his stretcher to another wounded man and, after treating the soldier, was shot in the arm. He crawled to safety and remained alone with a fractured arm for five hours.
Just before he stood to speak at the Chehalis museum, Doss Jr. said, a man named Harry showed him a copy of Booton Herndon’s 1967 book, “The Unlikeliest Hero: The Story of Desmond T. Doss.” His father had signed it. Harry also pulled out a Christmas card with a lengthy note from Doss’s mother, Dorothy.
“Just to see her handwriting did something for me after she died in ’91,” he said. “You just never know what’s going to happen to you when you crawl out of bed.”
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at email@example.com.