While we consider the current attitude of Seventh-day Adventists towards abortion and the sacredness of human life, it might be helpful to paint a picture of SDA’s attitude towards the sanctity of human life a few decades before the U.S. Supreme Court removed the legal protection from the unborn and legalized the practice of abortion. It is the story of a SDA soldier who was drafted for military service during World War II and encountered an incredible amount of pressure from his military commanders to carry a gun at least for self defense, but who refused to do so due to his respect for the sacredness of human life. He risked opposition, ridicule, abuse, and the threat of military court martial, and became a national hero in spite of it all.
His name was Desmond T. Doss, a young man who had registered as a Conscientious Objector (I-A-O). Why did he register under the I-A-O designation? Because he was a practicing SDA, and one of his strongest religious convictions was the respect for the sacredness of human life, together with a high respect for the sacredness of God’s Holy Day–the Seventh Day of the week, or Sabbath; and a deep deference towards the other precepts of the Decalogue. The story of this soldier illustrates the attitude of SDA’s towards the sacredness of human life at that time.
In those days, men who served in the army as conscientious objectors were held in rather low esteem, were often ridiculed by their comrades, and mistreated by their superiors. Some of them were abused, imprisoned, assigned to menial tasks, kicked and beaten, and even “dunked headfirst into latrines. During the war, 162 members of the Seventh-dayAdventistChurchwere court-martialed because of their religious convictions, and when the war ended, thirty-five of these men were serving terms of from five to twenty years at hard labor.”
Desmond Doss Military Training
Desmond Doss was well aware of this unfortunate situation, but his religious convictions were ingrained in his soul since childhood, and he could not bear the thought of taking the life of another human being–not even in self defense during wartime. He wanted to serve his country, but he determined he would refuse to bear arms as evidence of his respect for the sacredness of human life. He was drafted along with many other Adventist young men, and was assigned, by mistake, to a rifle company.
His first day in the army did not go well. When it was bedtime, he knelt beside his bunk bed in order to say his prayers, and all of a sudden he became the object of ridicule. A heavy army shoe sailed above his head. He didn’t want to get hit by a shoe, but he didn’t want to cut short his prayers. He realized he would need the Lord like never before.
In vain did the supply sergeant, the platoon sergeant, the platoon lieutenant, and the company captain attempted to make him carry a gun. No amount of begging, coaxing, or threatening was effective in altering his determination not to bear arms. He clearly remembered that
“On the wall of the living room, back in the little frame house in Lynchburg, Virginia, [his hometown] hung a framed scroll depicting the Ten Commandments. … Each commandment was illustrated by a drawing. The one that gripped him most concerned the sixth commandment: Thou shalt not kill. It depicted the story of Cain and Abel. In the illustration Abel lay on the ground bleeding, while over him stood the murderous Cain, dagger in hand.”
This illustration was fresh in his mind as he faced his superiors demanding that he obey their orders. When everything failed, Doss was reassigned to a group of soldiers being trained as medics. Sometimes the infantry engaged in rifle marksmanship training, and while the rest of the soldiers practiced, Doss stood around doing nothing. This was a cause for resentment among his fellow soldiers. But this was not all. This SDA soldier also refused to do any work on his Holy Day, the seventh day of the week, or Sabbath. Of course, he was willing to perform his medical duties on his day of rest, but he refused to perform any ordinary assignment that could be done on any other day of the week like scrubbing the barracks floor for Saturday inspection. “A floor can be scrubbed any day of the week,” he would argue.
To compensate for his refusal to do menial work on the Sabbath, he willingly would work all day on Sundays, but none of the other young men were around to see him do this, and they resented the special treatment he was granted every Saturday. On his company’s first training long march, Doss performed better than some of the other soldiers. During the long trek, and that evening, he had the chance to treat the blistered feet of some of his comrades who had previously ridiculed and taunted him with profanity. That evening no profanity was heard in the barracks. Soon Doss befriended a Catholic named Glenn, who agreed to work for him on Saturdays so he could go to church on condition that he substitute for him on Sundays to allow him to attend Catholic mass.
Major Steinman, who was in charge of the medical battalion, became extremely angry at Doss’ Sabbath privileges, and threatened to have him court-martialed; but no amount of coaxing or threats succeeded in breaking his determination to follow his conscience on this matter. Sometime later, one of his superiors notified him that he had discovered a way to get him out of the army by using mental instability as the reason for the discharge. Doss could have grasped this opportunity to put an end to his trials; but he would not pretend to be insane, when in fact there was nothing wrong with his mental state. He then was transferred to the infantry division, and one of his fellow soldiers told him he had betted ten dollars that the commander would not succeed in forcing Doss to carry a weapon. He won the bet and Captain Stanley lost.
Lieutenant Cosner tried hard to convince Doss that he must agree to carry a weapon, but failed. Finally he asked him: “Suppose somebody was raping your wife. Wouldn’t you use a gun?” “I wouldn’t have one,” he replied. “What would you do, then?” he asked. “I wouldn’t just stand there,” he answered; “I wouldn’t use a gun, and wouldn’t kill, but he’d sure wish he was dead when I got through with him.” At that time, he received a copy of a document signed by President Roosevelt stating that conscientious objectors did not have to bear arms. Doss was transferred back to the medic department of the army.
The 77th Infantry Division GuamMission
When his training was over, the time came for him to leave with his 77th Infantry Division sailing for Guam, which the Japanese had occupied shortly after their attack againstPearl Harbor. Colonel Gerald G. Cooney, knowing that Japanese soldiers were under directives to seek and kill medics, ordered Doss to carry a weapon; which order he refused, and almost got sent back to the states; but Captain Vernon intervened on Doss behalf and he was allowed to remain in the army. They had to disembark by jumping into the water, and managed to survive for four days in their cold, wet clothes. Then it started to rain, which means their clothes did not have a chance to dry up.
His first chance at using his medical training came when one of the soldiers picked an attractive fountain pen, which had been booby-trapped with explosives by the Japanese. In spite of the rain, the American soldiers did not have drinking water, which forced them to carry out an assault on a Japanese stronghold. Eighty-five men were either killed or wounded, which kept Doss pretty busy. He even provided first aid to one of the natives, and was reprimanded by his superiors.
He would quite often get separated from his platoon while tending to the injured, and would hurry to catch up with them while the enemy bullets and grenades made such an attempt extremely dangerous, but Doss felt he could not leave them without medical help. On one occasion, while the enemy fire was the heaviest, Doss demanded help from the sergeant to carry a wounded soldier. His superior thought this was suicidal, but Doss prevailed, and with the help of other soldiers the life of the badly wounded man was saved.
The Island of Leyte Wartime Mission
His army division’s next military assignment wasLeyte, where Doss experienced one of his most painful losses: He was called to tend to the wounds of Glenn, his Catholic friend who had substituted for him in order that he might attend Sabbath services at the local SDA church while in training. He rushed to his friend’ side under heavy enemy fire; he felt for his pulse, but could detect none. His best friend, Clarence Glen, was dead and would not have a chance to say his last goodbye to his wife and baby. After that painful experience, Doss would never look at the face of a soldier while taking care of his wounds, fearing he might see again the face of another close friend.
Doss was not getting enough nourishment and felt the pangs of hunger. Upon discovering some coconut trees, he climbed one of them–though exhausted–and threw down some of the coconuts. By the time he got down, the other soldiers had picked the last coconut and were gone. On another occasion, he moved toward another coconut tree behind a hedge, but gunfire erupted. It was an ambush. He ran and dove into a ditch, headfirst. He discovered empty bottles around. Evidently the Japanese soldier had been drinking and could not aim straight. Alcohol consumption by others had saved his life.
One day a call for help came from a wounded soldier. No one volunteered to go except Doss. “Be careful,” he was warned, “The sniper that got him is still out there.” Doss took care of the wounded man and helped him back to safety. A sergeant who watched the daring rescue stated: “Doss, I expected to see you killed any minute. We could all see it from up on the hill. You were crawling right toward that sniper.” Adventists later learned from the Japanese soldier that he was the sniper, and that he was determined to shoot as Doss crawled towards him. He attempted to pull the trigger, but couldn’t.
On one occasion Doss attempted to take care of a wounded Japanese soldier. One of the American soldiers told him that if he did that he would have to kill him. That was the only time he tried something like that. As the Leytemilitary campaign grew to a close, one of those soldiers who had ridiculed Doss for his religious beliefs approached him. Doss expected some more of the same, but the distraught man blurted, “Doss, pray for me.” “I am no chaplain,” responded Doss. The man answered that he had already talked to the army chaplain, but all he could offer him was a drink. Doss did pray for him, but that was the last time he saw him. At the conclusion of theIsland ofLeyte wartime mission, Doss was nominated for the Bronze Star.
The 77th Infantry Division’s Okinawa Assignment
When Doss’ 77th Infantry Division approached theIsland ofOkinawa, the American soldiers learned that the Japanese had warned the native population that Americans would torture and slaughter them. To their horror, Doss and his comrades witnessed native women cutting their children’s throats and then their own as the American forces approached. Before their first assault of a Japanese position, Doss was told that there was no need for him to go, since it would be an extremely dangerous mission. He refused to stay behind. If the mission was risky, he was sure his comrades would need his medical services. Nevertheless, he suggested that they ask for God’s guidance before attempting to scale the steep cliff.
He meant that everybody would offer a silent prayer, but his commanding officer asked Doss to publicly pray for the soldiers’ safety. This operation was carried out with remarkable success, and with no serious wounds in spite of the hail of enemy bullets and grenades. Nevertheless, what followed kept Doss quite busy. One American soldier had barely reached out of his hole for his canteen when a bullet shot through his head.
Doss dragged the wounded soldier under heavy fire unscathed, but the wounded soldier died. Some of the American soldiers were decapitated by their enemies while sleeping in their holes. On one occasion Doss and his comrade found refuge in a cavern and agreed to take turns keeping watch. As Doss was keeping watch, he heard some whispering in Japanese from inside the hole. He could have used one of his comrades’ grenades to put an end to the danger they were in, but he would not engage in killing.
Life in enemy’s territory was extremely dangerous. Dorris, his medic partner, was wounded; and Doss suffered a fall over a parapet, injuring one of his legs. This predicament did not stop him from rendering his services to those who were in dire need of medical help. When Sabbath came, as he was reading his Bible, Captain Vernon informed him that he had orders to move across the hill to secure an enemy’s position.
“This is your Sabbath, you don’t have to go,” said the captain. “I will go,” responded Doss, “if you let me finish my Bible reading.” The captain with his company agreed to wait for him. At that moment, “the entire American advance inOkinawa, a line several miles across and involving several divisions, was being held up” in order that one SDA medic could finish reading his Bible.
This risky mission did not go well, and the hill was covered with the bodies of wounded and dead American soldiers. Doss was the only one standing there alone. After lowering the first wounded man, Doss realized that the task was moving too slowly, so he improvised a double knot rope sling, which he used to lower the rest of the wounded men.
There was no time to count the wounded. His superior estimated the number at 100, but Doss thought it must have been no more than fifty, consequently they split the difference and the official number was reported as 75. Captain Tann looked at Doss’ uniform, which was stiff and covered with dried blood and decided that it was time to outfit this brave medic with a new uniform. Thus ended Doss’ most remarkable day of rest. He was nominated for two Purple Hearts, but Doss said that one was enough.
Desmond Doss Last Patrol
On his last patrol with his company, a Japanese soldier threw a grenade that landed by his feet. He put his foot on top of the grenade, which exploded. At that moment another soldier called for help. Doss responded in spite of his wounds, and as he crawled towards the wounded soldier, he felt he was about to pass out. He lay down with his head downhill until he recovered, and then proceeded on his mission. He had to repeat this maneuver to avoid a blackout.
He took care of the soldier’s wounds and then tried to do the same with his own. He was bleeding profusely. He blacked out with his feet sticking out of a hole. The first thing he noticed was an unexploded artillery shell a few inches from his head. His comrades located him, put him on a litter, but there was another soldier with a head wound. He insisted that they take him first, since a head wound took precedence over a body wound. Before he was rescued, another bullet lodged in his arm. When he regained consciousness, he was on a hospital ship on his way toGuam.
President Truman’s Greatest Honor
From Guam Doss was transferred to theUnited Stateswhere he met his wife after two years of separation. It was October 1945, and the war was over. He soon learned that he was scheduled to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, together with a selected group of sixteen men entitled to the highest honor the grateful country could bestow on those who had excelled in their bravery during the long protracted war. When his turn came, President Truman held Doss’ hand while the following citation was read:
“Private First Class Desmond T. Doss was a company aid man with the 307th Infantry Medical “Detachment when the 1st Battalion of that regiment assaulted a jagged encampment 400 feet high near Orasoo-Mura, Okinawa,Ryukyu Islands, on April 29, 1945. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately seventy-five casualties and driving the others back. Private 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 encampment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands.
On May 2, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards forward of the lines on the same encampment; and two days later he treated four men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within eight yards of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making four separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety.
On May 5, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from enemy fire; and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Private Doss crawled to him where he had fallen twenty-five feet from the enemy position; rendered aid; and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to flying bullets.
The trio was caught in the enemy tank attack and Private Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearer’s return, he was again struck, this time suffering a compound fracture of one arm. With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards over rough terrain to the aid station.
On May 21, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover.
Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions, Private 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.”
Then President Truman stated the following: “I am proud of you. You really deserve this. I consider this a greater honor than being President.” Following this ceremony, the War Department issued an even longer press release detailing the incredible service Private Doss had rendered to the country on the battlefields of Guam, Leyte, andOkinawa. Upon his return to his hometown atLynchburg, he was treated to a hero’s welcome and paraded throughMain Street.
Days of Peace and Adversity
Soon after the excitement of all the honors he had received, a medical examination revealed that Doss had contracted tuberculosis. The long exposure to humidity, lack of sleep, exhaustion, and lack of proper nutrition had exacted its toll on this brave American soldier. He lost his left lung, and he was spitting blood for days. He was awarded 100 percent disability; but his pension totaled $118 a month, which was insufficient for a family of three. He began door-to-door sales, and his wife performed part-time housecleaning while taking care of their child plus her sister’s two children.
In 1957 he was treated by Hollywoodand listened with deep interest to the program: This is Your Life. At the end of the program in which some of his military officers participated, he was presented with “a power saw, a power shop, movie camera, money enough to increase his little holding on Lookout Mountain to seven acres, a cow, a tractor with attachments, and a station wagon.” This allowed his wife, Dorothy, to go back to school and get her nursing degree.
Twenty years after Doss received his Medal of Honor, another Seventh-day Adventist soldier who elected not to bear arms was awarded a Bronze Star medal of honor for his bravery inVietnam. His name was Curtis A. Reed, ofGillete,Wyoming. Thanks to the bravery of Desmond T. Doss, Reed’s reception and treatment in the army was radically different from the one Doss had originally encountered. There was no ridicule for him, nor army boots flying over his head. But Reed was not the only beneficiary of the faithful service Doss had rendered to his country. Thousands of Adventists servicemen were the recipients of special concessions and kind treatment since then.
In 1962, Desmond T. Doss was invited by President Kennedy for a ceremony at the White House commemorating the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Again, the soldier who was almost kicked out of the army for refusing to bear arms because he felt human life was a sacred gift of God; who was almost court-martialed more than once; and who had risked his own life under heavy enemy fire in order to save the life of others; had the rare privilege of meeting with the president of the United States of America. It had not been easy, but the sacrifice was worth the effort.
Desmond T. Doss’ respect for the sacredness of human life was determined, persistent, and inflexible in spite of suffering, deprivation, threat to his life, and constant enemy fire. This respect for life was instilled in him since childhood by his parents and the Seventh-day Adventists community that nourished his soul. Of course, all this took place several decades before nine unelected judges determined that the unborn had no inherent right to life, and could therefore become the target of those who had been the participants of the sexual liberation of the sixties.
Doss never issued a public statement about abortion, but given his respect for human life, and his willingness to risk his own life in order to save the lives of others, it might be proper to assume that, had he lived in our time, he would likely be willing to defend the life of the unborn.
In the chapters that follow, the present investigation will hopefully reveal the impact, if any, the moral revolution of the sixties had on the Adventist community’s attitude toward the sanctity of human life. Doss had placed the safety of others ahead of his own. Would those who share his faith do likewise in the way they treat those whose lives are at risk? For Doss, the lives of others were worth more than his own. Would those who are nurtured by the same religious beliefs emulate his dedication to the sanctity of human life? The chapters that follow will answer this question.