Life does not unfold randomly. We are not adrift on an open sea, at the mercy of the wind and waves, for each of us is given two hands, one to man the rudder and the other to set the jib, and a remarkable mind to set the right course and tiller the boat. And we must never forget that we are never alone when we set sail; we may always count on our divine first mate when we get into trouble and need help.
A couple days ago I enjoyed the story of Desmond Doss as portrayed in Mel Gibson's 2016 production of Hacksaw Ridge. Desmond was a young man born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains near Lynchburg, Virginia, a devout Seventh Day Adventist who did not shirk his duty when drafted into military service at the outset of World War II. As a conscientious objector to violence of any sort, Desmond refused to take up arms against even his enemies and stuck to his conviction against all adversity throughout his military service, referring to himself as more of a “conscientious cooperator”.
Doss willingly did his part in service to his country by choosing to save lives during a time when all else were intent on taking lives. Doss would later say, "I felt like it was an honor to serve God and country. We were fightin' for our religious liberty and freedom." After encountering significant difficulty and personal abuse because he refused to handle or use a rifle in basic training, he was trained as a field medic and ultimately allowed to deploy into combat without carrying a weapon.
His unit, the 77th Army Infantry Division, was deployed to the island of Okinawa where they were ordered to engage an extremely resistant force of Japanese that were entrenched on the 350-foot high Maeda Escarpment that runs across most of the island. "The Japanese had been there for years," said the real Desmond Doss later in life. "They had that mountain honeycombed and camouflaged, it looked like natural terrain. That's what we had to face." The Japanese were hiding everywhere, in caves, tunnels, holes and pillboxes, ready to cut down any enemies who approached. The escarpment was so deadly it was dubbed "Hacksaw Ridge."
To reach the ridge, American soldiers had to climb up the face of the cliff on a 350-foot cargo net. Once at the top they were faced with a mostly impenetrable blitz of enemy fire. Even repeated naval bombardment did not seem effective in reducing the killing force of the Japanese. It was a bloody close-up engagement with heavy losses on both sides. As the movie portrays very well, Doss' unit was pushed back and forced to retreat to the beach down the cargo net after sustaining a thrashing at the enemy's hands.
At the end of the day the entire allied force retreated down the cargo net, except for the kid without a rifle. Private Doss knew there were hundreds of casualties remaining on the battlefield, left behind to suffer with their injuries and die or be killed by the Japanese in the bloody foxholes where they laid during the night before the following day's next assault. Through the night, Doss would crawl into no-man's land to search for the wounded, treat them as best he could, and extract them back to the edge of the escarpment either by dragging them or carrying them on his shoulders.
What goes without saying is that he had already been engaged in treating wounded soldiers all day during an exhaustive battle. And here he was, continuing on through the night, rescuing his comrades one by one, otherwise left to suffer alone in the dark in enemy territory to very likely die a miserable death. Once back to the escarpment Doss would have to tie a sling that he devised himself around each soldier and use his strength to lower their injured bodies down to medical personnel at the bottom, who would carry them on stretchers back to the field hospital for further care.
Doss was not a big guy; if anything, he was smaller than most of his buddies. Yet he carried many or dragged them out of harm's way and lowered them one after another to safety. I personally could see doing this maybe twice and being utterly worn out. How he kept going through the night, rescuing soldiers and hoisting them down the cliff, is beyond comprehension, beyond miraculous. All the while, each time he would return to look for yet another injured soldier, Doss had to avoid notice by roving Japanese sentries. Any detection would have meant his death – yet he persisted all through the night. After each recovery, he would pause, exhausted, and ask God for help to save just “one more”. Again and again he pushed himself to go into harm's way to save others.
The final assault to take the Maeda Escarpment happened on the morning of May 5, 1945, a Saturday, the day of Sabbath that Doss always observed and devoted solely to prayer. Given that Desmond was the only medic left in B Company, at the request of the men in his unit he agreed to join them for the day's assault, but requested that he first be given time to read the Bible that he carried everywhere. The delay was approved up the chain of command and the assault was put on hold until Private Desmond Doss finished his devotions. That day, the 307th Infantry Regiment of the 77th Infantry Division overtook Hacksaw Ridge for good. During the final assault, he was injured with 40 pieces of shrapnel from a grenade he kicked away to save the lives of those around him in a foxhole. Then he was shot in the left arm while being extracted on a stretcher back to the cliffs.
There were no doubters among his unit about this man's courage and tenacity. He did the impossible and many, many soldiers owed their lives to his dedication and faith. The real Desmond Doss considered it a miracle that he made it off the ridge on Okinawa. "When you have explosions and bursts so close you can practically feel it, and not get wounded up there when I should have been killed a number of times. I know who I owe my life to as well as my men. That's why I like to tell this story to the glory of God, because I know from the human standpoint, I should not be here."
The true story reveals that he spent 12 hours up on the ridge alone that night rescuing injured soldiers, averaging one man every 10 minutes. When asked how many he saved, he said maybe 50 men, but his commanding officer said it was more like 100, so officially they settled on 75 men saved who otherwise likely would have died on the battlefield. All without a gun.
President Truman presents Corporal Desmond Doss with the Medal of Honor on October 12, 1945. Doss went on to live a long life and enjoyed retelling the story of his incredible feat. What he accomplished that night on Okinawa has to be right up there with Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea. Doss' actions were not a random act under fortuitous circumstances. They were evidence of the power of appealing to providence under duress. Anyone who doubts this ability that exists in all of us is at a considerable loss at their not understanding the divine promise given to us all.
I keep a copy of the 91st Psalm on my desk and like to read it daily. I've read it enough that I mostly know it without reading the words. It is referred to as the Soldier's Psalm. There are countless stories over the centuries of how it has protected men in battle from harm's way. I certainly believe it has been instrumental in getting me through tough times that may not have turned out so good without it. My favorite story is one from World War I that I never lose sight of or ignore.
During World War I, the 91st Infantry Brigade of the U.S. Expeditionary Army was preparing to enter combat in Europe. Most of the men were "green soldiers who had never seen combat. Its commander, a devout Christian called an assembly of his men, where he gave each a little card on which was printed the 91st Psalm. They agreed to recite the Soldiers Psalm daily, and did so. The 91st Brigade was engaged in three of the bloodiest battles of WWI: Chateau Thierry, Belleau Woods, and the Argonne. While other American units similarly engaged had up to 90% casualties, the 91st Brigade DID NOT SUFFER A SINGLE COMBAT RELATED CASUALTY! Not one man was injured or killed in all three campaigns.
The pure power of Divine Providence. To doubt it is to be spiritually dead. Wake up! Believe! Have faith!