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Why would a 23 year old Adventist conscientious objector from Lynchburg, Virginia, enlist voluntarily – and then refuse to kill or carry a weapon into combat? And how – under those circumstances - did he become the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honour. These questions are explored in Mel Gibson’s fact-based Hacksaw Ridge, starring Andrew Garfield as Desmond Thomas Doss, and made in Australia. Andrew L. Urban reports.

One of the many still little known and incredible stories of World War II, the story of Corporal Desmond T. Doss would have remained an obscure historical footnote if Stan Jensen of the Seventh-day Adventist Church hadn’t thought it would make a great film. He suggested this in the late 1990s to writer Gregory Cosby, who ended up as co-producer on the film.

Doss refused to kill – he did the opposite: he saved lives, as many as 100 by some accounts, and certainly 75 to which all agree, including Doss. That was his job as a medic, and by golly he did it well, in the hellfire of the battle of Okinawa. He was offered two Medals of Honour; he accepted only one. He also had a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

He was wounded three times. He lost a lung to tuberculosis and spent five years after being discharged undergoing medical treatment.

Some of Australia’s most famous actors join Andrew Garfield on the screen: Hugo Weaving, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths, Richard Roxburgh, Matt Nable – and Mal Gibson’s son, Milo, making his debut.

Although this is the first feature film of his life, Doss was the subject of the documentary, The Conscientious Objector and also featured in the Medal of Honour comic written by Doug Murray (Dark Horse Comics).

Australian writer Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner, Full Frontal, Fast Forward) co-wrote the screenplay with American writer Robert Schenkkan (The Quiet American, The Pacific). The film was shot at Sydney’s Fox Studios, in the Southern Highlands of NSW and Newington Armory at Sydney Olympic Park.

The citation for Doss’ Medal of Honour reads like a war movie starring a superhero: here are a few excerpts –
“He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying all 75 casualties one-by-one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands.

“… he treated 4 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 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety.

“… when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire.

“… 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 5 hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Pfc. 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 bearers' return, he was again struck, by a sniper bullet while being carried off the field by a comrade, 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.”

War does indeed bring out the worst and the best in us.

Published November 3, 2016

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