Because Corporal Desmond Doss lived in Rising Fawn, Georgia, he was often featured at the Seventh-day Adventist Georgia-Cumberland Conference camp meetings, pastor’s meetings, youth camps and at Southern Missionary College (Chattanooga, Tennessee) during my five-year college career. It was my privilege to hear the recounting of his experiences in Okinawa on numerous occasions.
After my graduation from the Adventist Seminary in Takoma Park, Maryland, I was assigned to the Columbus, Georgia, Seventh-day Adventist church district as an assistant pastor to Harold Metcalf. Since I had completed the Red Cross Water Safety Instructor’s course in Chattanooga during my college years, I was asked to be the water front director at the Camp Cumby-Gay youth camps during the summers under the direction of Ellsworth Reile, conference youth director. In the summer of 1961, Doss was again featured at the youth campfires each evening after supper.
SINK OR SWIM
One morning, he came down to the lake and asked me to teach him to swim. I replied, “Desmond, you went all the way through the pacific theater in World War II and you never learned to swim!” He replied, “Strange, isn’t it!”
I asked him to do a jelly fish float test near the shore. He pulled his knees up to his chest, ducked his head and sank into the water. Most people will sink beneath the water, then come back up until the round of their backs will stick up out of the water. Not Desmond! Because of his slender frame and his one functioning lung (from an old war injury), he sank right to the bottom. I taught him the principles of swimming and then counseled him to wear a water skier’s belt around his waist when he went into the water.
After lunch, I was teaching some youth how to handle a canoe. Desmond appeared at the dock on the other side of the small lake. He called to me to watch him swim. I yelled back for him not to try it since he didn’t have on a ski belt. He had already dived into the water and started swimming towards me. I thought he was doing OK and would make it to my side of the lake.
However, his one-lung capacity was not enough and he began to founder. I dived into the water and swam toward him. When I reached him he was thrashing the water and beginning to lose his strength. During my Red Cross Water Safety Instructor’s training in the YMCA pool, our final test was to dive into the middle of the pool and bring a construction concrete (cinder) block to the surface and to the side of the pool. A concrete block is not buoyant like a human body and a number of the students failed the test.
As trained, I dived down to Desmond’s feet, turned him around, “walked” up his body behind him, took him by the chin and started to swim towards shore. All went well until he panicked, turned over and started to climb up my arm. We both went down into water. I, again, turned him around, took him by the chin and started swimming towards shore. Desmond again panicked, turned over and tried to climb up my arm.
Since I was exhausted myself, I realized there was no way I could bring him to shore. I called to a young person in a canoe to bring the canoe to me. When the canoe came alongside, I grabbed Desmond’s hands, thrust them onto the gunnels of the canoe and held them there with my hands. The young man paddled us to shore.
His wife, Dorothy (who was working in the kitchen that week) heard of the commotion, came running down to the lake shore and said some interesting words to this Medal of Honor winner who had saved the lives of countless soldiers on the battle field, “Desmond, you might have been killed in that lake!”
The next day, Desmond was at the lake again and we practiced more swimming techniques. I said to him, “Desmond don‘t ever go into the water again without wearing a water skier’s belt.” He promised he would follow that advice.
HACKSAW RIDGE HERO
Over the years, I have seen the mild commentaries about Doss and his experience on Okinawa. But, not having been in the military, I was not prepared for the horrendous, mind-numbing experience of Mel Gibson’s movie, Hacksaw Ridge!
As my wife, eldest son and I walked out of the theater toward our car, I was feeling faint. The horrors of the movie and the realization that I might have let such a hero drown in 1961 overwhelmed me. I bent over a car in the parking lot heaving, sobbing and repeating, “I might have let him drown!” My son helped me to the car and drove us home.
The story of Desmond Doss is a fantastic, almost unbelievable, one. A hero of that stature only comes around once in a generation. It was such a privilege for me for his life to impact mine on that warm, sunny Georgia day.