Since the Congressional Medal of Honor was instituted during the Civil War, only three conscientious objectors have received the United States’ highest military award.
One of them, Desmond Doss, visited Missoula on Veterans Day in 1998.
The story of the rescue efforts of 75 Americans by Doss, an unarmed medic and Seventh Day Adventist, on the Japanese island of Okinawa in 1945 is playing on the big screen here and around the world.
“Hacksaw Ridge,” a Mel Gibson-directed flick, was among five Golden Globe Award nominees announced Monday for best drama picture of 2016 and is expected to be in the mix when Oscar nominations come out in January.
The World War II epic already cleaned up in Australia last week, garnering nine of that country’s version of the Academy Awards, including best picture, best direction and best actor. Doss, who died in 2006, is played by Andrew Garfield in the film.
Doss was 79 years old when he came to Missoula 18 years ago with wife Frances as a guest at several Veterans Day activities.
George Sherry remembers him well. Sherry was invited by late Brig. Gen. Bo Foster to an American Legion luncheon that November Wednesday.
“I met him at the Legion hall. He was wearing his Army uniform with the Medal of Honor around his neck,” said Sherry, a retired teacher. “He was a very gracious person, a very humble person.”
Impressed, Sherry was in the audience that night at the Urey Lecture Hall on the University of Montana campus for a presentation by Doss.
The Virginia native was already the subject of the 1967 book, “The Unlikeliest Hero” by magazine and non-fiction writer Booton Herndon. The 30-minute video of his 1959 appearance on the NBC TV show “This Is Your Life” is available on You Tube. In the years after his Missoula visit he was the subject of an award-winning 2004 documentary, “The Conscientious Objector. ”
As release of the movie approached this year, an expanded and reedited version of Herndon’s book was published under the name “Redemption at Hacksaw Ridge.”
The Virginia native initially faced court martial proceedings and bullying for refusing to handle a weapon after he entered the Army in 1942. By the time of his life-saving heroics over a three-week span in May 1945, Doss had already earned a Bronze Star for aiding wounded soldiers in combat on Guam and the Philippines.
“Hacksaw Ridge” depicts in graphic detail the horrors of an American assault on a Japanese-held ridge on Okinawa. According to his Medal of Honor citation awarded by President Harry Truman in November 1945, Doss ignored enemy fire and exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire to rescue his colleagues.
“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,” the citation said.
Doss was wounded four times on Okinawa before being evacuated on May 21. After the war he was diagnosed with tuberculosis contracted in the Philippines. He lost a lung and five ribs to the disease.
Soft-spoken in part because of that and “profoundly deaf” according to a Missoulian story, Doss nonetheless made an impact at his Missoula talk.
“You get more attached to each other than kin,” he said of his fellow soldiers. “I couldn’t let them die so I stayed up there.”
In the movie, after lowering each soldier to safety, Doss (portrayed by Garfield) prays, “Lord help me get one more.” Doss attested to the authenticity of that in Missoula.
“I honestly believed God would spare my life and he did,” he told the crowd at UM.
Indeed, he didn’t equate his survival and success to good fortune at all but to the work of the Lord.
“Because he’s been so good to me, I’m going to devote the rest of my life to him,” Doss said. “We all have much to be thankful for.”
As Sherry recalls it, Doss was given a plaque that night and a documentary of his life was shown after his talk.
Sherry had brought his camera along. After a short visit, he asked if he could take Doss’ picture.
“He was still in uniform wearing his Medal of Honor, so I got a couple of photos,” he said. “Then I asked his wife if she would pose with him, so she did. After that she said, ‘I ought to photograph you with Desmond.’ ”
So Sherry came away with a photo of a smiling Doss shaking his hand as the men stand side-by-side in the lecture hall.
Earlier that day, Hayes Otoupalik, a Missoula collector of military memorabilia, drove his World War I Army ambulance to the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History at Fort Missoula to meet Doss.
It was a cold day, Otoupalik recalled, but Doss hopped into the ambulance and drove around in it.
“He was a nice guy to spend some time with,” Otoupalik said. “He was a true hero.”
In retrospect, it was a day to remember.
While the post cemetery at Fort Missoula is the final resting place for two Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, and the Missoula Cemetery on the north side of town holds one more, all three were honored for service during the frontier Indian wars in the 1800s and have been dead for 100 years or more.
If a Medal of Honor winner other than Doss has paid a public visit to Missoula in the past half-century, neither Otoupalik or Tate Jones are aware of it.
“Audie Murphy might have come through here on a movie promotion in the 50s, but I have vague hearsay recollection, no more,” said Jones, executive director of the military museum. “No other Medal of Honor visits to us come to mind.”
A total of 464 U.S. military personnel received Medals of Honors for their service during World War II, 266 of them posthumously. Montana’s last recipient, Henry Schauer of Scobey, died in Salem, Oregon, in 1997.