John Shearer: Area Residents Recall Desmond Doss, Sr. Of Movie Fame As Humble Man

  • Saturday, February 25, 2017
  • John Shearer
Near the top of the hillside of the Chattanooga National Cemetery – just down from the flagpole on the Bailey Avenue side – sits a gravestone that during a recent visit had coins sitting on top of it.
The grave is that of Desmond Doss Sr., the Medal of Honor recipient who helped rescue about 75 soldiers during the World War II Battle of Okinawa as a medic who did not even carry a weapon due to his personal and religious beliefs.
As many Chattanoogans are aware, the story of his life and heroism has come to the forefront even more in recent weeks with the release of the critically acclaimed and mostly accurate movie, “Hacksaw Ridge.”
The film, too, now enjoys a place near the top of the hillside of cinema annals with its multiple Academy Award nominations leading up to Sunday night’s Oscar ceremonies.
Besides a nomination for the prestigious Best Picture along with the favored “La La Land,” other nominations include a Best Actor nomination for Andrew Garfield portraying Mr. Doss and a directing nomination for Mel Gibson.
Similar to the results on the battlefield where Mr. Doss served, some have said that the movie about the younger period of the soldier’s life is helping save and revive Mr. Gibson’s career.
It has certainly brought the story of this man of unusual bravery back to the forefront.
While about everyone likely calls Mr. Doss a hero, a few Chattanooga area residents also considered him a friend before his death on March 23, 2006, at the age of 87.
Former Chattanooga city treasurer and Hamilton County trustee Carl Levi is one.
“He was a very humble Christian man,” said Mr. Levi, an Army veteran who became acquainted with Mr. Doss through the Summers-Whitehead American Legion Post No. 14. “I knew Desmond really well. I’ve been a member (of the post) for 62 years and he was there before me.”
Retired State Farm insurance agent Bob Lahiere, also an Army veteran, became acquainted with Mr. Doss through the post, too, and his involvement with the Armed Forces Parade in Chattanooga every May. He also has memories of a soft-spoken man.
“He was very quiet, very reserved,” Mr. Lahiere recalled. “He didn’t boast about his military days. He was a very humble man. And he never talked against anybody else. He didn’t even talk about the (wartime) enemy negatively.”
Born in Lynchburg, Va., and reared in Fairview Heights, Va., along the West Virginia border as the son of a carpenter and as a devout member of the Seventh-day Adventist church, he did lumber and shipyard work before entering the Army in 1942.
Later that year, he married sweetheart Dorothy Schutte.
A childhood incident in which his father and uncle had an argument and his mother gave a gun to then-young Mr. Doss for temporary safekeeping and to prevent violence made him never want to touch a gun.
His strong belief in the Biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” as part of his Christian and Seventh-day Adventist upbringing also made him refuse to carry a weapon. This refusal initially made him an outcast in his Army training.
He was protected as a conscientious objector by federal law, but he still distinguished himself through bravery by helping rescue and treat servicemen on the battlefield as a medic. As the Allies tried to take the island of Okinawa from the Japanese in 1945, his infantry division was tasked with trying to secure an escarpment nicknamed “Hacksaw Ridge.”
Against a Japanese counterattack, he helped rescue dozens of men from the battlefield and helped rappel them down a cliff to safety. The effort led to his receiving the Medal of Honor, which was presented personally by President Harry Truman.
Despite the war’s conclusion, Mr. Doss’ battles with adversity unfortunately did not end.
Don Lockhart of Lookout Mountain Seventh-day Adventist Church off Highway 157 on the more rural end of Lookout Mountain in Georgia said that the Dosses ended up in Rising Fawn in sort of a roundabout manner related to his health. He was recuperating from tuberculosis in a North Carolina hospital when Mr. Lockhart said his wife, Dorothy, who became a nurse, suffered nervous exhaustion.
They had heard about what is now the Wildwood Lifestyle Center in Dade County while there, so she came over for a stay of rest. The area ended up interesting them, so they moved down to Rising Fawn and acquired some property, Mr. Lockhart said. Their only child, a son, Desmond “Tommy” Doss Jr., who now lives in Washington state, had been born in 1946.
They became active in Lookout Mountain Seventh-day Adventist Church, while Mr. Doss did such work over the years as cabinet making, growing food on their land, door-to-door sales, maintenance work and raising tropical fish.
In contrast to some former Medal of Honor recipients, like longtime Chattanoogan Charles Coolidge, who has gladly shared his wartime memories to the media and the public over the years, getting Mr. Doss to share was not easy.
But it was due to his health situation rather than any desire for privacy, although, as mentioned, he was modest. Due to all the medical treatments he had to receive for his injuries after the war, he was eventually left basically deaf. As a result, interviewing or talking with Mr. Doss was not easy. A 1988 cochlear implant he received did help the situation slightly.
Despite the physical impairments, he gladly attended countless veterans salutes and other events around the Chattanooga area with his outgoing first wife, Dorothy, and later his second wife, Frances.
“He couldn’t hear very well,” Mr. Levi recalled. “He would take a pad and Frances would write down a question and he would answer you.”
However, his disabilities did not keep him from maintaining a positive or upbeat manner around people in his later years. Mr. Lahiere said that he and some of the other veterans at the post knew to approach him loudly enough, and he would gladly answer their questions.
“He was really friendly,” Mr. Lahiere said. “He would talk to you about a lot of stuff. I remember he talked about his war situation and he spoke how he got the Medal of Honor.”
Mr. Lahiere said that Mr. Doss was usually so congenial that a listener would never realize he had gone through such a horrific experience during the war.
Mr. Levi recalled this same amicable and accommodating nature of Mr. Doss in his later years, saying he would not bring up his wartime experiences on his own or talk about them much, but would answer questions if you asked him.
Mr. Levi also remembers Mr. Doss gladly attending an Army band performance at the Southern Adventist University gym in Collegedale and being kind to accommodate and meet people interested in him.
While Mr. Levi was the Hamilton County trustee, Mr. Doss would visit him some. On one occasion, Mr. Levi invited some friends whom he knew would like to meet the war hero.
Mr. Lockhart said that, over the years, Mr. Doss gladly spoke at schools and other places and would sell writings or other items about his life to raise money for his personal missionary outreach fund.
The longtime Rising Fawn resident also remembered hearing the story of when Mr. Doss appeared on the once-popular NBC TV program, “This Is Your Life,” with Ralph Edwards in February 1959. Knowing he would not care for the attention, Mr. Doss was not told he was actually appearing on the show until the last minute, Mr. Lockhart said. His family was later given such surprise gifts as several thousand dollars and a new Edsel automobile after appearing, Mr. Lockhart added.
Someone who did not know Mr. Doss and might see him and observe his slender physique and humble manner in later years when he was not wearing his Medal of Honor at a veterans gathering would likely have no idea of his heroic past, those who remember him say.
Mr. Doss had one other fate of misfortunate later in life. He was driving his wife, Dorothy, who by then had breast cancer, to the hospital on Nov. 17, 1991, in the Rising Fawn area when an accident occurred in wet conditions and she died.
After marrying his second wife, Frances, in 1993 after a period of loneliness following his first wife’s death, he eventually moved with her down to Piedmont, Ala., where Frances’ son, Michael Duman, lived. The Dosses became active in Piedmont Seventh-day Adventist Church near the Anniston area.
Mr. Doss died on March 23, 2006, in Piedmont.
But he was certainly not forgotten. When his funeral service was held that April 1 at Collegedale Seventh-day Adventist Church after being arranged by Heritage Funeral Home and Crematory on Battlefield Parkway in North Georgia, more than 1,600 people attended. Speakers included then-Congressman Zach Wamp and church elder John Swafford.
The documentary, “The Conscientious Objector,” was shown after the service at the church.
Mr. Levi, who was admittedly honored to serve as a pallbearer, said that Mr. Doss was already aware of plans to make a Hollywood movie about his life and was fine with it.
“The producer met him at the Collegedale Market and he convinced him to share his faith and love of God in the movie,” he said.
Mr. Lockhart said that he heard that the area around Rising Fawn was visited in preparation for the movie.
The burial for Mr. Doss was held on April 3, 2006, at Chattanooga’s National Cemetery where his first wife is also buried. Frances Doss died on Feb. 3, 2009, in Piedmont and was also buried in the Chattanooga National Cemetery by him.
All three are buried in Section P and at grave location 6399-A.
A cemetery official said recently over the phone that Mr. Doss’ grave location has received more inquiries from cemetery visitors since the movie was released.
The film has also made the story of heroism by this man who could not hear well easy to see for those well beyond the Chattanooga area.
Donna Vaughn Is Grand Marshal For Spring City Christmas Parade
Donna Vaughn Is Grand Marshal For Spring City Christmas Parade
  • 12/10/2023

Spring City held its annual Christmas Parade Saturday despite the rainy morning. Leading the parade as Grand Marshal was Donna Vaughn, owner of Vaughn Funeral Home. Vaughn Funeral ... more

Rhea County Republican Party Aids Toy Drive
  • 12/10/2023

Rhea County Republican Party members donated new toys along with a check to the Rhea County Sheriff's Toy Drive at their recent monthly meeting. Chief Deputy John Argo, along with several ... more

Civitan Club Raises Over $10,000 For Its Charities From Annual Fruitcake Auction
Civitan Club Raises Over $10,000 For Its Charities From Annual Fruitcake Auction
  • 12/8/2023

The Chattanooga Civitan Club held its annual fruitcake auction on Friday at the Masonic Lodge. The club, which is one of the oldest civic clubs in Chattanooga, assists and supports special ... more