'Hacksaw Ridge' tells the story of pacifist war hero

'Hacksaw,' which is directed by Mel Gibson, stars Andrew Garfield as Desmond T. Doss, who saved lives during World War II without taking up arms. The movie is now in theaters.

Mark Rogers/Summit/AP
'Hacksaw Ridge' stars Andrew Garfield.

A new movie captures the character and the integrity of Desmond T. Doss well, according to people who knew him as he lived the last years of his life in Piedmont, Ala.

They recall Doss as an humble, devout man – one of the charter members of Piedmont Seventh Day Adventist Church. Without the "seed money" Doss donated, the church might not have been built in 2006.

He attended the church with his wife, Frances, as long as his health allowed. Pastor Rick Blythe and his wife, Ginger, remember them sitting on the first or second row, even though Doss couldn't hear the sermons anymore. Frances would take notes and Doss, using a magnifying glass, would read along.

This Medal of Honor recipient served in World War II, saving countless lives – including 75 saved in a series of offensives on Okinawa – without ever touching a gun. The movie "Hacksaw Ridge," which is now in theaters, has brought Doss' story to the big screen. Directed by Mel Gibson and starring Andrew Garfield, the film is being marketed broadly with special direction toward military and faith audiences.

"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," Doss said in his Medal of Honor oral history.

Doss was the nation's first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. That's what the Army called him, anyway.

Blythe and Doss' stepson, Mike Duman, said it was a classification he always rejected.

As a Seventh Day Adventist, Blythe said, Doss observed the Sabbath on Saturday, and he rejected weapons of any kind. However, the denomination does not oppose saluting the flag or wearing the country's military uniform.

Doss has long been a sort of hero in the Seventh Day Adventist church. Along with his commitment to go into combat as a medic without a gun, he was determined to observe the Sabbath, abstaining from work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Both brought him trouble in the Army, from leaders who thought he was cowardly, disobedient, and shirking duty, and from fellow soldiers who saw no value in an unarmed man on the battlefield.

Doss grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, but lived much of his adult life on Lookout Mountain in Rising Fawn, Georgia. Doss' first wife – the young bride portrayed in the movie – died in 1991. A few years later, Doss married Frances Duman.

Mike Duman recalled that someone arranged a date between his aunt and Doss. His aunt wasn't interested, Duman said, but his mother was.

The couple were dedicated to one another, and when their health started to fail, they came to Piedmont to be closer to Mike and his family. Doss had come to consider Mike as his son, Blythe said.

Mike Duman grew close to his stepfather, though he remained a bit awed by Doss.

"He definitely had an aura around him," Duman said, an unshakable integrity.

Meeting with the Blythes and Duman at the Piedmont SDA Church, Duman has a framed print to show. It's an old-style print of the 10 Commandments, with illustrations of each commandment around the border of the print. It's the same print that hung on a wall in Doss' home when he was a child.

"Desmond would stand on a chair and look at the print," Duman related. He was especially drawn to the image accompanying the Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." It depicted Cain standing over his slain brother Abel with a club.

The print helped to inspire Doss to the commitment he maintained through his time in the Army: that while others were taking a life, he would be saving it.

When the movie was screened, Duman said, everyone expected some alterations might be made to his story, to make it more dramatic for the screen. A scene where Doss' fellow soldiers beat him in training camp didn't happen, though he was mocked, harassed, and had boots thrown at him while he prayed.

However, Duman said, when it came to portraying Doss' character – his humble nature, and his determination – the movie rings true.

"The filmmakers were very concerned with getting the story right," Duman said, and he believes they did.

After moving to Piedmont with his second wife, Blythe said, Doss was a great supporter of building the church there. 

Duman said workers got the sanctuary built in about six weeks – hurrying, he believed, so Doss would get to see it.

When it was time for the church dedication ceremony, Blythe said he didn't expect Doss to be able to attend. But Doss told him he was going to be there, and he was.

Days later, Doss passed away.

At a time when on-screen heroes are often superpowered, or super violent, those who knew Doss are anxious for people to see the story of a hero who was not.

"I believe this world is hungry for real heroes," Blythe said.

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