Facing a wall of flames and shellfire, Army medic Desmond Doss had to make an agonizing decision -- retreat with his 77th Infantry Division or stay behind to save the wounded.
On the big screen, this true story is the stuff of Academy Award nominations. The "Hacksaw Ridge" script gave actor Best Actor nominee Andrew Garfield few words to say, but his face had to display shock, confusion, doubt and determination. The film has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture.
"What is it you want from me?", Doss prays, in his slow Virginia mountains drawl. "I don't understand. I can't hear you."
Then a distant voice screams: "Medic! Help me!"
Doss quietly says, "Alright," and runs back into the flames.
Working alone, Doss -- who refused a weapon, because of his Seventh-day Adventist convictions -- lowered at least 75 injured men over a 400-foot cliff during the World War II Battle of Okinawa. He collapsed several times during that night, but kept going with these words on his lips: "Please Lord, help me get one more."
A Japanese soldier later testified that he aimed at Doss several times, but his rifle kept jamming when he tried to fire.
President Harry S. Truman presented Doss with the Medal of Honor on Oct. 12, 1945 -- the first conscientious objector to receive that honor. It took Doss years to recover from his war injuries -- he lost a lung to tuberculosis -- and he devoted his life to church work, dying in 2006 at age 87.
Doss should be listed among the "most heroic figures in American history. He was singular," said "Hacksaw Ridge" director Mel Gibson, during 2016 commencement rites at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., in the hills where Doss grew up.
Medal of Honor winners are usually recognized for amazing, singular acts in combat, noted Gibson, a Best Director Oscar nominee. But Doss "kept crawling into enemy fire to rescue his buddies. … He stuck by his convictions. He was a man of tremendous faith and it was these things that enabled him to display this courage over and over and do superhuman things -- superhuman in that he could go outside himself and depend on something greater than himself to achieve something truly extraordinary and miraculous."
While few Americans may have heard of Doss, Hollywood had long sought his cooperation in telling his story, beginning soon after the war, said Terry Benedict, who produced and directed the 2004 documentary, "The Conscientious Objector." Benedict was on the "Hacksaw Ridge" production team.
The problem was that Doss was afraid of compromises and wanted praise focused on God, not himself. Benedict, however, grew up in an Adventist home and embraced the faith elements of this story. The filmmaker promised Doss that if they worked together it would be "God first, you second and everyone else can get in line." He also knew the elderly Doss had to put his memories on the record -- soon.
There was so much to tell. Doss was abused during Army training because many soldiers considered him a coward. Army officials -- who "never got the memo" that conscientious objectors could train as medics -- repeatedly tried to have him discharged, said Benedict, reached by telephone.
During five days of grueling documentary interviews in 2003, Doss kept telling the same simple, humble story over and over. Finally Benedict shook his friend by the shoulders and urged him to speak from his heart. Doss began weeping, admitting that he thought he was having a mental breakdown on the ridge. He was "exhausted and in unmitigated desperation mode," said Benedict.
More than anything else, Doss believed there were more wounded men on that battlefield that God wanted him to save.
"You see, Desmond is the rock in this story and everything flows and changes around him," said Benedict. "That is not your normal character arc in a movie. Desmond and his convictions stay the same and everyone else changes as they learn more about him and see his beliefs in action. That is not a normal Hollywood story. …
"There is a hunger for this kind of story, but you have to tell it well. … You end up with this courageous man and his faith. That's enough."