At least two U.S. soldiers awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor have been conscientious objectors: Desmond T. Doss of Newport News, Virginia, during World War II; and Tom Bennett of Morgantown, West Virginia, during the Vietnam War. Both served as combat medics.
World War II
Desmond T. Doss seemed an unlikely candidate to become a war hero. As a devout member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, he would not drill or train on Saturday because his church recognizes it as their Sabbath Day. He would not carry a gun because he believed all killing was wrong. He wouldn’t even eat meat after seeing a chicken flopping around with its head cut off….
Prior to the time World War II had broken out Doss had been working as a joiner at a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia. This was considered an essential industry to the military so he had no worries of being drafted. He had begun dating Dorothy Schutte and they had fallen in love, but they decided that they should wait until after the war to get married. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he knew he would be drafted if he did not enlist, so that is exactly what he chose to do.
His minister went with him to establish his status as a non-combatant. The officer in charge told him there was no such thing, but that he could register as a conscientious objector. Doss said he wasn’t a conscientious objector because he would gladly serve his country, wear a uniform, salute the flag, and help with the war effort. He would gladly help tend sick or hurt people any day. Finally he was convinced to accept the 1-A-O Conscientious Objector classification, so he could join the army without fear of court martial….
On April 1, 1942 he was inducted into the U.S. Army and headed to Ft. Jackson in South Carolina for basic training…. 23-year-old Desmond Doss entered service as a medic for the 77th Infantry Division. From the beginning, the other men in his company made fun of Doss for his beliefs. Even though he worked long, hard hours to make up for not working on Saturday, the men cursed, ridiculed, and taunted him….
In July of 1944 on the island of Guam Doss began to prove his courage and compassion for the very men who had taunted, belittled, and even threatened him…. By now, his fellow soldiers were used to his reading the Bible and praying, so it didn’t seem unusual when, on that April 29th morning in 1945, he suggested that they might want to pray. They were facing a sheer 400-foot cliff that split the island of Okinawa known as the Maeda Escarpment….
However on May 5th the tide turned against the Americans as the Japanese launched a huge counterattack. Enemy fire raked Company B and almost immediately 75 men fell wounded. The remaining troops who were able to flee, retreated back down to the base of the escarpment. Left at the top of the cliff were the wounded, the Japanese, and Desmond T. Doss.
For the next five hours, while his wounded comrades fought back their attackers, Doss began to lower man after man to safety down the face of the cliff using little more than a tree stump and a rope. Doss said that he just kept praying that the Lord would let him rescue one more man. No one knows for sure how many men Doss lowered to safety that day. The Army determined that this medic, whom no one had wanted in the Army, had personally saved 100 lives….
On October 12, 1945, Desmond Doss was invited to the White House to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman for his brave service on May 5, 1945 – the first noncombatant to ever receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. He would spend a total of six years in hospitals as a consequence of his wounds and a bout with tuberculosis…. Incidentally, May 5, 1945 was a Saturday, Doss’ Sabbath day.
The Vietnam War presented many young men with a moral dilemma as they became subject to the draft in the late 1960s. These were men whose deep-seated religious convictions held that killing was wrong, even in war. At the same time, a number of them also possessed a strong sense of patriotism and felt that service to one’s country was a vital duty. One youngster torn by those conflicting values was Thomas W. Bennett of Morgantown, West Virginia.
By Christmas 1967, Bennett was on academic probation at West Virginia University because of poor grades. He didn’t lack the mental acumen to do college-level work. Bennett earned high grades whenever he applied himself — but he applied himself more vigorously to extracurricular campus activities than to his classes…. His main focus was the Campus Ecumenical Council he’d helped found in his freshman year.
Tom Bennett saw himself as a moderator. Though raised as a Southern Baptist, he openly embraced the validity of all religions — hence his activities in the ecumenical council. He wanted devotees of different religions to share their similarities rather than face off over their differences. To learn more about different religions, he began attending services of different faiths, visiting some churches so often that parishioners thought he was one of them. Through these experiences his belief in the sanctity of human life solidified — a frequent theme when he preached at his own church….
But Bennett was torn by other allegiances. His stepfather, Kermit Gray, a World War II Navy veteran, had raised him to believe in patriotism and to be ready to fight for his country if necessary. By late 1967 a number of young Bennett’s friends had already entered the service…. Bennett reported for induction on July 11, 1968. Under the Army’s program, he and the other conscientious objectors would take their weaponless basic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, then attend the field medical school there. It was a perfect compromise for Bennett, the moderator….
On January 12 he learned he was going to the 4th Infantry Division in the Central Highlands. Ten days later he joined Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry, at FSB Charmayne, deep in the thick jungles of the Central Highlands….
On April 7, 1970, Tom Bennett’s 23rd birthday, President Richard M. Nixon presented his posthumous Medal of Honor to his mother and stepfather. When first notified of the award, Bennett’s mother had considered refusing it, her way of protesting the war and the senseless loss of her son. But then her husband spoke up, “No. It was the boys in his outfit that put him in for it. They wanted him to have it.”
Thus Thomas W. Bennett became the only conscientious objector to earn the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War, and only the second in history to be so recognized. The first was Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who was cited for his heroism on Okinawa in World War II.