Commentary

Desmond Doss and Norman Doss: ‘Brothers’ in Arms

Desmond T. Doss, hero of Hacksaw Ridge, was not the only Adventist medic named Doss who was caught up in the Pacific War. Norman Doss’s story is also part of the Adventist story.

Norman’s parents worked at Porter Hospital in Denver, Colorado, and, with their two sons, attended the South Denver Adventist church in Colorado. But in the summer of 1941, aged seventeen, Norman persuaded his mother to sign for him to join the Navy.

Running down the ramp of the landing craft into the surf and hearing the zing-zing of bullets all around was a “new experience” for him.

Like Desmond, he had been raised to believe that he could serve as a medic but should not bear arms. Unlike Desmond, he joined the medics but accepted a weapon. In the military he smoked, drank, and rarely attended church. His training in California prepared him to be a general field medic and a dental assistant.

Then came Pearl Harbor, America’s declaration of war, and its fearsome engagement against Germany and Japan. Norman was transferred to the 4th Marine Division and sent to Hawaii. In 1944 his unit invaded the island of Roi Namur. Running down the ramp of the landing craft into the surf and hearing the zing-zing of bullets all around was a “new experience” for him. His group set up an aid station while the combat troops moved into the island. One significant memory of the 25-hour long battle was dodging flying chunks of concrete that an ammunition dump explosion flung into the air.

During the battle for Saipan, Norman’s medical group of two doctors and eight corpsmen resupplied frontline medics and took casualties to the beach for transport to hospital ships. On the way back from one trip to the beach he had a surprise encounter with a friend from Denver that delayed his return to his post. When he did reach his post he saw that his foxhole had taken a direct artillery shell hit. Meeting a friend at the beach may have saved his life. The battle of Saipan lasted about 25 days and cost about 3,000 American and many more Japanese lives. The 4th Marines were then sent to capture Tinian, an island nearby, from which the planes carrying atomic bombs would eventually be sent to Japan.

The Marines rested about two weeks on Saipan after the fighting ended, before being returned to Hawaii to prepare for another invasion. Norman’s war experiences set him seriously thinking about life: riding in a jeep that flew off the road and rolled over and over with no injury but one broken leg; having a hand grenade thrown at his feet that did not explode. . . . Perhaps he was being saved for a purpose. In Maui Norman went to church on Sabbath and took communion for the first time a several years. One Sabbath he took the bus to the beach and spent the day alone reading the Bible, singing, and praying. As he listened to his conscience, he threw away his Lucky Strike cigarettes and stopped drinking. Visiting the Adventist mission office he met pastor Elmer Waldy, who became a good friend, and prayed a wonderful prayer for his protection when he was about to go off to battle again.

Norman’s ship sailed away from Hawaii bound for Iwo Jima. As the troop ships gathered near the island, warships laid down artillery barrages and aircraft dropped bombs. Norman went over the side of the troop ship with thousands of others into landing crafts on rope net ladders, like the ones Desmond used in Hacksaw Ridge. When his craft pushed up onto the beach its landing ramp would not open to allow the Marines to run out. As shells and bullets flew all around the operators struggled to lower the ramp. One shell landed directly in front of the ramp. After that the ramp went down and the Marines ran onto the beach to dig foxholes in the sand. For Norman, the stubborn ramp was another remarkable intervention that kept him alive. When he landed he was still carrying his weapon. However, when he met a Marine who had lost his weapon in the landing he gave the weapon to him. From that time until he was discharged from the Navy he did not carry a weapon and felt the deepest peace in his heart.

On Iwo Jima, Norman was once again with the medical aid station at the regimental command post. The combat troops and frontline medics worked their way forward with the support of the aid station in the rear. On the fourth day someone pointed out the famous flag on top of Mount Surubachi. The capture of Surubachi meant that shells targeted at Norman’s area came from one less direction. During the 36-day battle he once had to cross about a mile of open ground under heavy fire. American losses were about 7,000 while some 25,000 Japanese lost their lives. Norman always grieved for the many Japanese who died, many without knowledge of the Gospel.

Soon after the battle for Iwo Jima, the invasion of Okinawa brought Norman his own unique notoriety, because Okinawa was the scene of amazing deeds of valor by another Doss, Desmond. A friend wrote to Norman’s parents congratulating them for their son’s heroism. They in turn then wrote to him demanding, “Son! Why didn’t you tell us what you did?”

When Norman left the Navy in 1947 his goals were clearly defined—to study to be a pastor, find a good woman to marry, and serve as a missionary.

When Norman left the Navy in 1947 his goals were clearly defined—to study to be a pastor, find a good woman to marry, and serve as a missionary. God fulfilled all of these dreams. At Union College he met and married Florence Oss, the daughter of missionaries to Trinidad. She had dreamed of serving in China and he had his mind on Africa. Together, they started ministry in North Dakota. In 1954 they traveled to Nyasaland (now Malawi) in Africa, a continent they gave 21 years of service. Their example of overseas mission service has inspired their son and two grandchildren to follow suit.

As for his famous namesake, Norman and Desmond did meet upon occasion, but not enough to know each other well. They remain uncertain about common ancestry, though Norman’s family does have ancestry in Desmond’sstate of Virginia. Nevertheless, Norman and his offspring are delighted to handle questions based on their last name: “Are you related to the famous Doss?” Norman’s descendants smile and ask, “Which one?” Then they share some of Norman’s story. It may be less dramatic, but it shares the same ending with Desmond’s: Jesus will call their names and hand them their medal and citation—a medal of eternal life, and two words of citation, “Well done!”


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