A Missionary Kid Remembers Hacksaw Ridge and Desmond Doss

This is about Hacksaw Ridge, the place I knew as Maeda Escarpment. The worst Pacific battle of WW II, the battle for Okinawa, occurred on this spot.

Okinawa was my home as a teenager. It was the time of the Vietnam War, and on many Sabbaths, 15 to 35 GIs would come to our home for dinner. After dinner, we would often hike the trail along the base of Maeda Escarpment, or drive to the top and enjoy the view. From there, we could see the entire southern end of the island and the ocean on either side. On top, there were a few scrubby trees, about my height. There was a generous litter of war metal on the top: pieces of bullets, shells, shrapnel, mortars, grenades. They were mixed with the sand like millions of shells on a beach. (In some caves elsewhere and also in the ocean, Sid, my brother, and I found unspent ordnances: shells, grenades and mortars. I especially remember a neat pyramid of grenades facing out the entrance of a cave. Sid found bombs, which he reported to the military for removal. To Sid’s chagrin, he was told, in no uncertain terms, to stay out of caves. But that did not include caves in the ocean, we concluded.)

The mud cliffs were overgrown with shrubs and grasses. Below the cliffs were sugarcane fields. Right at the base of the cliffs were caves. Some you could slide into if you weren’t watching your step, as you hiked the trail. Others you could fall into if you came down the cliff and weren’t paying attention to your route. One, especially, you just couldn’t see before it was too late. Some had small openings, and at some, the openings had been enlarged. My brother and I climbed all over those cliffs, up and down, just to see if we could. We learned to expect traps of various types. One farmer, whose field was at the base of Maeda, put us out of his field because he was afraid we would get hurt. He held up a mangled hand in explanation.

My parents told us the story of Desmond Doss. My brother figured that there was only one place where there was a straight shot to lower people to the ground. Surely that must be the place Doss conducted his rescues. We tried over and over to climb the cliff at that spot. My brother finally made it, but I never had the strength, even though he carefully coached me. In time, we learned of the cargo nets. And we did find chunks of fiber that could have come from cargo nets. And yes, that was the place Doss lowered people. I recognized it later from a military picture.

We timed our climbs. My brother carried weights up and down. Once in a while one of the GIs with us would climb, too. We wanted to know the maximum speed the cliff could be scaled, at any spot. Then we figured how fast Doss had to work to get men over the cliff during the time of the battle. I remember my brother, with a pencil and yellow pad in hand. He was calculating how many people it would take to make an operation like Doss’ work, and how fast they would have to move. I remember his face, and his quiet voice when he said that what Doss did just couldn’t be done. I stood at the top of the cliff, looking over a beautiful little island, out to the ocean, crying. We were standing on holy ground, in the presence of Almighty God. The angels had to have helped Desmond Doss.

One day some older American tourists were on top, which was a rare occurrence. These men were returning vets, old war buddies. It took some doing to get them to talk to us about more than just the weather. They argued among themselves that we were just kids. I begged them to tell us their stories, explaining that I had read about Desmond Doss and the war, and came here often. Weren’t they almost our age when they fought here? That thought changed their minds. They finally told us, blow by blow, where they crawled, where buddies died, where enemy artillery was located, and how they got out and where. One man took me here and there, having me sight down imaginary weapons at targets. At that point, all the big concrete objects on top started to make sense. They began telling details, things I didn’t know happened to humans. At length, one man started weeping. My brother and I just stood there, stuck to the ground, me crying with one, and then another vet. Two of the men near me quietly removed their shirts. Their chests and backs were masses of horrendous scar tissue. Others in the group were limping, some pointing to places where their wounds were. Now I knew. They were not just stiff old people.

At one point, Sid and I determined to explore the caves. The Okinawans avoided the caves. We visited a monument on the southern part of the island where the entire population of students died in caves, by suicide.

Nobody really wanted to go into the caves—not the GIs with us, not my Dad. They were muddy. There were venomous centipedes with long legs, just thick on the walls, and there were really venomous smaller centipedes. Those didn’t just make one itch and burn, but put my brother in serious pain and made him sick. We took care to avoid those, but endured the big ones, to a point. We learned the beasties’ habits, and got on with caving. Alas we only had a flashlight, and that occupied one hand. One needed two hands to climb around, so we worked as a team.

In one large cave, at the base of the Maeda Escarpment, my brother and I walked in. He was ahead, holding the flashlight. All of a sudden I heard a shout that dropped downward, and saw the flashlight arc across the ceiling, then heard it tinkle in shattered pieces down below. I called, “Are you OK?” Silence. Then “Yes. You should come down here. I think you’d find it interesting.” Right. Just drop over the edge into black nothing. He explained that it was about 3 or 4 feet down. He warned me to be careful in landing because it was uneven and a bit slick, and not to twist an ankle. He said to just sit on the edge and launch out. So I did. I landed on rounded rocks, all the same, as far as I could feel. Then my stomach lurched and I chilled with horror. I picked up one of the “rocks.” It was a skull. I was sitting on a mountain of skulls. Nothing but skulls and the occasional vertebra. I picked up skull after skull and felt them. I assumed they were Japanese. Perhaps Okinawan. But were they? My mind did not want to know why there were just skulls there. I felt sick. Oh, how I hated war. These were young men, my age. Just defending their families. Dead, in vast numbers.

In time, my Dad came to the mouth of the cave, calling out our names. Yes, we were down inside. He left and called the GIs. One of them always brought a flashlight and a rope, just in case. Sid and I knew we could count on him, and fortunately, he was equipped. We were down farther than 3 or 4 feet. The sloping, slick trail was well over our heads.

Sid determined to get into all the caves along the cliff. (The caves were interconnected, and there were tunnels, but it was too dangerous to try exploring them.) He also determined that some had been blasted shut. He also found more bones. I never went inside the remaining caves at the base of Maeda.

A few years later, I was a young woman showing my new husband my favorite places in the US. I determined to visit elderly Desmond Doss near Chattanooga. This was a desire of my heart, a decision I made as a teen on Okinawa.

It took a while for Desmond Doss to understand who I was and why I was there. When he did, he burst into tears of joy, to my surprise. A missionary kid from Okinawa! One who had been to the Maeda Escarpment! He had little to say about the Medal of Honor, just that those who gave their lives did more than he did. He was just doing what needed to be done. “I asked God to give me just one more. Just one more.” There was much I wanted to ask Doss, but he was very deaf. He wouldn’t sit down, but stood for a couple of hours and just unloaded his heart. The hardest part of his life was after the war, he said. He detailed his trials. I wondered if people had forgotten this humble hero.

Toward the end of our visit, his wife helped him understand my question. I also found paper in my car and wrote. He needed very large letters. I asked what he would want a young person like me to know. His face transformed to joy. Immediately he said with great energy, “Oh! Study your Sabbath School lesson every day!”

What a letdown. I tried not to show my disappointment. Really? I was utterly at a loss. Why did that matter? I could not bear the Sabbath School lesson. I wanted “something of substance.” “OK,” I thought. “I will place this in that special treasure box in my heart.” It is the place for things I don’t yet understand, but are very valuable. Someday I would know the glory of taking a simple scripture into my heart, from the Sabbath School lesson, and asking for, and having it change me; of tracing stories as they opened, gathering meaning from Genesis to Revelation. The notion of a war in the supernatural realm would stand me up through flying bullets and the injuries of life. I was a soldier on the side that already won, and I loved my God. Did Doss learn to “eat” scripture when he was young? I could not ask him all my questions, alas. But standing there, I felt peace, that God had answered my questions. 

Then Doss launched into the faithfulness of the Lord. “Always trust God,” he said. “Even now, you’ll see. God will provide for me. He will provide for you. Is there something on your heart, something you need?” He studied my eyes. He tried to read my lips, but we failed. “Trust in God,” he said. His concern for me, personally, touched me. He explained that in the middle of suffering God sends a sweet peace and his presence. He said to memorize God’s promises. They stay with you and strengthen you when you most need them. We were walking toward our car. Doss stopped us. He took a deep breath. He summarized. This was what he said in the last minute: “Yes. Trust God with everything. Nothing is too small. Read your Sabbath School lesson every day. Memorize scripture when you are young. Later, when you can’t memorize, you will wish you did. Never let go of Jesus. He is coming.” What a beautiful smile he had. What glory shone in that face looking to the sky.

I remembered standing at the base of Maeda making a decision to never turn my back on God, no matter what.