his film, Hacksaw Ridge, director Mel
Gibson depicts the story of a young man named Desmond Doss, who grew up in a
Seventh Day Adventist family. Having been raised by an abusive father who was a
veteran of WWI, Desmond always had the conviction to protect others. When he
learns that his brother, along with several other boys his age, has enlisted to
serve in the war, Desmond decides it is his responsibility to serve as well.
However, because of his strong belief that men should not kill other men,
Desmond enlists with the idea that he will do everything in his power to help
the country, except for carry a gun with the intention of hurting and possibly
killing other human beings. After being ridiculed by his superiors and peers in
basic training, being detained for insubordination, and being put on trial and
defended by his veteran father, Desmond is finally permitted to serve in the
war as a combat medic. During his time as a medic, Desmond saves over 75 lives
by running onto the field of battle without a weapon and treating wounded
soldiers. He is honored for his service in the war, and the film portrays
Desmond as a true hero and an unwavering example of a man who refused to
compromise his beliefs.
The myth of the hero is heavily evident
in the film Hacksaw Ridge. Desmond is
seen as one who saves lives while running through battlefields surrounded by
grenades and gunfire. Because Hacksaw
Ridge was meant to be a film that entertained the majority of the adult
population, much of the film is comprised of explosions, blood, and majestic images
of heroism. The film rarely shows the medic tent, where most of the doctors,
nurses, and medics spent time reviving the wounded and nursing them back to
stable condition. In fact, relatively few combat medics were in Desmond’s
position, running out into the battlefield to collect the wounded; the majority
of medics were either in the medic tent or the camp making sure all the
soldiers are in the condition to fight a war. Even
though the idea of a medic treating patients in the background seems mundane
compared to the heroes, like Desmond, who risked their lives by running into
the battlefield, without the dedication of the American war medics in the
tents, the war effort would have ended much sooner in heartbreaking defeat.
By the time of
WWII, significant medical discoveries were made that allowed medics to save
lives in a more efficient and successful manner. Most of these discoveries were
those that cured diseases that soldiers acquired from fighting on the
battlefield. “Military medicine meant curing disease and, since wars are won by
physically and mentally functional people, preventing disease as well”1. These discoveries
included penicillin and quinine, as well as specializations in military
medicine such as neurology, orthopedics, and cardiology. Since much of the war
was fought in Pacific regions, preventing and curing malaria was among one of
the most daunting challenges that combat medics faced. Because malaria is a
deadly red blood cell disease spread by mosquitoes, there was no way to avoid
it. In the region of Bataan, for example, there were more than 100,000
civilians and soldiers, and by 1942, more than 80% of this population was
plagued with malaria. Though the death rate was low amongst American soldiers,
seizures caused by this disease depleted one’s strength; with the limited
number of American soldiers in comparison with those from Japan, a cure for
this disease was dire. With the development of quinine, a prophylaxis to treat
and prevent malaria, numerous lives were saved as soldiers received treatment
from combat medics2.
In addition to quinine, the development of penicillin was also a vital part of
the war effort. Developed in 1928, just before the Second World War, penicillin
began the era of antibiotics3. Combat medics were able
to use penicillin to treat infections from serious wounds. Because of the
discovery of penicillin, soldiers were able to overcome the setbacks from being
wounded and get back onto the battlefield to fight for their country once more.
Helping these soldiers receive the treatment they needed by using newfound
medical discoveries was what the majority of combat medics spent their time
doing. Without the medics, there would have been nobody to administer said
treatments, and few soldiers could have recovered from disease and injury.
Before becoming a
medic, one had to first be inducted into the military. Most people did so as a
result of the draft, but some, like Minoru Masuda, a Japanese American medic
who served in WWII, were volunteered because they were prisoners of concentration
camps4. All future medics were
then put through the same basic training as the infantrymen. They were trained
for military equipment and battle procedures alongside the soldiers who would
eventually go on to fight in combat. After basic training, those who were
assigned or volunteered to be combat medics, such as Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge, were sent to medical
training. Most were sent to training camps through the Army Specialized
Training Program (ATSP)5. Depending on the urgency
of the situation, training was brief. In another WWII combat medic, Joe
Franklin’s, case, the medics were only given brief instruction on pressure
points and tourniquets, but were never given formal instruction on using
medicine and bandages6. Because of this, most medics
went into the war feeling unprepared. On the contrary, a WWII medic, Bernard
Rice, recollects that his team spent a summer in intensive training, learning
medical and surgical techniques through simulated casualties. However, even
with intensive training, these men were still in for a world of surprise once
they got to the battlefield. Rice writes, “our training period may have been
over, but now we were truly learning. We quickly discovered was not what we had
experienced on maneuvers”7. The most valuable
training that medics received was on the battlefield.
were assigned to serve with a specific infantry, but they also took care of
other soldiers when necessary. Medics were sent out in companies and fought as
a task force. Each task force comprised of about 120 men each, with 4 doctors,
12 technicians, and a treatment platoon that would stabilize the sick and
wounded until they could be evacuated, usually to a hospital8. In addition to treating
soldiers, medics also treated civilians who were hurt by battle, but not those
hurt by other civilians9. These soldiers usually
treated body wounds, such as broken bones, cuts, and wounds, as well as
diseases and infections that the soldiers acquired. The medics had limited
supplies, usually only sulfanilamide powder, morphine, iodine swabs, and
bandages, so they had to be innovative about how they were going to treat their
patients. For example, medics used different weapons to splint broken bones. “Broken
arms were splinted with bayonets and their scabbards. Broken legs were splinted
Even with limited supplies, medics were able to do what they needed to do in
order to help the soldiers recover.
recover also involved more than just treating body wounds. Because war takes
such a demanding toll on the human body, physically and mentally, medics were
unofficially given the task of being an emotional support to those they
treated. After being on the unforgiving battlefield and losing comrades that
had fought alongside them, “many men needed a kind word and a little
Combat medics indirectly provided this support by giving the wounded the care
they needed to keep fighting. Being a combat medic meant more than just tending
to wounds and administering medicine. It also meant performing the vital tasks
to keep the men doing well, both physically and mentally.
Though it was
away from the battlefield, the medic tent was not exactly a safe haven. The
treatment platoon was constantly in danger even though they were not fighting. The
red crosses that medics so honorably sported on their uniforms and tents
sometimes made them an immediate target to the enemy. A Luftwaffe pilot strafed
Bernard Rice’s company after they set up a large tent marked with red crosses
to indicate a treatment facility. After this incident, two members of their
treatment platoon were killed and multiple men were wounded12. Because of incidents
like these, medics experienced excruciating trauma during and after the war. Joe
Franklin writes, “the tragedy of war, for those who have fought and lived
through it, is that it never ends”13. The stress that men,
including medics, endured during their years in combat continued to haunt them
for the greater part of their lives after the war. Both Bernard Rice and Joe
Franklin found themselves having nightmares every night for the rest of their
lives. Sometimes, this trauma got so intense that men turned to addictions,
such as alcohol, just to forget the images they had seen and the traumatizing
tasks they had to perform in combat. This trauma is seen in the film, Hacksaw Ridge, in Desmond’s father. A
World War I veteran who had lost most of his comrades, Tom Doss drinks heavily
and abuses his family as a result of post-war stress. Tom spends his life
trying to forget, as Bernard Rice did, but rather unsuccessfully. Rice admits,
“there was much that refused to be forgotten”14.
made, and still do make, a silent impact in war efforts. They often ended up
playing a sort of God who decided who and what should be treated first, often causing
others to lose their lives whilst waiting. Moreover, several medics gave their
lives by trying to transfer wounded from the battlefield to the treatment tent.
They were not men who thought of their own safety first; they often gave their
lives to save the men who were fighting for their country. They were able to
play an integral role in saving lives so that wounded soldiers could be healed
and be able to go back into the battlefield. Without medics, the war effort
would not have been as strong.
The film, Hacksaw Ridge, portrays combat medics to
be the heroes who ran out into the battlefield and collected men so they could
be treated. Task forces, such as Desmond Doss’s, were a vital part of saving
the wounded. However, being a combat medic meant having several different
tasks. The movie fails to portray the tasks of other combat medics, working in
the tents, who treated diseases and infections, such as malaria, smallpox,
typhoid, and typhus15. With these diseases
affecting such an incredible percentage of the soldiers, preventative care and
treatment was a vital part of continuing the war effort. If the medics were not
present to provide the medical and psychological support for those who were
affected by disease, the United States military would have come short of men
and would not have been able to go on in the war. However, most films in
Hollywood are created to entertain. Watching a three hour film about the
treatment of malaria would not have drawn a significant amount of people to the
theatres. Even though disease was a daunting enemy in and of itself, portraying
it as an enemy in a film would not have been as visually and emotionally
effective as explosions, gunshots, and images of bloody, injured men. Furthermore,
through the character of Desmond Doss, the myth of the hero is portrayed. Through
Doss, the assumption that all heroes must be strong, majestic, and able to
tackle anything they encounter is strongly depicted. The hero is seen as
unwavering and able to singlehandedly influence a war effort. However, through
considering war heroes such as combat medics who saved lives in the background
by treating malaria, one is able to see that a true hero does not have to be a Medal
of Honor recipient who has survived near instances of death. A hero is one who
sacrifices his life for the greater good. That is exactly what combat medics
did, whether they were out on the battlefield or treating seemingly mundane
diseases and infections. The war was not won as a result of the efforts of one
particular hero, but rather, it was won because thousands of heroes contributed
their skills to a war effort that impacted the world.
The combat medics
of World War II played an integral role in the war effort. Without the
sacrifices of these medics, on the battlefield and in the treatment facilities,
the United States military would have been a much weaker force and would not
have achieved the success it did. Albert E. Cowdrey concludes his book, Fighting for Life: American Military
Medicine in World War II, by asserting that “the achievements of American
medicine in World War II provided a massive an durable model of successful
lifesaving during one of the most destructive calamities in human history…the
best work medics did still survives in those they saved and healed, and in the
lives to be lived and the work to be done by them and their descendants
The advances in military medicine, along with the medics who used those
advances to save lives are what made a difference in the war effort. The legacy
of wartime medics will continue to live on for years to come, and their loyalty
to selfless service will be remembered, for combat medics made an unforgettable
impact on this nation’s history.
1 Cowdrey, Albert E. Fighting for Life: American Military Medicine
in World War II. (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 3.
2 Cowdrey, Fighting for Life, 40.
Chemical Society International Historic Chemical Landmarks. “Discovery and
Development of Penicillin”. Accessed October 19, 2017.
4Masuda, Minoru. Letters
from the 442nd: The World War II Correspondence of a
Japanese American Medic. (Seattle: University of
Washington Press, 2008), 7.
5 Rice, Bernard
L. “Recollections of a World War II Combat Medic.” Indiana Magazine of
Robert. Medic! How I Fought World War II with Morphine, Sulfa, and Iodine
Swabs. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 3.
7 Rice, “Recollections”, 319.
8 Rice, “Recollections”, 316.
9 Rice, “Recollections”, 332.
10 Franklin, Medic!, 4.
11 Rice, “Recollections”, 324.
12 Rice, “Recollections”, 331.
13 Franklin, Medic!, 145.
14 Rice, “Recollections”, 344.
15 Cowdrey, Fighting for Life, 331.
16 Cowdrey, Fighting for Life, 336-7.