“An astonishingly diverse number of individuals have earned decorations for non-violence in wartime. Here are some of them.”
Doss withstood the scorn of his comrades and punishment from superiors to become a corpsman. Later, during the bloody campaign for Okinawa, he would help save the lives of 75 casualties, often while shells and enemy machine gun rounds were bursting around him.
The 26-year-old medic was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage during the battle. He died in 2006 at the age of 87.
While Desmond Doss, already the subject of books, a documentary film, a graphic novel and now a Hollywood blockbuster, is poised to become one of the most famous pacifist war heroes in history, there have been others. In fact, an astonishingly diverse number of individuals have earned decorations for non-violence in wartime. Here are some of them.
Britain’s answer to Desmond Doss is Willian Coltman — the most decorated conscientious objector of the First World War. After volunteering for King and Country in 1915, the deeply religious 24-year-old Burton-Upon-Trent-native became a stretcher bearer on the Western Front. During the last year of the war, he earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal, France’s Croix de Guerre and the prestigious Victoria Cross for plucking countless casualties from the crater-pocked shooting gallery of No Man’s Land. Coltman survived the war and left the service as a lance corporal. He returned to England and became a grounds keeper for his hometown’s parks department. He died in 1974 at the age of 82.
The Union’s Female Surgeon
Also in the category of decorated life-savers is Mary Edwards Walker. The only women in history to receive the Medal of Honor, she also holds the distinction of being the Civil War’s first female battlefield surgeon. In 1861, the 39-year-old Oswego, New York native volunteered to serve as a doctor for the Union army but was turned away on account of her gender. Undeterred, she made her way to the front on her own where she cared for casualties at the battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chattanooga (and did all of it without pay!) A staunch abolitionist, Walker later volunteered to spy for the North and was even captured by the Confederacy for espionage, but later released. She is one of just eight civilians to have won the Medal of Honor.
The Piper of Loos
Daniel Laidlaw didn’t carry a rifle… but he could carry a tune. The 40-year-old British army sergeant, remembered as the Piper of Loos, won the Victoria Cross in 1915 for defiantly playing music on a trench parapet during an enemy bombardment. According to eyewitnesses, his impromptu recital reinvigorated his demoralized comrades who reportedly were so inspired by the musician’s bravery they charged out of the trenches and attacked the German lines. Laidlaw kept squeezing out tunes for the duration of their assault, despite being wounded. The war’s only other VC-winning piper, James Cleland Richardson of Vancouver, British Columbia, marched out into No Man’s Land with the men of the Seaforth Highlanders during the Battle of the Somme armed only with his trusty pipes. After playing his comrades across the battlefield, the 20-year-old Canadian laid his beloved instrument down and tended to the wounded. He was killed soon after while trying to retrieve it.
A Flag Waving Trailblazer
Sergeant William H. Carney didn’t fire a shot during the July 18, 1863 battle at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, but won a Medal of Honor nonetheless. The 23-year-old Virginia-born runaway slave was a member of the famous all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He earned the commendation for carrying the American flag during the Union assault on the ocean-side Confederate stronghold. Carney hoisted Old Glory up onto the Rebel rampart and then safely returned the colours to the Yankee lines after the attack was beaten back. “Boys, I only did my duty,” he told his comrades as he staggered to safety bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds. “The old flag never touched the ground!” Carney was honourably discharged and returned to New Bedford, Massachusetts where he became a postman and delivered keynote speeches to veterans groups about his experiences. It wasn’t until 1900 that he was awarded the Medal of Honor. And while numerous African Americans received the decoration before him, his actions at Wagner predated the others, allowing Carney to lay claim to the title of first black recipient of the medal. He died in 1908 at the age of 68, but his story lived on. His likeness was emblazoned on the 54th Massachusetts monument in Boston Commons and his exploits were dramatized in the Oscar-winning 1990 film Glory. Just last year the Library of Virginia invested him in the order of Strong Men & Women in Virginia History.
The Heroes of My Lai
U.S. Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr. was also decorated for saving hundreds of lives, although initially, he was nearly court-martialed for doing so! The 24-year-old native of Atlanta, Georgia was flying his OH-23 scout chopper over the supposedly enemy-controlled villages of My Lai and My Khe, South Vietnam on March 16, 1968 when he and his observer and door gunner spied wounded civilians laying in a ditch. After setting his machine down and rendering assistance to the shot up villagers, Thompson and his crew encountered troops from Company C of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment whom they discovered were indiscriminately slaughtering the locals. After a heated exchange with the officer in charge, the infamous Lieutenant William Calley Jr., Thompson got his chopper airborne and, hovering just feet off the deck, used the machine to shield the wounded from the GIs, while calling in other helicopters to evacuate what villagers could be saved. His indignant report of the incident was initially suppressed by army brass who were keen to portray the 300+ killed in the My Lai massacre as casualties of heavy fighting in the area. When the true nature of the crime leaked out, Thompson was vilified by some as a whistleblower and traitor and for years was the subject of anonymous hate mail and death threats. Still, others considered him and his chopper crew heroes. On the 30th anniversary of the atrocity, Thompson and his observer Glenn Andreotta and door gunner Lawrence Colburn were awarded the Soldiers’ Medal by the Pentagon for their conduct that day.
Pro Deo et Patria
Emil Kapun, a U.S. Army chaplain during the Korean War, was awarded his Medal of Honor for saving both lives and souls. During the 1950 Battle of Unsan, the 34-year-old Catholic priest from Pilsen, Kansas remained in the thick of the fighting so he could help drag the wounded to safety. Later in the battle when the U.S. position was about to be overrun, Kapun volunteered to stay behind to watch over those too injured to be evacuated. After being captured by the communists, he stood up to enemy soldiers who were planning on executing one of the prisoners. During his months in captivity, Kapun shared is meagre rations with his fellow POWs and used his waning strength to buoy the spirits of his comrades. He died on May 23, 1951 of malnutrition and pneumonia. In 2012, Kapun was posthumously awarded America’s highest military honor by President Barack Obama. Nine years prior, the Vatican declared him a Servant of God. Church officials are currently considering him for martyr status and possible canonization.
The General Who Defied an Emperor
Speaking of saints, let’s not forget about Maurice, the 3rd Century Roman general in charge of Emperor Maximian’s Theban Legion. According to folklore, in 286 CE the 6,000-man unit was dispatched from its home in Egypt to the mountains of what is now Switzerland to supress Christian dissidents there. A devout Christian himself, Maurice supposedly refused to order his men to carry out the attack. Enraged, the emperor ordered the Thebans to be decimated, a form of punishment in which one out of every ten soldiers in a disgraced unit are put to death. Despite the sentence, Maurice continued to defy orders, at which point Maximian had the North African general and his entire legion slaughtered. The legend of Maurice’s defiance would be celebrated for centuries throughout Europe and beyond. The Swiss city of St. Moritz bears his name, while a sword and spurs believed to be his would go onto feature prominently in Austro-Hungarian coronation ceremonies up until the First World War. More recently, St. Maurice would become the patron saint of the Italian army’s alpine corps.