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The Courage of their Convictions: Three Conscientious Objectors and the Heroism that earned them the Medal of Honor

By Danae Tuley, Alternative Service Program

Single-handedly destroyed …
Repeatedly attacked the enemy…
Provided covering fire at the cost of his own life…
Led the assault…

Statements like these often describe the distinguishing acts for which a member of the United States Armed Forces has been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military valor decoration that may be awarded by the United States government.1

Though direct combat may not always be used to describe the acts of “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty” for which a Medal of Honor is awarded, it is often closely connected. After all, the settings during which the Medal of Honor may be earned are based on action against an enemy, a military operation or armed conflict against an opposing armed force.2

Imagine, then, the heroism it would take for someone who conscientiously objects to war and refuses to take up arms or engage in any form of combat to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Three such Americans have received this honor: Private First Class Desmond T. Doss (World War II), Corporal Thomas W. Bennett (Vietnam), and Specialist Four Joseph G. LaPointe, Jr. (Vietnam).


Photo of Private First Class Desmond T. DossPRIVATE FIRST CLASS DESMOND T. DOSS United States Army
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.3

The first and probably best known and most celebrated Conscientious Objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, Private First Class Desmond T. Doss is credited with saving approximately 75 lives over a 23-day period beginning in late April in 1945, on Okinawa Island, Japan. Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist, wanted to serve both God and country, but objected to taking a life or taking up arms. He eventually served with the U.S. Army Medical Department (AMEDD) as a Company Aidman where he was attached to Company B of the 307th Infantry. As his troops neared the summit assaulting the 400-foot-high Maeda Escarpment, they were met with heavy enemy fire. Doss refused to seek cover and instead carried the injured men, one by one, to the edge of the escarpment. According to Doss, there he fashioned a rope into two slings using a knot he had learned years ago as a Junior Missionary Volunteer with his church and lowered each wounded soldier down to where they could be put on a stretcher and taken for treatment.4

Doss performed several similar rescues during his tour. He continued providing aid to his wounded comrades in dangerous situations, managing to escape death on many occasions. Eventually, Doss’ legs were severely injured in a nearby grenade explosion. Instead of calling another aidman away from safe cover, Doss cared for his own injuries and waited five hours until a stretcher could reach him and deliver him to safety. However, when Doss identified a more critically wounded soldier, he crawled from the stretcher and instructed the carriers to first evacuate that soldier. While awaiting their return, Doss was hit again, this time causing a compound fracture in his arm. Taking up arms for the first time, Doss used a nearby rifle shaft as a splint for his arm and then crawled all the way to the aid station.3

First Lieutenant Cecil L. Gornto, the platoon leader of the first platoon of Company B where Doss served as an aidman, said in his statement supporting Doss’ Medal of Honor: “I feel that I can state without reservation that the actions of this man were the most outstanding display of bravery that I have ever seen. …although [Doss] never carries a weapon, I have never seen a wounded man in a position too dangerous for him to go. The men of my platoon always had the feeling that they could depend on Doss to go to them regardless what happened or where.”5

Doss survived the war and was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman on October 12, 1945.6 He passed away in 2006, at the age of 87.7 Far less is known about conscientious objectors whose heroism during the Vietnam Conflict earned them the Medal of Honor. Little is also known about their religious background or their beliefs as conscientious objectors.

Unlike Desmond Doss who voluntarily enlisted, both Corporal Thomas W. Bennett and Specialist Four Joseph G. LaPointe, Jr. were called to serve in Vietnam as part of the draft.8,9 Unlike Doss, neither survived their deployments; both men were awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.


Photo of Corporal Thomas W. BennettCORPORAL THOMAS W. BENNETT United States Army
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.10

Corporal Thomas W. Bennett was born and raised in West Virginia. While service records only indicate that he was a protestant with no denominational preference, he and his family were said to have been active in a Boy Scout Troop sponsored by a local United Methodist Church.11

Bennett was a Medical Aidman and served with the 2nd Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry. While his platoon was en route near Pleiku, Vietnam, to assist another platoon that had been ambushed, Bennett’s platoon became engaged in fire with a larger and more-fortified enemy unit. After learning that three of the platoon’s point men had been wounded, Bennett ran through heavy fire to administer life-saving first aid to his comrades and then made repeated trips to carry each of the soldiers to a safer location where they could be medically evacuated. Day in and day out between February 9 and February 11, 1969, Bennett repeatedly risked his life by passing through enemy fire to administer aid and comfort the wounded and retrieve the bodies of his fallen comrades. Bennett was attending to the first of a new group of wounded when he started to run to another wounded soldier who was located forward of the company’s position and covered by heavy enemy fire.10 Despite being warned by several that the wounded soldier could not be reached safely and that he should wait until the hostile fire let up,5 Bennett immediately proceeded towards the wounded soldier. It was during this rescue attempt that Bennet was hit by enemy fire and killed.10

Bennett’s Medal of Honor was presented to his mother and stepfather by President Richard M. Nixon12 on April 7, 1970.13


Photo of Specialist For Joseph G. LaPointe, Jr.SPECIALIST FOUR JOSEPH G. LaPOINTE, JR. United States Army
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.14

Specialist Four Joseph G. LaPointe, Jr., whose military records indicate he was a Baptist,9 was recognized posthumously with both the Medal of Honor for his actions on June 2, 1969,14 and with a Silver Star for his actions on April 12, 1969.15

LaPointe was a Medical Aidman attached to the 101st Airborne Division. On June 2, 1969, while assisting with a combat helicopter assault mission in Quang Tin Province, Vietnam, his patrol was surprised with a heavy attack from a large, wellfortified enemy bunker. LaPointe heard the call for aid and while members of his unit attempted to provide covering fire, he crawled straight through enemy fire and in view of the enemy bunker to assist his two wounded comrades. While caring for one soldier, he shielded the other with his body. Repeatedly wounded and knocked to the ground, each time LaPointe returned to his position of administering first aid while shielding the wounded soldiers with his body. Unfortunately, both LaPointe and his two wounded comrades were killed by an exploding enemy grenade before he could stabilize the two soldiers and help evacuate them to safety.14

LaPointe’s Silver Star was awarded for similar bravery when he ran through heavy artillery to the aid of 17 wounded soldiers. His actions reportedly saved one life and likely many others.15

LaPointe’s Medal of Honor was awarded to his family by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew on Dec 16, 1971.16


WORKS CITED
1 “Medal of Honor.” CMOHS.org. The Congressional Medal Of Honor Society, n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2013.
2 United States. Department of Defense. Description of Awards. Department of Defense, n.d. Web. 03 Sept. 2013.
3 United States. The U.S. Army Medical Department (AMEDD). Private First Class Desmond T. Doss. Office of the Army Surgeon General, Public Affairs, and the Network Enterprise Center, Fort Detrick, Md., n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2013.
4 Desmond T. Doss (AFC 2001/001/32978), Video recording (MV01), Veterans History Project Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
5 1LT Cecil L. Gornto’s Statement Used in Support of the Desmond Doss Medal of Honor, 06/18/1945 [Electronic Record]; Correspondence Files, 1944 – 1945; Records of U.S. Army Operational, Tactical, and Support Organizations (World War II and Thereafter), 1917 - 1999, Record Group 338; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD [retrieved from the Access to Archival Databases at www.archives.gov, August 30, 2013].
6 Desmond T. Doss (AFC 2001/001/32978), Transcript (MS04), Veterans History Project Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
7 Bernstein, Adam. “Lauded Conscientious Objector Desmond T. Doss Sr.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 26 Mar. 2006. Web. 30 Aug. 2013.
8 Record for Joseph Guy LaPointe, Jr.; Vietnam Conflict Extract Data File, as of April 29, 2008, 6/8/1956 - 5/28/2006 [Electronic Record]; Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS) Extract Files, created, ca. 2001 - 4/29/2008, documenting the period 6/28/1950 - 5/28/2006; Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Record Group 330; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD [retrieved from the Access to Archival Databases at www.archives.gov, September 03, 2013].
9 Record for Thomas William Bennett; Vietnam Conflict Extract Data File, as of April 29, 2008, 6/8/1956 - 5/28/2006 [Electronic Record]; Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS) Extract Files, created, ca. 2001 - 4/29/2008, documenting the period 6/28/1950 - 5/28/2006; Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Record Group 330; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD [retrieved from the Access to Archival Databases at www.archives.gov, September 03, 2013].
10 United States. The U.S. Army Medical Department (AMEDD). Corporal Thomas W. Bennett. Office of the Army Surgeon General, Public Affairs, and the Network Enterprise Center, Fort Detrick, Md., n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2013.
11 “Thomas William Bennett 1947-1969 Personal History.” MOH_GrantMedal of Honor_Bennett. 1st 14th Infantry Regiment, n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2013.
12 Eyewitness Statement Sgt. Dominic J. Tomeo. N.d. TS. Medal of Honor_Bennett. Web. 30 Aug. 2013.
13 Murphy, Edward F. “A Conscientious Objector’s Medal of Honor.” HistoryNet.com. Weider History Group, 12 June 2006. Web. 30 Aug 2013.
14 United States. The U.S. Army Medical Department (AMEDD). Specialist Four Joseph G. LaPointe, Jr. Office of the Army Surgeon General, Public Affairs, and the Network Enterprise Center, Fort Detrick, Md., n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2013.
15 United States. The U.S. Army Medical Department (AMEDD). Specialist Four Joseph G. AMEDD Silver Star: Vietnam War, Page 2, L-Z. Office of the Army Surgeon General, Public Affairs, and the Network Enterprise Center, Fort Detrick, Md., n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2013.
16 Sterner, C. Douglas. 101st Airborne Division Medal of Honor Recipients. Pueblo: Home of Heroes, n.d. 101st Airborne Division MOH Recipients - Page 4. Web. 03 Sept. 2013.