A soldier who knew Pvt. Doss discusses the incredible Mel Gibson movie “Hacksaw Ridge”

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Columnist November 11 at 7:00 AM
At the end of basic training, Leigh Willoughby and five other men were plucked out of their class and told that they were going to be medics.

“I didn’t like that,” Leigh said. He wanted infantry. “I thought I was macho.”

But what could he do? The Army does what it wants.

Leigh is 92 now and lives in Springfield, Va. He’s retired from a long career in procurement with the federal government.

In 1943, he was a 20-year-old medic with the 1st Battalion, Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Division. He knew Desmond Doss, the medic who earned the Medal of Honor after pulling 75 injured men to safety and lowering them down a cliff during the Battle of Okinawa. Doss is the subject of “Hacksaw Ridge,” the new movie directed by Mel Gibson.

“I never heard the term ‘Hacksaw Ridge,’ ” Leigh said. “It was always ‘the escarpment.’ ”

Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist and conscientious objector who refused to touch a gun. He never should have been in the military, but he wanted to do his part. The Army let him become a medic. Medics were issued carbines, Leigh said, but Doss wouldn’t take one.

“They used to tease Doss all the time: ‘What are you gonna do, Doss, if a Japanese comes around the corner and he’s got a gun?’

“He said, ‘Well, I guess he’d kill me. I might try to take the gun away from him if I could.’

“He had a faith that’s unbelievable in God, that God would protect him.”

A memory of Doss: “We were right below the escarpment. This colonel walks up from way down below, an artillery officer. He says, ‘I want to see where my artillery’s landing.’ ”

Leigh told the colonel that he shouldn’t go any farther. This was the front line.

“He walked up and stood straight up and you hear the gunfire and boom, he was down.”

Doss sent Leigh to get plasma, which he did, scurrying through mortar fire.

“By the time I got back, the colonel was dead. I don’t even know what his name was.”

Another memory: A ladder leans against the escarpment. The enemy is at the top, somewhere beyond the last rung.

“The captain ordered one of the guys to go up the ladder,” Leigh said. “He went up. You heard the gunfire, and he never came down.”

The captain pointed to another soldier.

“He went up. Same thing. Then he pointed to a third guy, a sergeant: ‘Sergeant, go on up the hill.’ He went up there and he was killed. Three in a row.”

Later that day, the captain was killed. So was his replacement, a lieutenant.

In battle on Guam and Okinawa, Leigh would listen for the summoning cry — “Medic! Medic!” — and hurry over with his gauze and tape, his sulfa powder, tourniquets and morphine syrettes. He was never as religious as Doss, whose experience in combat seemed to strengthen his belief in God, not strip it away, as it did with Leigh. Would God allow what Leigh had seen?

Still, Leigh prayed.

“I prayed that I’d rather die than get maimed,” he said. “I saw so many that were maimed.”

I asked Leigh if he was planning to see “Hacksaw Ridge.”

“I don’t know if I want to relive that,” he said. “I’m doubtful.”

A lady he met once asked him if he’d seen “Saving Private Ryan.”

“I said, ‘No, I don’t like war pictures.’

“She said, ‘Oh, you should see it. It’s like the real thing.’

“And I said, ‘How would you know?’ ”

The movies can’t capture the smell, Leigh said — the gunpowder and smoke, the unbathed men, the holes dug in the ground to defecate in. And they can’t re-create the bond.

“You’re never so close to so many people for so short a time,” he said. “Everyone there would have died to save the other guy.”

And, conversely, when it was over, some of them never wanted to see each other again, as if the shared terror had been too much to bear.

I told Leigh I’d seen “Hacksaw Ridge.” He asked me what I thought.

It was good, I said. Gory, yes, and heavy on the religious symbolism at times, but moving.

“I mean, were you frightened when you saw it?” Leigh asked. “Scared out of your wits?”

No, I said. I wasn’t.

Leigh’s wife of 67 years, Ramona, died on Oct. 30. They had four children, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild. His hobby is painting, and his house is full of peaceful scenes: a sunny porch, ducks in flight, a dog on a carpet.

Leigh always flies the American flag outside his house on Veterans Day.

“I’m very patriotic,” he said. “I bleed for the soldiers who are in combat now. I just hope we can find some way to bring them home. I don’t think those wars over there are ever going to end.”

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