Pacifist WWII vet anxious to see film "Hacksaw Ridge"
At 93, Elmer Hart doesn’t spend a lot of time at the movies.
But he’s making an exception for the new film “Hacksaw Ridge,” directed by Mel Gibson and starring Andrew Garfield.
On Friday — Veterans Day — the Gig Harbor man will be at a theater in Tacoma with his son and daughter to see how Hollywood tells the World War II story of Desmond Doss.
In some ways, their lives followed parallel paths.
Doss, an Army medic during the war, was a conscientious objector who refused to carry a gun because of his pacifist beliefs as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist faith.
But during the 1945 battle for the Japanese island of Okinawa, Doss managed to save 75 lives without firing a shot. President Harry Truman awarded him the Medal of Honor for his bravery — the first conscientious objector so honored.
In 1945, Hart was there on the beaches of Okinawa, just a few miles from Doss.
Although they never met, Hart, like Doss, is an Adventist and was an Army medic. Also like Doss, Hart stepped off a landing craft armed only with his faith and a strong belief in the biblical commandment against killing.
“The way we believe, it’s not proper to kill people,” he said Thursday. “I was able to go through four island campaigns. I never had a weapon. I never needed one.”
Hart was a 20-year-old student at what then was called Walla Walla College (now Walla Walla University), an Adventist institution, when he was drafted in 1943. He was working in a bakery to pay his way through school.
Hart can’t recall how his status as a conscientious objector was established, or if that was why he was trained as a medic.
I never had a weapon. I never needed one
Elmer Hart, World War II army medic
“They automatically assigned me to it,” he said.
He spent three months in basic training at Camp Robinson in Arkansas, then was sent to San Francisco. From there, he boarded a ship “in the middle of the night, in total silence,” bound first for Hawaii, and then to the Pacific island battlefields.
“We landed right after the infantry,” he said. “Sometimes we landed with the infantry.”
Hart said he’s always been too busy to tell war stories. But he does relate one that speaks to the hectic battle conditions on Okinawa.
He was assigned to care for casualties when a wounded first lieutenant was carried in.
“He was pale,” Hart remembered. “You could see he had bled out.”
A quick check of the lieutenant’s dog tags and several soldiers’ tags revealed that Hart was the only one with a matching A-positive blood type. An intravenous connection between Hart and the wounded soldier was established.
“I laid down on the cot beside him and pumped in a pint or two of blood,” Hart said.
He tells another story about moving up close to the infantry in their final assault on Saipan, another Pacific island battlefield.
He and his fellow soldiers soon realized they were cut off by Japanese soldiers.
An officer told them: “You are surrounded, and there’s no way to get you out.”
Hart managed to get inside a truck, driven by a soldier who had grown up driving the farmlands of Texas. The driver took off.
“He drove through at 60 miles an hour, and we came out the other side,” Hart said.
He said he never worried about the perils of war. Instead, he saw it with the eyes of a young man: “To me, it was an adventure. I never thought about it being dangerous.”
I laid down on the cot beside him and pumped in a pint or two of blood
Elmer Hart, World War II army medic
While in the thick of it, Hart said, there was no time for worry.
“There were enough casualties to take care of,” he remembered. “We didn’t stop to worry about ourselves.”
After his tour of duty in the Pacific, Hart returned to Fort Lewis and received an honorable discharge. He went back to study at Walla Walla College.
He went on to study medicine at Loma Linda University in California, graduating in 1953. He spent most of his career as a family physician in Crescent City, California, retiring from practice in 1991.
The movie “Hacksaw Ridge” portrays the intimidation Doss faced for his pacifist beliefs. He was called a coward by his fellow soldiers, beaten up and at one point, arrested.
Hart said his beliefs were never called into question by the Army.
“They treated us very well,” he said. “They knew I didn’t believe in killing people and it was accepted.”
After the war, Hart said he read about Doss’ story, which became well-known among Adventists.
Hart hasn’t stepped inside a movie theater in at least 30 years. But after his son Wes, a Tacoma physician, told him about “Hacksaw Ridge,” he decided to see the film.
“I know what took place. I was there,” Hart said. “I’d like to see it, to see how accurate it really is.”