With the recent release of “Hacksaw Ridge,” a film telling the story of U.S. Army medic Desmond Doss’s heroic actions at Okinawa, attention has been drawn to veterans of the Pacific campaign.
For Elmer Hart, a resident at Harbor Place of Cottesmore in Gig Harbor, Washington, the movie was a reminder of his own experiences as a medic. He too served in the Battle of Okinawa.
A Seventh-day Adventist like Doss, Hart was a pre-med student at Walla Walla College, an Adventist school in eastern Washington, when the war broke out. He was drafted in 1943 and was a natural fit for serving as a medic. He trained at Camp Robinson in Arkansa.
“It was just a routine,” Hart remembered, “marching, doing this and doing that.”
Hart had an easier time in the Army than Doss did – he doesn’t remember being picked on for his beliefs, even his refusal to bear arms. His commanding officers were more understanding and accommodating.
Hart served in the 102nd Medical Unit, following the 27th Infantry Division as it invaded Pacific islands held by the Japanese, including Saipan in the Marianas, as well as Okinawa.
“I spent three years in the Pacific, going from island to island,” Hart shared. “All the landings were made at night – usually around 4 in the morning.”
Because the medical unit was kept at a distance from the battles, Hart never felt in great danger, except for one instance when a Japanese soldier got about 50 feet from him.
“He threw a grenade at me, but it didn’t go off,” Hart remembered.
At Okinawa, Hart’s battalion rendered aid to casualties as the 27th attacked another ridge not far from Hacksaw Ridge, where Doss was lowering dozens of injured men down the cliff. Hart did his own medical work on the beach.
“We had quite a number of patients to take care of,” Hart said.
One incident in particular gave Hart the chance to be a hero when no one else could. When a badly injured lieutenant was carried to the medical station, Hart was the only one with the same A-positive blood type. He saved the man’s life by pumping a pint or two of his own blood into the man’s system.
“I laid down on the gurney beside him and gave him blood to keep him alive,” Hart said. “You do what you’ve gotta do.”
On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, Hart and his son and daughter-in-law went to see “Hacksaw Ridge” in the theater, bringing back memories of the battle for Hart.
“It was a rapid movie of what took place,” Hart said. “I think Hollywood added a few things to make it more interesting, but it was fairly realistic to what went on.”
The Battle of Okinawa ended in June 1945.
“The rumor came through that the war was going to end soon because of something big we were going to do,” Hart remembered. “No one knew what it was.”
The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, and on Nagasaki on Aug. 9.
The 102nd went on to other islands in Japan, where Hart was for about two months before coming home for good.
He learned a lot during those three years, including medical experience that he would carry on to his career as a family physician.
Hart captured the essence of his time in the service: “To me, the Army experience was an adventure.”