By Mike O'Neal
More than 1,600 people on Saturday filled the Collegedale Seventh-day Adventist Church and untold numbers watched a live Webcast, all to honor and commemorate both the man and the myth that was Desmond T. Doss Sr.
Awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism during the battle for Okinawa in 1945, Mr. Doss died March 23 at age 87.
His story of courage in the heat of battle is legend and has been the subject of books and documentary film.
As an Army private he single-handedly saved the lives of at least 75 men and became the first conscientious objector ever awarded the Medal of Honor. Soldiers who at first reviled this devout man who refused to carry a gun and honored Saturday as a holy day. Those same soldiers came to respect him and even asked that he pray for them before combat.
But while events more than 60 years ago made him famous, he continued to earn the respect of those he met throughout his life.
While the homily and remembrances voiced Saturday afternoon from the pulpit extolled his virtues, individuals shared stories of the friend they called "Desmond" or "Mr. Doss," both before and after the service.
"I'd known him for years," said Jimmie Thurmon, 79, of Collegedale.
She recalled how during a gathering of Medal of Honor recipients in Washington, D.C., after all the other had "gotten up to tell how many they killed, Desmond said he was the only one that did not kill but saved lives."
Being a World War II veteran herself, having served as a Navy radio operator based in Corpus Christi, Texas, Ms. Thurmon said she has marched in the Chattanooga Armed Forces Day Parade for years.
"I'd always tell the ROTC cadets in the parade to ignore the generals on the reviewing stand but instead to yell "Yeah! Doss!" she said. "He was the role model for my son who served as a conscientious participant during the Vietnam War."
Jimmy Woodfin said he "helped around his (the Doss) place in Rising Fawn (Ga.)" for about 20 years.
Mr. Woodfin described his friend, saying, "He's the most humble man I ever met in my life."
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said he knew Mr. Doss for at least 20 years, long before he was elected to Congress.
"I'm here today to pay respects to an ordinary man who made extraordinary contributions of duty, honor and service," the congressman said.
"Because Jesus spoke in parables, a lot of what he would do is a mystery. I don't know what Jesus would do , but one thing I do know is that Jesus would do what Desmond Doss did," Rep. Wamp said.
Fred Headrick, of Signal Mountain, said he knew Mr. Doss through working at the Medal of Honor Museum.
"He was a very religious man," Mr. Headrick said. "He told me that 'When I get up to Heaven, I'll get my eyesight and hearing back and everything will be just fine."
Always willing to work with youngsters in the Pathfinders program, an Adventist organization similar to Boy Scouts, Mr. Doss inspired generations of youth by serving as an example of a man willing to serve both God and country.
"To every little boy, instead of the warrior who goes off to war to kill, he went off to war to save," said Greg Gadd, an 11th-grader at Collegedale Academy and a Pathfinder Guide.
"It was an honor to meet him a couple of times," the teenager said. "He not just a hero to the military, he is a legend to Adventist because he never gave in once - he upheld his beliefs."
No longer a youngster, John Swafford, an Adventist minister and director of the Georgia-Cumberland Children's/Junior Youth Ministries, agreed with Mr. Gadd opinion that Mr. Doss was more than a role model, he was a life model.
"He was energized by working with young people," Mr. Swafford said. "He spent time with young people hoping to influence them to find a friend in Christ."
Kevin Costello, chairman of the Desmond Doss Council, a group entrusted with developing a museum of Desmond Doss memorabilia and controlling the public use of his character, said what impressed him most about Mr. Doss were neither the medal nor its story.
"What most impressed me was that death never scared him," Mr. Costello said. "What scared him was that others would not know Jesus."
Tens of hundreds rose in salute as the Doss' family filed into the church to the strains of "Onward Christian Soldiers," taking their place before the flag-draped coffin and the dais of dignitaries and personal friends ready to eulogize a quiet hero.
"He was an outstanding hero - one of God's heroes," said Ken Wetmore, an Adventist spokesman. "He made God proud."