During 2019, Freedoms Foundation and the Friends of the Medal of Honor Grove are paying tribute to the living recipients of the Medal of Honor on the anniversary of the actions for which they earned the nation’s highest award for valor. The series continues with Private First Class Sammy Lee Davis, an a 9th Infantry Division artilleryman whose fire-support base came under attack by a large Viet Cong force west of Cai Lay, South Vietnam, on Nov. 18, 1967.
Sammy Lee Davis’ Medal of Honor citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his
life and beyond the call of duty. Sgt. Davis (then PFC) distinguished himself during the early morning hours while serving as a cannoneer with Battery C, at a remote fire support base.
“At approximately 0200 hours, the fire support base was under heavy enemy mortar attack. Simultaneously, an estimated reinforced Viet Cong battalion launched a fierce ground assault upon the fire support base. The attacking enemy drove to within 25 meters of the friendly positions. Only a river separated the Viet Cong from the fire support base.
“Detecting a nearby enemy position, Sgt. Davis seized a machinegun and provided covering fire for his gun crew, as they attempted to bring direct artillery fire on the enemy. Despite his efforts, an enemy recoilless rifle round scored a direct hit upon the artillery piece. The resultant blast hurled the gun crew from their weapon and blew Sgt. Davis into a foxhole. He struggled to his feet and returned to the howitzer, which was burning furiously.
“Ignoring repeated warning to seek cover, Sgt. Davis rammed a shell into the gun. Disregarding a withering hail of enemy fire directed against his position, he aimed and fired the howitzer, which rolled backward, knocking Sgt. Davis violently to the ground. Undaunted, he returned to the weapon to fire again when an enemy mortar round exploded within 20 meters of his position, injuring him painfully. Nevertheless, Sgt. Davis loaded the artillery piece, aimed and fired. Again he was knocked down by the recoil. In complete disregard for his safety, Sgt. Davis loaded and fired three more shells into the enemy.
“Disregarding his extensive injuries and his inability to swim, Sgt. Davis picked up an air mattress and struck out across the deep river to rescue three wounded comrades on the far side. Upon reaching the three wounded men, he stood upright and fired into the dense vegetation to prevent the Viet Cong from advancing. While the most seriously wounded soldier was helped across the river, Sgt. Davis protected the two remaining casualties until he could pull them across the river to the fire support base.
“Though suffering from painful wounds, he refused medical attention, joining another howitzer crew which fired at the large Viet Cong force until it broke contact and fled.
“Sgt. Davis’ extraordinary heroism, at the risk of his life, are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Army.”
In Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty, Peter Collier writes:
“While he was recovering in the hospital, Davis learned that he was going home. He petitioned Gen. William Westmoreland to be allowed to stay with is unit. Permission was granted, although Davis was so hobbled by his wounds that he was made a cook.
“On Nov. 19, 1968, exactly one year and one day after the nightlong firefight at Cai Lay, Davis received the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon Johnson. Years later, footage of LBJ putting the medal around Davis’ neck appeared in the movie Forrest Gump (with Tom Hanks’ head substituted for Davis’), and Gump’s fictional Medal of Honor citation was loosely based on Davis’ real one.”
“The Medal of Honor changed my life in ways I never expected,” Davis wrote in his book You Don’t Lose ‘Til You Quit Trying: Lessons on Adversity and Victory from a Vietnam Veteran and Medal of Honor Recipient. “Wearing it comes with duties and obligations, and I have strived to become a better person because of it. I have tried to live my life honoring what it represents and refraining from anything that would tarnish what it stands for. For that medal around my neck does not belong to me. it belongs to all those men who fought at Fire Support Base Cudgel the night of Nov. 18, 1967. If any of us had failed to do our jobs, none of us would be alive. The medal belongs to all the men who earned it and didn’t receive it, and to those who didn’t get to come home. My name is on the back of it, but that doesn’t mean it is mine. I’m just the caretaker. I have never forgotten what Jimmy Doolittle told me the very first time we met. I had just been awarded the Medal of Honor, and to me he was a war hero and a giant. ‘Son, you have to always remember,’ he said, ‘Don’t let the sound of your own motor drive you crazy.’
“Since I haven’t died for my country, I’ve chosen to live for it, and I will continue to do so for as long as the Big Guy above thinks I am still fit for the job. Living for my country means serving my fellow man and standing for what is right. …
“I hope others will find something in what I say that is useful to them. If there is just one person in that audience who finds comfort or hope in my story, if there is one single person encouraged to stand for what they feel is right, then my work is done.”
Keep up with Freedoms Foundation news and events here.