On Thursday, February 22, a graying Sammy Lee Davis stood on MIA’s open air pavilion and took questions from the assembled crowd which had come to hear him. He wore his army dress blues, with the insignia of a Sergeant First Class, and a single row of medals across his chest. Around his neck was the Medal of Honor, his nation’s highest recognition for uncommon valor on the battlefield. He won it on November 18, 1967, in the face of an attack on his 42-man artillery unit by a reinforced battalion of 1,500 North Vietnamese regulars. He said he has spoken over 200 times to honor his fallen “brothers,” who fought so gallantly on that day. It must be painful for him to recount that terrible day so often. I asked him why he would come to such a small high school as Marco Island Academy. Because I was invited,” he countered, offering no further explanation. (He was scheduled to visit the Mason Classical Academy in Naples in the afternoon.)
Pfc. Sammy L. Davis in Vietnam, with his 105mm Howitzer, shortly before battle. Submitted Photo
Sgt. Davis enlisted in the army immediately upon graduation from high school in 1965, just as the war in Vietnam was heating up. He chose the artillery because his father had been an artilleryman in WWII. “I wanted to make him proud of me,” Davis said, adding that his family had served in every war since the Civil War. After completion of artillery school, Davis asked for immediate transfer to Vietnam. “I loved my country and wanted to defend it (and Vietnam) [against the spread of communism],” he said, “Only later did I realize that there were other factors involved.” He said that his own citation was altered to show that the attacking force was made up of Vietcong, when in fact it was professionals of the North Vietnamese Army. “The Vietcong had no units of this size. In 1967, it would have been politically incorrect to mention that that this many NVA regulars had gotten that far south,” Davis said.
President Johnson, presenting Medal of Honor to Sgt. Davis at White House Ceremony on November 18, 1968. Submitted Photo
On November 18, 1967, Davis’s battery of 11 guns (105 mm Howitzers) and 42 men were helicoptered into the steamy Mekong River Delta to support infantry operations there. “That is the artillery’s main mission,” Davis said, with obvious pride, “to provide close and continuous support to the infantry.” His battery must have been doing a good job, because at 2:00 in the morning, a reinforced NVA battalion of 1,500 men made a determined effort to wipe it out. When it was over, there were only 12 of the 42 U.S. artillerymen left standing.
Sgt. Davis with MIA Board Chair Jane Watt. She is holding a copy of Davis’s book, “You Don’t Lose ‘til You Quit Trying.” Davis stands in an attitude of military attention – head erect, fingers curled with thumbs along pants seam, and feet at 45 degrees. Photo by Barry Gwinn
A tremendous mortar barrage preceded the NVA infantry attack killing many and knocking out some of the 105’s, including Davis’s gun and all the crew. Davis singlehandedly continued loading and firing the cannon point blank into the advancing enemy until he was knocked unconscious by another direct hit. Upon regaining consciousness, he grabbed his M16 and fought as an infantryman. While doing so he was hit by 30 darts (of the approximately the 18,000 contained in a “beehive” shell) from friendly fire in the rear. Seeing a GI waving for help across, the river he grabbed an air mattress, and despite being wounded (including a broken back), losing blood, and not knowing how to swim, began a 45 minute journey to the other side while under heavy fire. Once there he discovered two other gravely wounded GI’s, one near death with a nasty head wound. Loading all three on his back, he somehow managed to ferry them back to the American positions. “I had lost a lot of blood, and felt as if I didn’t have the strength to continue,” he said, “but calling on the man upstairs, I managed to get them back.” Upon returning to the U.S. positions, Davis passed out and didn’t regain consciousness until he was in a hospital in Japan.
Sgt. Davis playing the harmonica that his mother sent to him in Vietnam.
Sgt. Davis salutes his audience and his fallen “brothers.” He has removed the Medal of Honor and it is being passed around the audience. Photos by Brianna Monroe
It takes at least three living eyewitnesses to form the basis for a nomination for the Medal of Honor, Davis said. All 11 of his fellow survivors had nominated him. There would be a lot more [Medal of Honor recipients], but for the fact that there were no survivors who had witnessed their [acts of heroism], Davis said. On November 18, 1968, exactly one year after the battle, President Lyndon Johnson, presented the medal to Danny and five others in a White House ceremony.
The years following were filled with painful operations and limb restorations. “There’s a lot of metal inside me now,” said Davis, “Getting through airport security is tricky.” One year after the ceremony, Davis retired from active duty with a medical discharge. He continued to serve his nation for another 10 years with the Illinois National Guard. Since then, he and his wife Dixie have traveled to reunions and to speaking engagements where he unashamedly professes his love for his country. He and Dixie have both written books. They have four children. Two are in the military and two are doctors. “That means they are all serving their country,” Davis said. Last year, Davis traveled to Vietnam and met with five of his former enemies. They agreed that there was no personal animosity involved; they were just obeying orders.
It was at one of the reunions that Davis got his most agreeable surprise from the battle. Jim Driester (ph), one of the three wounded GI’s brought back across the river was later pronounced dead. That’s the last Davis heard of Driester until meeting him five years later at a reunion. Before being placed in a body bag, one of the medics had discovered a faint heartbeat Driester told him. “Being a part of that was moving and humbling for me,” Davis said.
When pressed for a quote, Davis is ready. “You don’t lose ‘til you quit trying,” he says, which also happens to be the title of his book.