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This Day in History: Sammy L. Davis's heroism

On this day in 1967, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Sammy L. Davis has been called the “real Forrest Gump” because footage from his Medal ceremony was used in the much-loved Tom Hanks movie.

“I went to war ‘cause I loved my grandpas. And I love my country,” Davis later said. “And when I got over there, the reason why we fought so hard, was because we discovered we loved each other, that we were all we had. And we became brothers.”


On November 17, 1967, then-Pfc. Davis was serving in an artillery unit at a remote fire support base near Cai Lay, Vietnam. Fighting had been ongoing all day. As night fell, the fighting ceased—at least for a little bit.


But everyone knew another attack was coming.


That enemy attack came at 2:00 a.m. “The mortars were just raining down,” Davis said. “And at 2:30, exactly, the mortars quit. It was this eerie, eerie quiet.” Suddenly, he heard orders being shouted: “Go kill the G.I.!” The attack began again.


Davis grabbed beehive rounds and returned fire, but the enemy identified his location. “[T]hey fired at my muzzle blast,” he described. He was knocked unconscious by the blow, and the enemy took control of his howitzer.


Other Americans were forced to fire upon the enemy, with Davis lying unconscious nearby. “I had about 30 beehive holes that just passed through me,” Davis recounted. “I had a flak jacket on, which is the only thing that saved my back.”


All the commotion woke Davis up. He was soon jolted fully awake and realized that tracers were slicing through the sky and 150 to 200 enemy were too close.


He picked up his M-16 and began firing. “I felt I had died and landed in soldier hell,” he concluded. “No matter what I did and how many rounds I fired, the bad guys just kept coming at me.” Maybe worse, he was running out of ammo.


The howitzer was his last chance. It was damaged, but Davis hoped for the best and ran toward it.


He was soon scrambling around, trying to find powder and beehive rounds. He found everything he needed and fired—but nothing happened! “And my heart just sunk, you know? ‘Cause this was my last effort,” he said.


Suddenly, the gun went off with a huge BOOM! Davis had overcharged it. The recoil mechanism had been damaged, so the howitzer rolled back onto Davis. He was aching everywhere, and his legs were numb, but he knew he couldn’t quit.


“You don’t lose ‘til you quit trying,” he told himself.


He loaded another round and continued firing. Suddenly, he heard someone across the river shouting, “Don’t shoot. I’m a G.I.!” He had no idea that someone was still stranded over there.


“By this point, my body was in real feeble condition. And I knew I couldn’t just run down there and swim across the river. So, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll find an air mattress.’ That’s what the army had given us to sleep on.”


He grabbed the air mattress and swam across the river. He stashed it in the bushes and then worked his way toward his fellow soldiers. Three men were in a foxhole. One was either dead or unconscious.


Davis was wounded and knew that he didn’t have the energy for multiple trips. He put the unconscious solder across his shoulders. Together, the four men struggled back to the river and the hidden air mattress. Davis took the unconscious soldier across the river, then came back for the other two.


The enemy finally broke contact with the Americans at about 8:00 a.m. Twelve of 42 Americans had survived the night. Yet that number would have been even smaller but for Davis.


Davis would receive a Medal of Honor for his heroism that night, but he didn’t think he’d done anything special. “I did my job,” he shrugged. “That’s what soldiers do.”


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