OWEN COUNTY, Ind.-- Truth be told, Sammy L. Davis doesn’t remember the last time he left Fire Support Base Cudgel west of Cai Lay in what was then called South Vietnam 48 years ago. Davis was choppered off the battlefield, severely wounded, after a night of war that saved the lives of three fellow Americans, held off an enemy onslaught and resulted in Davis being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
This Independence Day, the night of November 18, 1967, is once again fresh in Davis’ memory as the Mooresville native has just returned from his first visit back to the riverbank where Hoosier-bred heroics were displayed and lives were changed nearly a half century ago.
“I stood on the exact same piece of dirt that I earned this medal on,” said Davis as he held the honor that hung from a sky blue ribbon around his neck during a recent memorial service. “I been wanting to go back for forty years.
“At 70 years old I realized, ‘Better do it this year,’ that’s why we went this year, and I’m glad we did.”
On that night, barely past his 21st birthday, Davis was an army private, assigned to Battery C, 2nd Battalion, 4th Artillery Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division.
Davis’ job that night was to fire a howitzer to keep three companies of advancing Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars at bay.
“There were only 42 artillerymen, and we had a company of infantry with us, but according to what their documents stated, there was 1,500 of us,” said Davis.
Coming under enemy machine gun and mortar fire, Davis grabbed a machine gun of his own and laid down suppressing fire so that his comrades could battle back.
“Despite his efforts, an enemy recoilless rifle round scored a direct hit upon the artillery piece,” reads the citation for Davis’ medal. “The resultant blast hurled the guncrew 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 warnings 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 3 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 3 wounded comrades on the far side. Upon reaching the 3 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 2 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.”
Davis was promoted to sergeant for what he did at Fire Support Base Cudgel. He also received the Medal of Honor, a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts.
Davis’ recent return to Vietnam was awaited with anxious anticipation because, “I visit there almost every night, so to truly go back there I was really anxious. It's been haunting me for 48 years,” he said.
Davis went back to Vietnam with his wife Dixie and one of the men he swam across to the U.S. side of the river that night.
“I was standing there holding Jim Deister’s hand and us talking about it it brought things to the surface that I hadn’t really forgotten but it had been lower,” he said about the memories that had been buried for decades.
“Being there made it better.”
The riverbank where Davis made his stand is now on the edge of a village and it took a GPS unit to deliver the old soldiers back to the right spot.
“Here are these great big stumps, and when I came by that there was a little bell that rang in my heart because there were two big trees where I dragged Jim Deister through.”
Davis and Deister found something else at the edge of the river on their trip back.
Five retired members of the North Vietnamese Army.
“They were very aware that there was one young U.S. soldier on an artillery piece that was doing his job,” said Davis, “and that was one of the reasons why they wanted to come was they wanted to meet that person.
“They talked to us about their view of the battle and, of course, we talked about our view of the battle and it's amazing that their view of the battle is different than ours.
“They believed that they wiped out 1500 of us. It helped put more things together and gave us more understanding of the battle in whole.
“We came as former enemies and we left as brothers.”
The concept of brotherhood looms large in Davis’ life, from the admonitions of his parents to bring back his siblings whenever the Davis boys tromped through the Morgan County woods to a riverbank outside Cai Lay to the work the retired serviceman does on behalf of other Vietnam War veterans.
“I knew what I was thinking,” Davis said of that night. “I didn’t believe I’d see daylight because of the wounds that I already had but I wasn’t going to quit trying. I knew that those three men across the river, that if I was over there, they would come get me.
“I just couldn’t leave my brothers and that’s what brought us back to this point.”
Davis’ exploits were adapted for the 1994 movie, “Forrest Gump,” starring Tom Hanks.
Film of the ceremony at which Davis received his Medal from President Lyndon Johnson was edited into the movie.
Davis has just published his autobiography, “You Don’t Lose ‘Til You Quit Trying: Lessons on Adversity and Victory from a Vietnam Veteran and Medal of Honor Recipient,” which includes a foreward by Gary Sinise, the actor who played Lieutenant Dan in “Forrest Gump.”
Dixie Davis has also written her own book, “Endless Love and Second Chances: The wife of Medal of Honor recipient Sammy Davis shares their love story through grief, faith and joyful new beginnings.”
Residents of Freedom, Indiana, Sammy and Dixie are on the road this holiday weekend, sharing the Fourth of July with other veterans and recalling their similar war experiences.
“I talk about it,” said Sgt. Davis. “It's been my job or my position to share what’s in my heart these last 48 years and it's helped make it better.”