In many ways Sammy Davis was your garden variety Midwestern boy, living an average existence in Southern Indiana. His life changed one evening, while bowling with some friends, when he looked up from the game and saw news broadcast of Colonel Roger Donlon being awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in Vietnam.
“I want to grow up to be just like him,” Sammy said. At 17, he decided to join the Army and was sent to Vietnam in March 1967. Eight months later, Private Davis, 41 other soldiers and four 105 Howitzers were dropped into a swampy area known as the Plain of Reeds: a vast wetland located in the southernmost portion of Vietnam, along the Mekong River. Their mission was to provide close and continual artillery support for infantry units who were pushing the Vietcong back into Cambodia.
As darkness surrounded the sleeping members of Fire Base Cudgel, the man pulling guard duty that night was finding it hard to stay awake. Then-Private Davis was having the opposite problem and offered to relieve him. Moments later they were hit with a mortar attack, which lasted 30 minutes before it stopped abruptly. Private Davis described the ensuing silence as “unearthly.”
The stillness was suddenly broken by the sounds of whistles, bugles and 1,500 enemy soldiers began screaming in broken English, “Kill the GI.” The intensity of the battle over the next four hours almost defies description.
Private Davis immediately began firing beehive rounds from his 105 Howitzer. This particular shell, containing 18,000 Fleshettes that look like miniature spears, virtually turns the Howitzer into a gigantic shotgun.
The first round of retaliation by the North Vietnamese was a direct hit on Private Davis’ gun which threw him back into his fox hole. The remaining members of the decimated unit, located behind Private Davis, attempted to stop the advancing enemy. They fired off another beehive which struck the unconscious Sammy Davis in the back. He eventually awoke with the searing pain caused by dozens of fleshettes that had pierced his body. One of them perforated his kidney while another lodged in his fourth vertebrae. The explosion left him temporarily deaf. In the silence he began to marvel at the multicolored tracers illuminating the sky above him.
“Wow,” he thought, with childlike candor, “that looks just like Christmas lights.” As his hearing returned, so did the noise and chaos of battle. Six feet in front of him was a canal with hundreds of enemy troops advancing in his direction to finish what they had started. With little hope of resistance, he clearly remembered thinking, “You don’t lose until you quit trying.”
He then grabbed an M-16 and fired over a thousand rounds which did little against the human wave coming at him. Suddenly he noticed his smoldering Howitzer nearby and felt certain he could get off another shot. He crammed the gun full of powder before loading another beehive but when he pulled the lanyard, all he heard was a pathetic “poof” sound. Wet powder, he thought. Suddenly the howitzer began to convulse.
The maximum load for a fully functional howitzer was a seven charge. It was later estimated that Private Davis had given his a 20 charge. When the gun finally fired, it reared up in the air and off its wheels. Sammy was thrown to the ground by the blast and the two-ton howitzer landed on his back, breaking his third lumbar vertebrae. The swelling caused by the injury pushed against his spine and provoked numbness in his legs.
In spite of the severity of his injuries, Private Davis fired three more beehives before hearing an American soldier shouting for help. “Don’t shoot, I’m an American G.I.,” the person screamed, from across the canal.
With a broken back and little energy, Private Davis grabbed an inflatable mattress, crossed the stream and found three members of a Recon Unit. Two were badly wounded, but the third man, Jim Deister, lay motionless after being shot point-blank in the head.
When he arrived to the other side of the canal, he put the wounded soldiers on a rescue helicopter. After placing the body of Jim Deister among the dead, he collapsed from exhaustion. Miraculously, Deister survived and the two went on to become lifetime friends.
For his actions, Davis was awarded the Medal of Honor. Sadly, he returned to America and was forced to endure the insults of hippies in San Francisco airport. Unlike the citizens of Gainesville, they were unable to appreciate military honor. Nevertheless, Sergeant Davis endured their indignities with his head held high because he had endured life’s toughest battles and knew, “You really don’t lose until you quit trying.”
Norman J. Fulkerson is a member of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. He also authored “An American Knight: The Life of Col. John Ripley” and co-wrote “Lighting the Way.” His tributes to other American military heroes can be found on his blog, Modern American Heroes.