The Defining Generation
Sammy Lee Davis
One can tell very little by looking at blood pooling on a field of battle; it has no unique signature to tell the observer if it was shed by friend or foe. The stain of conflict that soaks into the soil cannot of itself, by visual appearance, identify nationality to tell you whether it was North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, or even American blood. Neither can it speak of race or gender. Men and women bleed alike, and whether their skin is white, black, red, brown or yellow, all blood runs the same shade of crimson. It is the true equalizer, speaking only of personal tragedy and the inevitability of the one thing all people of the world have in common, mortality.
Beyond the battlefield, however, it is easy to allow prejudice and stereotypes to cloud our understanding. There are not a few who would immediately assume that a pool of blood in front of a counter in a liquor store was spilled by a would-be Black thief, or that a similar pool behind the counter was shed by an Asian liquor store owner defending his turf. Blood on a switchblade in a back alley could be quickly identified as being shed by a young Hispanic or Puerto Rican gang-banger. The fact is, in all these cases one can be, and most likely is, wrong! Such is the way that some in society draw generalizations that are ethnically-based prejudice that denigrate an entire race of people.
The following pages tell the story of Sammy Davis' service in Vietnam. Almost immediately some who read these pages may be inclined to think that it is an account of Sammy Davis, Jr., a Black entertainer of the period who did indeed make repeated trips to Vietnam to sing and dance and share his talents with the soldiers stationed far from home. But THIS Sammy Davis was a young White boy, tall and strapping with freckled face and earnest eyes, who went to Vietnam as a soldier in the Army Artillery.
Born on November 1, 1946, at Dayton, Ohio, Sammy was the oldest of four children in a loving family that was close-knit. His father had served as an Artilleryman during World War II, an admirable answer to the call of duty that was never lost on young Sammy. Following the war and while raising a family, Mr. Davis worked in construction, installing crude oil cracking plants. Each plant required four to six months for completion, so during Sammy's early life the family moved often from Ohio to Illinois, California, Texas and Georgia, before at last settling in Indiana. "I was just a regular kid," Sammy recalled during one interview. "I was never in any serious trouble, and I always liked helping people."[i]
There was no racial prejudice in the Davis family and as they moved around the country following the crude oil plants they met many different people. While living in Georgia they even had neighbors who were Black. "We played with the kids," Sammy recently recalled. "Our parents taught us to be kind to everyone. Still, we were taught that Black people were different. That's not to say our parents were bad, it is just the only lifestyle they had ever known. It's what they had been taught all their lives, and they passed it on to us."
Like a dutiful big brother, Sammy always looked out for his two sisters. Then, when he was ten years old John was born, and Sammy at last had a kid brother. The two boys grew up learning to hunt and fish with their father, a sport the three of them enjoyed. Sometimes, when dad was busy working, Sammy and John hiked the woods to hunt on their own. Ringing in the elder brothers ears were always the words of his father: "Son, don't ever leave your little brother behind." It was an admonition Sammy learned well, and one that would follow him to war.
In 1965 Sammy was finishing his senior year of high school in Indiana while working as a cook in a bowling alley. One December day while going about his tasks he caught a quick news report and the black and white picture of President Lyndon Johnson hanging the Medal of Honor around the neck of Special Forces Captain Roger Donlon. "Because of the military people in my family I was very aware of what the Medal of Honor was," recalls Sammy. "I thought, 'Wow! When I grow up I'd like to be a soldier like him."[ii]
"Growing up" for Sammy was not that far away. Six months later he graduated from high school and the following September he enlisted in the Army. After Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Private Sammy Davis was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. There he received training in Artillery, to follow in the footsteps of his father. After volunteering for service in Vietnam, the young soldier was given a 30 day leave to return home. His mother cried when he left, uncertain for her son's future and reluctant to see him go. His father stoically hugged him and said, "Son, go do your job."
In Vietnam Sammy was assigned to a 105-mm. Howitzer crew with Battery C, 2d Battalion, 4th Artillery, 9th Infantry Division. Like their counterparts in the regiment, the three young men and their gun sergeant were there to support unknown, unseen comrades--men of the Infantry who hacked their way through the dense jungles and deadly rice paddies of South Vietnam. When an Infantry patrol made contact with the enemy, back at the base camp the 105 crews received a fire mission. It was then their job to load the heavy artillery pieces, firing round after round far into the distance to devastate the enemy ranks and help spare the lives of the "grunts." The fire mission would continue until contact was broken, regardless of how long the artillerymen had to remain in the sun heaving charges of powder and heavy shells into their hot guns. Between fire missions however, there were often days at a time without a call for help, and these resulted in idle hours that could be as demoralizing as the combat actions were intense.
During the quiet days it was helpful to express a sense of humor, something to relieve the tensions of ever present danger. Not infrequently was a group laugh achieved at the expense of Sammy Davis, the young white boy from Indiana. "Sammy Davis, Jr., could not imagine the trouble he caused me by having my name and making it famous," he recalls. The jokes and ribbing came both from White friends and Black comrades. Even at that point in his life, in Sammy's eyes, Black people were different. It was the only thing he had ever been taught.
A good natured kid, Sammy took the ribbing about his name in stride. What he did not accept well was the constant pressure and prodding of his supervisor, Sergeant James Gant. "He was the meanest Sergeant I've ever seen in my life," he said. The 27-year-old professional soldier from Lansing, Michigan, was All-Army. Each night he made the three men who served his gun removed the rounds from their M-16 magazines, polish the bullets, and then reload. "He would take us out at night and make the three of us sit back-to-back, blindfold us, set the time fuze and make us count the clicks to "muzzle action" on our guns. It was ridiculous, we thought. In a real fire mission if it was dark and we had to set the fuzes, we would just pull out those little bent flashlights they gave us and get the job done. What Gant did to us didn't make sense; it was just pure harassment in our minds. I believed it was because he was black and we, the other two guys and me, were White. He was just a bitter old sergeant and that's why he was picking on us."
The nature of Sergeant Gant's overbearing leadership seemed to Sammy and his two friends to be little more than the revenge of a previously oppressed Black man who at last had authority over the White boys. Those feelings did little to improve race relations for the gun crew.
On November 18, 1967, Infantry elements in the delta west of Cai Lay ran into heavy enemy resistance. Facing the Americans was a reinforced North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiment, some 1,500 enemy. Infantry elements were pulled back to a hastily built position, Fire Base Cudgel, and Sammy Davis' Artillery battery was flown in by helicopter to provide close support. They comprised 41 men manning four 105 guns emplaced around an improvised perimeter. Immediately they went to work, lobbing shells into the distant jungle as scattered Infantry elements tried to pull back to the perimeter. The fire mission lasted well into the evening and, when at last there came respite, the artillerymen began digging fox holes and filling sand bags. Early in the evening an American helicopter landed briefly, dispatching an Army major who advised the men of the small outpost that their chance of being hit by the enemy that night was 100 percent.
Mark Twin once said that "Heroism is not the absence of fear…but the mastery of fear." Isolated in the marshy swamps of South Vietnam's jungles, all the young soldiers were afraid. They came to master their fear in any number of ways in order to prepare to do their job. For Sammy and the two men who helped him man his gun, fear of the enemy was overcome chiefly by the realization that there was a greater entity of which to be afraid--if they faltered they knew they would quickly face the wrath of Sergeant James Gant.
Crouching in his damp foxhole, at 2 a.m. Sammy heard the nearby sound of a mortar being dropped into a tube and the unmistakable "whoosh" of its propellant hurling it skyward. "When did we bring in mortars?" he asked one of his buddies.
"We didn't," came the reply. And then the first in a torrent of enemy shells began raining down on Fire Base Cudgel. For a full half hour the enemy dropped charge after charge on the small outpost in preparation for a ground attack. Then it became momentarily quiet and Sammy raised his head above the sandbagged position to look out into the darkness and across a river that fronted his position, knowing well that soon the enemy would come.
"Load up for
Beehive," ordered Sergeant Gant. Beehive rounds were a special
artillery shell, designed for close-in fighting that turned the huge 105s
into a monstrous shotgun. With the barrel lowered to muzzle
action, each round spewed out 18,000 white-hot steel darts, called flechette
rounds, at point-blank range. Across the river Sammy heard the sound of a
whistle, then commands exhorting North Vietnamese soldiers to storm the
firebase and kill the Americans. In the dim light he could see the shadows
of hundreds of small figures creeping down to the river and preparing to
"I was waiting for Sergeant Gant to tell me to
'fire,' he recalls of those tense moments when instinct cried out to pull
the lanyard--an act that would have prematurely launched the flechettes
before the enemy was within effective range. Fear of Gant overrode fear of
the massing enemy force, "I knew not to fire until he said 'fire' no
matter what was happening,' Sammy recounted, "and I could see the
enemy all around us. They were doing mass assault waves."[iii]
In those critical moments Sergeant Gant's hours of pushing, lecturing and
training paid off. Sammy waited until the order was given and, when the
enemy was almost on top of their position he pulled the lanyard. Eighteen
thousand darts steaked into the darkness, cutting down scores of enemy,
and the four artillerymen began quickly reloading for the next wave.
Across the river an enemy RPG (Rocket
Propelled Grenade) gunner saw the muzzle flash of the big artillery gun
and slowly leveled the tube containing his own explosive charge. Moments
later the rocket steaked across the river, hitting the American 105's
metal plate. Shards of steel pierced Sergeant Gant's chest while the
explosion threw two men backward and simultaneously hurled Sammy into a
nearby foxhole, unconscious.
By the time he regained consciousness in
the early morning darkness Sergeant Gant and Sammy's two buddies had been
pulled back for treatment. Unable to locate Sammy, the other gunners
assumed he was dead. Overhead the sky was streaked by intertwined red and
green tracer bullets and the roar of ongoing battle reverberated in his
head. Isolated and laying far forward of the rest of the men at Fire Base
Cudgel however, Sammy was not alone. Hundreds of enemy soldiers were
streaming up from the river to attack the American camp. Believing there
was nothing in front of them but the enemy, gunners behind Sammy unleashed
another flechette round even as he was climbing out of the foxhole. Dozens
of white-hot darts peppered his legs and thights, and only his flak jacket
saved him from being mortally wounded. One dart struck his back below the
armor plating however, damaging one kidney and causing excruciating pain.
As the enemy massed for yet another
assault, Sammy rose to his feet and turned the big gun by himself. In the
darkness he scooped up handfuls of loose powder, single-handedly loading
the big gun behind another beehive round. As the enemy assaulted again he
pulled the lanyard, the brilliant flash alerting the men behind him that
he was still alive while enemy soldiers in front of him fell in death. In
the darkness he continued his one man stand, loading and then setting the
big gun to muzzle action; it was a process he literally could do
blindfolded. When he could fire no more, he picked up his M-16 rifle and
rained nearly 200 well-polished rounds at the encroaching human assault
waves. Though in the early days the M-16 had caused the death of countless
young Marines by frequently jamming, on this night the spotlessly clean
rifle with its polished bullets hammered ceaselessly until all 12 of
Sammy's magazines were expended.
Suddenly, in the distance across the
river he heard a voice calling out, "Don't shoot, I'm a G.I."
Light was beginning to pale the night skies as Sammy looked into the
distance where a badly wounded soldier waved his booney hat while crying
out for help. "Somebody's got to go get him," Sammy thought to
himself. "Then in the back of his mind he heard the voice of his
father, 'Son, never leave your little brother."
Unable to swim and still under fire,
Sammy took one of the air mattresses that had been flown in to provide
beds and paddled his way across the river. Ducking the enemy, he
cautiously made his way beyond the river where he found three Infantrymen,
two black and one white, huddled in a hastily-dug foxhole. The white
soldier looked dead and Sammy thought, "This guy is dead and he's
gonna get us all killed. And then I thought 'NO!' It was like when we were
always in the woods back home and dad would say, 'You don't leave your
Badly wounded and physically exhausted, "I asked
the man above to give me the strength to carry all three of my brothers at
the same time."[iv]
With great effort the strapping kid from Indiana half-carried,
half-dragged the dead body of Jim Dyster, the white infantryman, while
leading the two wounded Black soldiers back to the river where he had
hidden the air mattress. Under the covering fire of his comrades on the
far shore he first floated Dyster's body across the river, then returned
for the other two men, Gwendell Holloway and Billy Ray Crawford. His
mission accomplished, he was then helped to the basecamp where he found
Sergeant Gant lying on his back in a pool of mud, the gaping wound in his
chest crudely but effectively bandaged.
The gruff sergeant couldn't speak with
his lips, but his eyes spoke volumes. He feebly raised his hand and
motioned Sammy to him. "Sergeant Gant held up his hand and I grabbed
hold of his hand and I could look right down into his soul…that's what
it felt like," Sammy said in a trembling voice in a 1993 interview.
"Sergeant Gant was 100% military, he kicked our butts every step of
the way and he trained us what to do. That man was responsible for saving
a lot of lives.
"Up to that point I didn't talk to Black
people--Black was different. That night changed my whole outlook. I just
laid there holding his hand and looking into his eyes. Then it came over
me…the answer was there…He's people JUST LIKE ME."[v]
In that moment Sammy at last realized that all of the prodding, all of
those silly things that Sergeant Gant had pushed him to do, stemmed not
from prejudice but from love and concern. "Sergeant Gant shared with
us the things that he knew were going to help us to survive. And when I
looked down into his eyes I knew he didn't hate me…that he LOVED me!
You've gotta love somebody a whole lot to pick on 'em, and teach them
During that morning helicopters came in
to evacuate the wounded and then, on the final chopper the dead. Jim
Dyster's body was loaded with the dead while medics treated Sammy's
multiple wounds. Of the 41 Artillerymen who had been lifted into Fire Base
Cudgel the previous morning, only twelve were still standing.
As that last helicopter lifed off with
the bodies of dead American soldiers, the medic aboard noticed an air
bubble forming on Jim Dyster's bare chest. He pulled out his stethoscope
and found a faint heartbeat. The "dead" Infantryman Sammy Davis
had risked his own life to bring back across that river would years later
find Sammy, and the two would become close friends--in fact, brothers. One
of Sammy's most emotional moments would one day be to hold in his arms,
the grandchild of the man who owed his life to him.
Sammy was evacuated the following day,
his wounds patched up, but the damage to his kidney from the flechette
round sent him into toxic shock. The press of incoming casualties
overloaded the hospital in Saigon and Sammy, running a fever of 107
degrees wasn't expected to live. He was placed on a gurney and set in the
hallway to make room for less wounded men who might be saved.
In a nearby bed lay the broken body of
Gwendell Holloway, one of the two Black Infantrymen Sammy had crossed the
river to help. "What's with him?" he asked a passing nurse.
Advised that Sammy wasn't expected to live Holloway asked, "What can
be done for him?"
Nothing really, the nurse advised. They
had pumped as much blood as they could into the dying hero, but there was
no more blood available. "Give him mine," Holloway ordered. It
wasn't a request! Sammy recalls that Gwendell Holloway threatened to shoot
up the hospital if they didn't give him a transfusion. Holloway was
wheeled into the hallway next to his dying comrade where the nurse hooked
up an arm-to-arm direct transfusion, as the red blood of a black-skinned
Infantryman gave life to a white Artilleryman. Indeed, the blood of a
Black man at last flowed through the veins of Sammy Davis, not the singer
but the soldier.
On November 19, 1968, a year-and-a-day
after his heroic actions at Fire Base Cudgel, Sergeant Sammy Lee Davis was
summoned to the White House. There President Lyndon Johnson hung the Medal
of Honor around his neck, recognizing him for refusing to leave a
brother behind. It was, perhaps, the most viewed Medal of Honor
presentation in history. Though it was only a brief part of the news on
that date, in 1994 a movie hit American theaters that featured the Medal
of Honor being awarded to a fictional character. In that scene the head of
Tom Hanks was superimposed on the body of Sammy Davis in the footage shot
at the White House 26 years earlier. Sammy L. Davis was the Original
Once during the 1970s Sammy recalls with
a laugh, he was attending a Medal of Honor function in Florida when he
learned that the recipients were staying in the same hotel as Sammy Davis,
Jr., the entertainer. While sharing a beer in the lounge that night, he
met some of the singer/dancer's body guards and told them he had always
wished to one day meet Sammy Davis, whose name had caused him so much
derision in Vietnam. A call was placed and one of the bodyguards told
Sammy, "Go up to room 212."
"I walked up to Room 212 and knocked
on the door," he told me. "All of a suddent he door opened and
this little black guy jumped out and tackled me. Looking into my eyes he
told me, 'I've always wanted to meet you. You know, I've taken a lot of
kidding about having YOUR name.'"
Though Sammy Davis' debilitating wounds
from that awful night in Vietnam rendered him a 100% disabled veteran, he
remains one of his brothers' best friends. He has testified before
Congress to highlight the medical problems brought about by Agent Organge
and spoken out repeatedly on behalf of our Missing in Action and Prisoners
of War from the Vietnam conflict. Though often struggling with lingering
pain, he travels to attend veterans' gatherings across America, and is a
frequent and popular speaker in scores of elementary, middle, and high
schools every year.
His message is always one of intense patriotism, hope, and service. After meeting Jim Dyster in the 1980s, the man whose life Sammy had saved introduced the brave soldier during a gathering of veterans in his hometown of Salinas, Kansas. "When Sammy looked across the river that night," Dyster began, "when the flare went up, he saw a Black man waving for help. But Sammy didn't say, 'Somebody go get him.' He said, 'I have to go get him…my brother is over there, and I have to go get him.'"[vii]
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Pam and I are thankful to Sammy for his kind friendship over the years, as well has his personal conversations with us that became critical to properly sharing his story.
"Medal of Honor," CBS News & World Report, ©1993 Log
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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