Since the Civil War, more than 39 million
men and women have answered the call to serve.
Of those, 3,440 served with such uncommon
valor and extraordinary courage that they
were presented with the Medal of Honor, the
nation's highest military award. In this collection,
more than one hundred of America's living
Medal of Honor recipients are honored. Their
tales of bravery are recounted by best-selling
author Peter Collier, and also feature portraits
by award-winning photographer Nick Del Calzo.
Sammy L. Davis
Private First Class
U.S. Army Battery C, 2nd Battalion,
4th Artillery, 9th Infantry Division
By Peter Collier
Sammy Davis took some ribbing in the Army because he shared a name
with the famous entertainer. Much later, long after his military days
were over, he would again gain some acclaim among his old comrades,
this time as the "real" Forrest Gump.
Davis enlisted in the Army directly out of high school in 1965. Volunteering
for the artillery because his father had been an artilleryman in World
War II, he was assigned to the 4th Artillery. Soon after completing
training, he asked to be sent to Vietnam.
Early on November 18, 1967, his unit of eleven guns and forty-two
men was helicoptered into an area west of Cai Lay to set up a forward
fire-support base-Firebase Cudgel-for American infantrymen operating
in the area. Shortly after midnight the next morning, Private First
Class Davis's Battery C came under heavy mortar attack. Almost simultaneously,
an estimated fifteen hundred Vietcong soldiers launched an intense
ground assault, failing to overrun the Americans only because a river
separated the two forces.
Davis's squad was operating a 105 mm howitzer that fired eighteen
thousand beehive darts in each shell. When he saw how close the enemy
had come, Davis took over a machine gun and provided covering fire
for his gun crew. But an enemy recoilless rifle round scored a direct
hit on the howitzer, knocking the crew from the weapon and blowing
Davis sideways into a foxhole. Convinced that the heavily outnumbered
Americans couldn't survive the attack, he decided to fire off at least
one round from the damaged artillery piece before being overrun. He
struggled to his feet, rammed a shell into the gun, and fired point-blank
at the Vietcong who were advancing five deep directly in front of
the weapon; the beehive round cut them down. An enemy mortar round
exploded nearby, knocking Davis to the ground, but he got up and kept
firing the howitzer. When there were no more rounds left, he fired
a white phosphorus shell, and then the last round he had- a "propaganda
shell" filled with leaflets.
At this point, he heard yelling from the other side of the river and
realized that GIs had been cut off there. Despite the fact that he
didn't know how to swim, he got in the water and paddled across on
an air mattress from the American camp; other GIs followed him. Scrambling
up the bank, he found three wounded soldiers, one of them suffering
from a head wound that looked fatal. He gave them all morphine and
provided covering fire as another GI helped the most gravely wounded
soldier across the river, then pulled the other two through the water
on the air mattress to the fire base. He eventually made his way to
an American howitzer crew and resumed the fight. Sometime before dawn,
he was seriously wounded in the back and buttocks by friendly fire.
While he was in the hospital, Davis heard that he was to be sent home.
He petitioned General William Westmoreland to be allowed to stay with
his unit. Permission was granted, although Davis was still so hobbled
by his wounds that he was taken off the line and made a cook.
On November 19, 1968, exactly one year and one day after the nightlong
firefight at Cai Lay, Davis received the Medal of Honor from President
Lyndon Johnson. Years later, footage of LBJ putting the medal around
Davis's neck appeared in the movie Forrest Gump (with Tom Hanks's
head substituted for Davis's), and Gump's fictional Medal of Honor
citation was loosely based on Davis's real one.