On November 18, 1967 Private Sammy Davis was dug in with his unit near the South Vietnamese city of Cai Lay. Their position, Firebase Cudgel, was bounded by waterways, jungle and rice paddies. Then the peace of the night was shattered by a deadly fusillade of small arms and mortar fire from three companies of North Vietnamese troops. In the fierce battle that ensued, Davis would display courage of the most extraordinary kind.
Sammy Lee Davis came into the world in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1946, although he spent his early years in French Camp, California. He attended the nearby Manteca High School until his family relocated to Indiana; he finished his schooling there at Mooresville High School.
Considering his family background, it came as no surprise when Davis went on to join the U.S. Army. His grandfather had seen active service during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Robert Davis, his father, had served his country during World War Two.
What’s more, two of Davis’s siblings had also spent time in the military. Brother Hubert was in the Korean War, and another brother, Darrell fought in Vietnam, just like Davis himself. Sammy joined up at Indianapolis, IA, in 1965, when the Vietnam War was already under way.
In fact, it was something of an accident that Davis ended up in the army. Because he’d been a keen Sea Scout as a youngster, he’d originally planned to join the U.S. Marines 18 months after he graduated from Mooresville. But when he arrived at the recruiting center there was a long line at the desk for joining the marines.
Davis explained the situation in a 2010 interview with the Manteca Bulletin. “This is the truth,” Davis recalled. “I don’t like standing in lines. The line to join the Army was shorter, so I got in that line and joined the Army.” Happenstance had played a significant part in the young man’s future.
In joining the armed forces, Davis showed the kind of young man he was. He didn’t wait to be drafted into the army during the Vietnam conflict – he volunteered. Davis now went into basic training at South Carolina’s Fort Jackson.
After completing his basic training, Davis went on to advanced artillery training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Then, in March 1967, it was time to ship out to Vietnam. Just three days after he arrived there, he got a flavor of the fiercely fought actions that lay ahead.
His camp was near the huge Long Binh ammunition dump. A North Vietnamese Army soldier managed to blow this up and eight-inch shells shot through the air, hurled by the sheer force of the blast. Fortunately Davis and his buddies were unscathed by the falling ammo. But there could be no doubt now that they were in a real shooting war.
Davis arrived in Vietnam as a private, first class and was assigned to the 9th Infantry Division’s 4th Artillery regiment. He was in the regiment’s 2nd Battalion in C Battery. The ferocious battle against North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops came in November 1967, about nine months after Davis had first set foot in the country.
Three companies of the 261st Viet Cong Main Force Battalion attacked Davis’s unit in the early hours of November 18. Davis and his buddies had been choppered in aboard Chinooks with their 105 Howitzers a couple of days earlier to help establish Firebase Cudgel. The firebase was manned by a total of 156 personnel. It was located in the west of the South Vietnamese province of Dinh Tuong, in the Mekong Delta.
One soldier recalled the moment of attack on the 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry Association’s website. “Our platoon had dug foxholes on the west side of the river and everything was quiet until about 2:00 a.m.,” Private George Pardner recalled. “That’s when they hit us with everything. Man, they were close. They were no more than 25 meters from our positions and were trying to throw grenades on us. We kept tossing grenades back at them and firing.”
Now in the heat of this intense battle, with everyone fighting for their lives, Davis’ Battery C was also attacked from the river they were stationed alongside. Sergeant Robert Frazier later remembered, “I don’t know if they were in boats or if they were swimming, but they kept streaming from the water.”
Under fire from the North Vietnamese, Davis and his buddies now began to haul the howitzers around to bear on the enemy. This they achieved and they began to fire the guns at close range. The North Vietnamese were just 25 yards away and Davis now grabbed a machine gun, providing his buddies with covering fire as they operated the heavy artillery.
But the NVA troops now scored a direct hit on one of the howitzers, setting it on fire. Undeterred, and ignoring enemy fire and shouts to take cover, Davis leapt to the burning gun and thrust a shell into the breech. He fired the cannon and then a mortar shell exploded close by. Our hero was badly injured but managed to fire another round from the howitzer.
Incredibly, given the grievous wounds he’d sustained – which included a broken back – Davis managed to get off another three rounds from the artillery piece. But now his attention was turned toward another task. From across the water, came shouts for help from three wounded Americans.
Despite the fact that he was seriously wounded, Davis grabbed an air mattress and dived into the water, accompanied by his buddy Private Murrey. Getting across to his three injured comrades he immediately began laying down covering fire into the surrounding undergrowth to keep the enemy at bay.
Murrey got the most seriously wounded soldier back across the river while Davis stayed with the other two and provided covering fire. Then he transported the final two wounded men back across the river on the airbed. Davis now continued to defend the Firebase Cudgel position, only breaking off to seek medical attention when dawn broke and the North Vietnamese attackers had withdrawn.
Davis’s valor was recognized by the award of the Medal of Honor, the highest military award available for exceptional bravery. President Lyndon Johnson presented him with the decoration at the White House. The presentation was filmed and it was then doctored and used in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump. Davis’s head was substituted with the familiar features of Tom Hanks, and Davis’s real-life actions were the basis for the protagonist’s in the movie.
Davis retired from the army in 1984 and in 2016 he published a memoir. Its title encapsulates the soldier’s life philosophy: You Don’t Lose Until You Quit Trying. And he showed impressive humanity in a 2016 interview in the Indianapolis Star newspaper. Announcing plans to visit Vietnam, Davis said of his former enemies, “I don’t think we hated each other. I never hated them. I hope to talk to them.”