Special Forces soldier receives Medal of Honor nearly 60 years after grueling firefight

Mar 3, 2023, 1:01 PM
President Joe Biden awards the Medal of Honor to Vietnam War veteran, Retired US Army Colonel Paris...
President Joe Biden awards the Medal of Honor to Vietnam War veteran, Retired US Army Colonel Paris Davis, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 3.

(CNN) — After being shot multiple times during a grueling, nearly 19-hour firefight against enemy North Vietnamese soldiers, most people would have given up.

But then-Capt. Paris Davis wasn’t most people — he was willing to risk his own life to protect his fellow soldiers during an attack in June 1965.

Now nearly 60 years later, Davis received the recognition his fellow soldiers have long said he deserved for his “gallantry and intrepidity,” when he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Joe Biden in a ceremony on Friday at the White House.

Biden said it may be “the most consequential day” of his presidency as he presented the award to Davis, calling him a “true hero” for his acts in Vietnam.

The president reflected on the Black Army veteran’s upbringing amid segregation.

“Paris endured all of this and volunteered … to serve a country that in many places still refused to serve people who look like him,” he said.

Biden called Davis “everything this medal means … brave and big-hearted, determined and devoted, selfless and steadfast — America.”

At the time of the fight, Davis was serving as the commander of Alpha Detachment, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces — one of the first Black Special Forces officers in the service.

Davis commissioned as a Reserve Component officer in June 1959, completing Airborne and Ranger training in 1960 and the Special Forces qualification course two years later.

Throughout his military career — which ended when he retired as a colonel in 1985 — Davis received the Silver Star, Bronze Star with “V” device for valor, Purple Heart with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, and Air Medal with “V” device. He was inducted into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame in 2019.

An award decades in the making

But the Medal of Honor that Davis received on Friday has been decades in the making.

“Just to be able to be considered for the Medal of Honor is one thing,” Davis said Thursday. “To receive it is all the things I’ve never dreamed.”

On the day in question, Davis and three other US Special Forces soldiers led a company of South Vietnamese troops in an attack against an enemy base, according to the official battle narrative. Davis had learned of the base’s location after capturing and questioning two enemy combatants on the evening of June 17.

As he led his troops into the assault that night, Davis was wounded but kept moving forward, “personally engaging the enemy in hand-to-hand combat and killing several enemy soldiers.” Davis was separated from his team during the attack but continued “braving intense fire” in order to capture other enemy troops and destroy gun emplacements.

As he called for air support and artillery fire, he was hit by automatic weapons fire, and wounded again after an enemy soldier “engaged him at close range with his rifle.” Davis fought and defeated him in hand-to-hand combat before seeing two of his brothers in arms wounded and in need of evacuation.

So Davis went to the first soldier, getting hit again by enemy fire, and pulled him back to safety. Then he went to the second soldier, crawling almost 150 yards and braving enemy grenades, bringing that American soldier back to safety as well.

Davis told CNN on Thursday that at one point, he “thought that the battle was over because there was a place on that battlefield where there were so many bodies you couldn’t see the grass.”

Finally, a US helicopter arrived to get them out, but the narrative says Davis refused evacuation for himself, continuing to direct fire on the enemy’s position while his men received medical attention.

“Davis’ selfless actions and personal courage were decisive in changing the tide of the battle, ensuring that American Soldiers were not killed or taken prisoner, preventing the South Vietnamese company from being overrun, and ensuring the defeat of a numerically superior enemy force,” the narrative says.

At the White House on Friday, Biden spoke about Davis’ extraordinary bravery.

“Capt. Davis realized he was the last American standing. Without hesitation, he called out, ‘I’m coming for you,'” Biden said, noting that Davis was shot in the arm, then the leg, and still “didn’t give up,” helping to carry his teammates to safety despite incoming fire.

Davis’ perseverance throughout the fight embodies everything Special Forces soldiers train for, said Army Maj. Gen. Patrick Roberson, the deputy commander of US Army Special Operations Command.

“Will you quit? Obviously, Col. Davis showed, ‘I’m never going to quit. No matter what the odds, no matter how badly I’m hurt, I am not going to quit,'” Roberson said. “The grit, determination, competence under extreme duress — I can’t say enough about what he did.”

Asked by CNN what kept him going throughout the fight, Davis answered simply: “Others.”

‘He led by example’

To those who knew him, an answer like that is par for the course for Davis, who was repeatedly hailed as a selfless leader and an embodiment of the Army Special Forces’ motto of quiet professional.

“He led by example, he wasn’t an authoritarian type of leader, he led by example. We knew that in combat he was going to be right there with us — probably in front of us,” Ron Deis, one of Davis’ team members who was at a base nearby throughout the fight, told CNN. “And we knew that we could depend on him. We virtually would have followed him anywhere.”

The impact of Davis’ actions were immediate; Deis told CNN that the gravity of what had occurred was made clear to him the evening after the battle when he was speaking with a sergeant who had “years of combat experience” and who had been on the battlefield.

“He told me that he thought Capt. Davis should receive a Medal of Honor for the heroism that he exhibited that day,” Deis said, adding that it resonated with him because of the sergeant’s prior combat experience.

“That was just not something off the cuff,” he said. “I mean for someone with Sgt. Morgan’s experience in combat to say that he thought [Capt.] Davis should receive a Medal of Honor — that struck me as very profound.”

Others agreed, and Davis was immediately recommended for the honor. But his recommendation was apparently lost — twice.

His team members believed it was because of his race that he was overlooked for the honor. Deis told the New York Times in 2021. “What other assumption can you make?”

But Davis said Thursday that he wasn’t “going to spend 50 years thinking” about the medal that never was. He doesn’t think of himself as a “pioneer” as one of the first Black Special Forces officers, he said, adding that the “country has been pretty damn good to me.”

Davis’ daughter Regan said that growing up, she didn’t really know about her father’s courageousness. He didn’t talk about it much, and it wasn’t until 2019 when she read through a binder of news clippings, letters, and mementos from his time in Vietnam that she “really realized how much of an American hero he really was.”

“He’s humble as the day is long,” Regan Davis Hopper said on Thursday. “So what most surprises me now is the fact that it is finally happening. He’s worthy of this medal, he’s strong and empathetic, he’s an American hero in the truest sense of the word.”

“I’m just happy that the country gets to know him like I do.”

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Special Forces soldier receives Medal of Honor nearly 60 years after grueling firefight