For years John Hollis worked to uncover the full story behind an almost unfathomable act of selflessness by a man who grew up in Macon.
Hollis is a former sports reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and enjoys military history. He was immediately interested when a woman he was dating years ago, Regina Davis, told him her uncle was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Today she is his wife.
Marine Sgt. Rodney M. Davis, who grew up on Neal Street in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood, is the only person from Macon to be awarded the nation's highest medal for combat. Now the full story is told for the first time in a book Hollis has written, called "Sgt. Rodney M. Davis, The Making of a Hero," available on Amazon.
Davis died Sept. 6, 1967, in Vietnam when he threw himself onto a grenade to save fellow Marines. They were engaged in fierce combat with an enemy force far superior in numbers.
He was 25, with a wife and two young children.
Hollis interviewed 50 men who were on the battlefield with Davis that day, as well as three of the five Marines who would have either been killed or seriously wounded by the grenade. The other two died of natural causes, but he had their statements from the investigation that led to the medal being awarded.
Davis was known for looking out for others long before he went to Vietnam. To Hollis, the most intriguing thing he learned is that the five men standing around Davis that horrific day were all white. Hollis, as well as Davis' family, had always presumed at least some of the men he saved were black due to the high proportion of black soldiers sent to Vietnam.
That showed Hollis just how deep the brotherhood of combat runs. Despite growing up under racial oppression in the South, the skin color of those around him did not matter to Davis.
"The biggest thing for me is he died as nobly as he lived," Hollis said. "He died for his brothers in the Marine Corps."
The book begins with details of Davis' life growing up in Macon, and includes local history going back to the Civil War. Hollis talks at length about Jim Crow laws that kept blacks, including Davis, from eating inside restaurants, as well as other forms of segregation and racial oppression.
Davis joined the Marines in 1961 and had a nice job providing security at the U.S. embassy in London when he volunteered to go to Vietnam.
Although his act of heroism happened in an instant, days of brutal combat led up to it, and Hollis describes it all in vivid detail. The fateful event happened when Davis' unit was lured into an ambush. A grenade landed with a thud near Davis and other Marines in a trench. Platoon Sgt. Ron Posey, one of the men Davis saved, recounted the event in an emotional interview with Hollis.
"It just wasn't a right sound," Posey is quoted in the book. "It gets your attention because with all the weird sounds going on, it was something else that gets your attention. It just made a thud. Everybody was screaming, everybody was shooting. There was incoming and outgoing fire, but that was an absolutely unnatural sound in that situation."
Witnesses saw Davis not only jump on the grenade, but use both hands to push it toward his midsection to ensure he absorbed all of the blast.
"The cast iron grenade and its deadly filling of TNT suddenly went off with a fury, violently launching his body several feet into the air and killing him instantly," Hollis writes in the book.
One of the men he saved, Randy Leedom, came to Davis' gravesite at Linwood Cemetery in Macon several years ago and didn't think it was worthy of a Medal of Honor recipient. He led an effort by members of Davis' unit, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, or Marine 1/5, that raised $80,000 to build a new monument for Davis. It was dedicated in 2012.
Leedom, Posey and others Davis saved that day went on to get married, have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Hollis said he got the sense in talking to the men that they felt they owed it to Davis to make the most out of their lives.
Posey, who rode a Honda Goldwing motorcycle all over the country and to Alaska, lives today in Denmark. He has Parkinson's disease which makes it difficult for him to speak, so he declined a telephone interview with The Telegraph but answered questions by email. He said he avoided talking about the war until he spoke with Hollis, but as hard as that was, he said it also helped him heal.
"What happened on that day the 6th of September will always be in my mind," he said in the email. "I can still see him."
Davis' medal is on display at the Tubman Museum in Macon.