It’s been more than 50 years since Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Rodney M. Davis of the Marine Corps joined the eternal pantheon of great American heroes, but his is a riveting story that our nation could really use hearing right now.
But it’s unlikely that many people outside his family and friends are aware that Davis is among the few African-Americans to have ever been so honored, or how his inspirational life and death continue to echo even today. As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s important that we always remember men like Davis and others who did so much for America, but often in anonymity.
A native of Macon, Davis died on Sept. 6, 1967, after lunging atop an enemy grenade to save the lives of five fellow Marines during one of the nastiest firefights of the Vietnam War.
That Davis willingly sacrificed his own life for fellow Marines — all of whom happened to be white — when the contentious issue of race was threatening to tear America apart at the seams makes his action even more compelling.
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The time of Davis’ death was one of the most volatile in U.S. domestic history, with more than 150 American cities experiencing race riots that summer. The country was inching closer to anarchy as Davis and other African-Americans were sadly still being denied at home — under Jim Crow laws — the very liberties they were fighting to defend thousands of miles away in Southeast Asia.
It takes a special man to fight for a country that has denied him full rights as a citizen, a more extraordinary one still to willingly lay down his own life for that country.
That Davis still chose to jump onto an enemy grenade and sacrifice his own life for the lives of his fellow Marines speaks volumes about him, his principles and his unflinching courage even in the face of certain death.
My book, “Sgt. Rodney M. Davis: The Making of a Hero,” is a factual account of his life, death and enduring legacy following that fateful afternoon in the Que Son Valley in which his company of 200 Marines stumbled into a trap set by an NVA regiment estimated to have 2,500 men during Operation Swift. A member of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Davis served as a right guide in 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company. His platoon listed 48 men at the start of Operation Swift, including two machine gunners, a two-man sniper team and a forward artillery observer. Just 11 remained by the time major combat operations concluded on Sept. 6, the rest either having been killed or wounded seriously enough to warrant a medevac out. Of those 11, eight later received Purple Hearts for combat wounds.
Davis, however, didn’t care about color. The Marines sharing that trench with him were all his brothers, and Davis was no stranger to looking out after his own after coming of age in the Jim Crow South. Color had always been a divisive issue there, but it didn’t matter along Vietnam’s dangerous front lines, where each man depended on one another for survival no matter their race.
Working together as Americans first and Marine brothers-in-arms, they defied the long odds against them to deal a stinging blow to the numerically superior NVA 2nd Division. Necessity has long been the midwife for progress, but the irony is almost palpable in this case as these brave young men had to travel 10,000 miles away from home and endure the closest thing there was to hell on Earth to experience the kind of special brotherhood that America was always supposed to have been about.
A place where a man’s ability mattered more than the color of his skin, where his character superseded his pedigree.
Davis is one of only 88 African-Americans to have received the Medal of Honor of the 3,505 awarded in our nation’s history. Commissioned in his honor in 1987, the USS Rodney M. Davis (FFG-60) became the first U.S. Navy warship named after an African-American Medal of Honor recipient. The ship served America faithfully for 28 years before the Navy retired the entire fleet of Oliver Hazard Perry class of guided missile frigates in 2015.
The Marines whose lives Davis spared that fateful day each went on to live exemplary lives, and that gift of life continues to reverberate even to this day much like a rock skipping across a lake. One of the Marines in that trench with him at the critical moment is now a retired, successful businessman living in Denmark with his beloved family, including the recent addition of a third great-grandchild. Their platoon commander, the late John Brackeen, died of natural causes a few years ago, but only after Davis’ selfless act allowed him to survive that awful day in the Que Son Valley and go on to enjoy a bountiful life.
It was truly a privilege for me to be in attendance when Brackeen’s eldest grandson graduated from Officer Candidates School at Marine Corps Base Quantico in November 2014. He’s now a captain on active duty and back serving at MCB Quantico.
But the issue of race continues to confound America, with U.S. service members of all races fighting overseas alongside one another even now as ugly racial tensions again spike back at home.
Yet the story of Sgt. Rodney M. Davis is testament to the greatness of which we’re all capable when we as a nation can collectively move beyond it. So to remember men like Davis and their many accomplishments is to honor them, and that’s a good thing for Black History Month and beyond.
Take note, America.
John D. Hollis is the communications manager at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and author of the book, “Sgt. Rodney M. Davis: The Making of a Hero.”