In 1965, then-Captain Paris Davis commanded a Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (A-Team) in Vietnam. He was put in for the Medal of Honor twice, but the Army “lost” the paperwork both times. But there is finally movement on righting this wrong and awarding the MOH to Davis after 57 years.
Paris Davis, who went to Southern University in Louisiana on an ROTC scholarship was one of the first African-American Green Beret officers in the Army’s Special Forces. And that was likely problematic back in the 60s.
The military was different in 1965 than it is today. As a black Green Beret officer, he was told by his company commander Major Billy Cole that he’d have to work twice as hard to earn his team’s trust and confidence because of the color of his skin.
“You’re going to have an all-white team, and you have some guys from Alabama and one from Mississippi — it could be a rough thing,” Davis remembered his commander telling him.
Some Green Berets didn’t like taking orders from a black officer. But those racial prejudices quickly faded once the team went into combat, with many members of his A-Team recalling later that Davis was the best officer they ever served with.
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The raid of June 18, 1965
On June 18, 1965, Paris Davis, members of his A-Team, and a group of South Vietnamese were inserted in a remote area, known as the Bong Son of Binh Dinh Province to attack an NVA unit that was training local volunteers. Later in the war, the Army would place thousands of troops in the province to hold it from the North Vietnamese. But in 1965, Davis had just a 12-man A-Team.
They moved close to the objective, and from there, Davis crawled forward with three Americans and some Vietnamese. Once they were in position, Davis and his team sergeant, Special Forces and CIA legend Billy Waugh burst into the NVA commander’s hooch and killed him at close range.
The rest of the assault team burst through the enemy’s small camp, hurling grenades, and shooting Viet Cong troops, many of whom ran into the jungle to escape. The combined American and South Vietnamese team withdrew thinking their raid was successful — then things changed quickly.
Suddenly, the team heard a bugle blow in the jungle, which meant that a sizable force of Viet Cong troops was counter-attacking. The small band was forced into a rice paddy. Waugh was shot by a sniper shattering his knee. The team’s medical sergeant was shot in the head. The weapons sergeant was knocked out cold by a mortar blast. Davis located the sniper and killed him.
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Davis retreated with his men to a small hill at the edge of the rice paddy. For the next 10 hours, they held off wave after wave of NVA troops who came close to overrunning them. The NVA were so close that Davis killed one with a buttstroke of his M16.
Once American ground attack aircraft began exacting a toll on the NVA, Davis ran out to the rice paddy to collect his wounded teammates. The wound in the medic’s head was so bad that later Davis said he could see the man’s brain pulsating. The medic asked Davis, “Am I going to die?” to which Davis replied, “not before me.”
When he went to get MSG Waugh, Davis was shot in the leg and was forced to retreat. He went out for a third time, and was then shot in the arm, but was able to hoist Waugh and carry him back to the team perimeter. Reinforcements arrived and a colonel in the Command and Control (C&C) helicopter ordered Davis to withdraw. He refused.
“I have two troops that I don’t know the status of,” Davis said. Despite his wounds, he went and recovered both of them. He was then able to withdraw.
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‘He has shown as much courage as any human I’ve ever met’
Immediately Davis’s Commanding Officer put in the paperwork to get him awarded the Medal of Honor. Waugh, from his hospital bed in Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C. wrote a letter supporting it. He was awarded an interim Silver Star, which is the norm in MOH cases.
However, the case froze. When the Special Forces people tried to track it down, there was no evidence of it; it had been “lost.” A few years later in 1969, the Army was ordered to submit new paperwork “ASAP” for Davis’ MOH. That too was somehow “lost.”
Davis and his teammates believe that it was due to the color of his skin. His CO Major Cole was so frustrated, that he told his daughter just before he died in 2003, that his biggest regret was not being able to get the award through for Davis. “He has [shown] as much cold courage as any human I’ve ever heard of,” Cole said to a newspaper. Cole too, died believing that the “lost” paperwork was the result of racism.
“What other assumption can you make?” said Ron Deis, who was the youngest soldier on the team in 1965, and appeared with Davis on camera with Phil Donahue in 1969.
“We all knew he deserved it then,” Deis said during an interview with CBS, as he wiped away tears. “He sure as hell deserves it now.”
There’s a movement afoot to right the wrong
After more than 55 years, in early 2021, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, himself a Special Forces officer and veteran, ordered the military to complete an expedited review of the lost nominations by March 2021.
Military.com reported that sources inside the Pentagon told them that General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had approved the nomination and it was forwarded to the desk of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. If he approves it, then the long overdue award will go to President Biden for final approval.
Waugh, a legend inside the Special Forces and CIA communities, sums it up best.
“I only have to close my eyes to vividly recall the gallantry of this individual.”
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