“An incredible man”: Biden awards Medal of Honor to Ret. Col. Paris Davis for heroism in Vietnam

President Biden presents the Medal of Honor to retired U.S. Army Col. Paris Davis during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on March 3, 2023.WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY IMAGES

Washington — President Biden awarded the Medal of Honor to Paris Davis, a retired U.S. Army colonel and one of the first Black officers in the Green Berets, for heroism during the Vietnam War nearly 60 years ago, honoring his service at a White House ceremony in March earlier this year.

“This may be the most consequential day since I’ve been president,” the president said. “This is an incredible man.”

Davis saved the lives of his troops on the battlefield in Vietnam and ignored an order to evacuate until all of his teammates were extracted from intense fighting in 1965. His nomination for the nation’s highest combat decoration mysteriously vanished twice at the height of the civil rights movement. Mr. Biden recounted his heroics before bestowing the Medal of Honor.

Davis, then a captain, led an inexperienced South Vietnamese force and several other Americans on a nighttime raid against a larger Viet Cong force near Bong Son in June 1965. While returning, the enemy troops staged a counterattack before dawn.

“Within minutes, the jungle lit up with enemy fire. Hundreds of Viet Cong began to swarm Capt. Davis and his team, pinning them down in a rice paddy with no cover,” Mr. Biden said. “Capt. Davis rallied his team to fight back, getting so close to the enemy he was battling them hand to hand.”

After hours of fighting, Davis realized two of his fellow Americans were injured. One sergeant was in the rice paddy, and a weapons specialist was knocked out in a cesspit. A medic had also been shot in the head. 

“Capt. Davis realized he was the last American standing. Without hesitation, he yelled, ‘I’m coming for you. I’m coming for you,'” Mr. Biden said. 

Davis returned down a hill to rescue the men multiple times, even after being shot in the leg. He refused medical evacuation when reinforcements arrived, and returned to save a teammate who was wounded in the initial counterattack. He only left the scene once all members of his company had reached safety.

His commanding officer, Billy Cole, later nominated him for the Medal of Honor. But then the paperwork mysteriously vanished. A 1969 military review “did not reveal any file” on Davis.

The president acknowledged the delay in his receiving the Medal of Honor: “I wish I could say this story of Paris’ sacrifice on that day in 1965 was fully recognized and rewarded immediately. But sadly we know they weren’t.” 

Davis and those who advocated for him suspect race was a factor.

“And I think that’s a shame,” Regan Davis Hopper, his daughter, told CBS News’ Catherine Herridge ahead of Friday’s ceremony. “Discrimination hurts us all, not just the individual, but our entire country. So, I’m so proud of us to finally set this right.” 

“My family hopes that in some small way it could just help us all heal some of the divisions in this country,” she said.

It took the work of a diverse group of volunteers, many who didn’t know Davis but worked to revive his case.

The nomination was recommended by senior defense officials and ultimately approved by Mr. Biden, who called Davis last month to tell him he would receive the Medal of Honor “for his remarkable heroism during the Vietnam War,” according to a White House statement.

“The call today from President Biden prompted a wave of memories of the men and women I served with in Vietnam — from the members of 5th Special Forces Group and other U.S. military units to the doctors and nurses who cared for our wounded,” Davis said in a statement released by him and his family last month. 

“I am so very grateful for my family and friends within the military and elsewhere who kept alive the story of A-team, A-321 at Camp Bong Son,” he said. “I think often of those fateful 19 hours on June 18, 1965 and what our team did to make sure we left no man behind on that battlefield.”

With the award, Davis receives a new pension backdated to 1965. He will now be one of just 65 living Medal of Honor recipients, and said he shares it with his special forces soldiers.

“All the other soldiers that you’ve been working with and fighting with, somehow they need to touch that medal. You know, it ain’t all yours,” he said. “It’s for America, too.”

BACK STORY – CBS News Feb 2023: Black Vietnam veteran’s nearly 60-year wait for Medal of Honor is over

Davis’ story, about how his Medal of Honor paperwork mysteriously vanished in 1965, at the height of the civil rights movement, first aired on “CBS Mornings” two years ago.

Military historian Doug Sterner, who served two tours in Vietnam and has written 108 books on service medals, said the Davis case is unique.

“This is a veteran, a war hero, who was submitted for our nation’s highest honor, and the paperwork for that award was actually lost. The military is redundant in paperwork, if nothing else. And so it’s very rare for that to occur,” Sterner explained.

Davis gave his only television interview to “CBS Mornings” about the renewed effort for recognition for him that had been undertaken by a group of volunteers, including a number of veterans. Team members and Davis told CBS News they believed race was a factor in the disappearance of Davis’ Medal of Honor paperwork. 

One of the first Black officers to be part of the Army’s Special Forces, Davis’ courage and valor earned him the respect of his soldiers in Vietnam, and a nomination for the award.

In June 1965, Davis, then an Army captain, led a nearly 19-hour raid northeast of Saigon.

“We were stacking bodies the way you do canned goods in a grocery store,” Davis recalled in his interview with CBS News.

Though he’d been hit by a grenade and gunfire, Davis would not leave behind Americans Billy Waugh and Robert Brown. Both were gravely injured — and Brown had been shot in the head, Davis said.

Davis said he was twice ordered to leave, but according to an interview he gave in 1969 to then-local TV host Phil Donahue, he responded to his commanding officer, “Sir, I’m just not going to leave. I still have an American out there.”

In April 2021, in a rare interview, the sole surviving witness to Davis’ actions, 91-year-old Billy Waugh, described to CBS News how he had been shot multiple times in the legs and was unable to walk.

“We ended up in an open area together,” Waugh said. “He (Davis) grabbed me, and he (dragged) me.”

Waugh, who went on to have a storied career in both the Special Forces and the CIA, said he submitted Medal of Honor paperwork for Davis and heard that it was making its way through the system. Davis’ commander, Billy Cole, also recommended Davis for the medal.

But Davis never received the award — his file disappeared in Vietnam that same year.  A 1969 military review “did not reveal any file on Davis,” according to the Defense Department.

Neil Thorne was part of the volunteer team that pieced together the Medal of Honor paperwork through archival searches and the Freedom of Information Act.  

“Everybody I’ve talked to that served under him (Davis) says that he’s the best officer they’ve ever served under,” he said.

Thorne agreed with Sterner that the loss or destruction of Medal of Honor paperwork is “very uncommon,” adding that “there would’ve been multiple copies.”

In 1969, after a military hearing into the status of the Davis Medal of Honor nomination, the Army was ordered to submit a new packet “ASAP” for Davis, but for a second time, there was no evidence that a Medal of Honor file was created.

In 1981, with no award for Davis, Waugh said he wrote a personal statement. “I wanted to redo it, to see why it hadn’t gone,” he said.

Waugh, whom Davis carried to safety, wrote in a 1981 statement, “I only have to close my eyes to vividly recall the gallantry of this individual.”

Over the years Davis’ fellow soldiers also lobbied Congress. But each time, the process stalled.

“I know race was a factor,” Davis told CBS — a factor he says he experienced during his 23 years in the Army. Davis said he recalled telling troops, “you can call me Capt. Davis … but you can’t call me a n*****.” But “it did happen,” Davis said.

Only 8% of Medal of Honor recipients for Vietnam are Black.

An expedited review of Davis’ nomination was due in 2021 for Davis who is now nearing his 86th birthday and was hospitalized multiple times in 2022 for injuries related to his Vietnam service. CBS News’ reporting revealed bureaucratic delays and unnecessary stumbling blocks that further delayed the award for Davis.

The packet was previously signed by then-Secretary of the Army Mark Esper, and more recently by the current secretary of the Army, Christine Wormuth. In late December, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed off, with the paperwork sent to the White House for final approval by Mr. Biden.

Davis and his family also acknowledged senior military leadership and the team of volunteers, many of them veterans.  “Our family appreciates the volunteer team that advocated for us through the years,” their statement said, and went on to thank the president and current and former Defense Department officials.(BY CATHERINE HERRIDGE – UPDATED FEBRUARY 14, 2023-CBS NEWS)