WASHINGTON — His entire body was covered in sweat and blood, having been shot too many times to count. After dragging a wounded Soldier to the helicopter for medical evacuation, Army Capt. Paris Davis went back into the Vietnam battle to retrieve another.
He heard the man had been shot in the head and was likely dead. Davis refused to accept it. He wasn’t leaving anyone behind.
He called in cover fire and returned to the battlefield, searching for his missing Soldier. He crawled 150 yards and was hit by grenade fragments, causing even more damage to an already beat down body.
He kept pressing on, however, and was able to find his man. Spc. Robert Brown was indeed shot in the head but was still alive. He looked at Davis and asked, “Am I going to die?’ to which Davis replied, “Not before me.”
Davis grabbed him by his blood-soaked uniform and began the arduous trip back.
Having a sense of family and putting others first was nothing new to Davis, it was instilled in him from a young age.
“School was important, church was important, family was important, and neighbors were special too,” he said thinking of his days in Cleveland, Ohio. “I think I had a very good childhood.”
As a kid, Davis was curious about the world and how things worked. He loved learning and would read any book they put under his nose.
That tenacious appetite for knowledge led him to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he studied political science and sociology.
“I was just interested in trying to figure out how the world turned,” he said.
While there, he joined the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps on scholarship. He didn’t come from a military family, but that wouldn't deter him from finding his way.
“Every step was a new step, just like a baby learning to walk,” he said.
The noncommissioned officers ran a tight ship at the school and kept him in line, teaching him valuable lessons he would need in the future.
In 1959, Davis commissioned as an Army reserve armor officer and shortly after went to airborne school. He then heard about a little-known program then-President John F. Kennedy emphasized for counterinsurgency, and he jumped at the chance.
He became one the first African American Special Forces officers in the Army.
After his first tour in Vietnam, where he helped recruit and train locals, he went from the Pentagon to Okinawa, Japan, for language school. While he was in Japan, he got the news he was going back to Vietnam, this time in charge of his own Special Forces team and a South Vietnamese regional force.
“It was a chance to put my fingerprint on it,” he said. “I wanted that opportunity.”
The team adjusted quickly after arriving, recruiting locals and doing patrols in the surrounding jungle. The key to their survival, Davis said, was not only getting locals to join them but taking care of their families.
“It’s the same in almost every ethnicity, family first,” he explained. “If you treat it right, it will be medicine for you.”
With the chance to lead his own team, Davis set out to get the best from his men. He empowered his NCOs to take charge and would often follow their lead. He didn’t keep secrets and would discourage gossip. He even encouraged them to keep things as lighthearted as they could.
“I think it’s really important when you get into a situation like that, you put as much humor in it as you can,” he said.
The team did everything together, from patrols to chow to cleaning their weapons. They rapidly become more than just a unit.
“It was more of a family,” Davis recalled.
On one late night patrol, Davis could hear snoring out in the shrubs. He searched and searched and eventually snuck up on an enemy soldier asleep on guard duty. After capturing him, the team found another unsuspecting soldier sleeping.
They took the prisoners back for questioning and received important information about a large enemy force gathering in the area.
Davis confirmed the intel and decided to act. His team started attacking small pockets of the North Vietnamese force, taking them by surprise. Davis was wounded in the initial assault, but he continued to push forward.
The enemy launched a counterattack coming at them in waves. Facing intense gun fire, Davis led a small group of Soldiers as they destroyed enemy fortified locations. He then regrouped with his company and ordered air strikes.
“The battle lasted forever, and we thought we had beaten them back,” he said.
They started congratulating themselves when suddenly they heard bugles playing. The North Vietnamese launched another attack with increased numbers.
“You couldn’t see the ground or anything else there was so many of those guys coming at us,” he recalled.
The battle was back on. The team moved into position and reengaged the enemy. At one point, Davis thought he was almost out of ammunition and went to get more.
As he was looking, he felt a gun barrel at the back of his head. An enemy soldier pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. Davis quickly took a bayonet from his boot, attacked, and killed the enemy.
With no time to lose, he returned to the battle and noticed several of his men were gravely wounded.
Master Sgt. Billy Waugh was shot multiple times in the leg and foot. He was unable to walk. Davis charged into an open field under heavy enemy fire to rescue him. He was shot again, blood starting to cover his uniform.
Davis continued to engage the enemy, killing several on his way. He finally reached Waugh, picked him up, and carried him to safety.
Helicopters were coming in and out, bringing supplies and evacuating the wounded. Just as several men finished taking supplies to the troops, Sgt. 1st Class John E. Reinburg was shot in the chest.
“He fell right into my arms, and we had to get him right back on the aircraft,” he said.
Davis carried Reinburg back up the hill to extraction.
The battle had been raging for hours as day was slowly turning into night. Davis managed to get all of his men out but one, Spc. Robert Brown. Defying orders to withdraw, Davis went back for his last Soldier.
“They said he was dead, but I wasn’t leaving him behind,” Davis said.
He again called in cover fire and went searching. He found Brown and dragged him back across the slick field to the medevac helicopter.
After rescuing his men, Davis directed the extraction of the remaining wounded but refused it for himself. He remained on the battlefield to coordinate the final aerial and artillery attacks, ensuring victory.
Davis saved the lives of multiple Soldiers during the 19-hour battle and led his company to victory over a much larger enemy force. He was awarded the Silver Star for heroism in December 1965.
Now, almost six decades later, Davis received the nation’s highest award for military valor, the Medal of Honor, in a ceremony at the White House March 3.
“He exhibited his bravery numerous times on that particular mission,” said Ron Deis, junior demolition man on Davis’s Vietnam Special Forces team. “He was either going to recover all of his team or die trying.”
When asked how he felt about receiving the medal, Davis said he didn’t want it to be about the lives he saved in Vietnam.
“I didn’t think about going after Brown to get a medal, or Waugh,” he explained. “For me, it was never ever a reason why I wanted to do something. Saving those lives were a part of what was human. Fighting the enemy was the part that was daring.”
Davis retired as a colonel after serving more than 25 years in the Army. In 2019, he was inducted into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame.