Medal of Honor Winner Sammy L. Davis

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor offered to members of the United States military. In this lesson we'll explore the life and military career of recipient Sgt. Sammy L. Davis.

The Medal of Honor and Vietnam War

We've all heard of the Vietnam War, one of the dominant military conflicts of the second half of the 20th century. The United States was directly involved in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973, and during that time over 2 million Americans served in uniform. Of those 2 million, a handful became distinguished for their acts of valor. The actions by these soldiers were considered so far above and beyond the call of duty that they were acknowledged by Congress with the Medal of Honor, the highest military award offered by the United States. In fact, of the 2 million soldiers serving in Vietnam, only 240 were presented with the medal, making it a highly exclusive award. One of the soldiers to make the cut was Sergeant First Class Sammy L. Davis.

Sgt. Sammy L. Davis with his Medal of Honor


Sergeant Davis was born in 1946 in Ohio to a family with a long-standing record of military service. Davis family members had served in the Spanish-American War, World War II, and the Korean War. While many soldiers who fought in Vietnam were drafted, Davis enlisted in the US Army in 1965. He was sent to South Vietnam in 1967 and received training as a cannoneer, an artillery gunner. It was in this position that he earned his Medal of Honor. He retired from the military in 1984 due to complications from the injuries he sustained during the war. In a fun twist on history, the footage of Davis' Medal of Honor ceremony was used in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump. Actor Tom Hanks' head was superimposed over the head of Davis as Gump receives the Medal of Honor from the president.

Medal of Honor Action

In November of 1967 Davis was a private first class soldier. He was helicoptered into a combat-heavy area to set up a remote artillery base providing support for American troops. At roughly 2 am on the morning following his arrival Davis woke up to the sound of mortar shells, an alarming fact considering that his unit did not use mortars. The base was under a surprise attack from North Vietnamese troops, sometimes called the Vietcong. The attacking force of roughly 1,500 soldiers might have quickly overrun the base if not for a sizable river that separated the two forces. As the American troops fought off both the mortar assault and ground assault, Davis took control of a machine gun and used it to cover the rest of his unit, which was preparing a heavy artillery howitzer. Unfortunately, an enemy bullet struck and damaged the howitzer, knocking the crew to the ground and blowing Davis into a foxhole.

Sammy L. Davis in the 1960s

Davis believed that his crew would be killed without the use of the heavy artillery. Despite being ordered to remain hidden, he left his cover and managed to get a shell into the damaged and burning howitzer. He shot off the round, killing the nearest advancing row of Vietcong soldiers. The recoil of the unsecured weapon violently knocked Davis backwards. He got up to reload the weapon and was once again knocked back, this time by an exploding mortar shell. Davis was badly injured, but he got up and continued firing the howitzer until it was out of ammunition.

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