He’s a guy who played high school football, loves fishing, and worked with his hands his whole life. He’s a guy married to an all-American beauty named Dixie who can shoot a gun better than most Marines. He’s a loving grandpa to 15 grandchildren who lives in Freedom…Indiana.
But to the 12 Naval Academy football players crowded around him in the lobby of the Hilton in downtown Knoxville, he is nobody. All they see is a ruddy face and blonde hair going white, maybe the hint of the military posture they’re learning themselves. It’s midmorning, and the midshipmen are in town to attend the funeral of a former teammate – they did not come here to meet a Medal of Honor recipient.
In fact, they would have been eating complimentary breakfast, had Joe Thompson, an organizer of this year’s Medal of Honor Convention, not seen an opportunity to introduce them to Sammy Davis.
At first, they seem indifferent toward the veteran, perhaps still sleepy or already grieving. But then Joe explains who this particular veteran really is. Suddenly, the medal appears in Sammy’s beefy hand.
Their indifference melts away, replaced by eyes bigger and brighter than the medal they pass around. Sammy pointedly encourages people to touch his medal; it’s been held by more than 2.7 million schoolchildren, he says, proudly. These young men add to the number, afterwards posing for pictures with Sammy and asking him questions about his time in the service. One shakes his hand so enthusiastically that Sammy almost loses his balance.
It will be a busy day. After his impromptu talk with the midshipmen, Sammy’s schedule is packed with an appearance, three interviews and a film shoot—not to mention the world premiere of the documentary Medal of Honor: A History. Sammy will be a bonafide, red carpet celebrity.
“Really, today’s about publicizing the convention,” Joe says, turning to leave.
The annual Medal of Honor Convention Joe has been organizing will bring to Knoxville many of the 80 living recipients of the nation’s highest award for military valor. It’s a chance to honor the recipients and preserve their heritage. Sammy is here several months ahead of time – for publicity.
Just before we reach the doors and begin the itinerary, Dixie, ever the loving wife, fixes the medal around his neck. His celebrity, manifested and secured around his throat.
Sammy stands patiently, back straight, eyes forward. Smiling, but not saying a word.
If you first read Sammy Davis and thought of the late singer, Sammy Davis, Jr., you wouldn’t be the first. A quick Google search clears up any confusion between the entertainer and the Medal of Honor recipient, but, as a profile by Peter Collier mentions, Sammy “took some ribbing in the Army” for the name he shared with the Rat Pack crooner.
Riding in the car with him, Dixie, and Joe to our first stop of the day, it’s hard to believe that anyone ever really ribbed Sammy. A big man with a big personality, he’s the kind of guy who graduated high school, volunteered for the Army, and asked to go to Vietnam. He’s also the kind of guy who manned a flaming 6-ton howitzer – by himself – when the Vietcong attacked his base in Cai Lay. Even after the howitzer was hit and Sammy was hurt, he managed to right the weapon and fire three more rounds.
The rest of his Medal of Honor citation plays out like the scene in Forrest Gump where Forrest works like a human shuttle bus, ferrying Lieutenant Dan and several wounded comrades to safety in the brush. The major difference: Sammy didn’t just carry fellow soldiers to safety – he swam them across a river on an air mattress, despite serious wounds. Sammy refused medical attention and joined a howitzer crew, eventually beating back the estimated 1,500 Viet Cong that had surrounded the encampment and becoming one of 12 men who survived the assault. A year later, President Lyndon B. Johnson draped the Medal of Honor around his meaty neck.
Twenty-seven years later, 1994’s Forrest Gump immortalized that moment. Remember the scene where Forrest receives his Medal of Honor, just before he tells President Johnson that he got shot in the buttocks? That’s Sammy with a CGI Tom Hanks face on top of his own. Even the buttocks part is Sammy’s story – he just says it differently.
“I got my butt blowed off,” he says with a chuckle.
He was 21 years old when the Vietcong ambushed his base, and 47 years later, Sammy tells the story of November 18, 1967 several times a day.
At the first official stop of the day, he speaks to employees of Sterling Global, a defense contractor based out of Lenoir City. Stepping to the podium in a small room crammed with complementary food and attentive company, he explains that, after years of public speaking, he’s realized question and answer sessions are more efficient at giving the audience what they want. He asks for any questions, leaving a beat for the small crowd to wonder what to ask the Medal of Honor recipient.
“Ohhhkay then,” he says when our collective search for words stalls an off-beat too long. “I guess I’ll get going then.”
On cue, we spectators roar with laughter. It’s not the only time, for Sammy is nothing if not a quintessentially American entertainer. Highlighting the gentler details of his time in Vietnam – wiggling toes in worn-out Army boots and lackluster letters to mom – he brings lightness to a harrowing war experience. As for the Vietcong he killed, Sammy uses a simple, faceless phrase: “the enemy.”
At one point, he pulls out his harmonica and delivers a heart-wrenching rendition of “Shenandoah.” Sammy learned to play it for his buddy, John Dunlop, a name you can now find on 50 East of the Vietnam War Memorial. We, the audience, sit silently, inert in rapt attention.
Afterwards, his blue eyes look brighter than usual. Predictably, nobody ribs him.
The medal makes the rounds – he really does want everyone to feel its weight, everywhere he goes – and for a moment I have my turn to examine it. The gold plated-pendant begins with an eagle holding the word “valor” in its talons, a word from which hangs the wreath of strong oak and victorious laurel leaves. Encircled within sits a star, just a hair taller than it is wider, with his name inscribed on the back and the Greek Goddess Minerva on the front. Texture and weight lend it embodied importance, a trait balanced by a soft, almost delicately blue ribbon. A small pattern of 13 white stars spatters the center like a sky.
The medal grows heavy in my hand, hefty with the weight of its past. Images of faceless enemies flash through my mind. I wonder if they flash through his.
Gladly, I pass the medal along to the next eager hands.
“I was doing my job. I never killed anybody who wasn’t trying to kill me. You have to protect yourself.” – Sammy Lee Davis
In ancient Rome, gladiators earned adoration through slaughter; during the Civil War, Southern gentry would watch the bloodshed while having picnics. Through and beyond the centuries from Spartacus to General Grant – even now, in the century of slasher films as entertainment and 24-hour school shooting coverage as news– the ritual of killing continues to grip our fascination.
War is the rare human condition that permits killing, and Sammy Davis, the rare human who’s proven he’s conditioned to kill for his country.
What he did that day in the jungle was valorous, a word derived from the Late Latin word valor, meaning “Be strong.” He showed his strength, in saving those American lives on an air mattress. But his courage was two-fold, also manifested by the taking of many lives.
I ask him if he feels any guilt or regret for the Vietcong he gunned down in Cai Lay.
“No,” he says.
Back straight, eyes forward, no hint of a smile.
“The 10 Commandments say, thou shalt not kill. That means, thou shalt not murder – I was doing my job. I never killed anybody who wasn’t trying to kill me. You have to protect yourself.”
The response is a very slight departure from his standard attitude, a little closer to primal instinct than patriotic duty. And it begs the question: Why did he ask for a job at war in Vietnam?
“I didn’t go to war to kill people,” he says in an interview for Medal of Honor: Oral Histories. “I went to war because I loved my daddy, I wanted him to be proud of me. I went to war because I love my grandpas. And I love my country.”
He survived that act of love, lives on as his country’s beloved. Fifty eight thousand two hundred and eighty six other Americans, including his buddy John Dunlop, became names on a wall. All the others, the unnamed, they gained a new name in death: “the enemy.”
How many times has Sammy told the story of what happened that day? Thousands? Tens of thousands? A hundred thousand or more? After conducting an interview with a local TV station, the star and his entourage return to the hotel for yet another interview, this time with University of Tennessee students. Again, he tells the story of that day, exactly the same as the interview before and the videos online and the citation in the history books. But for the first time, he discusses the way America received him when he finished his tour of duty in 1969. As a Medal of Honor recipient, he went on a different sort of tour, a lecture tour, and this time he faced something much different than mortar rounds.
Speaking in front of hostile university crowds, Sammy says, was a nightmare from which he could not wake.
“Normally I was not treated well at all. They saved what they picked up in their yard after their dog… they would save bags and throw it up on the stage. How many beer bottles and wine bottles I got hit with, I couldn’t even count. And this happened on a regular basis.”
A superior had told him not to respond to the crowd or vary from the written speech, but Davis admits, “what I wanted to do was jump down there and educate some people.”
While the reception of the crowd has improved over the years, his desire to educate people has never changed. Repeatedly, he says that his favorite thing to do is visit young school children and teach them about character, courage and citizenship. I note that they never hit him with dog shit.
By his side the whole time is Dixie, a woman who draws you in with her wide eyes and white smile and natural vivacity. During lunch, she pulls his diabetes kit from her purse and slides it across the table. Nonchalantly, he checks his blood sugar at the table and shows her the number like a little kid showing his report card.
“What do you think, Dixie?”
She nods approvingly and he slides the kit back to her. For a while, Sammy takes a back seat – he looks glad to not answer questions for a while – and Dixie takes control of conversation. She talks about her success at the Indiana State Fair, where she won 17 ribbons the first year she entered the needlework competition and nabbed the Grand Champion award two years later.
Sammy kindly interjects, asking to say a quick prayer over our food. Bowing his head, he delivers a conspicuously humble prayer. The amen escapes his lips, and he tucks into his soup. Dixie returns to her phone, pulling up a photo of her prizewinning needlework.
For a few minutes, we all forget about the medal under his collar.
Cruising along to his next appearance, Sammy says he spends more than 200 days per year on the road, talking at schools and corporations and NRA conventions and every other occasion you can imagine to invite a Medal of Honor recipient to (hint: essentially, everything.)
Despite his personal encounters with the ugliness America displayed all those years ago, his patriotism is unflagging. On his personal webpage, a poster depicts him in front of an American flag. “Your country needs you,” is printed beneath the picture. “Take part in America today.”
Today, his part has been multifaceted, ranging from appearances at defense contractors and history museums to this Food City parking lot across the interstate from Fort Sanders, a college neighborhood at the edge of downtown.
The grocery store is a generous sponsor of the convention, and the sponsorship comes with perks. Perks like Sammy Davis – after cramming into a store office for an interview to be posted to the company’s Youtube channel, he’s sweating in the late afternoon, Tennessee sunlight, starring in a Food City commercial.
The medal glints in the dust and pollen as the store manager enunciates his lines. He’s describing the special edition plastic bag that the store will be offering in conjunction with the convention. The medal is shown on Sammy, the guy who wears the star and plays his role.
“There are many ways to serve your country,” the manager says to the camera. Behind him, about 15 Food City employees cluster in bright red and blue uniforms, primary color-coordinated. The director shouts, “Happy! Happy! Affirming!” at the extras, whose faces contort in the strain of forced happiness. Repeatedly, take after take, the director demands, “Happy! Happy! Affirming!” The checkers grimace.
Sammy stands patiently, back straight, eyes forward. Smiling, but not saying a word.
Watching him perform in the hot sun, I realize how much the Medal of Honor recipient has sacrificed since the sacrifices that brought him here. Paraded around and treasured like the medal he wears, Sammy the person is hard to distinguish from Sammy the idea. Joe was right – today, at least, was all about publicity.
“There are days I’d rather be fishing,” Sammy admits as we walk back to the car.
It was fishing that saved his Medal of Honor from eternal rest in a river bed. After a speaking engagement one night, Sammy locked his medal safely in the trunk of his car (he had been told never to take it into a hotel room). The next morning, his trunk had been opened and the medal, stolen.
Luckily for Sammy, the medal was stolen twice. Once by a drug addict, who took it to a party in the same hotel where Sammy was staying; once by that drug addict’s friend. This young man, the friend, had seen that medal before; he held it in his hand at a school event many years before.
One of the 2.7 million schoolchildren, he knew its weight.
As soon as the party ended, the second thief snuck it from the original thief’s room, put it in a briefcase with some bricks, and sunk it in the nearby river, presumably to keep the other thieves from stealing it back. Then, a few days later, he told the local police exactly where to look in the river.
Sammy recalls the story with Dixie’s help, and together they agree the ordeal lasted three nights and four days – the only time he’s been without his tangible identity. Dixie says something about how all those “character counts” talks make a difference – the young man who sunk the medal stands as proof. In Dixie’s opinion, it all comes full circle.
The Medal of Honor recipient next to her remains silent. He sits patiently. His back is straight, his eyes look forward, and he is smiling, not saying a word.
Sometimes, the Medal of Honor speaks for itself.
R.J. Vogt is senior in the University of Tennessee College Scholars program studying literary journalism. He is the former editor-in-chief of the Daily Beacon and is currently interning for Esquire magazine in New York. You can find him on Twitter at @rjvogt31.
Additional reporting: Paxton Elrod, a junior journalism and electronic media major, lead the sit-down video interview with Mr. Davis. Jake Thompson, a graduate student in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media, provided still photography. Katherine Donnelly, a junior journalism and electronic media major, provided editing help.
Photo Credits (from top to bottom): (1) Jake Thompson / The Medal of Honor Project, (2) Yoichi R. Okamoto, NARA record: 2987665 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, (3) Hgrimm27 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, (4) United States Air Force SSGT Maria L. Taylor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, (5) Jake Thompson / The Medal of Honor Project, (6) By United States Army Staff Sergeant Jim Greenhill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, (7) By United States Air Force Staff Sgt. Samuel Bendet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons