Weather Updates

Vet to West students: Heroism was act of love

Medal of Honor

For a video of Medal of Honor recipient Sammy Lee Davis’ presentation at West Aurora High School, visit

Davis’ Medal of Honor citation can be found online at

A video about his award-winning
service can be seen at

Article Extras
Story Image

Updated: March 21, 2013 6:08AM

AURORA — War was hell for Pfc. Sammy Lee Davis.

On Nov. 18, 1967, the cannoneer held a Viet Cong attack force at bay by operating a damaged howitzer while under heavy fire, then crossed a river into enemy territory twice to rescue wounded U.S. soldiers – all after he’d suffered a broken back, several gunshot wounds and at least 30 “beehive” dart wounds.

On Tuesday, the Medal of Honor recipient told West Aurora High School students that, even as he battled pain and exhaustion to keep fighting that day, he fought as an act of love.

“It seems strange to say that I learned about love from being in Vietnam,” Davis said. “But I didn’t go to war to kill people. I went because I loved my daddy and I wanted to make him proud of me. I went because I loved my grandpas, and because I loved my country. Once we were there, the reason we all fought so hard is that we discovered that we loved each other. We were all we had out there, so we became brothers.”

The Army veteran was stationed at Firebase Cudgil near Cay Lai, on the front line with the Viet Cong encamped just across a river. Though he had seen action, it was nothing compared to what he went through in his last battle. During a nighttime mortar attack, the Viet Cong hit his howitzer with a rocket, which also knocked him unconscious and flung him backward into a foxhole.

“When I started to wake up, I saw all these red lights in the sky and I thought that it looked just like Christmas,” Davis told his West High audience. “Then my hearing returned, the smoke started clearing from my brain and I realized those lights were tracer rounds.”

He also realized that he’d been hit from behind by another howitzer loaded with a “beehive” round that broadcast thousands of small metal darts. Another U.S. artillery team had fired the round at enemy troops who’d been trying to take over Davis’s howitzer and turn it on the firebase defenders.

“I had about 30 dart holes in my legs,” Davis stated. “I’d been wearing my flak jacket, otherwise I wouldn’t be here today.”

Ignoring the dart wounds and the fact that his fourth lumbar vertebra had broken, Davis returned to the howitzer – which was now on fire – found the scattered shells and powder and started firing into the charging enemy line. He kept firing even after taking several mortar wounds, according to his official Medal of Honor citation.

Davis heard a cry from the other side of the river. “I was just loading another round when somebody started shouting, ‘Don’t shoot! We’re GIs!’ I recognized the soldier and I just thought, ‘Somebody’s got to help him get back here,’” he recalled.

Because his injuries prevented him from swimming, Davis found an air mattress and paddled it across the river to reach three wounded Americans. He fended off enemy soldiers with a rifle while they scrambled onto the mattress, then paddled them back to the base and medical help.

Declining treatment himself, he joined another howitzer crew until the battle had ended.

“I didn’t do anything heroic,” Davis said. “I was just doing my job. There were 42 of us there when the fight started. If any one of us had not done his job, none of us would have been standing at the end.”

As it was, only 12 soldiers survived the attack.

“The thing I’ll remember about what he said is to make sure you don’t worry about being a hero,” said Jonathon Hart, a lieutenant in Mooseheart’s Junior ROTC, which attended Davis’ presentation. “Just do your job and be yourself. If that becomes heroic, it’s a blessing to the people around you.”

Though Davis’ heroism awed students and veterans in the audience, it was his harmonica solo that left the strongest impression. He described how his mother had sent him a harmonica while he was stationed at the firebase and how a close friend had taught him how to play “Shenandoah.” Davis then played the well-known folk song, as he has done in public appearances ever since — in tribute to his friend who died in Vietnam.

“That song obviously means a lot to him,” said West High student Drew Easley. “It was cool that he was willing to share the song and the story behind it with us.”

Davis donated the harmonica to West Aurora’s A-Plus Foundation, which will include it in an upcoming auction to help fund bringing the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall to Aurora next fall, Principal Rudy Keller said.

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.