A young Paris Davis met a handful of soldiers while attending college in the deep South in the late 1950s.
Davis is Black, the soldiers were white.
Those soldiers had some words for him.
“A couple of NCOs thought I might be a fair soldier,” Davis told Army Times. “They said I ought to go into the military. The first thing they told me ‘do what the sergeants tell you, they’re not going to lead you wrong.’ And I did and they did and that’s why we’re in this room.”
Davis shared that memory as he spent the day being interviewed by multiple media outlets Thursday, a short time before he would stand in his old uniform, festooned with ribbons, badges and medals, but with space for one more – the Medal of Honor.
On Friday, President Joe Biden looked at retired Army Col. Paris Davis and then to the crowd and said that this day may be the “most consequential” of any day during his presidency.
“Paris, you are everything this medal means,” Biden said. “And you are everything our generation aspired to be and you’re everything our nation is at our best.”
The nation may have waited nearly six decades to right the wrong of not bestowing this medal on Davis, but the octogenarian released those prospects before weapons had cooled from the harrowing battle he’d survived.
Spc. Ronald Deis didn’t even know what Green Berets were in 1963 when he attended advanced infantry training while waiting on an officer candidate position. He joined the Army to fly helicopters.
But he and five other soldiers in the same status listened to a gruff first sergeant as he clicked through slides showing the work that the newly-formed Special Forces were doing.
“And when he showed a slide of a Green Beret in a jungle eating a snake I said, ‘sign me up,’” he said.
Deis didn’t look back, ripping through the training and landing in Okinawa, Japan for his first unit assignment.
The first sergeant told him and the other newbies they were forming a team that was headed to Vietnam.
“And naturally, I said yes,” Deis said.
That’s when he met Davis.
“I like to tell people that he did not lead as an authoritarian,” Deis said. “The men on the team I think respected him from the very start.”
On June 17, 1965, in the vicinity of Bong Son, Republic of Vietnam, Davis, three other Green Berets and an inexperienced company of the 883rd South Vietnamese Regional Force in an attack on an enemy base.
That night, Davis captured two enemy personnel himself and questioned them. He learned that a “vastly larger enemy force” patrolled the area. The captain put his men into position and commenced the attack.
Enemy fire wounded Davis on the initial attack, but he fought through, and killed several enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, according to the award citation.
Despite a counterattack that separated Davis from his troops, he led the four soldiers he had with him as they braved intense fire, destroyed gun emplacements and captured more enemy soldiers.
Deis’ job during the mission required him to fly in a small spotter plane and monitor the unfolding operation and coordinate communications, fire and air support.
Within a half hour in the air, enemy fire shot down Deis’ plane. He made it to headquarters and started receiving wounded from the fight and hearing spurts of radio traffic on what his captain and teammates faced out there.
“I knew my teammates were all wounded and I knew that [Capt.] Davis was trying desperately to get his people back to an evacuation site where they could get them off the battlefield.”
After the chaos of battle separated Davis from his men, he regrouped his forces, broke contact with the enemy and called for air and artillery fire as the enemy again counterattacked. A close-range shot from another enemy soldier wounded Davis for the second time.
He tackled the man, defeating him in hand-to-hand combat before he saw two American soldiers wounded and pinned under ongoing small arms fire.
Asked, all these decades later, what stood out most from those two trying days, Davis shared with Army Times a snippet of those memories.
He crawled out 150 yards to one of his soldiers who’d been shot in the temple but still lived.
“Seeing him going in and out of reality, at one point he grabs my hand and says, ‘am I gonna die?’ and I say, holding his hand, ‘not before me,’” Davis said.
The captain timed moving the wounded off the battlefield with smoke, close air and artillery fire.
Not everyone made it. But Davis knew the bodies had to come home.
Without disclosing too many details, he said he had some “choice” words with an individual on one of the evacuation aircraft about leaving without the dead.
“I refused to leave and he thought I should,” Davis said. He thinks that had some initial impact on his Medal of Honor recommendation package being “lost” more than once. Others believe race was a factor, Davis served as a pioneering Black officer, the first to lead Special Forces troops in combat.
“At that time I thought something happened and I might not get the medal,” Davis said. “And I just completely forgot about it, I really did.”
Deis remembers a sergeant, a kind of mentor of his, arriving back at the headquarters, having spent the past two days in battle with Davis. This sergeant had seen much combat, more than any other in the group.
“I was helping get leeches off of his body from him lying in a rice paddy all day and he mentioned that he thought that Capt. Davis deserved the Medal of Honor for what he observed that day,” Deis said. “I never forgot that. That was pretty profound.”
After the fight
Davis did later receive the Silver Star Medal. But as the decades dragged on, that didn’t sit right with Deis and others, who, starting in 2016 began a campaign of their own to have the medal recommendation reconsidered by the Army.
“It matters to me because I know what it takes to be nominated for the Medal of Honor,” Deis said. “To not have that recognized is an injustice.”
Maj. Gen. Patrick Roberson, deputy commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, knows a few things about valor after his own decades-long career in Special Forces.
Roberson told Army Times that the timeframe in which Davis and his team served as one of the golden ages of special operations as the newly formed Green Berets tested their mettle and fought in an entirely different kind of war than their predecessors.
Some of what was established by those Vietnam-era teams continued to be common practice a generation later in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Small teams working with indigenous forces in the midst of enemy territory can sound pretty familiar to a Green Beret of any age.
A number of the Vietnam War veterans in the special operations community come to speak at training events and lectures still, he said.
“When we look back on what they were doing, they did it masterfully,” he said.
Roberson said Davis’ actions and his career provide inspiration for him and the entire Army.
Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Weimer, the top enlisted individual for U.S. Special Operations Command and the incoming Sergeant Major of the Army, said that since childhood he has been a student of the Green Berets of Vietnam.
“I was not surprised,” Weimer said. “When the story came out I was not really surprised because of the amount of heroism that took place on a regular basis back then with little fanfare.”
The senior NCO said that Davis’ service in Vietnam and his career are living the motto of the Special Forces – “De Oppresso Liber” or “to free the oppressed.”
“I am a Green Beret today because of Green Berets like Col. Davis.”
Davis stayed in the Army after Vietnam, making colonel in 1981 and assuming command of the 10th Special Forces Group at Fort Devens, Massachusetts.
Which was his favorite command, he told Army Times.
“I was so happy,” he said. “It was like being in a place and loving every bit of it.”
Davis retired as a colonel in 1985. The proud father of three children published the Metro Herald newspaper for 30 years in Alexandria, Virginia following his Army career.
If his medal has a purpose, he said he hopes it serves to honor what all of the men of his team did during their time in Vietnam. Many, he said, didn’t receive the valor awards that they deserved.
Hero. Bravery. Courage. These are words that are hard to accept for anyone. Davis is no different.
“Was I scared?” Davis said. “Yeah.”
“Am I a real brave man?” he said. “No. Every person on that team could have been me.”
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.