Black veteran still waiting for Medal of Honor, 56 years later

Credit: CBSNews
Credit: CBSNews

▶ Watch Video: Black Army special forces veteran may receive Medal of Honor 56 years after heroism in Vietnam

Retired Colonel Paris Davis is one of the first Black officers to be part of the Army’s Special Forces. His courage and valor earned him the respect of his soldiers in Vietnam, and a nomination for the nation’s highest military combat award.

But Davis never received his Medal of Honor — his file vanished in Vietnam, nearly 56 years ago in 1965.

That year, Washington saw anti-war protests rage. Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, galvanized the civil rights movement. 

In Vietnam, then-Army Captain Paris Davis broke barriers on the battlefield. 

“Were you one of the first Black officers in the Green Berets?” CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge asked the veteran.

“Yes, I was,” he answered. “It worked well because, I said ‘Look, you can call me Captain Davis… But you can’t call me a n****r.'”

He added, “And it did happen.”

In June 1965, Davis led a nearly 19-hour raid northeast of Saigon.

“We were stacking bodies the way you do canned goods in a grocery store,” Davis recalled.

Hit by a grenade and gunfire, Davis would not leave behind Americans Billy Waugh and Robert Brown. Both were gravely injured — and Brown had been shot, Davis said.

“I could actually see his brain pulsating. It was that big,” Davis said. “He said, ‘Am I gonna die?’ And I said, ‘Not before me.'”

Asked if he had been told to leave, Davis answered: “Twice.”

As he first revealed in 1969 to up-and-coming local TV host Phil Donahue, Davis said he told his superior, “Sir, I’m just not going to leave. I still have an American out there.”

“He told me to move out. I just disobeyed the order,” Davis told Donahue. There by Davis’ side during the 1969 TV interview was Ron Deis — now the team’s youngest survivor.

Deis later recalled Davis’ actions that day to CBS News and was visibly emotional.

“Captain Davis refused and said, ‘No, I’m not leaving while I have men out on the field,'” he said.

That year, the leader of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, visited Davis’ outpost. His commander, Billy Cole, recommended Davis for the Medal of Honor.

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Retired Colonel Paris Davis

CBS News

Somehow, the paperwork had vanished in Vietnam. A 1969 military review “did not reveal any file on Davis.”

Neil Thorne, who volunteers his time to recover medals for overlooked veterans, compared the Medal of Honor nomination paperwork he recovered through the Freedom of Information Act to gold. 

What makes Davis’ case stand out, Thorne said, was that it was lost.

“Everybody I’ve talked to that served under him says that he’s the best officer they’ve ever served under,” he said.

Thorne said the loss or destruction of Medal of Honor paperwork is “very uncommon,” adding that “there would’ve been multiple copies.”

In 1969, the Army was ordered to submit new paperwork “ASAP” for Davis. 

For a second time, there is no evidence that a Medal of Honor file was created.

Billy Waugh, the soldier whom Davis carried on his shoulders to safety, wrote in a 1981 statement, “I only have to close my eyes to vividly recall the gallantry of this individual.”

Over the years Davis’ fellow soldiers also lobbied Congress. But each time, the process stalled.

“I know race was a factor,” Davis said — a factor he says he experienced during his 23 years in the Army.

He recalled an encounter with another pilot he rescued while on a different mission.

“I saw him at Fort Bragg with his wife and his kid, they saw me. He went on the other side of the street, so we wouldn’t have to speak,” Davis said. “If that had been a White guy, you know, he would’ve gone over, and hugged him. That’s racism.”

During the interview, Davis also said soldiers forget color when under attack. “When you’re out there fighting, and things are going on like that, everybody’s your friend, and you’re everybody’s friend..the bullets have no color, no names.”

Asked if the battlefield was an equalizer, Davis said “Always.”

Only 8% of Medal of Honor recipients for Vietnam were Black.

As for Davis, there is new momentum to recognize his case as the celebrated veteran approaches his 82nd birthday.

“We’re all trying to right a wrong,” Ron Deis said.

An expedited review of Davis’ lost nomination is due by next week. The final call rests with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and President Biden.

Asked what it would mean to him to have his service honored, Davis replied, “It would mean all the things that I haven’t been able to dream about.”

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