WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Friday awarded the Medal of Honor to retired Army Col. Paris D. Davis for what the White House called "conspicuous gallantry" during combat operations in the Vietnam War — a recognition that comes almost 60 years after the actions that earned him the nation's highest military award for valor.
Davis, who was a captain at the time, "distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty" while he was a commander of a special forces group during combat with the enemy over two days in June of 1965, the White House said in a description of Davis' heroic actions.
Over the course of 20 hours, Davis "had saved each one of his fellow Americans — every single one," Biden said at the White House ceremony, attended by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough.
"Paris, you are everything this medal means," Biden said. "You're everything our generation aspired to be. You're everything our nation is at our best — brave and big-hearted, determined and devoted, selfless and steadfast, American."
Biden described in detail how Davis went to great lengths to rescue his fellow Americans in Vietnam, which involved multiple failed attempts to reach them while under enemy fire and him being wounded several times.
The two-day ordeal began in Bong Son, Vietnam, where Davis was commanding an "inexperienced South Vietnamese" force and learned that a "vastly superior North Vietnamese enemy force" was in the area. "Through surprise and leadership, he gained the tactical advantage, personally engaging and killing several enemy soldiers," during which he was wounded and then entered into hand-to-hand combat, the White House said in a release.
During the attacks and counterattacks, Davis was hit by automatic weapons fire and had to fight an enemy soldier in "close-quarter combat," which left him wounded even further.
While calling for artillery and air support and leading his men to reorganize in an abandoned enemy area, Davis realized that two of his fellow Americans were "incapacitated and unable to move while trapped by enemy fire," the White House said.
"Captain Davis located their positions and moved to suppress enemy guns and personally rescue each to the safety of the friendly company position. While enacting the rescue of the first American, Captain Davis was shot in the leg," the White House said. "In great pain, he continued forward and dragged him to the company perimeter. Captain Davis then exposed himself again to the intense enemy fire to rescue the second American, crawling 150 yards to complete the rescue while being hit by enemy grenade fragments."
After he rescued the second American, he directed the helicopter extraction for his wounded men but refused medical evacuation for himself. "Captain Davis continued to engage the enemy until all members of his company were extracted," the White House said. "He remained on the battlefield to continue personal coordination of tactical air and artillery fire, ensuring the destruction of the enemy force."
The recognition for Davis, 83, of Virginia, comes after his recommendation for the medal was lost, resubmitted, and then lost again — until a volunteer group of supporters recreated and resubmitted the paperwork in 2016. While some of them believe racism was the reason the delay, Davis doesn’t dwell on it, telling the Associated Press that he doesn’t know why it has taken so long for his heroism to be recognized.
“Right now I’m overwhelmed,” he said. “When you’re fighting, you’re not thinking about this moment. You’re just trying to get through that moment.”
At the ceremony, Biden highlighted Davis' experience growing up in the 1950s during segregation.
"To many, he was less than an American, and that in the eyes of the law, he was less than a person," Biden said. "Signs on bars that read whites only, seats on buses were off-limits for African Americans. Schools, streets, shops, divided by segregation. Paris endured all of this and still chose to join his college ROTC unit, volunteering to serve a country that in many places still refused to serve people who look like him."
Davis wrote about his experiences in the war for a book on Vietnam studies, saying that while rescuing the first American, he shot a sniper who was in a camouflaged man-hole and then dropped a grenade in the hole, killing two more enemies.
"I ran out and pulled SSG Morgan to safety," he wrote. "He was slightly wounded, and I treated him for shock. The enemy again tried to overrun our position. I picked up a machine gun and started firing."
Davis said the second American, who he said was MSG Waugh, had been wounded in his right foot.
"I tried to pick him up, but I was unable to do so. I was shot slightly in the back of my leg as I ran for cover," wrote Davis, who said he then ran out again and was then shot in the wrist. "But I was able to pick up MSG Waugh and carried him fireman style in a hail of automatic weapon fire to safety."
Davis’ commanding officer recommended him for the military’s top honor, but the paperwork disappeared — something Biden mentioned Friday. The president said the men who were with Davis during the combat operation in Vietnam immediately nominated him for the Medal of Honor, but "some the paperwork was never processed — not just once, but twice."
Davis eventually received a Silver Star Medal, the third-highest combat medal, as an interim honor, but members of Davis’ team have argued that his skin color was a factor in the disappearance of his Medal of Honor recommendation. Ron Deis, a junior member of the team in Bong Son, told the AP in an interview that he thought "someone purposely lost the paperwork.”
In early 2021, Christopher Miller, then the acting defense secretary, ordered an expedited review of Davis’ case. He argued in an opinion column later that year that awarding Davis the Medal of Honor would address an injustice.
“Some issues in our nation rise above partisanship,” Miller wrote. “The Davis case meets that standard.”
Army officials say there is no evidence of racism in Davis’ case.
“We’re here to celebrate the fact that he got the award, long time coming,” Maj. Gen. Patrick Roberson, deputy commanding general, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, told the AP. “We, the Army, you know, we haven’t been able to see anything that would say, ‘Hey, this is racism.’”
“We can’t know that,” Roberson said.
The White House said the conduct for those who qualify for the Medal of Honor “must involve great personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his or her comrades and must have involved risk of life.”
Davis’ daughter, Regan Davis Hopper, a mom of two teenage sons, told the AP that she only learned of her dad’s heroism in 2019. But, like him, she said she tries not to dwell on her disappointment in how the situation was handled.
“I try not to think about that. I try not to let that weigh me down and make me lose the thrill and excitement of the moment,” Hopper said. “I think that’s most important, to just look ahead and think about how exciting it is for America to meet my dad for the first time. I’m just proud of him.”
Since the creation of the medal in the 1860s, more than 3,400 have been awarded to soldiers, airmen, sailors, marines and members of the Coast Guard, according to the Army.