Local Army veteran awarded Medal of Honor at White House for saving lives in Vietnam War

A Vietnam War veteran who now lives in Fairfax County was awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House today (Friday) — a recognition that supporters believe is nearly six decades overdue.

Retired Army Col. Paris Davis learned last month that he would receive the U.S. military’s highest honor for his actions in a battle against North Vietnamese forces on June 17-18, 1965, when he led an assault and saved multiple fellow soldiers despite being wounded.

The call from President Joe Biden on Feb. 13 “prompted a wave of memories of the men and women I served with in Vietnam,” Davis said in a statement.

“I am so very grateful for my family and friends within the military and elsewhere who kept alive the story of A-team, A-321 at Camp Bong Son,” he said. “I think often of those fateful 19 hours on June 18, 1965 and what our team did to make sure we left no man behind on that battlefield.”

Recounting Davis’s heroic acts, the U.S. Army says his tactical leadership of American Special Forces and an inexperienced South Vietnamese company allowed them to surprise a large North Vietnamese force near Bong Son.

At the time, Davis was a detachment commander in the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces — one of the first Black officers to lead a Special Forces team in combat.

In Bình Định province, Davis and his men were tasked with training a force of local volunteers. On June 18, 1965, he commanded a team of inexperienced South Vietnamese, along with Special Forces Soldiers, against a superior enemy force.

Over the course of two days, Davis selflessly led a charge to neutralize enemy emplacements, called for precision artillery fire, engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy, and prevented the capture of three American soldiers (Robert Brown, John Reinberg, and Billy Waugh) while saving their lives with a medical extraction.

Davis sustained multiple gunshot and grenade fragment wounds during the 19-hour battle and refused to leave the battlefield until his men were safely removed.

For that battle and other actions during his two tours in Vietnam, including one incident where he rescued a soldier stuck in an overturned, burning fuel truck, Davis has also received the Silver Star, the Soldier’s Medal for heroism, a Purple Heart and other military honors.

The Medal of Honor, however, took longer to arrive. Though Davis’s commanding officer nominated him for the award immediately after the battle of Bong Son, the paperwork allegedly got lost not once, but twice.

As told to the New York Times and Associated Press, Davis’s teammates found their advocacy met “with silence and indifference” by the Army, leading some of them to believe that the mishandlings of his nominations stemmed from racism.

Black veterans are underrepresented among Medal of Honor recipients, according to the chief historian for the National Medal of Honor Museum in Arlington, Texas. Those who were recognized for heroism in the first and second world wars, for example, were the result of “inquiries that took place several decades after the wars had ended,” and most were conferred posthumously.

A breakthrough came when a group of Davis’s teammates submitted another nomination for him in 2016. This time, they got support from Congress, with Rep. Don Beyer (D-8) and Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner urging the Army “to act quickly to bestow upon Colonel Davis the recognition he deserves.”

In a joint statement, the senators said they’re “extremely heartened” to see the Medal of Honor finally awarded to Davis.

“Nearly six decades later, this long-overdue recognition serves as a reminder of the lives saved and families made whole thanks to Colonel Davis’ bravery. Davis’ leadership and his willingness to place himself in harm’s way to save others represent the highest values espoused by our military and serve as a model for our servicemembers,” they said.

Beyer said he was proud to see Davis, his constituent, get the “long overdue recognition” today.

“Colonel Paris Davis is a hero, a fixture in our community, and a great man who I am proud to know and call a friend,” Beyer said. “I was so proud and thankful to be on hand applauding in the front row as he finally received this long overdue recognition. What a great moment.”

During this morning’s award ceremony, Biden expressed admiration for Davis’s decision to serve “a country that in many places, still refused to serve people who look like him.”

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Davis went to college in Louisiana on an ROTC scholarship in 1956 and got commissioned by the Army in 1959 at a time when segregation was still a daily part of life in the South.

Davis retired from the Army on July 30, 1985 and went on to publish an Alexandria-based newspaper called the Metro Herald from the early 1990s to 2018. He has three children and lives in Kingstowne, per public records.

“That word ‘gallantry,’ it’s not much used these days, but I can think of no better word to describe Paris, to describe you,” Biden said. “…And everyone here feels exactly the same way.”

Jo DeVoe contributed to this report