President Joe Biden awarded the Medal of Honor to retired black Colonel Paris Davis on Friday for his heroic service in the Vietnam War – after documents recommending him for the honor mysteriously ‘disappeared’ in 1965 – and then again four years later.
At the start of his White House address, Biden called the awarding of the nation’s highest military honor “the most important day since I’ve been president.”
Davis sat to the president’s right, staring ahead as Biden detailed his heroism and service in an army that had only recently been desegregated.
President Joe Biden awards the Medal of Honor to retired Colonel Paris Davis for his heroism during the Vietnam War
“Paris has contributed to writing the history of our nation. And this year we celebrate the 75th anniversary of our first fully integrated armed forces,” Biden said. “Paris Davis will always stand with the pioneering heroes of the nations.”
“Paris, you spill this medal means – I mean everything this medal means,” he said. “You are everything our nation is at its best.”
Davis, a Vietnam veteran, was among the first black officers to lead the Green Beret forces.
He stood outside the White House after the ceremony to speak to reporters. He was asked what it meant to receive this honor, but he started looking for notes.
‘Let me find a statement. I’m supposed to read you – because I haven’t read it myself! David joked with reporters.
Reading from a piece of paper, he said, “Thank you, President Biden. This medal reflects what teamwork, service and dedication can accomplish.
“God bless you, God bless all, God bless America,” he added.
While under fire from North Vietnamese forces near Saigon in June 1965, Davis dragged his fellow soldiers to safety, even after a grenade tore out his teeth and his trigger finger.
He refused to leave behind two of his comrades. One, Billy Waugh, recounted decades later how Davis “grabbed me and (dragged) me after he was shot multiple times himself and couldn’t walk.”
“I only have to close my eyes to remember the bravery of this individual,” he wrote years later, in 1981.
Retired Army Colonel Paris Davis, a Vietnam veteran, was among the first black officers to lead the Green Beret forces
President Biden shakes hands with Colonel Davis
Documents recommending Colonel Davis for the Medal of Honor have been lost – twice
Davis was nominated for the Medal of Honor shortly after the event.
But the army lost its papers in 1965. A commander submitted papers four years later, only to have them vanished again, prompting accusations of racism. A 1969 military journal revealed no Medal of Honor records on Davis.
His comrades suspected that racism was at work.
“What other guess can you make? team member Ron Deis, then 77, told The New York Times in 2021.
“We all knew he deserved it then,” he said. “He really deserves it now.”
Waugh and his former commanding officer, Billy Cole, each recommended him for commendation.
Urging her lawyers contacted former Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who ordered an expedited review of the case.
Last year, CBS asked Davis if he thought race was a factor. “I don’t think — I know race was a factor,” he said.
According to the Times account based on after-action reports, Davis had his teeth and his trigger finger knocked out by the grenade in June 1965 after his team came under fire. They and about 90 South Vietnamese forces continued to face fire.
He fired with his little finger and ran into open areas to help his comrades.
Davis repeatedly sprinted into an open rice paddy to save each member of the team, according to the Army Times. His entire team survived. Davis refused to leave the battlefield until his men were safely withdrawn.
A native of Cleveland, Davis retired in 1985 at the rank of colonel and now lives in Alexandria, Va., just outside of Washington. Biden called him several weeks ago to tell him the news.
Colonel Paris Davis in Vietnam
“This medal reflects what teamwork, service and dedication can accomplish” – Colonel Davis
Davis was eventually awarded a Silver Star Medal, the Army’s third-highest combat medal, as an interim honor, but members of Davis’ team argued that his skin color was a factor in the disappearance of his Medal of Honor recommendation.
“I believe someone deliberately lost the paperwork,” Ron Deis, a junior member of Davis’ team at Bong Son, told the AP in a separate interview.
Deis, now 79, helped draft the recommendation which was submitted in 2016.
He said he knew Davis had been recommended for the Medal of Honor shortly after the 1965 battle, and he spent years wondering why Davis hadn’t received the medal. Nine years ago, he learned that a second application had been submitted “and that, too, was, in quotes, lost”.
“But I don’t believe they were lost,” Deis said. “I believe they were intentionally thrown away. They were rejected because he was black, and that’s the only conclusion I can come to.
Army officials say there is no evidence of racism in Davis’ case.
“We are here to celebrate the fact that he received the award, a long time ago,” Maj. Gen. Patrick Roberson, deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, told the AP. “We in the military, you know, couldn’t see anything that would say, ‘Hey, that’s racism. “”
“We can’t know,” Roberson said.
In early 2021, then-acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller ordered an expedited review of Davis’s case. Later that year, he argued in an opinion column that awarding Davis the Medal of Honor would remedy an injustice.
“Some issues in our country go beyond partisanship,” Miller wrote. “The Davis case meets that standard.”