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Black Vietnam veteran's nearly 60-year wait for Medal of Honor is over

Biden awards long-delayed Medal of Honor
Biden awards Medal of Honor to Black veteran after decades-long delay 04:28

After a delay of nearly six decades, one of the first Black officers in the Green Berets will receive the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest combat decoration for his heroism in Vietnam.

On Monday, President Biden personally called Col. Paris Davis (ret.) to deliver the news, informing him that he will receive the Medal of Honor "for his remarkable heroism during the Vietnam War," according to a White House statement.

"The call today from President Biden prompted a wave of memories of the men and women I served with in Vietnam – from the members of 5th Special Forces Group and other U.S. military units to the doctors and nurses who cared for our wounded," Davis said in a statement released by him and his family. "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. 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."

Mr. Biden told Davis that "he looks forward to hosting him at the White House soon for a medal presentation," the White House said. 

Davis' story, about how his Medal of Honor paperwork mysteriously vanished in 1965, at the height of the civil rights movement, first aired on "CBS Mornings" two years ago.

Military historian Doug Sterner, who served two tours in Vietnam and has written 108 books on service medals, said the Davis case is unique.

"This is a veteran, a war hero, who was submitted for our nation's highest honor, and the paperwork for that award was actually lost. The military is redundant in paperwork, if nothing else. And so it's very rare for that to occur,"  Sterner explained.

Black Army special forces veteran may receive Medal of Honor 56 years after heroism in Vietnam 05:11

Davis gave his only television interview to "CBS Mornings" about the renewed effort for recognition for him that had been undertaken by a group of volunteers, including a number of veterans. Team members and Davis told CBS News they believed race was a factor in the disappearance of Davis' Medal of Honor paperwork. 

One of the first Black officers to be part of the Army's Special Forces, Davis' courage and valor earned him the respect of his soldiers in Vietnam, and a nomination for the award.

In June 1965, Davis, then an Army captain, 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 in his interview with CBS News.

Though he'd been 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 in the head, Davis said.

Davis said he was twice ordered to leave, but according to an interview he gave in 1969 to then-local TV host Phil Donahue, he responded to his commanding officer, "Sir, I'm just not going to leave. I still have an American out there."

In April 2021, in a rare interview, the sole surviving witness to Davis' actions, 91-year-old Billy Waugh, described to CBS News how he had been shot multiple times in the legs and was unable to walk.

"We ended up in an open area together," Waugh said. "He (Davis) grabbed me, and he (dragged) me."

Waugh, who went on to have a storied career in both the Special Forces and the CIA, said he submitted Medal of Honor paperwork for Davis and heard that it was making its way through the system. Davis' commander, Billy Cole, also recommended Davis for the medal.

But Davis never received the award — his file disappeared in Vietnam that same year.  A 1969 military review "did not reveal any file on Davis," according to the Defense Department.

Neil Thorne was part of the volunteer team that pieced together the Medal of Honor paperwork through archival searches and the Freedom of Information Act.  

"Everybody I've talked to that served under him (Davis) says that he's the best officer they've ever served under," he said.

Thorne agreed with Sterner that the loss or destruction of Medal of Honor paperwork is "very uncommon," adding that "there would've been multiple copies."

In 1969, after a military hearing into the status of the Davis Medal of Honor nomination, the Army was ordered to submit a new packet "ASAP" for Davis, but for a second time, there was no evidence that a Medal of Honor file was created.

In 1981, with no award for Davis, Waugh said he wrote a personal statement. "I wanted to redo it, to see why it hadn't gone," he said.

Waugh, whom Davis carried 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 told CBS — a factor he says he experienced during his 23 years in the Army. Davis said he recalled telling troops, "you can call me Capt. Davis ... but you can't call me a n*****." But "it did happen," Davis said.

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

An expedited review of Davis' nomination was due in 2021 for Davis who is now nearing his 86th birthday and was hospitalized multiple times in 2022 for injuries related to his Vietnam service. CBS News' reporting revealed bureaucratic delays and unnecessary stumbling blocks that further delayed the award for Davis.

The packet was previously signed by then-Secretary of the Army Mark Esper, and more recently by the current secretary of the Army, Christine Wormuth. In late December, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed off, with the paperwork sent to the White House for final approval by Mr. Biden.

Davis and his family also acknowledged senior military leadership and the team of volunteers, many of them veterans. 

"Our family appreciates the volunteer team that advocated for us through the years," their statement said, and went on to thank the president and current and former Defense Department officials.

Read the Davis family's full statement thanking the volunteers who aided in reviving his case for receiving the Medal of Honor here.

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