His brothers repeatedly told the Army that Capt. Paris Davis deserved the Medal of Honor. The Army kept losing his paperwork… over and over again

What was overlooked in 1965 may come to fruition in 2021.

Here’s what happened:

In Vietnam, in the middle of a raid on an enemy camp, Paris Davis was blown up by a grenade that blasted out several of his teeth and tore off part of his trigger finger. The enemy then started firing on the Special Forces team he commanded. His most experienced sergeant, Master Sergeant Billy Waugh, was shot. Then the demolitions specialist. Then the only medic.

It was June 18, 1965, and according to after-action reports (AAR), the 26-year-old Captain Davis was suddenly the last American standing with a ratty company of 90 South Vietnamese volunteers, pinned down by hundreds of enemy troops.

He knew that he was as good as dead and began fighting for his life. He was pulling his M-16 trigger with his pinkie, repeatedly sprinting into open ground to rescue teammates, and refusing to leave the fight, even after being shot several times.

Colonel Paris Davis could receive the MOH
Col. Paris Davis, who retired from the U.S. Army Special Forces, photographed this month in Alexandria, Va. While fighting in the Vietnam War in 1965, Mr. Davis performed a stunning series of heroic acts during an 18-hour battle, including dragging three wounded men to safety after he had been shot five times. (Michael A. McCoy for The New York Times)

First, he brought in the weapons specialist. Then he ran to get the master sergeant but was shot through the leg and had to retreat. During the next bomb strike, he found an opportunity, limped back out across the rice field, and grabbed the sergeant. A bullet clipped Captain Davis’s arm, but he hoisted the sergeant over his shoulder and carried him back to safety.

Reinforcements arrived and found Captain Davis wounded and covered in blood. The major in command ordered him to evacuate, but he refused, saying he still needed to rescue his medic.

Under the cover of friendly fire, he went back into the open, grabbed the wounded medic, and started crawling back.

“Am I going to die?” he recalled the medic mumbling to him. His reply: “Not before me.”

All four of the Special Forces soldiers made it out alive that day. 

He was immediately nominated for the military’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. But the Army somehow lost the nomination. His frustrated commander resubmitted it and the nomination disappeared again.

Master Sergeant Waugh went on to a storied 40-year career as a CIA agent. Mr. Waugh, now 91, declined to be interviewed for this article, saying his memory was failing. In a summary of the battle he wrote in 2016, Mr. Waugh said about his former commander, “I only have to close my eyes to recall the gallantry vividly.”

Over the years, his teammates pushed several more times for the medal, only to be met, they said, with silence and indifference. They eventually came to believe the Army’s inaction had nothing to do with what the captain had done in 1965 and everything to do with who he was: One of the first black officers in the Special Forces.

“What other assumption can you make?” said Ron Deis, 77, who was the youngest soldier on the team in 1965 and is one of a group of veterans who are still pressing for Mr. Davis to receive the award.

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“We all knew he deserved it then,” Mr. Deis said during an interview from his home in Anchorage as he wiped away tears. “He sure as hell deserves it now.”

After 55 years of trying, the group got a sign of hope in January. Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller personally ordered an expedited review of the lost nomination to be completed by March. The resulting report will then go up the chain to the secretary of the Army, the secretary of Defense, and President Biden. If they all sign off, Mr. Davis, now 81, may finally be recognized.

The Army declined to comment on the award or answer questions about the reasons for earlier delays, saying that its policy is not to discuss any award until a final decision is made.

In a recent video interview from his home in Arlington, VA., Mr. Davis, who retired from the Army as a colonel in 1985 after a highly decorated career, shook his head and smiled at the mention of the extended delayed submission. He downplayed the significance of “all this stuff, medals and all that.” He added: “People need to keep on keepin’ on. We’ve got to make this a better world. That’s how I feel.”

Soldiers forget race when they are fighting together, Captain Davis had said in a 1969 television interview. “We’re kin. Not ethnically, but by virtue of being Americans.”

Capt. Paris Davis
Capt. Paris Davis, center, gave a tour of his camp in South Vietnam to the commander of U.S. forces there, Gen. William Westmoreland, left. (The New York Times via Ron Deis)

After leaving the Army, Mr. Davis started a small newspaper in Virginia called The Metro Herald. For 30 years his newspaper regularly published articles about black residents’ accomplishments and local civil rights issues.

In an interview, Mr. Davis gave little thought to why he had repeatedly run into danger to save his men or why the medal nomination kept getting lost.

“I use this term a lot: Life suddens upon you, it just suddens upon you,” he said. “Every day, something comes up that you don’t expect.”

After some thought, he smiled and added, “I’m not a victim of anything. The other night, I tried to write down the things I’m a victim of. I couldn’t think of a thing.”