WASHINGTON — Retired U.S. Army Col. Paris Davis received the Medal of Honor on Friday for valor during the Vietnam War, decades after first being nominated.
One of the men who served with him, Ron Deis of Alaska, was emotional watching it finally happen. Deis, who also served in the Special Forces with Davis, helped in the decades-long push for the Pentagon to award Davis the U.S. military’s highest honor.
“It’s a shame he’s had to wait,” Deis said of the nearly 60 years since Davis, 83, was first nominated for the Medal of Honor. “He’s an amazing man.”
Davis, one of the first Black Green Berets, led his team in a 19-hour engagement near the village of Bong Son, Vietnam, in June 1965. A grenade injured Davis’ hand during combat, but he continued to fight, pulling his rifle’s trigger with his pinkie, according to various reports. Despite sustaining several other injuries, including being shot in the leg, Davis refused to abandon his incapacitated teammates who were trapped. Davis personally rescued fellow American soldiers while repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire, according to the White House.
Davis was then 26 years old, a captain and commander with the 5th Special Forces Group.
“He wasn’t going to leave until all of his team was accounted for, and I think that was the main thrust of him getting the Medal of Honor,” Deis said in an interview.
A junior member of the team, then-Spc. 4th Class Deis briefly flew over the raid in a “Bird Dog” spotter aircraft, but said the plane was quickly shot down. Deis said he spent the rest of the engagement attending to wounded soldiers at camp.
Deis remembers a senior member of the team who had been on the ground that day telling him, “I think Capt. Davis deserves a Medal of Honor for what he did today.”
“And that stuck with me all those years,” said Deis, who is now 79.
Davis’ peers nominated him for the Medal of Honor. But the Army lost the paperwork — stalling the process for nearly 60 years. Davis and Deis have attributed the delay to Davis’ race.
“Those are almost like holy papers,” Deis said of the nominating paperwork. “... If I was in the military and something like that came across my desk, it’s like, what’s more important than this?”
Army officials said they have not identified evidence of racism in Davis’ case, according to the Associated Press.
After serving in Vietnam, Deis moved from his home state of Ohio to Idaho, and then eventually settled in Anchorage, where he has lived for four decades and spent much of his career working at the Alaska Native Medical Center. Most recently, he worked part-time for Southcentral Foundation before retiring in April.
About nine years ago, Deis started working with a coalition of volunteers who were advocating for Davis to receive the Medal of Honor. The group re-created the Medal of Honor recommendation packet and filed the paperwork in 2016.
Deis wrote an official witness statement about the 1965 Vietnam raid and had it notarized. He also recalled doing an interview with Davis at an Ohio television station in 1969. Volunteers tracked down a copy of that interview at the University of Georgia.
Neil Thorne, one of the volunteers working on advancing Davis’ Medal of Honor, said Deis’ “recollections were absolutely critical.”
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have since recommended Davis for the award.
President Joe Biden presented Davis with the Medal of Honor for “gallantry above and beyond the call of duty” on Friday.
“Paris, you are everything this medal means. I mean, everything this medal means. And look, you’re everything our generation aspired to be,” Biden said during the ceremony. “You’re everything our nation is at our best, brave and big-hearted, determined and devoted, selfless and steadfast, American.”
Deis is the youngest surviving member of the Special Forces team who served with Davis during the June 1965 raid. He attended Davis’ Medal of Honor ceremony Friday.
Though Davis and Deis lost touch after serving together in Vietnam, Deis spoke with Davis after learning he would at last receive the Medal of Honor.
“He said we could cry together,” Deis said.