Marine cherishes multiple Purple Heart medals

Published 10:47 am Monday, December 1, 2014

NW1130 Wall John Davis C 4x6C

When soldiers return home from war, some bear scars that are easy to recognize while others are buried deep down inside for the soldier to live with every day.
John Davis enlisted with the Marine Corps right after graduating from Unaka High School in 1967. Even though he signed on to be a heavy-equipment operator, he soon found himself training to be a ground fighter in Vietnam.
“They said if I joined, I could get what I wanted,” he said. “One day they came in and said, ‘How many of you are going to be heavy-equipment operators?’ About six or seven of us stepped forward, and they said, ‘Not anymore. You are going to Vietnam.’ That was devastating.”
He was deployed to Vietnam on Dec. 23, 1976, with the 3rd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment and quickly found himself assigned to be point man with his platoon, which means he was the one who went into battle first. He was stationed in southern Vietnam near Da Nang.
During his 11-month deployment, Davis witnessed and endured many situations that left him with a lifelong battle with post traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s all in here,” Davis said, pointing to his heart as tears rolled down his face. “No one will ever really know or understand unless they have been there, too.”
Davis was assigned to a battalion that was first on the list to be deployed when backup was needed.
“What that means is that when we got there, it was my company’s turn to go first, so we stayed in constant battle,” he said. “We were either heli-lifted or hiked in. There were very few days when we didn’t see battle. There were four companies like us, and anywhere that needed help, they called us up first. If we needed help, the next would come to help us.”
After six months, Davis was the senior man on the company and then squad leader. He was wounded in battle multiple times and received four Purple Hearts during his service in Vietnam.
Because his clothes stayed continuously wet from walking in the rice paddies, his pants started to rot, so he salvaged a pair from a soldier who had been killed. Davis wore the same socks for 110 days and only received new ones when friend and fellow Marine Claude Hart sent him a care package containing a pair.
“You wouldn’t realize it here what it could mean to get a pair of socks,” Davis said.
Davis and Hart served in the same company, but Hart stayed in the “back,” away from the front lines of fighting. Davis was able to see his high school friend twice in 11 months.
Davis said the soldiers quickly learned the importance of cleaning their weapons to keep them firing consistently.
“Any free time we had at all, we were cleaning our guns,” he said. “The powder would build up and would cause them to jam.
He received one of his Purple Hearts on May 31, 1968, after a village sweep on an extremely hot day. He said the squad had been in battle for most of the day in 110-degree heat. On the walk back, the group of men spotted a lone shade tree in a field.
“We looked at each other and started laughing like little school boys,” Davis recalled. “We took off running, and all of us football-piled under the tree.”
When they did, 17 soldiers landed on a mine that detonated, killing 14 of them.
Davis was in the hospital for 52 days. When he was released, he was sent back to the battlefield, with “the same unit, with the same squad, doing the exact same thing.”
After returning back to the front lines, Davis continued to see intense battle. In one instance, he saw a friend killed by a Viet Cong fighter who shot the Marine in the back.
In another instance, Davis was caught in the open with no cover as the Viet Cong opened fire on him with machine guns.
“All I could do was hit the ground,” he said. “I felt four tugs on my T-shirt. There were four bullet holes in my shirt. One bullet skinned the end of my nose. It didn’t feel like it would ever end. I jumped up and I screamed, ‘Jesus, thy son of David, have mercy on me,’ and the firing stopped. Just like that.”
After the firing stopped, Davis said another member of the troop yelled to the captain that the enemy was on the move. Davis said the captain looked at him and told the other troops to let them go.
“I guess since my life was spared, he spared theirs,” he said. “I can tell you story after story like that. Why I am alive, I don’t know.”
Davis was evacuated out of Vietnam on Nov. 2 after he was injured again, this time in a battle on Hill 310. The battle was an extremely hard one, Davis said, costing the lives of most of the men in the squad. More than 240 men tried to make it up the hill, but only 26 survived when the fighting was over, he said.
During the fight, Davis was wounded and received shrapnel wounds to his hands. Because he was not able to use his hands to fire his gun, he was transported back to the United States.
He was taken first to Da Nang, then to Japan, then to Maryland and finally Virginia, where he was treated for almost three months.
After that, Davis was taken to a “mental ward” for additional treatment. He said this was the way soldiers were treated to reintroduce them back to society.
“We all had PTSD,” he said. “We didn’t know what it was, and no one understood it. That was their way of helping us cope.”
Davis was discharged from the Marines in May 1970, after which he returned home to Carter County, where he struggled to find a job. No one wanted to hire Vietnam veterans, Davis said.
Eventually, he found a job driving trucks. He enjoyed working as a truck driver for 20 years because it allowed him time to be alone.
Davis and his wife, Paulette, have been married 21 years, and the couple have three sons.
Davis enjoys attending the Fountain of Life Church and spending time at the Elizabethton Senior Citizen Center playing pool. He was officially diagnosed with PTSD in 2004 and has received treatments that help him handle the disorder.
“We have come a long way, but a lot of vets have suffered because of this,” he said.

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