The fight begins with a North Vietnamese Army mortar attack that detonates a makeshift ammo dump at Fire Support Base Cudgel. One round momentarily stuns PFC Sammy Lee Davis, one of forty-two U.S. Army artillerymen at the site. Then a bugle call signals a charge by hundreds of NVA soldiers.
Sammy Lee Davis, with Caroline Lambert, describes that scene to begin You Don’t Lose ‘Til You Quit Trying: Lessons on Adversity and Victory from a Vietnam Veteran and Medal of Honor Recipient (Berkley, 275 pp.; $27 hardcover; $13.99, Kindle). Davis received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. But the book recounts far more than that event.
Sammy Davis most definitely is his own man, fully cognizant of his capabilities. His greatest attributes are self-sufficiency and unselfish concern for others. His upbringing had role-model quality. His parents and two older brothers taught him how to take care of himself, traits he passed to two younger sisters and another brother. His mother repeatedly told him, “You don’t lose ’til you quit trying,” which she learned from her father.
Davis was precocious in dealing with everyday matters. He learned to drive at the age of five, and got his license at thirteen. At eight, he learned to handle firearms and hunt. He always had a job—as newsboy, a cook, a lumberjack., a powder monkey. When he enlisted in the Army at twenty in 1966, he followed a family tradition of military service that stretched back to the Spanish-American War.
At Cudgel, wounded by both enemy and friendly fire, Davis singlehandedly fought back with his rifle, a machinegun, and a howitzer. His actions stalled the NVA charge, then he crossed a canal under fire and rescued three wounded and stranded infantrymen.
Sammy Lee Davis
His post-battle story follows a pattern that challenges reason. His injuries included kidney perforations and vertebra inflicted by flechettes that also shredded his lower back; a bullet in his leg; ribs separated from his sternum; shrapnel wounds and burns across his face, hands, and neck; and traumatic brain damage. Doctors treated Davis in Saigon and then shipped him to Japan. He appeared destined for return to the United States. Instead, Davis persuaded Gen. William Westmoreland to allow him to return to his unit as soon as he could walk.
“I still don’t know how I managed to convince anyone to call the highest-ranking U.S. general in Vietnam,” Davis says.
Davis returned to Saigon for rehabilitation and eventually to his unit at Tan Tru, where he completed his recovery. He fought in Cholon during the 1968 Tet Offensive. In March of that year he finished his tour of day.
His return to the United States included a band of hippies accosting him and two traveling companions at the airport in San Francisco with acts of disrespect beyond anything I knew. The confrontation introduced Davis to the fringes of the antiwar movement.
During his last eighteen months on active duty, Davis often was assigned to speak publicly on behalf of the Army. He experienced more disrespectful treatment. After his discharge and up to today, Davis has continued to make public appearances and speak to “whoever will listen,” including veterans, soldiers, business people, and schoolchildren. His goal in life is to be “a good man.” His speeches emphasize duty, honor, and country. He tolerates protesting war but not the warrior.
Medical problems have plagued Davis since his discharge. Agent Orange damaged his body in ways that required many operations. He also suffered from post-traumatic stress with nightmares and flashbacks. For years, he slept only in two-hour increments.
Sammy Davis receiving the Medal of Honor from President Johnson in November 1968
Beyond describing the events in his life, Sammy Lee Davis also provides an insightful picture of what it is like to receive a Medal of Honor. The award brings a high degree of recognition and privilege. But, of course, the act that qualifies a person for the medal also elevates that person far above average. I was unaware of several of the well-deserved benefits MOH recipients receive.
“The Medal of Honor changed my life in ways I never expected. Wearing it comes with duties and obligations,” Davis says, “honoring what it represents and refraining from anything that would tarnish what it stands for.”