Monument dedicated at Linwood Cemetery in Macon, Georgia
Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Rodney M. Davis grew up there
A Marine he saved in Vietnam encountered overgrown cemetery
He and others supported a volunteer group reclaiming grave sites
A smiling likeness of legendary soul singer Otis Redding greets visitors to the city clerk’s office in this central Georgia city. Down the hall, inside the mayor’s office, is a portrait of another Macon legend: Rodney M. Davis.
Both men were African-Americans of about the same age. Both men died in 1967. Both men are city heroes.
Redding and his music are famous worldwide. The story of Davis, who gave his life in Vietnam and became Macon’s only recipient of the Medal of Honor, is not so well known, despite two monuments in the city and a U.S. Navy frigate bearing his name.
Vietnam, after all, was a few wars ago. Acrimony over the United States’ presence there has faded with time, along with much of the bitterness once felt by now-graying warriors.
But the loyalty among veterans hasn’t faded. Marines never forget their own.
Saturday morning, joined by Davis’ family, a couple dozen Marines gathered near the grave of the comrade they barely knew, but will never forget.
Atop a bluff overlooking Interstate 75 in Macon, they placed a wreath and dedicated a 14-foot monument to Sgt. Davis, helping to restore the dignity that nature and neglect robbed from the cemetery that holds his remains.
They pledged protection to the man who, even in childhood, was a protector.
A forceful personality
Rodney Davis grew up in Pleasant Hill, an African-American neighborhood less than two miles from Macon’s City Hall.
In the late 1950s, Davis and his brothers often traversed Linwood Cemetery while delivering newspapers for the Macon Telegraph.
Davis was a tall youngster, who spoke out for what he believed in. He seemed to be acutely attuned to kids picking on other kids. He didn’t allow it to happen in his presence.
“He was a forceful personality,” says Josephine Davis, wife of Rodney’s older brother, Gordon Davis Jr. “He really believed in protecting the underdog.”
Even in the dark days of segregation, the Davis children learned not to sell themselves short. “My parents never put a bridle on us,” says Gordon Davis. “You could dream what you could do.”
For Rodney, that dream meant enlisting in the Marines in 1961. After serving at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Davis had a three-year stint as a guard at the U.S. Embassy in London, where he met and married his late wife, Judy.
Davis then volunteered for Vietnam. Judy and the couple’s two daughters, Nicky, 2, and Samantha, 1, stayed with the Davis family in Macon.
The family knew Davis’ life would be on the line.
“He stopped being a show Marine,” said Gordon Davis.
The family did not learn the full story of Rodney’s selfless bravery until they were en route to Washington in March 1969 for the Medal of Honor ceremony led by Vice President Spiro Agnew, nearly two years after Davis’ death.
But they were not surprised.
“What he did is exactly what I expected he would do,” Gordon Davis says.
Rodney Davis arrived in South Vietnam in mid-August 1967, assigned to Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. The unit had been fighting enemy troops in and around Que Son Valley, southwest of Da Nang.
The unit operated out of Hill 51.
“It was a naked hill, and we turned it into a combat base,” says Gary Petrous of suburban Detroit. “This was like the Indian Wars, where you would build a fort and move on after you secured the area.”
It was Davis’ job as right guide to procure ammunition, food and water for his platoon. “In the heat, you go a half day without water, you go crazy,” recalls Ron Posey, the senior sergeant.
Davis was a pro. His gear was always in order.
“He didn’t talk loud, but he got things done,” says Posey, who was wounded twice in Vietnam. “Everything was always done before I asked him.”
Walking into an ambush
In early September 1967, the Marine battalion participated in Operation SWIFT, slugging it out with husky and well-equipped North Vietnamese troops.
Just a few weeks into his tour of duty, Davis’ company left its position to assist another company that had been overwhelmed by a larger enemy force during a search-and-destroy mission. The next few days brought a whirl of firefights and counterattacks.
The sergeants dug a defensive hole one evening and shared some time together. “It was the first time we ever had time to talk to each other and find out who we were,” Posey says.
On September 6, the company “walked into the largest U-shaped ambush I have ever seen,” according to Petrous. The Marines were outnumbered by about three to one. “We drew back because we were in a very tenuous position.”
“Disregarding the enemy hand grenades and high volume of small arms and mortar fire,” the Medal of Honor citation reads, “Sergeant Davis moved from man to man shouting words of encouragement to each of them while firing and throwing grenades at the onrushing enemy.”
Posey heard the thud of one grenade hitting the ground. Davis acted without hesitation.
“I see Rodney crawling on the bottom of the trench, pulling the hand grenade underneath himself.”
The Marine absorbed “with his body the full and terrific force of the explosion,” his medal citation reads.
Davis, who died instantly, saved several comrades from serious injury or death. He was 25 years old.
“He saved my life. That sounds stupid I suppose, but he did,” says Posey. “You try to rationalize in this situation. He saved it for just that one moment. I could have been killed a thousand times after that. He gave me a chance to continue, and I used that chance to continue.”
The Marines knew they could not hold the position at dark and moved back 40 to 50 yards to set up a new line. About 90 Marines, including another Medal of Honor recipient, died in Operation SWIFT. Enemy dead was estimated at 600.
All the men Davis saved were white. But race was not an issue for Davis’ family or fellow Marines.
“There is not white, black, red and yellow here,” says Nicholas Warr, who directed the monument effort for the 1/5 Vietnam Veterans Association. “Our job is to take care of each other.”
Hellish memories of Vietnam remain etched in the minds of the Marines who served with and after Davis. Posey got out of the service less than a year after Operation SWIFT.
The retired businessman, grandfather and great-grandfather still speaks with some difficulty about Vietnam, although he eventually found some peace. “You have to think 30 years before you bring your thoughts together.”
Posey visited his ill mother before she passed away earlier this year.