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Medal of Honor Monday: Marine Corps Sgt. Rodney Davis

Marine Sgt. Rodney M. Davis had planned to make a career out of the Corps before the war in Vietnam started. Unfortunately, he never came back from his Southeast Asia deployment, but the bravery Davis showed there earned him the Medal of Honor and a legacy that wouldn't be forgotten.

Davis was born April 7, 1942, in Macon, Georgia. His father, Gordon, served in the Navy during Davis' childhood, so Davis often helped his older brother take care of their two younger brothers and sister. 

A young man wears the Marine Corps dress uniform with cap.
Marine Corps Sgt. Rodney M. Davis
Marine Corps Sgt. Rodney M. Davis, Medal of Honor recipient.
Photo By: Marine Corps photo
VIRIN: 210831-M-D0439-071

Davis graduated from Peter G. Appling High School in May 1961. By the end of that summer, he had enlisted in the Marine Corps. He initially served as a rifleman at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, before doing a three-year tour of duty in England. 

At some point during the early days of his military career, Davis married Judy Humphrey. They had two young girls by the time he was sent to serve with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division in Vietnam in August 1967. 

"I knew that going to Vietnam was something he wanted to do," Judy Davis said years later. "He was a military man, and that was his career."

In early September 1967, the 1st Marine Division was tasked with protecting locals in the southern part of the Que Song Valley from intimidation during upcoming elections. When one of its companies was attacked by a much larger North Vietnamese force, Davis' unit, Company B, was called in to help fight the enemy. After about a day, the enemy retreated, and Company B was ordered to follow them on a search-and-destroy mission known as Operation Swift. 

Members of a family stand beside two men, one of whom holds a small case.
Medal Ceremony
Vice President Spiro Agnew presents the Medal of Honor to the family of Marine Corps Sgt. Rodney M. Davis, who gave his life in Vietnam by jumping on a grenade to save his comrades.
Photo By: Nixon Library
VIRIN: 690326-D-D0439-006

On Sept. 6, 1967, Company B was attacked, and Davis' 2nd Platoon was pinned down. He and several other men were in a trench trying to repel the enemy soldiers. Despite the grenades and small-arms and mortar fire coming at them, Davis moved through the trench to encourage his fellow Marines, all while continuing to fire and throw grenades back at the encroaching enemy. 

Eventually, a grenade landed in the trench amid the men. Without hesitation, Davis threw himself on top of the device, absorbing all of its energy as it exploded. 

The 25-year-old, who had only been in Vietnam for one month, died instantly. But his sacrifice saved several of his fellow Marines, who were able to hold their vital position until the enemy finally withdrew from the area. 

According to John D. Hollis, who authored a book about the Marine hero, 48 members of Davis' platoon went into Operation Swift. By the end of Sept. 6, only 11 remained. However, by the time the operation ended, the North Vietnamese had given up their quest to take over that part of the Que Song Valley.

Two women put their hands over their hearts. Many people stand in the background.
Flag Honors
Judy Davis, the widow of Marine Corps Sgt. Rodney M. Davis, and Ruth Davis, his mother, honor the flag during the commissioning of the guided-missile frigate USS Rodney M. Davis, May 9, 1987.
Photo By: Navy/National Archives
VIRIN: 870509-N-D0439-014

On March 26, 1969, Davis' family attended a ceremony at the executive office building next to the White House, where Vice President Spiro Agnew presented the Medal of Honor to Davis' widow. 

Davis' remains were taken back to the U.S. and buried in Linwood Cemetery, an all-Black cemetery in his hometown. According to the Community Foundation of Central Georgia, Davis' mother passed on having him buried at Arlington National Cemetery so his family would be close enough to visit his grave. 

However, the CFCG said that the cemetery had fallen into disrepair by 2010, and Davis' grave was affected. That bothered some Marines who noticed it, so they raised more than $80,000 to repair the cemetery and have a monument erected. The excess funds were used to create the Sgt. Rodney M. Davis Medal of Honor Scholarship in his memory, which is administered by the CFCG.

A large ship sails through the ocean.
USS Rodney M. Davis
The USS Rodney M. Davis, a guided-missile frigate, leaves port on Aug. 18, 1992.
Photo By: Navy/National Archives
VIRIN: 920818-N-D0439-012

Perhaps the largest tribute to Davis was the commissioning of the USS Rodney M. Davis in 1987. The guided-missile frigate served the Navy for 28 years. It was the first Navy ship to be commissioned in honor of a Black Medal of Honor recipient.

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.

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