The young chopper pilot had a cushy job flying VIPs and high-ranking officers to and from relatively secured locations in South Vietnam. His required altitude was 5,000 feet. He had not been in combat nor ever dodged anti-aircraft fire. This mission was no different: transporting a Marine general from Da Nang to Saigon for another big-shot meeting.
Suddenly the radio crackled with activity. Marines engaged in a nearby firefight had taken casualties and were in desperate need of medical evacuation. But the Army pilot had his strict orders: do not endanger passengers to assist ground combatants. Then he felt a hand grip his shoulder. The passenger, a two-star Marine general, motioned thumbs down, meaning land the chopper to assist those Marines.
A lieutenant cannot argue with two stars. As the chopper neared an all-out battle, the general leaped from the Huey before the landing skids touched earth. From his pilot’s seat the lieutenant watched the two-star general direct and help load wounded Marines aboard the chopper as bullets chewed the ground and shells detonated close by. However, with all the wounded safely aboard, there was no room for the general.
Unbelievably, and against regulations, the general was standing on the landing skids and ordered the pilot to ‘dust-off’ and head for the closest medical facility. Against all established orders, the pilot jeopardized his aircraft and crew to save the wounded Marines and flew to the nearest medical unit with a two-star general hanging on from the outside.
Approaching the medical facility, the general once again jumped from the chopper before the landing skids touched ground. He summoned medical personnel and helped unload the wounded. Then the general jumped back into the blood-soaked bay and told the pilot to proceed to Saigon.
The pilot, already scared out of his wits from the audacious rescue and believing he was transporting a madman, happily continued to Saigon. Once on the ground in Saigon, the general bid adieu and left to attend his meeting.
Judging his military career over and Leavenworth Penitentiary his next port-of-call, the lieutenant reported to his commanding officer with the graphic details of how he had disregarded every command he had ever been issued by the United States Army. When asked the identity of his passenger, the lieutenant replied, “Gen. Ray Davis, sir.”
The Lieutenant was told not to worry. Gen. Ray Davis was known as a Marine combat officer that always took care of his Marines. Besides, the lieutenant was told, just be glad you’re still alive.
In addition to being a formidable warrior and leader, Raymond Gilbert “Ray” Davis was an attentive father and principled man of God. Davis, the namesake of Gen. Ray Davis Middle School, led the Boy Scouts, coached Little League baseball and taught the ladies Sunday school class at First United Methodist Church in Conyers. A doting grandpa, he happily changed diapers, attended make-believe tea parties and even learned how to dress Barbie Dolls.
A 1938 top graduate of Georgia Tech in chemical engineering and Army ROTC, Davis faced unreliable employment during the Great Depression. On the other hand, the rumor mill had the United States Marine Corps accepting qualified males for officer training. Davis probed the rumor and made his decision: he resigned his commission in the Army Reserve and received an appointment as a Marine 2nd Lieutenant in June 1938.
The Marines kept Davis busy for the next 33 years. He fought in three wars, received the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, two Navy Distinguished Service Medals, two Silver Stars, three Combat Action Ribbons and the Purple Heart, among others. He retired on March 31, 1972, as Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps having obtained the rank of four-star General.
A remarkable life worthy of a novel, Gen. Davis’ incredible feats as a United States Marine will be respectfully offered in this narrative.
After completing Officer’s Basic School at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in May of 1939, Davis served with the Marine Detachment aboard the USS Portland in the Pacific. At Quantico and Aberdeen he received weapons and artillery training during the summer of 1940 before deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At the time of Pearl Harbor and the start of US military involvement in World War II, Davis had moved to New River, N.C. (later called Camp Lejeune). Promoted to Captain in February 1942, his next port-of-call was a disease-ridden island in the South Pacific called Guadalcanal.
Davis played a part in Guadalcanal-Tulagi landings, saw combat on Guadalcanal, achieved the rank of major in February 1943, took command of the 1st Special Weapons Battalion, 1st Marine Division in October of that year and remained on Guadalcanal for six months. Sent to refit in either New Zealand or Australia, Davis ran into another Marine legend General Lewis “Chesty” Puller.
Davis told Puller he specialized in heavy weapons but actually wanted the infantry. He asked Puller for a job. Puller gave Davis the battalion commander’s position of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. Next stop: the hell called Peleliu.
His oldest son, Ray Davis, Jr., said of his father’s experience on Peleliu, “Dad went ashore on Peleliu with 1,150 Marines in his battalion. In four days they were down to 350. Dad called Peleliu ‘the most God awful mess’ he’d ever seen.” Davis was wounded in the first hour of combat but refused evacuation.
When “Chesty” Puller, in bad shape himself, heard that Davis had been wounded, he ordered stretcher bearers to carry him to Davis’ position. Davis, with a bullet hole in his knee and not wanting to be relieved, ran under heavy fire to greet Puller so as to prove still fit for combat. Puller conceded, and Davis returned to his men.
The Japanese were dug into well-designed fighting positions; Marine casualties mounted; Davis refused to yield ground. At one point the Japanese fired cannon at point blank range then penetrated 900 yards into Davis’ right flank. The right flank became disorganized and in need of leadership. Davis took control. He rallied his men and led a counter-attack that re-took the position. Then the Marines hunkered down for the night with enemy snipers firing from close range. Davis stayed on the front lines calling in artillery and Navy gunfire which annihilated several counter-attacks by the Japanese. His leadership and bravery under fire earned Major Davis our country’s second highest award, the Navy Cross.
Returning to the 1st Marine Division’s temporary home on the island of Pavuvu, Davis was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He returned to the United States in November 1944 and held several positions at Quantico, the island of Guam, Assistant Chief of Staff in Operations and Training and Logistics and was Inspector-Instructor of the 9th Marine Corps Reserve Infantry Battalion in Chicago at the outbreak of the Korean War.
In the frozen wastelands of Korea, Lt. Col. Ray Davis’ training, intuition, and natural leadership would save thousands of Marines and earn him the Medal of Honor.
His daughter, Willa Davis Kerr: “He was just Dad, not a battle-hardened Marine, but a loving family man. Dad held the rank of Lt. Colonel went I was born, but my first remembrance of him was a full bird colonel. He was not a glory seeker. Dad said his Marines earned him the Medal of Honor in Korea because all he did was point them in the right direction.”
In World War II Davis survived Guadalcanal and the horrific close-quarters combat on Peleliu. When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, Davis was off to his second war. He’d received a call from Col. Homer Litzenberg, commander of the 1st Marine Regiment. Litzenberg told Lt. Colonel Davis, “Get on a train to Pendleton, Ray; Marine reservists are wandering all over the base. Form up a battalion.”
At Pendleton Davis “recruited,” if not shanghaied, officers of lesser rank then set about with trucks to “recruit” more unassigned Marines. As commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, the band of conscripted Marines set sail for Korea after very limited training. They sharpened their marksmanship by shooting at targets off the fantail of the ship.
After participating in Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s rear area entrapment called the Inchon landing, Davis and his Marines were pulled out and shipped to the eastern side of Korea. MacArthur wanted the Marines to push north, toward the Chosin Reservoir. The Marines were skeptical, thus proceeding with caution. Sporadic contact with Chinese forces built in intensity. MacArthur, from his headquarters in Japan, disregarded the reports of Chinese troops.
Nearing the reservoir, evermore remembered as the “Frozen Chosin,” up to 100,000 Chinese attacked the Marine positions at Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ni. Marines of Fox Company were surrounded and trapped at an important junction called Toktong Pass.
Col. Litzenberg gave Davis and his Marines the impossible task of relieving Fox Company. Litzenberg was reported as saying, “When I shook hands with Ray and wished him luck, I knew it would be the last time I saw him alive.”
Davis led his Marines not down the Chinese-controlled road but over three treacherous ridgelines, fighting the stunned Chinese en route.
Davis’ son, Miles Davis, related his father’s exploits: “The temperature hovered around 30 degrees below zero, with a 60 mile per hour wind. Dad tried to use his compass but it was no good in the freezing cold. He’d jump into bomb craters, cover himself with a rain poncho or blanket then use a flashlight to take his bearings from the compass. Once out of the bomb crater, it was so cold he couldn’t remember which direction to march. So he pulled an officer into the bomb crater with him, got his bearings again then told the officer where to stand outside the crater. Emerging from the crater, Dad looked where the officer was standing and told his men, ‘we’re heading that way.’”
Marine Gen. O.P. Smith said of the retreat from the Frozen Chosin, “We’re not retreating. We’re attacking from a different direction.” All night long in the bitter cold, Davis and his invincible Marines “attacked from a different direction.” Marines froze, Marines died, but Davis and his resolute heroes reached and relieved Fox Company at the Toktong Pass. Known as the “ridge runners of Toktong Pass,” no Marine was left behind, even if six Marines had to man one stretcher.
Davis’ boss, Col. Homer Litzenberg, was a tough, no-nonsense WWII battle-hardened Marine. But when the news arrived that Davis and his intrepid Marines had relieved Fox Company, Litzenberg wept.
Davis and his battalion of supermen straightened themselves and their gear then marched as Marines into the harbor town of Hungnam for evacuation. On November 24, 1952, President Harry S. Truman presented the Medal of Honor to Lt. Col. Ray Davis. In October 1953, Davis was promoted to full colonel. By the time Davis arrived in Vietnam for his third war in March of 1968, he wore the two stars of a Major General.
As Commanding General, 3rd Marine Division, Davis noted the normally aggressive fighting skills of the Marines were bottled-up in defensive positions. Davis moved them out to engage the enemy. Under his leadership, the North Vietnamese were continually harried without mercy. Davis stayed airborne in his chopper, visiting his Marines and organizing the fighting. One standing order he issued: whatever the cost, the closest chopper lands to help wounded or stranded Marines.
Gen. Davis’ chopper always flew at treetop level. He was in the field every day visiting his Marines, landing places he shouldn’t have been, talking to his officers, leading from the front and not from the rear. In February 1969 during Operation Dewey Canyon, Davis landed at a regimental command post to converse with the commanding officer. Advised that three wounded Marines were awaiting evacuation, Davis ordered the Marines to be put aboard his chopper. One of the Marines was his son, Marine Lt. Miles Davis.
Miles said, “Dad flew us to the nearest medical facility. That’s the way he was, a Marine to the very core of his bones.” Lt. Miles Davis was wounded twice in Vietnam. He recalled, “After Dad pinned the 2nd Purple Heart on me, he pointed his finger in my face and said, ‘Don’t do this again, Lieutenant, and that’s an order.’ Dad was a two-star General so the only thing I could say was, ‘Yes, sir’.”
One of the most decorated Leathernecks in Marine Corps history, four-star Gen. Ray Davis retired on March 31, 1972. He passed from this life on September 3, 2003 at the age of 88.
A passionate supporter of veterans and related causes, Ray Davis spoke whenever and wherever requested on a first asked, first accepted basis. Speaking fees were non-negotiable: Davis never accepted one red cent. He served veterans as he had served his country, without question and without fear.
Remarkably, Davis never pulled his pistol in combat and never fired one round at an enemy combatant. He often told his sons, “If I had to pull my pistol we’d already be dead. My job was to be sure my Marines didn’t die in vain.” He also claimed, “I have the easiest job in the world. I just tell teenagers with rifles where to shoot.”
I offer my deepest appreciation to Ray Davis, Jr., Miles Davis, and Willa Davis Kerr for their heartfelt contributions. I was truly honored to add in some small way to the respectful memory of the few, the proud, and one hell of a Marine.