‘Life is like a box of chocolates’

Medal of Honor recipient Sammy L. Davis with Judy Schlegelmilch.

Medal of Honor recipient Sammy L. Davis with Judy Schlegelmilch.

Life really is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get.

No one knows that better than American soldier and Medal of Honor recipient Sammy Lee Davis.

Davis, the keynote speaker for the White County GOP Lincoln Day Dinner, told a crowd of more than 400 people his mother coined the phrase “Life is like a box of chocolates,” which was used in the movie “Forrest Gump.” The movie was based on Davis’s heroic actions during the Vietnam War, which earned him the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military medal for valor.

In the movie, Tom Hanks’s face is superimposed on top of Davis’s in footage of Gump receiving the Medal of Honor. The footage is real footage from Davis’s award presentation.

“When they were working on the book, they would call the house and ask lots of questions,” Davis said. “Because we were on the road a lot, the kids would say, ‘He’s running to Nebraska,’ or ‘He’s running to Washington, D.C.’ That’s where they got the part about running in the movie.”

Davis says he wants people to know that “Forrest Gump” is not a movie about war, it is a movie about love.

“Love is what gave me the strength to swim across the river and save my brothers,” he said.

Davis enlisted in the United States Army in 1965, right out of high school. His father and grandfathers all served in the military, and he says he wanted to make them proud. But it was watching another Medal of Honor recipient, Roger Donlon, receive his medal that persuaded Davis even further.

“He was standing so tall and so straight,” Davis recalled. “Because of the military members of my family, I was aware of what the Medal of Honor was, and I thought, when I grow up, I want to be a soldier like him.”

Davis completed his training and was sent to Vietnam at the height of the war. He was assigned to Battery C, 2nd Battalion, 4th Artillery Regiment, 9th Infantry Division. On Nov. 18, 1967, Davis and 41 other soldiers landed in Cai Lay, South Vietnam. His days were filled with fighting and cleaning.

“You cleaned everything and painted everything, and you polished your bullets,” he said. “Sgt. James Gant from Lancing Michigan was the meanest man I had ever seen in my life, and he would make us take each bullet out of our clip every night and polish it. He was just a bitter old man.”

Just before dark on a day filled with fighting, Davis said a U.S. helicopter landed near his unit and a U.S. Army Major exited.

“He said, ‘Your probability of getting hit tonight is 100%, prepare yourselves,’” Davis said.

Later that night, Davis heard the enemy shout, “Kill the GI.”

“I could see the enemy all around us,” he said.

They fired on him, knocking him unconscious. The enemy, he says, reached to pick up his weapon.

“You never let the enemy take control of the weapon,” he said.

A soldier from behind him fired what Davis called 18,000 tiny darts from a “Beehive” at the enemy, but also striking Davis. More than 30 holes were left in his body from the mid-thigh up to and including his fourth lumbar vertebrae. A flak jacket was the only thing that saved his life, he says.

“I raised on one elbow and there were 150 to 200 enemy right there,” he said. “I picked up my M16. I had 12 clips, which is roughly 180 rounds, and I started doing my job as a soldier. It was like living in a bad dream.”

The odds were stacked against him and his fellow soldiers, 1,500 of the enemy to “42 kid,” Davis said.

“They just kept coming. I fired my last round. I didn’t think I was ever going to see daylight, but I wasn’t going to quit. If I don’t do my job, these guys behind me don’t have a chance. I one-more-rounded it until I heard someone across the river shouting, ‘Don’t shoot I’m a GI.’

“I said, ‘My God, someone’s got to go get him.’”

Davis, knowing he did not have the strength to swim across the river on his own due to his injuries, found an air mattress and drug it, crawling to the river’s edge. Forty-five minutes later he made it across.

“Instead of one man in (the foxhole), there were three men in it. I knew I didn’t have the strength to make three trips,” Davis said. “I was just getting so tired. So, I asked the man above to give me the strength to carry all three of my brothers at one time.”

Davis made two trips across the river to get his wounded brothers to safety.

“There lay Sgt. Gant. He picked his hand up, and I was hoping he would tell me what to do next,” Davis said. “The light bulb that comes on in your head that your daddy always tells you about, the light bulb came one. All these things, polishing the bullet … sitting out in 100-degree heat with a blindfold. Sgt. Gant shared with us the things that he knew were going to help us to survive.

“When I looked down in his eyes, I knew that he didn’t hate me, that he loved me. You got to love someone a whole lot to pick on ‘em and teach ‘em things.”

When shells stopped falling, 12 men of the 42 survived. Davis, and 11 of his brothers.

“The other 11 men put me in for (the Medal of Honor). I didn’t do anything heroic; it’s what soldiers do,” he said. “If there was one of these given that night, there should have been at least 42 of them, because if anyone of us had not done their job, there would have been none of us alive.”

Through it all, Davis says he learned a valuable lesson – what deep love is.

“It seems silly to say that I went to war and found out about love, what real love is,” he said. “I didn’t go to war to kill people. I went to war because I loved my daddy, and I wanted him to be proud of me. I went to war because I loved my grandpas, and I loved my country.

“When I got over there, the reason why we fought so hard, is because we discovered we loved each other, and we were all we had; and then we became brothers. I learned about what real love is.”

Now Davis and his wife, Dixie, travel trying to inspire America to “stand up for whatever you believe is right in your heart.”

“I want America to stand up for what you believe is right, do you understand that?” he asked. “That’s what makes America what it is, that all Americans can stand up and say, ‘I believe this is right.’ Continue to do what you know is right in your heart and encourage others to do the same.”

Davis said during the war he learned to play harmonica, something that still gives him a sense of peace today. His mother sent him the harmonica. He said his mother was not happy having not heard from him as often as she would like and so she reached out to her congressman, who reached out to Washington D.C. Someone from Washington reached out to a General, who reached out to Davis’s Sergeant. From that point on, he began writing her three paragraphs a day, talking about mud, the smell of mud, and ducks, lots of ducks, Davis says.

“Mama was famous for her oatmeal cookies, and I got a package one day,” Davis said. “I thought it was her cookies. I was gonna share my cookies with my brothers, but I was gonna get the first one.”

Davis said he backed away from his fellow soldiers and opened the box. Inside he found no cookies, but instead a harmonica, and a note.

“The note said, ‘Son, I hope this helps you be not quite so bored,’” he said. It was signed by his mother.

Davis said he learned to play the instrument, which his fellow soldiers found soothing.

“When they heard it, they knew I was awake and I was doing my job,” he said. “When they heard it, they knew I was keeping them safe.”

Davis knows his mother’s words have never been truer, life, like war, really is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you will get, you may just find, something sweeter than you ever imagined.

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