Modest Heroes

by Fred Ray on April 2, 2009 · 0 comments

Eric Wittenberg has a couple of posts on David F. Day, a brave man who won a Medal of Honor but who had an unfortunate habit of boasting about himself and shamelessly embellishing his deeds. The Southern equivalent would be Lamar Fontaine, who I will write about at some point, and of course Hiram Berdan.

These men got themselves a lot of ink, but what you don’t hear much about are the modest heroes, men who thought they were just doing their jobs and had no need for “the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth.” This seems to be even more true of snipers and sharpshooters, of whom we have few first-person  accounts then or now. Martin Pegler takes up this subject in his book Sniper, which I am now reading and have posted a review of by Bill Adams. Pegler notes several factors, including the desire to put the war behind them, regrets over wartime killing, and plain modesty. We’ve already looked at Sgt. Alvin York, another Medal of Honor winner, who went home and avoided publicity when he could, and was only talked into a film about his life with great difficulty.

Pegler cites another case, that of Private Herman Davis, an Arkansas soldier in WWI, but which could equally have been from the Civil War. There were many such men in the Southern service like Davis, who could shoot and knew their way around the woods from childhood.

Drafted after initially being refused for army service (he was 5ft 3in tall and weighed 110lb), Davis arrived in France in late June 1918 as a member of the 24th Division’s 113th Infantry Regiment. His slight build and deep knowledge of fieldcraft and backwoods tracking and hunting made him an ideal candidate as a scout and runner. His solitary acts of heroism would have passed unnoticed had not at least one been accidentally witnessed by an officer unconnected with Davis. This event involved dealing with a German machine-gun crew who were pinning down his platoon near Molleville Farm in the Verdun sector in October 1918. Never having actually seen a German, Davis reasoned that as they had a machine gun and were speaking in a language he did not understand, they must be the enemy, so he crawled to within 50 yards of them and shot all four of the crew. The act was witnessed by an artillery observer, who found out Davis’ name and reported the quiet act of courage. Blissfully unaware of this, shortly afterwards Davis spotted a dugout from which German reinforcements were pouring. Taking aim with his Springfield he shot 11 Germans one after another, but never thought to mention this event to anyone, until a casual conversation with a hunting friend some years after the war. Later in the month he was observing German troops setting up a machine gun at a distance of about 1,000 yards. When he enquired why no one was doing anything about it, he was curtly told it was too far for rifle shooting. “Why, that’s just a good shootin’ distance,” he said—and then proceeded to shoot five of the enemy before they dispersed in panic. These were the events that were known of; if there were others Davis never thought them worth mentioning. Probably no one was more surprised than Davis himself when in 1919 he was awarded not only the Distinguished Service Cross, but also the French Croix de Guerre with palm and silver star and Medaille Militaire, and was named number four on General John Pershing’s list of the 100 Heroes of the World War. Typically of his breed, for the rest of his sadly brief life he refused point-blank to talk publicly about his exploits, refuted any notions of heroism, and never wore his medals (in fact, he kept them in his fishing-tackle box with his beloved lures and flies). He died in poverty on January 25, 1923, aged 35 as a result of tuberculosis brought on by gas poisoning. In 1925 a monument and statue to the State’s greatest war hero was raised by public subscription, an event that would doubtless have sent Herman heading into the swamps for a lengthy hunting session.

There has got to be a special place in Valhalla for men like Herman Davis.

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