Get out your hankies, boys and girls, this is one tragic story
Pictured at left is the hometown monument of one of Arkansas' greatest heroes, Herman Davis. He was by all accounts a man of unassailable character, honest, humble, hardworking, patriotic, brave, loyal and all the other boy scout virtues. I can only guess that a curious God crushed him to see what was inside.
Herman Davis was a dirt poor kid from the hardwood swamps of eastern Arkansas. He had to quit school in the fourth grade to go to work and support his family when his father died. His hair began turning gray at the age of twelve. What money he made was as a laborer, woodsman and fishing and hunting guide. He was an excellent marksman and was said to have once killed a pelican with a .38 Winchester at a half-mile. He married and had a son. His wife died and his son was raised by his mother. Along came the War to End All Wars and Herman went, although not right away. He was five-foot-three, and that was too short. The was also thirty, and that was too old. So he didn't have to go into the army right at the start of American involvement in the war. One account says he was rejected on those grounds when he tried to volunteer. Another account says he claimed a draft exemption on grounds of his size and age.
After a couple of major battles all those points became moot. Once the army realized just how hungry the meat grinder was, poor little scrawny Herman looked like adequate soldier material to them. He was given ninety days of training and was sent off to France.
Davis returned from military service to his hometown of Manila, Arkansas in 1919 and took a job at a hunting club at Big Lake. He married Ida (his second marriage) and together they had a daughter. He rarely spoke of his wartime experiences and life went back to pre-war normal until General Pershing published his list of America's top 100 heroes of the Great War. Herman Davis of Manila, Arkansas was 4th from the top.
At first the hometown folk thought there might be some mistake. Herman Davis is a fairly common name, after all. There might be a thousand Herman Davises who fought in the war. There might be some mix-up with the hometown name on the list. Little Herman? He's five-foot-three, for crying out loud!
These were found in his tackle box.
From right to left are the French Military Medal, awarded for some reason only to generals and privates. In the middle is the distinguished service cross, a medal commissioned by congress only three months before Davis performed his heroic deed. I'm assuming that the army was eager to award the new medal and see how it worked. Davis must have been one of the first recipients. At left is another French Medal, the Croix de Guerre, which also had a palm on it signifying that he was mentioned by name in the citation. After the war the French mailed him a gold star to go on it as a unit citation.
Davis wore these medals on three occasions only--once when they were pinned on him in 1919, again at a Christmas party and then only for a couple of minutes and then only at the insistence of his mother, and finally at his own funeral in 1923. So I guess he never actually wore them voluntarily. At that Christmas party, as he took off his medals and put them back in the tackle box, somebody asked him to give a speech about the Great War. He said, "If you had really wanted to know how it was, you should have gotten some of it for yourself."
The truth about what happened at that hill on a Molleville farm near Verdun was known by only two people at the end of the war--Davis himself and the officer that witnessed his heroics and wrote up the citation. Davis only spoke about the act twice in his life that we know of, once in a duck blind to an old friend, Dr. H. S. Davis (no relation), and once to Harry Williams, editor of the Jonesboro Tribune. The stories related by these two sources only superficially resemble the citation account while they essentially agree with each other. And I suppose it was typical of newspapers to embellish true war exploits in those days, because one story which appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal in connection with the dedication of this monument practically had Davis clearing the hun trenches with a fruit knife. Here's a short quote from that article: "Flat upon his belly, this fearless American runner crawled through the brush, inch by inch, toward the German battery which constantly belched missiles of death down the scarred hillside." Had enough?
And once Davis passed away lots more stories about his war exploits began emerging. In one story he picks off five Germans at a thousand yards with five bullets. The Bosch think they're far enough behind the trenches that they are safe and they don't even scramble for cover when their buddies start dropping. Davis is quoted as drawling something to the effect, "A thousand yards? Why that's just good shootin' range."
In another posthumus story, Davis gets separated from his unit and stumbles upon a German dugout. With his bolt-action rifle he shoots all fifteen of the occupants one-by-one as they emerge from the opening. What could that fifteenth German have been thinking about? Ironically, the fact that he himself spoke so little of his war experiences made him all the more easy to mythologize. There were no firsthand accounts to contradict the tall tales proffered by his survivors.
Let's start with the citation account. The action occurred on 10 October, 1918 while Davis and one other man were serving as runners for Company I, 113th inf. reg., 29th division at a place called Molleville, near Verdun. "He was accompanying the left assault platoon of his company during the advance through the woods, when it was fired on by an enemy machine gun. As soon as the gun opened fire, the members of the platoon scattered and attempted to flank the gun, but private Davis pushed on ahead, being the first to reach the gun, attacked it single handed, and killed four enemy gunners. His gallant act enabled his platoon to continue the advance."
Nobody contradicts the general details of that account. Davis' unit came under enemy machine gun fire and Davis pretty much by himself killed the crew and captured the gun. The next time his buddies saw him he was toting the German machine gun like a yoke across his shoulders as a war trophy. At 115 pounds the gun weighed almost much as he did, but the sight must have impressed his comrades. Davis said, "It made quite a load, but I managed, and the men were glad to see it out of action."
The part of the citation quoted above is usually all that you read in newspaper accounts and the casual reader is likely to assume that the citation is quoted in its entirety, but the official version continues from there, "...The deed was nearly impossible on account of the entrenched position of the gun. Davis crawled to it, although subjected to murderous fire of the enemy. He fought hand-to-hand with the enemy and killed them. He was cool and deliberate and went about the job with the utmost nonchalance and determination to rid his comrades of this source of apparent certain death."
So the prose turns a little blue toward the end. The doughboys weren't the only ones going over the top. I wonder if the second part of that account is often omitted by other writers simply because it sounds so outrageous and unlikely or because it conflicts with other accounts. This second passage seems to be saying that Davis by himself, without his rifle, staged a frontal assault on the machine gun nest while under direct fire and killed all four gunners. Unlikely though it seems, crazy things do happen in war. The gun crew could have panicked. They might already have been stunned or wounded when Davis attacked them. The gun could have jammed. The barrel could have overheated. The official account could be accurate.
So what about the story that Herman told to his friend in the duck blind that day? How did it differ from the official account? Well, Herman said that he had always felt bad about that fourth German, that he had always believed in fair play, but in war the rule is kill or be killed, right? Now that's a tantalizing little historical tidbit, isn't it? Best of all it leaves a wide open ambiguity for our imaginations to run around in. H.S. Davis related the story that Herman's version went more like this: Davis and one other runner were out in advance of the rest of the company when the German machine gun opened up, pinning their unit. Davis left his friend and made his way unobserved on his belly to a position some fifty yards behind the machine gun nest.
From this vantage point he shot the gunner. Then he shot the guy who hopped into the dead gunner's place. Then one of the two remaining Germans spotted him, so Herman shot him. The fourth German throws up his hands to surrender but, upon seeing that Herman is alone, lunges for a concealed pistol. Herman shoots him. Number four. The one he feels bad about.
Oh, please. This enemy solder has just dropped three of your guys with three shots. You've got your hands up in the air. This guy has drawn a bead on you and he's got his finger on the trigger. What kind of idiot thinks, "I can outdraw him and plug him with my pistol from fifty yards. He'll never know what hit him." Lots of luck, Fritzie.
If the fourth German truly was going for his gun, why does Private Davis regret killing him more than he regrets killing the other three? That "going for his gun" stuff is a wild west fable we tell ourselves so we can justify the fact that we shot the guy who was trying to surrender, and I think H.S. might have put that part in to protect a reputation. Now the rest of the duck blind story differs significantly from the official citation, which states that Davis wiped out the gun emplacement in hand-to-hand combat. The duck blind story seems much more likely to be true, although maybe less likely to get you the DSC.
So assuming for a minute that some of the more extravagant details of the official citation are false, and I think that's a pretty reasonable assumption, why would the reporting officer embellish the story so? I know that officers recommend men for citations and that having decorated men under one's command is good for an officer's career. Remember, though, that this reporting officer was not Davis' C.O. Davis' C.O. didn't witness the event, and neither did the second runner nor anybody else from Davis' unit. Only six people were there, and four of them didn't leave. Maybe the reporting officer was juicing up the story as a favor to a fellow officer; but then a fellow officer is also a career competitor, so the reporting officer had just as much reason not to lie as he did to lie.
Something made that reporting officer feel that he had to lie.
The postwar reticence of Herman Davis is puzzling. All the articles cite humility as the reason he so rarely spoke about his wartime experiences, former combat soldiers are often reluctant to share private horrors with non-warriors whom they feel can't properly appreciate the experiences; but given the pressure put on him to become a big famous hero, I think there was more than natural self-effacement going on here.
Here's what I mean by pressure: Herman Davis, poor as dirt, has a wife, two kids and a mother, also poor as dirt. He takes a job at a hunting and fishing club at Big Lake, meanwhile by 1922 he has contracted tuberculosis (the delayed effects of a gas attack), he took a job chopping wood in a swamp (not the best conditions for recovering from TB) near Marked Tree. His health is failing and his family is starving.
Meanwhile, Davis' buddies at the American Legion are trying to arrange paid speaking engagements for him. He refuses. Every time somebody tries to put him in the limelight, he skitters away like a roach. On one occasion he was persuaded to stand in front of the group at an American Legion function just for a minute to wave and let the people look at him. It was reported that he looked quite uncomfortable.
He applied for a government job as a forrester, but was turned down on account of his size. He was not given compensation by the army for his respiratory problems because there was no record of his having been gassed. He never reported for sick call and he was so eager to get home after the war that he skipped his medical examination when he mustered out.
So as badly as he and his family needed the easy money, he didn't take it. Why?
Here's a story told to the Craighead County Historical Quarterly by Herman Davis' nephew. I think you'll find it illuminating. When Private Davis returned to his company carrying the machine gun, he put it in a pile where it was to be catalogued along with all the other captured weapons. His commanding officer later offered him the gun as a war trophy, but there was a mixup with the serial numbers. Rather than chance taking a captured weapon that rightfully belonged to somebody else, Davis declined to take any trophy at all.
Somehow he retained a peculiar scrupulous honesty, even about war plunder, in the midst of the most disillusioning war of all time. At this time he was over thirty years old and he had been on the line for many months. He had to know by now that such rigid ethics were something apart from the battlefield norm; and he must have witnessed among his comrades a wide range of behavior, from the saintly to the diabolical. He was poor and uneducated, but he wasn't stupid. He must have known that he was a boy scout in a band of pirates. Still he maintained a sterling code of honor for himself even in the extraordinary and corrupting circumstances of the war, and he must have felt it worthwhile to do so because he did it over and over again.
The tuberculosis finally got him. Some American Legion buddies found him weak, dying and destitute in October of 1922, they took up a collection, raised $48 and arranged for him to check into the veterans hospital in Memphis. Meanwhile, they petitioned the army for Davis' back pay. Recall that the government at the end of WWI dragged its feet when compensating veterans. He died in the veterans' hospital on 5 January 1923. A couple of weeks later his back pay arrived--$1800. A lot of money in 1923. Had it arrived in 1919, though, half as much might have saved his life.
The tragedy didn't end with his death. The American Legion put $1200 into the hands of S.W. Hanna of Marked Tree, who was the legal guardian of Davis' daughter. In 1928 Hanna was discharged as the girl's guardian because he could only account for $89 spent on Davis' survivors. Meanwhile, Ida (the wife) and Phyllis (the daughter) were living in squalor, and that's not the name of a town.
Another tragic irony is that while the Misses and Baby were in critical need of cash because Baby's legal guardian was robbing them, the American Legion put together five thousand bucks to send to Carrara Italy have a monument built of Barre granite. That bottom picture is the monument they bought. The obelisk is 25 feet tall. Herman is actual size. The monument was dedicated on Memorial Day of 1925. (In fairness to the Legion, they did raise considerable cash for the Davises and they did manage to get that Hanna guy removed as legal guardian after a five-year embezzling spree.)
There is one more Herman Davis Monument and this is it. In 1954 the three-tiered acanthus fountain in front of the Old State House in Little Rock was renovated and declared to be the Herman Davis Memorial Fountain. It was originally built for the Arkansas exhibit at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, making Herman Davis' memorial twelve years older than Herman Davis. The fountain used to send plumes of water forty feet into the air, where colored balls balanced in the spray. In 1877 it was moved to its present location and the flow was reduced to a trickle.
One day in 1967 the statue was found in three fragments. It had been toppled from its base and the head had been stolen. It could have been part of the anti-military mood among the youth of the sixties, but more likely it had something to do with the local legend that there were diamonds inside the eyes of the statue. Police found the head in Big Lake. The fragments were reassembled as a model for a new statue. The statue on the monument today is the replacement.
The end. So where does the truth come down? Everybody agrees that once upon a time Herman Davis silenced a German machine gun nest, but that's about all the agreement there is.
Here we have a handful of accounts of a single act of bravery and they all conflict. This isn't big history either. It's a footnote, a little story ostensibly reported by a reliable witness, and yet it's full of holes. In the end we patch fragments together to make our history look "like something," and then we have a new copy made, with all the cracks and seams smoothed over and filled in. In the end even the best history is a guess.
So here's my guess. I have come up with a fanciful scenario that incorporates the the facts with the "facts." It explains Davis' shyness and it explains why the accounts differ in certain details. Here goes:
FADE IN ON EXT. DAY--A WOOD NEAR MOLLEVILLE IN FRANCE, 1918 A company of a hundred American infantrymen enters the wood. The open field gives way to claustrophobic thickets. Where a moment ago the soldiers could look from side to side and see hundreds of comrades, now they are within view of only a dozen or so. MCMAHON, the platoon leader, steps into view. He holds his fist in the air and the company stops. He motions to two soldiers... MCMAHON Davis. Mead. I need you up front about a fifty yards. DAVIS and MEAD, the two company runners, this time acting as scouts, realize that they are being sent ahead to draw enemy fire; but they know it's part of the game. They strip off all unnecessary gear and with little more than their rifles and bayonettes, melt into the undergrowth. MCMAHON kneels beside a sergeant and whispers. MCMAHON Two minutes. Pass it on. CUT TO MEAD and DAVIS pick their way up a slope through the woods. DAVIS The brush is thinner ahead. See anything? POV MEAD--UP THE SLOPE. Woods, woods and more woods. Some of the undergrowth is cleared. Behind them they hear the sound of their platoon advancing, the clanking of canteens and buckles against the crispy silence of the autumn forest sounds like a junkman's cart race. DAVIS motions to MEAD that they'd better open up the gap. They move forward, first one, then the other, one moving as the other peers up the slope. They can't see any Germans, but this is a perfect spot for an ambush, therefore they must be here. POV DAVIS--BACK AT HIS PLATOON There they are, just coming into view about sixty yards back. What a racket they make! Then... ANGLE ON--DAVIS WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! Bullets chirp like birds in the air and smack like hammers into the trees and DAVIS flattens himself against the ground. MEAD takes a chance on scurrying to safer cover and gets away with it. CUT TO THE PLATOON, back at the edge of the undergrowth. Those that can't find the roots of a tree to hug are working their bellies into even the shallowest of hollows in the forest floor. Some fumble and crank at the bolts of their weapons to return fire, but they're firing blind. They can't see the machine gun nest. WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! ANGLE ON DAVIS realizes MEAD is under direct fire, but the gunners haven't seen him. He looks off to the left, away from the gun. POV--DAVIS We can just make it out. A barely noticeable crease in the hillside that might allow a small man to crawl around the flank unnoticed. All the action seems to be off to the right, so DAVIS motions to MEAD to stay where he is and makes for the crease. ANGLE ON--MEAD That's dandy with MEAD. He'll sit tight. CUT TO--THE PLATOON AT THE EDGE OF THE THICK UNDERGROWTH, HOPELESSLY PINNED. They're not going anywhere. WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! MCMAHON does the sensible thing. MCMAHON Fall back! Fall back! CUT TO DAVIS, on his back, his rifle across his chest, pressing his spine to the ground. He can hear one of the gun crew giving orders in German. He's trying to sneak a peek at the emplacement from the corner of his eye without lifting his head. POV-DAVIS They haven't seen him. Davis is looking down over their right shoulders at a range of about fifty yards. The gunner fires a burst down the slope across a ring of sandbags, raps the gun on the side to shift its position slightly and fires another burst. ANGLE ON DAVIS, keeping one eye on the Germans, he works the bolt on his rifle and rolls into a prone firing position. PAP! CUT TO The GUNNER slumps over and the gun falls silent. One German drags the dead gunner aside as a second German takes his place, but before he can start firing... CUT TO DAVIS--PAP! CUT TO THE SECOND GUNNER falls dead. ANGLE ON The THIRD GERMAN He spots DAVIS and shouts an order or an alarm to the FOURTH GERMAN. CUT TO DAVIS--PAP! CUT TO THE THIRD GERMAN falls dead. CUT TO DAVIS, ever peering down the sights, calmly works the bolt. INTERCUT DAVIS, FOURTH GERMAN, DAVIS, FOURTH GERMAN. We hear movement in the background as an officer blows a whistle and calls, "Move Out!" The FOURTH GERMAN throws up his hands. FOURTH GERMAN Bitte nicht schiessen! NEW OFFICER (approaching) Damnedest thing I've ever seen, son. (to his sergeant) These Boys were out here by themselves. I think we've got a little daylight here, so push the men to the edge of the woods if you can. The sergeant marshalls the men up the hill, reminding them of their intervals. NEW OFFICER Where's your C.O., Private? DAVIS Back that way somewheres in the woods about a hundred yards. NEW OFFICER Well, excellent work. Fine shooting. DAVIS Thank you, sir and it looks like I got me a prisoner. NEW OFFICER No, son, I don't think you do. With that he reaches down and grabs the back rim of the FOURTH GERMAN'S helmet and yanks upward, tilting the front over the FOURTH GERMAN'S eyes and exposing the knape of his neck. The NEW OFFICER quickly jams the muzzle of his service automatic into the gap and pulls the trigger. ANGLE ON DAVIS' surprised reaction. CUT TO The NEW OFFICER lets the dead FOURTH GERMAN drop to the ground and flicks bits of blood and brains from his left hand. He notices DAVIS looking at him. NEW OFFICER Mercy, mercy, son, what you must think of me. DAVIS says nothing. NEW OFFICER Maybe you'd like your own company to start the attack with a couple of valuable men babysitting a prisoner. Tell you what, son. You're a team player, aren't you? You know how to play ball? DAVIS is biting his lip. NEW OFFICER I'll write you up a citation for capturing this gun. You'll get a medal, go back to your home town a big war hero, but what I write on that paper, that's that, right? DAVIS I got it. NEW OFFICER What's your name, son? DAVIS Davis, sir. NEW OFFICER Drop your field piece, private Davis. DAVIS raises his eyebrows and lays his rifle on the ground. NEW OFFICER Let's get this gun up on your shoulders. You captured it. It's your trophy. Take it back to your C.O. Once DAVIS has set down his rifle, the NEW OFFICER holsters his sidearm. He and DAVIS heft the gun up onto DAVIS' shoulders. NEW OFFICER Maybe somebody back in your unit will have a camera ready. He watches until DAVIS has disappeared from view and then turns to follow his own company up the hill. FADE OUT
Why did Herman refuse to wear his medals? He felt like he did not earn them. To him they were part of the hypocrisy of the war. Why would the reporting officer lie when recommending Herman for the citation? He thought the medal was a bribe for Davis' silence. He might have been using the official version to cover his own misdeed, getting Davis to take responsibility for killing all four Germans in the course of the assault. Why would Davis not talk about his war exploits? He did not want to be put in the position of having to lie about them. He could tolerate hypocrisy in others, but not in himself. Why did Davis feel regret about the fourth German? He had surrendered. Why did H.S. Davis add the part about the fourth German going for his gun? He thought he was protecting Davis' honor.
The irony is that (if this speculation is accurate) Davis' honor needed no protecting. He turned down fame and fortune, refusing to participate further in a hypocritical ruse. He gave up the possibility of an easy life and chose instead a miserable death and even kept his promise to the officer that had illegally executed the prisoner. They tried to make him into a big fake hero and he just wouldn't play the game.
To me that is more heroic than anything he might have done in France.
In October of 1918, while Private Davis was being heroic at Molleville, just up the road in Belgium, and just on the German side of no man's land there was another runner, also an enlisted man, also a victim of a gas attack, also small of stature, also decorated for bravery. He was the son of a man named Schickelgruber, but when his mom remarried he took to using her family name as his own--Hitler.
Correspondence from Bruce Powell:
"Regarding an article titled Arkies at War: Herman Davis of Manila.
In July of 1998, when I first read about the Herman Davis State Park and the reference to his fourth position on Pershings top 100 list, I wanted to know about the other 99. I have done quite a bit of research over the past year, learning a lot about Davis as well as Pershing, and just three days ago finally received a copy of the list of "100 outstanding stories of heroism in the Great War." The only thing is that they are not in any particular order. Also, the omission of Alvin York leads me to believe that this list represents the "lessor known" soldiers. There are 55 Medal of Honor winners on the list. The purpose of the list was to be used in the Liberty Loan campaigns as pamphlets for school children and as news shorts in the moving pictures. Do you if there exists a copy of this list from within the State of Arkansas that supports Davis's fourth position? Also, how did Davis wind up as number four?
I would appreciate any information you could provide.
Your Host replies:
Thanks for the note on Herman Davis. I haven't seen a copy of the list, but I infer from the accounts I read in the Arkansas Historical quarterly that it was published in the newspaper.
I grudgingly have to admit that I'm guilty of the thing I often complain that other writers do. I didn't go to the primary source. I just assumed that the AHQ would have been careful enough not to make unsupportable assertions on such a matter of record. That's what I get for assuming, and that's one way bad information gets perpetrated in the literature. We also tend to assume that any list is ordered, and as you say this is not so in the case of the WWI heroes list. He might have been fourth on the list in much the same way that Field Kindley was third on his list. Or it could have been alphabetical, couldn't it?
I also find it inconcievable that Alvin York isn't on such a list. Please let me know where you got it so I can request one.
Bruce followed up with bibliographical material that other interested readers might find useful:
Ross, Margaret Smith, "Arkansas Historical Quarterly" (1955).
The "Arkansas Legionnaire" ran articles on Dec. 30, 1923 / Jan. 13, 1923 / Feb. 10, 1923. I was unable to get access to these. The University of Arkansas has records of the Legionnaire back to only 1926.
"Memphis Commercial Appeal" Aug. 8, 1926 and Nov 20, 1955.
"Arkansas Gazette" Jan. 6, 1923 has article about his death.
"Arkansas Democrat" July 3, 1960
Blytheville Courier News: Nov. 10, 1985
Bruce also notes mention of a photograph of Davis in uniform with medals being donated to the Arkansas History Commission. I'll try to get a scan for this page. Also, I've requested a copy of the list from the National Archives.
So here's that picture, found hanging on the wall in the office of the curator of the Arkansas History Commission. I also obtained a copy of the list from the National Archives. The first sixty or so names are listed alphabetically. The remainder of the names don't seem to be in any particular order. Some care does seem to have been taken to include names from all across the country, though. I assume that as the Liberty Bond campaign went from place to place some local hero could be moved up to the top of the list. This might account for Davis' being fourth of the hundred even though the list wasn't ranked.
While at curator Michael Lewis' office photographing the portrait, I glanced into an open door that led to a back room and noticed some WWI artifacts, a Springfield rifle, a German stereo optical artillery rangefinder, a trench knife and some other stuff. When I stepped inside for a closer look, I saw a zip-lock sandwich bag with these in it. Herman Davis' actual personal medals. Mr. Lewis was preparing them for a WWI display in Little Rock's new Military Museum which is supposed to open at MacArthur Park (see: Douglas MacArthur birthplace) in the spring of 2000. The palm and gilt star accessories for the Croix de Guerre were not in the bag and were not attatched to the decorations.
Notice that the medal on the Herman Davis Commercial Appeal portrait does not match any of the medals he was awarded for his military service.
In the neighborhood: The Marked Tree Siphons