A Selection of Military Heroics and Honors

Nominated twice six decades ago, but, although hard to believe, both times, somehow his paperwork was misplaced, and now, finally, at the age of 83, last week at the White House, retired Army Colonel Paris Davis was presented with the nation’s highest award for military valor, the Medal of Honor. Colonel Davis was one of the first black Special Forces officers.  Among his heroics were two days back in 1965 in Vietnam when he rescued two Americans while taking fire and being wounded himself.  The Army statement noted that the Colonel’s actions “were decisive in changing the tide of the battle, ensuring that American soldiers were not killed or taken prisoner, preventing the South Vietnamese company from being overrun, and ensuring the defeat of a numerically superior enemy force.” In addition to the Medal of Honor, Colonel Davis was, many years back, awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. Congratulations to a genuine American military hero, Army SF Colonel Paris Davis, for his decisive life-saving actions, at great personal risk, during the Vietnam War, properly recognized at last with America’s Medal Of Honor.

The son of a sharecropper, later a star player on his high school football team, Doris “Dorie” Miller, enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1939, and was eventually assigned to mess attendant duties, the only slot allowed for black crewmen at that time.  By 1940, as the USS West Virginia’s boxing champ, Dorie Miller had graduated from the Navy’s Secondary Battery Gunnery School.  The USS West Virginia proceeded to Pearl Harbor in early December of 1941.  On the 7th, as the Japanese bombed our moored ships from the air, powerfully built Dorie Miller was first ordered to assist with removing wounded sailors from the ship. He was then ordered to bring anti-aircraft ammunition to two 50-cal. machine guns on deck.

When no one came to operate the guns, Miller took over and began firing at the menacing Japanese planes. He is officially credited with downing three enemy planes, although his actual total may well have been six!  He continued to man that gun until Japanese bombs forced the all-hands order to abandon ship. Navy Secretary Frank Knox subsequently cited Dorie Miller for his bravery, which then included the awarding of the Navy Cross, personally pinned on by the Pacific Fleet’s Commander in Chief, Admiral Chester Nimitz.

Miller was later transferred to the cruiser USS Indianapolis, where he received several upward Mess Attendant promotions, to include, finally, Ship’s Cook, Third Class.  At some point, then, he was transferred to the USS Liscome Bay, where in a later Pacific Island invasion action, when a Japanese torpedo struck the ship, sadly, Navy Cross recipient Dorie Miller was among the sailors killed.  Miller was the first black American to receive that high honor, the Navy Cross, for heroism.  Thankfully, as racial relations inevitably improved across the military branches, other minority members would eventually be cited for their courageous actions during the Second World War. President Truman officially ordered the desegregation of our military branches in 1948.

After three years serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Colonel James Lamar, joined the Air Force in 1948, completed flight training the following year, and was assigned to a fighter squadron in Japan.  He was soon to be in the Korean War fight where he would fly 100 combat missions.  Serving as a pilot instructor between Korea and the next major conflict, he would be flying combat again in Vietnam.  Remembered Lamar: “When we got the news we were going to go, I got an immediate premonition that something was going to happen to me…I would be shot down, killed, or (held) prisoner.  I didn’t know what, but I knew something bad was going to happen.”

Well, it did.  On his 101st North Vietnam mission, James Lamar was shot down during a bombing run. As he remembers that fateful day: “We got to our target area.  I was the first one to go in.  I pulled up to 12,000 feet, rolled over, and when I was headed down, I would like to have been someplace else, because the flak was just a solid layer below me.  As I dove through it – boom – I got hit in the fuselage forward of the cockpit, but there was an immediate fire in the cockpit.” He pulled out of that dive and radioed his flight team that he was heading to a “safe bailout area about 50-miles away.”  Sadly, time would not be on his side.  The cockpit fire got worse quickly.  Seeing no alternative, he bailed out, while traveling at a speed much higher than was recommended.  Unconscious upon landing due to his ejection speed, he found that he had a broken arm, and he and his parachute had landed in a tree!  A group of local peasants found Lamar and turned him over to the North Vietnamese Army where he was tortured in an effort, of course, to get information.  He held out and was taken to a prison, known to American POW’s as the “Hanoi Hilton.”

James Lamar would end up residing there at the “Hilton” for almost seven years, where he and his fellow American captives would endure continuing “mental and physical abuse.” One day he shared with fellow prisoners that, not surprisingly, he was feeling a growing sense of depression.  He asked for advice.  One of the group offered this: “I’ll tell you what you do, Jim. You pray. You keep faith in God, your country, and your family. And then you live each day, one day at a time. That’s the way you get through it.”  That sage advice in confinement helped relieve Lamar’s depression.  It aided him tremendously to make it through his over 2,400 days in that inhospitable North Vietnamese prison.  As a part of “Operation Homecoming,” he and several hundred other POW’s were released and headed back to America on February 12, 1973.  At the time he related his shoot-down and lengthy imprisonment to a reporter, Colonel Jim Lamar was 94-years-old.

The 23rd of last month (February), marked the 78th anniversary of the day when six courageous United States Marines raised the American flag on the top of Mount Suribachi during the very costly combat to capture Iwo Jima from dug-in Japanese forces.  Almost 7,000 Marines were killed during those 36-days of fighting, in addition to close to 20,000 wounded. Due to the length, intensity, and cost in Marine lives, some historians consider Iwo Jima to have been “the greatest battle in Marine Corps history.”

Due to the scope and impact of that lengthy island combat, while it’s tough to single out heroes, for this account, we’ll zero in on one incredible Marine. Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams, born in rural West Virginia and raised on a dairy farm, was the youngest of eleven children.  When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was working in Montana with the Civilian Conservation Corps.  He decided to join the Marines because “he wanted to be in those dress blues.” But at 5’6” he didn’t meet the 1942 minimum height requirement. Persistent, however, so that when the regulation was revised in 1943, he was then accepted into the Marine Corps Reserve. Among the elements of his comprehensive recruit training, at several locations, was instruction in the use of flame throwers.  After action at Guadalcanal and Guam, Woody Williams next battle engagement was destined to be at Iwo Jima, where he would make his incredible mark.

By then a Corporal, Williams was following along with American tanks, as they attempted to open a fighting lane for the infantry, when they came upon a seemingly unending array of concrete enemy pillboxes.  This is where and when he would perform so heroically.  While fellow Maines around him were killed or wounded, Williams continued to employ his flame thrower to kill enemy soldiers in countless pillboxes, even doing so out in the open, when Japanese soldiers came at him with bayonets.  No challenge, however, for a flame thrower!  As one write-up eventually described his heroics, “at age 21, Williams single-handedly operated six recharged flamethrowers against Japanese forces for several hours and ultimately cleared a path for American troops.”  Hard to believe but despite the intensity of resistance and fire that Williams faced, somehow through incredible luck, he was only wounded once in the leg by enemy fire and would later receive the Purple Heart.  And an unexpected sidelight:  While fighting intensely with his trusty flamethrowers, we was actually able to witness the American flag being raised on Mount Suribachi, not far from his continuous efforts to rid the area of pillboxes of those concealed enemy fighters.

For his “extraordinary heroism” during the Battle of Iwo Jima, Woody Williams would be awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman in 1945. He would remain in the Marine Corps Reserve, promoted over the years eventually to Chief Warrant Officer 4, while working for over 30-years as a veterans’ service representative with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  At the age of 98, American Marine Corps hero, Hershel “Woody” Williams, passed away.  He was the last surviving MOH recipient from World War II.

And finally: “Here rests in honored glory an American Soldier, Known but to God.” As most of you may recognize, those special words form the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, located at Arlington National Cemetery, and dedicated over a century ago on November 11, 1921. Since then, this sacred Memorial “has stood at the heart of the cemetery, serving as a site for reflection on service, valor, and sacrifice. The Unknowns represent all unidentified service members who gave their lives for the United States.”

Originally dedicated to the memory of our soldiers lost and unidentified in World War I, this honored remembrance site has been subsequently expanded to include all unidentified service members lost during World War II and in all of our military conflicts thereafter.  Reportedly, more than 60,000 U.S. service members are still considered to be Missing in Action from Word War II, while another nearly 20,000 brave Americans are recorded as MIA’s from the Korean War to the present.  The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier will observe another annual  dedication anniversary this November 11th, with its then 102-year presence as the nation’s primary place of remembrance for all of those thousands of unidentified military members lost to America throughout our wars and conflicts, all in valiant service to our great nation and the ongoing fight to preserve freedom, both here, and when challenged, elsewhere in the world, as well.


(Fact Sources: Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient via The Wall Street Journal, Joseph Pisani, 3-4-23; Dorie Miller receives the Navy Cross for his heroic actions via breitbart.com, Warner Todd Huston, 12-7-22; Seven years in the Hanoi Hilton via foxnews.com, Paul Best, 8-1-22; Woody Williams “extraordinary heroism” and MOH, en.wikipedia.org. and defense.gov, Editors; Tomb of the Unknown Soldier via foxnews.com, Kerry J. Byrne, 11-11-22).