Washington — President Biden on Friday awarded the Medal of Honor to Ret. Army Col. Paris Davis at a White House ceremony on Friday, honoring his heroism during the Vietnam War nearly 60 years ago.
Davis was one of the first Black officers in the Army's elite Green Berets, but his nomination for the nation's highest combat decoration mysteriously vanished twice at the height of the civil rights movement.
"This may be the most consequential day since I've been president," the president said. "This is an incredible man."
Davis saved the lives his troops on the battlefield in Vietnam and ignored an order to evacuate until all of his teammates were extracted from intense fighting in 1965. Mr. Biden recounted his heroics before bestowing the Medal of Honor.
Davis, then a captain, led an inexperienced South Vietnamese force and several other Americans on a nighttime raid against a larger Viet Cong force near Bong Son in June 1965. While returning, the enemy troops staged a counterattack before dawn.
"Within minutes, the jungle lit up with enemy fire. Hundreds of Viet Cong began to swarm Capt. Davis and his team, pinning them down in a rice paddy with no cover," Mr. Biden said. "Capt. Davis rallied his team to fight back, getting so close to the enemy he was battling them hand to hand."
After hours of fighting, Davis realized two of his fellow Americans were injured. One sergeant was in the rice paddy, and a weapons specialist was knocked out in a cesspit. A medic had also been shot in the head.
"Capt. Davis realized he was the last American standing. Without hesitation he yelled, 'I'm coming for you. I'm coming for you,'" Mr. Biden said.
Davis returned down a hill to rescue the men multiple times, even after being shot in the leg. He refused medical evacuation when reinforcements arrived, and returned to save a teammate who was wounded in the initial counterattack. He only left the scene once all members of his company had reached safety.
His commanding officer, Billy Cole, later nominated him for the Medal of Honor. But then the paperwork mysteriously vanished. A 1969 military review "did not reveal any file" on Davis.
The president acknowledged the delay in his receiving the Medal of Honor: "I wish I could say this story of Paris' sacrifice on that day in 1965 was fully recognized and rewarded immediately. But sadly we know they weren't."
Davis and those who advocated for him suspect race was a factor.
"And I think that's a shame," Regan Davis Hopper, his daughter, told CBS News' Catherine Herridge ahead of Friday's ceremony. "Discrimination hurts us all, not just the individual, but our entire country. So, I'm so proud of us to finally set this right."
"My family hopes that in some small way it could just help us all heal some of the divisions in this country," she said.
It took the work of a diverse group of volunteers, many who didn't know Davis but worked to revive his case.
The nomination was recommended by senior defense officials and ultimately approved by Mr. Biden, who called Davis last month to tell him he would receive the Medal of Honor "for his remarkable heroism during the Vietnam War," according to a White House statement.
"The call today from President Biden prompted a wave of memories of the men and women I served with in Vietnam — from the members of 5th Special Forces Group and other U.S. military units to the doctors and nurses who cared for our wounded," Davis said in a statement released by him and his family last month.
"I am so very grateful for my family and friends within the military and elsewhere who kept alive the story of A-team, A-321 at Camp Bong Son," he said. "I think often of those fateful 19 hours on June 18, 1965 and what our team did to make sure we left no man behind on that battlefield."
With the award, Davis receives a new pension backdated to 1965. He will now be one of just 65 living Medal of Honor recipients, and said he shares it with his special forces soldiers.
"All the other soldiers that you've been working with and fighting with, somehow they need to touch that medal. You know, it ain't all yours," he said. "It's for America, too."