Always faithful: Marine veterans tend to hero’s grave, cemetery

Posted at 3:43 PM, Nov 11, 2012

By Phil Gast, CNN

MACON, Georgia (CNN) – A smiling likeness of legendary soul singer Otis Redding greets visitors to the city clerk’s office in this central Georgia city. Down the hall, inside the mayor’s office, is a portrait of another Macon legend: Rodney M. Davis.

Both men were African-Americans of about the same age. Both men died in 1967. Both men are city heroes.

Redding and his music are famous worldwide. The story of Davis, who gave his life in Vietnam and became Macon’s only recipient of the Medal of Honor, is not so well known, despite two monuments in the city and a U.S. Navy frigate bearing his name.

Vietnam, after all, was a few wars ago. Acrimony over the United States’ presence there has faded with time, along with much of the bitterness once felt by now-graying warriors.

But the loyalty among veterans hasn’t faded. Marines never forget their own.

Saturday morning, joined by Davis’ family, a couple dozen Marines gathered near the grave of the comrade they barely knew, but will never forget.

Atop a bluff overlooking Interstate 75 in Macon, they placed a wreath and dedicated a 14-foot monument to Sgt. Davis, helping to restore the dignity that nature and neglect robbed from the cemetery that holds his remains.

They pledged protection to the man who, even in childhood, was a protector.

A forceful personality

Rodney Davis grew up in Pleasant Hill, an African-American neighborhood less than two miles from Macon’s City Hall.

In the late 1950s, Davis and his brothers often traversed Linwood Cemetery while delivering newspapers for the Macon Telegraph.

Davis was a tall youngster, who spoke out for what he believed in. He seemed to be acutely attuned to kids picking on other kids. He didn’t allow it to happen in his presence.

“He was a forceful personality,” says Josephine Davis, wife of Rodney’s older brother, Gordon Davis Jr. “He really believed in protecting the underdog.”

Even in the dark days of segregation, the Davis children learned not to sell themselves short. “My parents never put a bridle on us,” says Gordon Davis. “You could dream what you could do.”

For Rodney, that dream meant enlisting in the Marines in 1961. After serving at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Davis had a three-year stint as a guard at the U.S. Embassy in London, where he met and married his late wife, Judy.

Davis then volunteered for Vietnam. Judy and the couple’s two daughters, Nicky, 2, and Samantha, 1, stayed with the Davis family in Macon.

The family knew Davis’ life would be on the line.

“He stopped being a show Marine,” said Gordon Davis.

The family did not learn the full story of Rodney’s selfless bravery until they were en route to Washington in March 1969 for the Medal of Honor ceremony led by Vice President Spiro Agnew, nearly two years after Davis’ death.

But they were not surprised.

“What he did is exactly what I expected he would do,” Gordon Davis says.

Rodney Davis arrived in South Vietnam in mid-August 1967, assigned to Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. The unit had been fighting enemy troops in and around Que Son Valley, southwest of Da Nang.

The unit operated out of Hill 51.

“It was a naked hill, and we turned it into a combat base,” says Gary Petrous of suburban Detroit. “This was like the Indian Wars, where you would build a fort and move on after you secured the area.”

It was Davis’ job as right guide to procure ammunition, food and water for his platoon. “In the heat, you go a half day without water, you go crazy,” recalls Ron Posey, the senior sergeant.

Davis was a pro. His gear was always in order.

“He didn’t talk loud, but he got things done,” says Posey, who was wounded twice in Vietnam. “Everything was always done before I asked him.”

Walking into an ambush

In early September 1967, the Marine battalion participated in Operation SWIFT, slugging it out with husky and well-equipped North Vietnamese troops.

Just a few weeks into his tour of duty, Davis’ company left its position to assist another company that had been overwhelmed by a larger enemy force during a search-and-destroy mission. The next few days brought a whirl of firefights and counterattacks.

The sergeants dug a defensive hole one evening and shared some time together. “It was the first time we ever had time to talk to each other and find out who we were,” Posey says.

On September 6, the company “walked into the largest U-shaped ambush I have ever seen,” according to Petrous. The Marines were outnumbered by about three to one. “We drew back because we were in a very tenuous position.”

“Disregarding the enemy hand grenades and high volume of small arms and mortar fire,” the Medal of Honor citation reads, “Sergeant Davis moved from man to man shouting words of encouragement to each of them while firing and throwing grenades at the onrushing enemy.”

Posey heard the thud of one grenade hitting the ground. Davis acted without hesitation.

“I see Rodney crawling on the bottom of the trench, pulling the hand grenade underneath himself.”

The Marine absorbed “with his body the full and terrific force of the explosion,” his medal citation reads.

Davis, who died instantly, saved several comrades from serious injury or death. He was 25 years old.

“He saved my life. That sounds stupid I suppose, but he did,” says Posey. “You try to rationalize in this situation. He saved it for just that one moment. I could have been killed a thousand times after that. He gave me a chance to continue, and I used that chance to continue.”

The Marines knew they could not hold the position at dark and moved back 40 to 50 yards to set up a new line. About 90 Marines, including another Medal of Honor recipient, died in Operation SWIFT. Enemy dead was estimated at 600.

All the men Davis saved were white. But race was not an issue for Davis’ family or fellow Marines.

“There is not white, black, red and yellow here,” says Nicholas Warr, who directed the monument effort for the 1/5 Vietnam Veterans Association. “Our job is to take care of each other.”

Hellish memories of Vietnam remain etched in the minds of the Marines who served with and after Davis. Posey got out of the service less than a year after Operation SWIFT.

The retired businessman, grandfather and great-grandfather still speaks with some difficulty about Vietnam, although he eventually found some peace. “You have to think 30 years before you bring your thoughts together.”

Posey visited his ill mother before she passed away earlier this year.

“She kind of got upset because I hadn’t talked to Rodney’s mom,” Posey says, wiping his eyes. “She thought I should have done that. Yeah, I could only agree with her. I didn’t have the courage when it was needed.”

Forgotten history

Rodney Davis could have been buried in Arlington National Cemetery but his late mother, Ruth Davis, wanted her son to be buried in Linwood, in a plot near family.

The cemetery, established in 1894, tells the story of Macon’s African-American community. About 4,000 people are buried there, including Buffalo Soldiers; Spanish-American War veterans; Jefferson Long, the first African-American from Georgia to serve in Congress, and businessman Charles Douglass, founder of the Douglass Theater.

“These are the backs Macon was built on,” says volunteer groundskeeper Greg Smith.

Linwood, then in private hands, opened more than 90 years before Georgia required cemetery operators to provide perpetual care.

For decades, families lovingly maintained the graves. The Davis family, which kept Rodney’s plot free of grass and weeds for many years, participates in cemetery work days.

“It’s about your integrity and history,” says Edgar Ray, a schoolteacher and Rodney Davis’ nephew. “We used to do this as a family event on Saturday. I learned to use the lawn mower and Weed Eater down here.”

By the late 1970s, many African-American families started moving away from Pleasant Hill, which had been severed by I-75. Pride in the neighborhood eroded, and it became known for crime and drug use, even in Linwood Cemetery. One street is dubbed “Bucket of Blood” because of violence.

As is the case in many cemeteries, the years have been unkind to Linwood. Without full-time, professional maintenance, markers and monuments sank into the ground. Some of the acreage is now forested, the undergrowth almost impenetrable.

“Unless you had a family come over and care for (a site), it wasn’t happening,” says Debra Ray, Rodney’s younger sister. She lives in the family home on Neal Avenue, less than a mile from the cemetery.

Amir Hassan, a community activist, said it isn’t that people in Pleasant Hill don’t care about the burial ground. “It has left their consciousness.”

The Davis family at one point was asked whether they wanted Rodney reinterred at Arlington. They declined. “Mother would say if Rodney wasn’t there nobody would care about the cemetery,” says Ray.

The city eventually declared 14-acre Linwood Cemetery “abandoned and neglected.”

The last private owner put little effort into maintenance, according to a preservation plan prepared for the city of Macon and the nonprofit group, formed a decade ago, that now cares for the cemetery.

The Macon Cemetery Preservation Corp. faces mammoth challenges, from groundskeeping to fund-raising. The few dozen hardy volunteers know that making Linwood a neighborhood asset again will take time.

Volunteers and Marines are in a constant battle against nature’s inexorable tide. “Acres and acres of this cemetery literally were under jungle,” says Warr.

Eventually, leader Alice Jackson says, the group hopes to be able to provide perpetual care for the entire cemetery.

With a $15,000 budget, the cemetery preservation group depends on monthly work parties that draw a range of volunteers, including Junior ROTC students. Help has come from community grants, tools and occasional local government and prison maintenance crews. Monthly cleanups have uncovered dozens of graves swallowed by vegetation.

“Progress has been made,” says Jackson.

While the preservation group has some records, it doesn’t yet have a complete inventory of the graves at Linwood, says Yolanda Latimore, Jackson’s daughter.

“It’s really hard to tell,” she says. “A lot of graves are not marked. Maybe a slab, or maybe a tree. Perhaps a wooden cross or ornament.”

Latimore says she would like to see a perimeter fence, a website to raise awareness and the involvement of more young people. There are plans to repair broken grave covers. Latimore’s father, brother and other relatives are buried at Linwood.

Some hope the attention to Davis’ grave might inspire additional volunteers and prompt the local government, which owns and maintains a nearby cemetery, to do more.

Macon City Council member Larry Schlesinger said the city would like to do more for the historic cemetery, but has been hampered by tight finances during the recession. Better economic times and a current effort to clean up Macon neighborhoods and demolish dilapidated housing should benefit Pleasant Hill, he said.

“Now we have people’s attention,” Latimore says of the cemetery group’s efforts. “We have to use the resources and rich history that is there. We have a lot of work before us.”

A war hero’s new legacy

Randy Leedom remembers the day the grenade landed in that trench in Vietnam: Rodney Davis was right next to him.

“I jumped to the right,” Leedom recalled from his home in Hillsboro, Oregon. Davis crawled on the grenade.

Leedom, who served in Vietnam until April 1968, did not get to know Davis before that day, but he never forgot the sergeant’s sacrifice.

A few years ago, Leedom was driving from Florida through Macon and decided to visit the cemetery and Davis’ grave. Everything was overgrown, he says.

“You couldn’t hardly see the stones,” he says. “There was one piece of concrete sunk in, broke in half.”

Upset, Leedom contacted Warr, telling him the setting was not suitable for a Medal of Honor recipient.

At about the same time, Jason Greene, a Marine reservist who served in Afghanistan, took part in a flag rededication ceremony at Linwood. He had no idea it was for a Medal of Honor recipient, let alone one who served in the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, as did Greene’s father, Dale.

Davis’ grave was full of weeds and vegetation, says Jason Greene. A wooden sign overlooking I-75 was in bad shape and letters spelling “USMC” had chipped paint. “It was a nightmare.”

With those reports, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines veterans group sprang into action.

Along with the Montford Point Marine Association, a national group primarily made up of African-American veterans, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines veterans take part in twice-annual work parties at Linwood Cemetery, attracting workers from across the country.

They largely concentrate on Davis’ resting place and surrounding graves, clearing weeds and tall grass.

The veterans group decided to replace the rundown, wooden sign with an enduring monument to Davis, says Warr, who lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He never personally knew Davis, having served in Vietnam after his death.

The Marines are giving $5,000, from dozens of donations totaling more than $80,000, to the Macon Cemetery Preservation Corp. for perpetual care of the monument and the surrounding area. Warr says his colleagues will continue their work parties.

The veterans group has also created a scholarship fund of $25,000, in Davis’ memory that will benefit graduating Junior ROTC students in Bibb County, where Macon is.

It is helping deepen a bond between Davis’ family and the veteran community, and fostering a renewed appreciation for Davis’ heroism.

“I would like for his legacy to be one that people understand he gave his all for his country,” says Debra Ray. “We as a family are all about service and education.”

Howard Davis, another brother of Rodney, took part in a fund-raiser held by the veterans group for the scholarship, saying the event “was one of the proudest times of my life.”

Saturday, family, veterans and others who have dedicated themselves to saving Linwood stood on the hillside with a couple hundred other people as cars flew by on I-75 below.

Leedom and Petrous, who fought with Davis, attended the dedication, which coincided with the Marine Corps’ 237th birthday and was held the day before Veterans Day.

Color guards comprising Marine veterans and Junior ROTC students participated on a bright, sunny morning. After speeches, a moment of silence and a gun salute, the playing of Taps concluded the service.

“We have a duty to honor out fallen heroes,” said Jim Dougherty, president of the 1/5 Vietnam Veterans Association.

Visitors to the site will be able to sit on four benches, reflecting on Davis’ bravery and the text written on the lighted black and gray granite monument. The base and obelisk feature a likeness of Davis and an etching of a helmet, rifle and boots forming a cross.

One panel reads: “May this monument be a beacon of love that shines on all those who contribute to the many efforts needed to completely restore Linwood Cemetery.”

“This can be a beautiful resting place for these 4,000 souls,” Warr says.

Gordon Davis, who named a son Rodney, is grateful for what the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines veterans have done, but he and other family members still feel the pain, 45 years later.

“He was my little brother. If it was a dozen Medals of Honor, it wouldn’t take the place of a brother.”