"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.