How Rodney Davis' Vietnam War heroism still inspires his grandsons

Rodney Davis' family is presented with his Medal of Honor following his heroism in Vietnam. Courtesy of Davis family

Samantha Steen often imagines what her father might say if he could meet her three sons. She wonders what it would be like to meet him, too.

Steen was only 13 months old when her father, Sgt. Rodney M. Davis of the U.S. Marine Corps, was killed in action in Vietnam on Sept. 6, 1967. Davis, who was 25 years old when he died, left behind a wife and two young daughters: Samantha and her older sister, Nicky.

Samantha, who now works as an attorney in South Florida, didn't learn the details of her father's death until she was about 9. She read a newspaper account of how Davis had heroically jumped on a grenade to save five fellow Marines during a horrific firefight.

"As a kid, I thought, 'Why my dad? Why did he have to do that?'" Samantha said. "That was my first thought. But then I thought, My gosh, how brave. How incredible it was that he would do such a thing to save others. I felt pride because he did it. There were a whole lot of feelings because he was my dad, and I never got to meet him and know him. I felt a loss, but at the same time I felt what he did was incredible. I always wanted him there with me, but I couldn't have that."

Through the stories Samantha heard from her mother, Judy Davis, and her father's parents, siblings and friends, she now recognizes many of his traits in her sons. Tyler Steen, the oldest, was a two-year starting offensive lineman at Vanderbilt and will play next season at Alabama. Middle son Blake will be a freshman offensive lineman at Virginia this fall, and Dylan will be a high school freshman. (Their father, Daris Steen, played football at LSU and was also a Marine.)

"I think he would be very proud," Samantha said. "My father, from what I've been told, was a very no-nonsense, very disciplined person. I think my three sons are very much like that. They exemplify many of the things that I've learned about my father."

As soon as the Steen brothers were old enough to understand, Samantha told them about her father. They toured the USS Rodney M. Davis, the U.S. Navy's first warship named after a Black Medal of Honor recipient. They touched his name on Panel 26E, Line 8, at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. And they saw the monument and section of interstate in his hometown of Macon, Georgia, that honored him.

"I was very proud of him," Blake Steen said. "To have someone that selfless, it's probably a one-in-a-million chance that someone would do what he did."

On Memorial Day, Americans will honor the brave women and men who died while serving in the military, including Davis, who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam's Que Son Valley more than a half-century ago.

Rodney Davis grew up in Macon in a big family. He had three brothers and one sister, but his parents, Ruth and Gordon, also took in Ruth's brother's children -- all seven of them. There were 12 kids in the Davis home, which, for a long time, had only one bathroom.

Debra Ray, his sister, remembers that Rodney loved ice cream.

"He would walk us home from church, and there was a place here, Sunshine Dairy, where we would stop and get ice cream," Ray said. "But because of the times, there was a little section that colored people had to stand to get their ice cream. He would never let my brother, Robert, and I go into the store with him. He would go in and bring our ice cream back. He would never let us go in and be subjected to that. I remember how much he loved us and how much he protected us."

When Rodney graduated high school in 1961, he surprised his parents by enlisting in the Marines. They had hoped he would follow his older brother, Gordon, to college at Fort Valley State. Instead, he left for Parris Island, South Carolina, for boot camp. He had additional training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, before landing a prestigious security detail assignment at the U.S. Embassy in London.

Shortly after arriving in England for his three-year tour, Davis met Judy Humphrey, who was working as a secretary at another foreign embassy. She was born in Barbados and raised in London. They married and had Nicky and Samantha. After being promoted to sergeant, Davis enlisted for six more years. He also requested a change of duties -- he wanted to fight in Vietnam.

According to the book, "Sgt. Rodney M. Davis: The Making Of a Hero," by John Hollis, Davis told his brother, Gordon: "It's time to stop being a 'show' Marine and time to be a 'real' Marine. Nobody is more qualified than I am."

On July 11, 1967, Davis left for Camp Pendleton in California to start preparing for Vietnam. It was the last time he would see his wife and two daughters.

Davis had only been in Vietnam for three weeks when his unit, Company B of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, was ordered to assist Delta Company, which was being overmatched by much larger North Vietnamese forces of about 2,500 men on the morning of Sept. 4, 1967.

"We walked through this one section for about two clicks that was mostly wooded trees and jungle," said Gary Petrous, who was a 19-year-old assistant gunner in Bravo Company. "I felt like there were a hundred pairs of eyes watching me. I looked up and down the line at our guys and everybody looked nervous."

By the end of the first day of fighting, 54 Marines had been killed and another 104 wounded. It was the deadliest single day for the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines during the Vietnam War. What was left of Delta Company returned to base, leaving Bravo Company to chase down the NVA and Viet Cong in a mission that became known as "Operation Swift."

Davis, the unit's third-highest ranking member, was in charge of distributing supplies to his troops, including ammunition and food.

Bravo Company was ordered to advance on Chau Lam, a small village about two kilometers away. When they reached the village, it was empty and eerily quiet.

It was a trap.

"We came past a little cemetery at the edge of this little village," Petrous said. "It only had somewhere between 10 and 20 little grass shacks there, but it was surrounded by bigger islands in the paddies. There was nothing on them. It was all foliage and that's where all the NVA were."

Under attack from a barrage of heavy machine gun fire, Davis and others retreated to a 30-foot trench along the tree line. Bullets whizzed over their heads.

"We've got good position now! We've got guys where we need them and we're going to be OK," Davis repeatedly told the troops, according to Hollis' book.

But the Marines knew they were badly outnumbered.

"We couldn't stop 'em," Platoon Cmdr. John Brackeen told Hollis. "There were too many of them. There was a regiment of them. They just kept coming."

After several minutes of fighting, the NVA was close enough, about 20 yards away, to begin tossing grenades into the trench. As the grenades fell, the Marines jumped in and out of the hole to avoid the blasts. Davis hurled the grenades back at the NVA. He had four to six seconds before one detonated.

Suddenly, two grenades came in Davis' direction. One flew high over the trench and exploded harmlessly behind him. The second one bounced off Lance Cpl. Lonnie Hinshaw's leg and landed near Brackeen and Platoon Sgt. Ron Posey.

For more than 50 years, Petrous and others in the trench have wondered why Davis did what he did next. According to eyewitness statements, Davis intentionally lunged on top of the grenade. He used both his arms to pull the grenade under his body, making certain that he would absorb all of its deadly blast.

Davis' body was thrust high in the air and came crashing down. He died instantly.

"He pulled (the grenade) in," Marine Ben Drollinger told Hollis. "He knew what he was doing. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it."

Added Posey: "He took the entire blast. There was nothing that came out. I know I was close enough that I would have been seriously hurt or perhaps killed if any blast had escaped. I have often wondered if I could do the same. I don't know. I suppose you only find out at that instant."

Judy Davis was in the kitchen of her in-laws' home in Macon when she saw Marines walking up the sidewalk. She collapsed on the floor, according to family members. They told her that her husband had been killed by an enemy grenade, but offered few other details.

Davis was buried at a family plot at Linwood Cemetery in Macon on Sept. 23, 1967. He wasn't buried at Arlington National Cemetery so his family could have him closer to home.

What is most striking to Petrous, even now, was that Davis sacrificed his life for fellow Marines he barely knew. He remembered saying only a few words to the well-dressed newcomer before that tragic day in the Que Son Valley.

"All of us were so amazed because it wasn't like he was saving these bosom buddies of his that he had gone through hell and back with," Petrous said. "He saw his responsibility and he did what he had to do to save the guys' lives."

A few days after Petrous and others loaded Davis' body onto a chopper, Marine Randy Leedom, who had been standing alongside Davis in the trench, asked Petrous to help him write a recommendation for Davis to receive the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military's highest honor.

After Petrous left Vietnam and returned home to Detroit, he didn't hear anything about Davis' application for nearly two years. Then one day, while reading Leatherneck Magazine, a publication for Marines, he saw a picture of Davis' widow receiving a Medal of Honor from Vice President Spiro Agnew during a ceremony at the White House on March 26, 1969.

"I read the article, in which there was a citation, and it was darn near word for word what I had written," Petrous said. "I mean, it was as close as close could be. I got chills just looking at it."

Along with other details of the incident, the citation read: "Disregarding the enemy hand grenades and high volume of small arms and mortar fire, Sergeant Davis moved from man to man shouting words of encouragement to each of them while firing and throwing grenades at the onrushing enemy. When an enemy grenade landed in the trench in the midst of his men, Sergeant Davis, realizing the gravity of the situation, and in a final valiant act of complete self-sacrifice, instantly threw himself upon the grenade, absorbing with his own body the full and terrific force of the explosion. Through his extraordinary initiative and inspiring valor in the face of almost certain death, Sergeant Davis saved his comrades from injury and possible loss of life, enabled his platoon to hold its vital position and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country."

Ray said the Davis family didn't learn details of Rodney's death -- and his heroic actions -- until they were on the plane heading to Washington, D.C.

It wouldn't be until many years later that the Davis family first learned that all of the men Rodney saved were white, at a time when he would have still faced systemic racism back home.

"I don't know if anyone really ever thought about the men that he saved until it was brought up to us," Samantha said. "It was always that he made a sacrifice and saved lives. They were able to go home to their families because of what he did. I don't think we ever thought about that. When we found out we were like, 'Whoa.' I never knew it and never thought about what ethnicity they were until it was told to us. After we found out, I thought about how ironic it was that he did that at the time he did that."

Each time Debra Ray visits with Rodney Davis' grandsons, she looks closely to see if she recognizes him. Tyler and Blake are both 6 feet, 5 inches, the same height as their grandfather. Dylan, the youngest, is already 6 feet, 2 inches. Ray says she sees even more of Rodney in the daughters he left behind.

"I keep looking at the boys to see if I see him," Ray said. "While I try to let them be their own people, it's kind of amazing. It's really not so much Tyler, Blake and Dylan as Nicky and Sammy. I never expected to see my brother in them, but there he is. Two really strong women making their own way in the world. I imagine that's what Sammy is doing with her boys, raising them to be strong, independent men."

Samantha and Nicky, a banking executive in California, got much of their strength and independence from their mother, too. Judy Davis attended Fort Valley State in Georgia, graduated in three years and moved her girls to California. She had a long career with Lockheed Martin before dying of breast cancer in 2005.

"My mom raised my sister and I alone," Samantha said. "She never remarried. She was a very strong woman. Can you imagine just moving to the United States, with two children and just meeting your in-laws? It hadn't been that long. We survived and had a good life, even though we didn't get to have him in our lives."

Tyler Steen first learned of his grandfather's heroic actions while doing a project on his family tree during elementary school. His mother didn't want him reading about Rodney online or hearing about what happened from someone else.

"It was really cool to know that my grandfather had this incredible story, and getting to share that at school was pretty cool," Tyler said. "As I've gotten older, I've learned more and more from the people who knew him, and I've seen the monuments."

Tyler, 21, is only four years younger than his grandfather was when he died.

"I honestly can't imagine it because he was close to my age when he was fighting in Vietnam and made that decision," Tyler said. "To this day, I can't imagine what was going through his head. Obviously, it was a split-second decision and it really wasn't something he had to think about. It was something that was ingrained in him. I can't wrap my head around it, but it was incredible."

Tyler and Blake both played at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale. Tyler played on the defensive line as a freshman at Vanderbilt in 2018, then switched to the offensive line. He started every game at right tackle in 2019 and moved to left tackle the next season. He started 21 games the past two seasons for the Commodores before entering the transfer portal. He chose Alabama over Kentucky, LSU, Virginia and other schools.

Tyler is expected to compete for one of the Crimson Tide's two vacant starting offensive tackle positions this coming season.

Blake helped lead St. Thomas Aquinas High to three consecutive Class 7A state titles. He is part of former Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott's first recruiting class at Virginia. Blake chose the Cavaliers over Vanderbilt, Jackson State, New Mexico State, Tennessee State and Mississippi Valley State.

Blake is expected to play guard at Virginia, which has plenty of holes to fill on the offensive line after it lost six linemen from last year's roster, including four who left via the transfer portal.

Even though his younger brother was overlooked by many FBS schools, Tyler says Blake will be better than him. And Dylan might end up being the best college football prospect in the family.

"I have complete confidence in Blake that he's going to be an absolute baller in everything he does," Tyler said. "I think he was definitely a little underappreciated in the recruiting process. He's bigger than me and he's more athletic than me. He has a great work ethic. I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed they passed up on him."

In 2010, Petrous and other Marines learned from Leedom that the Linwood Cemetery had fallen into disrepair. They raised $60,000 to clean it up and erect a monument to honor Davis. Another $20,000 was used to create a scholarship for high school students in Macon to attend college. The scholarship fund now has more than $300,000.

Petrous had never met Davis' family until he attended the dedication of the memorial in Macon.

"The hardest part for me was meeting the Davis family for the first time," Petrous said. "I thought, 'What are they going to think when I show up?' Are they going to say, 'This is the guy he gave his life for?' I was really apprehensive about that. Or maybe if I had done something that might have caused this to happen. I might have a share of this blame. But I've got to say that I've never in my life been treated as well as they treated us. They were so magnificent.

"I drove home to Detroit from Macon, and I cried all the way home."

Each spring, while driving from Detroit to Florida for vacation, Petrous stops at the cemetery to visit Davis' grave.

"Through a bunch of weird circumstances, I got the honor of writing that," Petrous said. "Here it is chiseled in granite and it's going to be there for a couple of hundred years. It's the greatest honor I've ever had."

When those who knew Rodney Davis turn on the TV to watch his grandsons play college football this fall, they'll once again be reminded of his bravery.

"I know my sons have tremendous pride and respect for what he did," Samantha said. "They completely understand what he sacrificed and how that had to be a great sacrifice for someone to do something like that. They completely understand what took place."