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Veteran shares his heroic experiences

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

Charles Davis celebrated his 88th birthday Sunday.

Although he walks with a cane and his health has declined in recent years, his sense of humor is as keen as ever.

Upon being asked how he was doing Tuesday, Davis responded, "I'm kicking, but not high."

Davis is a revered and favored son in the Arlington area. Despite being a decorated World War II veteran, Davis rarely spoke of his three years of infantry combat experience in the European Allied campaign until the last few years.

It wasn't until Bank of Early Branch Manager Chuck Cowart visited Sgt. Davis' home and saw a display case holding eight medals -- including a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts -- that many people in the area learned about Davis' heroic exploits. Cowart asked Davis if he could take his framed display case to the bank.

"I just wanted to let people know that they had a World War II hero in their community," Cowart said.

Davis was drafted into the Army in November 1942. He was 21 years old and served in the Army's 83rd Division, 331st Infantry Regiment in Company I. He was one of the two machine gunners in the company, holding a 30-caliber gun that weighed 35 pounds.

"Me and Daddy talked it over," Davis said. "It would be best to wait until I'm drafted. That way (Mama) can't hold it against me like she would if I volunteered."

Davis' mother struggled with health issues throughout her life and her condition only worsened while her only son served because she feared he wouldn't return.

"(Army officials) told me I would be in the infantry and said we'd need them to invade Europe," Davis said. "They said they'd rather have country boys than others because they were better in conflict."

Davis' company was assigned to relieve the 101st Airborne, which jumped the night before the D-Day invasion by Allied Forces in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. Davis' company was waiting in the English Channel, but because of a bad storm they weren't able to relieve the 101st until July 4.

"When we first went in there our biggest trouble was snipers in our hedgerows," Davis said of the thick bushes dotting the Normandy landscape. "You couldn't make a move there without the snipers shooting at you. And our colonel, Barndollar, came up to find out why we couldn't move and a sniper got him. They got him right in the head."

Davis said he tried not to think about being afraid while he was in combat.

"The worst part about being scared is not while you're in combat or right after, it's that when you get to think about what happened then you get scared," he said. "But in combat, you got too much else to think about to be scared."

On July 5, Davis remembered doing something he never had been asked to do before by his company commander.

"It was about six Germans out there about 300 yards, walking in a single file, about four or five paces between them," Davis said in an interview with Charles and Regina Garrett, who previously helped Davis chronicle his war experiences. "That was the first time I shot at anybody point blank. They all went down. I didn't take their pulse. I don't like to talk about it. Most of the time the machine gun just shot at the hedgerows to keep their heads down."

A couple weeks after the incident, Davis said he had his worst day when his company crossed a swamp to gain a high ground advantage. But his company was soon counter-attacked by Germans with a tank and artillery. Things looked so grim, his battalion commander asked his soldiers for something that was white so that he could surrender. The commander told the men, "I've done seen as many get killed as I can stand."

Davis wasn't interested in surrendering. He got back down from the high ground, went through the swamp and managed to get back to the high ground on the other side. Only 29 enlisted men and a lieutenant were able to get out of the deadly situation.

Another bad hedgerow experience came when Davis was directed to stop a sniper attack.

"We went out there and started digging in, me and this one other boy," Davis told the Garretts. "We were going to dig a foxhole that both of us could get in. I'd get in the hole and dig a while and he'd get in the hole and dig a while. While I was down in there digging, he was setting up there on the outside and a sniper shot him right in the head. I just knew the next thing would be when I showed myself I was going to be the next one.

"But he never did shoot anymore," Davis continued. "I stayed there the rest of the night with him laying up there on top of the foxhole. He had a watch ticking and when it was real quiet, you could hear it ticking all night long. Why that sniper didn't shoot me, I don't know. Nobody can figure out things like that. It just wasn't my time."

Davis' time almost came on Aug. 8, 1944, when he was injured for the first time. He was in St. Malo, France, and his company was taking the city from the Germans one street at a time. He was shot on the right side of his stomach while trying to clear a house of Germans. Because the bullet was too close to his spine, medical personnel couldn't extract it. The bullet remains in Davis' body to this day, its position confirmed in an X-ray.

It took him four or five months to recover from the injury, but unfortunately the shooting was reported to the War Department as having taken his life, and a telegram was dispatched to his family. The War Department had caught the error and called to try to stop the mail carrier, but they were unable to get the message to his parents in time. His mother believed her worst fears had come true, but later was told the telegram was a mistake.

Davis also fought in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the deadliest battles in the war, in which 19,000 Americans died. The battle started in December 1944 and ended in January 1945.

"The Germans were bad, don't get me wrong, but the worst part about it was the weather," Davis said. "One night it got to 30 below, but every night it was 0 to 20 below. We were losing more men from the cold weather than from the Germans."

In March 1945, Davis demonstrated heroism, which later earned him a Bronze Star medal citation from the Office of the Commanding General.

"On 3 March 1945, in Kapellen, Germany, when the Company was attacked by a strong force of enemy infantry and tanks, Sergeant Davis personally led his men to a new position in order to bring more effective fire upon the enemy," the citation stated. "When small arms fire became extremely heavy, Sergeant Davis heroically ordered his men to take cover while he, alone, manned the squad's machine gun and repulsed the attack. His unwavering courage in the face of a determined enemy are in keeping with the finest traditions of the military service and merit great praise."

Davis received his second Purple Heart medal a month later in Hamburg, Germany. He suffered injuries to his right arm and right leg near the groin when an 88 shell came through the room and exploded in a room in a house he occupied.

Glimpsing for the first time a German concentration camp for imprisoned Jews was something that Davis said was one of the roughest parts of his war experience. To see the protruding bones of the deathly sick Jews was something he will never forget. It also caused some American soldiers to completely lose it and exact revenge immediately.

"I saw some of our soldiers mow them down, the guards that were working around the concentration camp," he said. "There would be some people that would say we shouldn't have done that and I would say that's your opinion."

Late in the war, Davis recalled German soldiers surrendering often. He said if the soldier threw up his hands and tossed his rifle, they would let him surrender.

"But, if he still had his rifle you could shoot him," Davis said. "Our outfit captured 20,000 at one time. I could tell you so many things the paper would run out of space."

After Germany surrendered, Davis' company was told they were not going home, but instead were going to prepare to invade Japan.

"They were expecting half a million casualties," he said. "They didn't mind making us feel bad. We lost one man in the training who went through all that over there. It doesn't get no worse than that."

A couple days later Davis found out from a future Bainbridge firefighter, J.W. Burns, that the training wouldn't be necessary.

"He drove officers around all day and heard them talking," Davis said. "He said we dropped a bomb on Japan that would destroy a town the size of New York. I said, 'I can't believe that.' And the next day, we heard it straight from the horse's mouth and they dropped the second one. Now, that's when we had a good feeling."

Prior to being sent back home to Arlington, Davis and the rest of his company received a speech from Gen. George Patton. Davis was the only surviving member of his company, which at one point had 30 men.

"He was a long-winded speaker," Davis said of Patton to the Garretts. "We were in a square, paved with bricks. I imagine we stood up for an hour or two for the speech."

Following the war, Davis married Ruby Griffin in January 1952 after dating her five years. The couple had a son, Tommy, and later became cotton farmers and ran a country grocery store. Ruby said she has never thought of her husband as a war hero.

"To tell you the truth about it, he never did talk about it when we got married or before," Ruby Davis said. "What I did know about it I picked up at the reunions. It's just been in the last few years he'd been talking about his Army experience."

Although his son does most of the family's farming nowadays, Charles Davis doesn't plan on retiring anytime soon.

"He told me he's not going to retire," Bank of Early's Cowart said. "'What would I retire to? I'm not going to retire till my toes are turned up.'"