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Medal of Honor recipient Sammy Davis meets one of the men he saved

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Medal of Honor recipient Sammy Davis meets one of the men he saved

Medal of Honor recipient Sammy Davis, right, gets emotional talking about saving the life of Jim Deifter, left, during the Vietnam War. The two were at ceremonies honoring Davis at the Manteca Ci...

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin


POSTED May 23, 2009 2:54 a.m.

Sammy L. Davis knew that he had to do something when he heard crying across the river – despite the fact that he himself had been injured from a North Vietnamese recoilless rifle round that took out the howitzer his squad was operating.

So using a raft to cross the river, Davis – who grew up in Manteca – found three wounded soldiers that he would end up saving before the day was over.

Recognizing that one soldier that had been shot in the head appeared to be dead, Davis took the man on the raft and crossed the river to safety.

He returned to the other two wounded soldiers that he had already given morphine to and brought them back across the river.

For his bravery in battle during the Vietnam War President Lyndon B. Johnson would award Davis with the Medal of Honor on November 19, 1968 – exactly one year and a day after the fighting at Cai Lay. Footage of Davis receiving the medal was used in the popular movie Forrest Gump – with Tom Hanks’ face superimposed over Davis’ for the scene.

But even he grows uncomfortable when somebody calls him a hero.

“My mama always said that you never leave your brother in the woods,” Davis said. “I had a little brother, and I wasn’t going to leave a man behind and did what had to be done.”

The man that he thought had perished – Jim Deister – wouldn’t know for decades that it was Davis that had saved his life along the banks of that river.

When the Vietnam Veteran’s Moving Wall came around the country, Deister finally came across somebody who knew Davis, and showed him the footage of him receiving the medal from Johnson in 1968.

After calling him up on the phone, Davis skeptically agreed to drive to a Holiday Inn located in Nebraska where he was going to meet the man he was certain that had died.

“At first I thought it was somebody playing a cruel hoax because Jim Deister was dead – even though I didn’t know his name at the time,” he said. “But when I walked in and I saw him I knew exactly who it was.”

Friday morning Davis was welcomed home by Manteca Pastor Mike Dillman and dozens of residents who filled the seats in the council chambers at City Hall to welcome home the most decorated soldier in Manteca history. The City of Manteca presented Davis with a plaque and a proclamation recognizing his Medal of Honor and bravery while Dillman presented Davis with a plaque on behalf of the One nation under God effort this Sunday at Woodward Park.

“I shouldn’t be here – we shouldn’t be here,” Davis said while looking at Deister. “But we are. I believe one of the reasons that we’re here is to remember all of those who went before us – those who didn’t make it home.”

Davis was joined by his wife, Dixie, who traveled to Manteca to spend Memorial Day weekend as guests of Dillmans for the ceremonies planned for the holiday. The couple makes their home in Flat Rock, Illinois. Deister was accompanied by his son, Shane. 

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