As more than 200 fellow crewmen in dress uniform boarded the spanking new frigate, Anglee A. Mitchell, a 21-year-old Marine, felt overwhelmed by the spirit of the USS Rodney M. Davis.
The 3,800-ton, 453-foot guided missile frigate was commissioned Saturday at the U.S. Naval Station in Long Beach to honor Davis, another young Marine who 20 years earlier had sacrificed his life to save his platoon from an exploding grenade in Vietnam. Davis is the first black Vietnam War hero to have a ship dedicated in his honor.
Mitchell, who also is black, said he felt the significance of his assignment on the ship the first time he set foot on deck.
"I knew when we got on the ship, that we'd hold the name up," Mitchell said. "I think a lot of pride is going to be with this ship. That's why I got kind of choked up during the ceremony."
Mitchell was further moved when he and fire control officer Anthony Roberts, 23, were approached by Davis' aunt, who clutched Roberts' hand.
"Keep the image of Rodney alive," said Bertha Johnson, who had traveled from Gary, Ind., for the ceremony. "He was a great man. Now you walk tall."
Davis' family was on hand, along with more than 1,600 spectators, for the commissioning of the vessel. The ceremony was complete with traditional marching, the melodies of John Philip Sousa and red and white balloons launched out of a torpedo tube. Naval and Marine Corps officers called Davis "a real American hero."
Although Davis had received a posthumous Medal of Honor, the new tribute was long in coming, said his mother, Ruth Davis of Macon, Ga. After her son was killed in Quang Nam province on Sept. 6, 1967, Ruth Davis received an official notice indicating only that her son had died of wounds received in combat.
Three years later, she was told that her son had single-handledly saved his Marine platoon by absorbing the force of the grenade with his body. Still, she had no idea that the commemoration would reach these proportions, she said.
'Really an Inspiration'
"This is really an inspiration for all our family and our county," said Davis, 65. "This is a big thing to have happen for somebody who came from Macon, Georgia."
The USS Rodney M. Davis, which is designed to protect military and merchant shipping and which will begin a six-month sea trial in June, is the fourth active-duty Navy warship named for a black American.