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Rudolph B. Davila, 85; Medal of Honor Given 56 Years After Feat

Obituaries

February 07, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rudolph B. Davila, who received the Medal of Honor 56 years after he prevented a 130-man American rifle company from being slaughtered in a German ambush in Italy during World War II, has died. He was 85.

Davila, a retired Los Angeles schoolteacher, died Jan. 26 of natural causes in Vista, Calif. after a long illness.

In 2000, he was among 21 Asian American World War II veterans who received Medals of Honor at a White House ceremony after an Army panel reviewed their wartime actions and deemed them worthy of the nation's highest commendation for battlefield bravery.

They all had received the second-highest citation, the Distinguished Service Cross.

Davila, who was of Filipino and Spanish descent, earned the medal for his extraordinary heroism during the offensive that broke through the German mountain strongholds surrounding the Anzio beachhead in May 1944.

A sergeant in charge of a machine gun platoon, Davila and his men were coming up over a hill when they spotted several German machine gun nests waiting to ambush an approaching 130-man American rifle company.

When Davila and his men were spotted on the grassy hilltop, the Germans opened up on them instead.

Knowing they were vulnerable on the exposed hillside, Davila's machine gun platoon immediately retreated--except Davila.

"They were reluctant to set up their guns and expose themselves," said Davila's son, Jeffrey.Dropping into the grass when the firing began, Davila made his way back toward the crest of the hill and had his men pass a machine gun, tripod and a box of ammo up the line.

"I had no time to think of anything but how all those Americans were about to be killed," he told a reporter in 2000.

Once he assembled the machine gun, Davila swung into a kneeling position and began shooting--despite enemy fire that struck the tripod and passed near his legs.

After eliminating one German machine gun, Davila called for a platoon member to take over his gun so he could move forward and direct fire at a second machine gun nest. But as soon as a young gunner came over the hill he was hit in the chest and killed.

When another soldier took over Davila's machine gun, he crawled to another vantage point and used hand and arm signals to direct the gunner's fire until that German machine gun was silenced.

With three of the platoon's machine guns now in action, the enemy retreated 200 yards.

Although slightly wounded in the leg, Davila ran to a burned tank and as the Germans fired at him, he climbed on top and began firing from the tank's turret.

After leaving the tank, he made his way across 130 yards to a bombed-out farmhouse, where he killed five Germans with a hand grenade and rifle fire. Climbing to the attic, he fired through a large shell hole in the wall and eliminated two more enemy machine guns.

When the battle ended, the captain of the rifle company in the field below told Davila, "If you hadn't done that, we'd have all been slaughtered. When this is over, I'm going to write you up for the Medal of Honor."

Davila later received a battlefield commission to second lieutenant and was promoted to first lieutenant. The war ended for him in France in late 1944 when a tank round exploded in a tree and shrapnel ripped into his right shoulder.

Over the next six years, he underwent 13 operations on his arm--and met his wife, Harriet, at a military hospital in San Francisco.

During one surgery to remove scar tissue, a main nerve in his arm was accidentally cut and his arm was paralyzed.

Although Davila had no use of his right arm, his children never considered him handicapped, Jeffrey Davila said.

An excellent cook and gardener, the senior Davila terraced his hillside yard and built retaining walls. He even built the family's house in Harbor City, and later built his retirement home in Vista.

"You'd go crazy about what could have been," Davila said not long ago. "You just do the best you can."

Born in El Paso and raised in Watts, Davila worked in vineyards and helped restore the California missions as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps. as a young man during the Depression.

After the war, he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in sociology from USC and spent 30 years as a teacher and counselor in the Los Angeles City School District.

Over the years, Harriet Davila wrote numerous letters to Army officials arguing that her husband deserved the Medal of Honor.

"We'd read other Medal of Honor citations and then you'd read my dad's [Distinguished Service Cross award] and it was very clear he was in that same caliber," his son said. For years, some Asian American veterans maintained that their service was undervalued because of wartime prejudice. In 1996, Congress approved an amendment by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) to waive a three-year time limit on consideration for medals and reassess whether these veterans deserved the Medal of Honor.

Davila got word in early 2000 that he would be receiving the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony that May.

"He felt elated. Not like winning the lottery elated, but a deep, emotional elation," said Jeffrey Davila. "And he was elated not so much for himself but for his family. He saw this as a statement about who we are as a family and who we are as Americans."

Davila's only regret was that his wife could not attend the ceremony. She died a month before he received word of the medal.

In addition to his son, Davila is survived by his other children, Roland Davila of Evergreen, Colo., Tana Lemmenes of Clintonville, Wis., Gregg Davila of Santa Ana and Jill Link of La Habra, and nine grandchildren.

Davila will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

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