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Gen. Raymond G. Davis, 88; Winner of the Medal of Honor

September 06, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Raymond G. Davis, a retired Marine Corps general who received the Medal of Honor during the Korean War for his heroic actions during the 1st Marine Division's historic fight to break out of the Chosin Reservoir area, has died. He was 88.

Davis, a veterans advocate who helped lead a movement to create the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., died of a heart attack Wednesday at a hospital in Conyers, Ga. He lived in nearby Stockbridge.

A native of Fitzgerald, Ga., Davis joined the Marines in 1938 after graduating with a degree in chemical engineering from Georgia Tech; he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant.

When he retired in 1972, he was a four-star general and assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, the nation's second highest-ranking Marine.

During his nearly 34 years of active duty, Davis fought in three wars -- World War II, Korea and Vietnam -- and became one of the nation's most decorated military officers.

Among his numerous medals and decorations are the Navy Cross, two Distinguished Service Medals, two Legion of Merits, two Silver Stars, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, five Presidential Unit Citations and three Naval Unit Citations.

Davis received his Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for military valor, for leading the December 1950 rescue of a Marine rifle company surrounded by thousands of Chinese soldiers in a vital North Korean mountain pass near the Chinese border.

Several other rescue efforts already had failed when Davis, then a lieutenant colonel and commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment, of the 1st Marine Division was told to come up with a plan to aid the stranded rifle company and open the Toktong Pass -- the only exit from the Chosin plateau for trapped Marine regiments.

Instead of taking the narrow road into the pass as the failed rescue missions had done, Davis set out through the mountains.

From Dec. 1 to Dec. 4, he led his 800 men in fighting their way eight miles toward the beleaguered rifle company -- through ice and snow and temperatures that fell to 40 below zero.

It was so cold, the soldiers' faces iced over and the water in their canteens froze. So did the batteries in their radios and some of their weapons. To thaw out their food rations, they had to stuff them inside their uniforms against their bodies for several hours.

Davis later said that he hadn't thought it was possible for people to survive in such weather.

"We wouldn't let the men stop because if they did, they froze to death," he told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution in 1991. "But I never gave a thought to the idea that we wouldn't get it done, and I didn't hear one complaint from my men the whole time."

Immediately after setting out on the mission, the battalion encountered strong opposition from the entrenched enemy forces who commanded the high ground.

Davis, according to his Medal of Honor citation, "spearheaded his unit in a fierce attack up the steep, ice-covered slopes in the face of withering fire and, personally leading the assault groups in a hand - to - hand encounter, drove the hostile troops from their positions."

Davis led his battalion over three successive, snowy ridges.

"Although knocked to the ground when a shell fragment struck his helmet and two bullets pierced his clothing, he arose and fought his way forward at the head of his men until he reached the isolated Marines," the citation says.

And, despite continued heavy enemy assaults, his battalion secured and held the vital mountain pass until two Marine regiments were able to escape through it.

Davis viewed his Medal of Honor -- presented to him by President Harry S. Truman for "conspicuous gallantry" and "outstanding courage" against the Chinese army -- as the pinnacle of his military career.

He always insisted, however, that "my Marines won it."

Davis, who had fought at Guadalcanal and Peleliu (where he earned his Navy Cross and the Purple Heart) during World War II, served as commanding general of the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969.

After retiring from the Marine Corps in 1972, he became a veterans advocate and served as chairman of the advisory board to the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

The $18-million memorial across the reflecting pool from the Vietnam Memorial was dedicated in 1995, with Davis serving as master of ceremonies.

Davis also worked to help get the North Koreans to allow American teams to go into the communist country to try to find the remains of troops who had been listed as missing in action, and he made several trips to North Korea.

His latest visit was last September, when he was part of an American delegation that included several other Korean War veterans and family members of MIAs.

During the six-day trip, North Korean officials who accompanied the delegation agreed to drive them to the western side of Chosin Reservoir, where no Americans had ever been allowed to visit.

There, in warm weather that contrasted sharply with the freezing temperatures of the last time he had been there, Davis saw the old Marine battlefield for the first time in nearly 52 years.

"It was a very moving experience, very moving," he later told the San Francisco Chronicle. His thoughts, he recalled, had returned to those who had died there: "My Marines ... my guys ... my friends."

Davis is survived by his wife of 61 years, Willa Knox; two sons, Raymond Gilbert Davis Jr. of Covington, Ga., and Gordon Miles Davis of Seminole, Fla.; a daughter, Willa Kerr, of Stockbridge; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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