Giants Of The Corps: Raymond G. Davis

By Cyril J. O'Brien - Originally Published September 2004

In 1950, on a trackless azimuth into bone-piercing wind blasts, in knee-high snow through reinforced positions of an enemy that outnumbered it 10 to one, an understrength battalion relieved an encircled company and thus put into Marine Corps history one of the proudest and most honored deeds of our nation's wars.

Then-Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Gilbert Davis led that overland mountain trek. A major in World War 11 during the first perilous hours of the Battle of Peleliu in September 1944, he relieved and reinforced scrambled Marine lines to fill gaps and block penetrations that would have seriously endangered the still-developing beachhead.

In Operation Dewey Canyon during the Vietnam War, he was able to turn forces tied to static defenses into helicopterborne assault. A communist spring offensive perhaps more powerful than the infamous North Vietnamese Army "Tet" sweeps of 1968 was thwarted.

Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons, USMC (Ret), Director Emeritus, Marine Corps History and Museums, described Davis as "the greatest tactician of the Marine Corps in modern times." General Robert H. Barrow, 27th Commandant of the Marine Corps, said Davis was "a division commander without a peer." As a colonel, Gen Barrow had been chosen by then-Major General Davis to execute Operation Dewey Canyon.

"Of the 50 or so division commanders I have known in Vietnam, General Davis has no peer. He's the best," said GEN Creighton W. Abrams Jr., USA (Ret), Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (1968-72).

"His way is to bring the war to the enemy," said Col Harvey C. "Barney" Barnum Jr., holder of the Medal of Honor for actions during the Vietnam War and currently Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Reserve Affairs.

Lieutenant General John N. McLaughlin, when commanding Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, said, "Ray Davis may be the best combat leader the Marine Corps has ever produced."

It is just the kind of introduction that the low-key, retiring Ray Davis would have downplayed, although he revered his Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, Bronze Star Medal, and military and civilian tributes.

His son Miles, a federal magistrate in Pensacola, Fla., was pinned twice as a first lieutenant and platoon leader with the Purple Heart by his father.

"You can be sure that glory, high compliments and fuss were not Dad's options," Miles said. "Modest in everything, even his most critical orders were sometimes given as suggestions. His was a quiet force, bold and absolute. Believe me; I knew it well. He was just as temperate under fire, no yelling, never profane. Really, he didn't need the trappings of high command. What he had was confidence, and you had confidence in him."

No Epaulets
There were no epauletted-portraits on Davis family walls. No relatives in Ray Davis' family wore a uniform. His first firearm was a 12-gauge shotgun for rabbits around the Chattahoochee River. A varsity wrestler at Atlanta Technical High School, he was assured a daily workout with a two-mile walk each way to school. His young reputation was polished by selection to the National Honor Society, and he was the best drill cadet in his high school Army Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps unit.

Partial to the military but not committed to soldiering as a career, Davis was attracted to ROTC because of its small monetary allowance and free uniform. He stayed with JROTC three years in high school and Army ROTC throughout college.

At Georgia Institute of Technology's commencement, with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering and the college president's Gold Key for scholarship, Davis was named Marine candidate for the class of 1938.

Meeting "Chesty" Puller
The Marines? "To be honest, I wasn't sure what I was getting into, except the Marines had a great reputation. The regular commission on active duty sounded good, so it was the Corps for me," Davis once said.

At the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where the gleaming white cruiser USS Olympia (C-6), flagship of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry was docked, Second Lieutenant Davis in June 1938 entered The Basic School (TBS). Much later, after a long career, he recalled how in Philadelphia he was standing on the shoulders of giants.

At the Philadelphia Navy Yard he met Gregory Boyington. The "Pappy" of the fabled "Black Sheep" Squadron of Guadalcanal would become one of the Marine Corps' greatest aviators. Philadelphia was also home to Major General Smedley D. Butler, China Marine and old Corps icon, with two Medals of Honor. Captain Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, Davis' TBS company commander, already a legend from the "Banana Wars," taught small-unit tactics.

"He [Puller] was my first USMC mentor, and our paths would cross many times. Indeed, Puller was a perfectionist. If the toes of your boots were not in line, Chesty would call you on it. Perfection became my goal," the general reflected.

On his first tour after TBS, Davis was assigned to the Marine detachment aboard USS Portland (CA-33). His combat station was high on the foremast where the pitch, sway and gut-wrenching were most extreme. "The next storm was worse. I could only crawl into my bunk and wish for death."

At the same time Davis was serving aboard Portland, Capt Puller commanded the MarDet in nearby USS Augusta (CA-31). Puller said, "It's been years since we've had a war. Might be years before another." But it was still peace-time, and Davis made much of it.

Puller's wistful commentary on a world without war was hardly in keeping with the omens. The Japanese had occupied China's Manchuria. Hitler threatened Poland. Mussolini was in Africa.

Following duty in Portland, the power, technology and math of big guns attracted the Georgia Tech engineer to Base Defense Weapons School in Quantico, Va., 1940-41. However, Base Defense graduates were candidates for war-long commands on golf-course-size atoll bases, most of no interest to the Japanese.

Mentor Puller interjected: "They're forming the First Marine Division down at 'Gitmo' [Guantanamo Bay, Cuba] with a slot for an antiaircraft officer." Davis got the job.

"With good luck and Puller, I began a long association with one of the greatest, toughest and most famous units in the history of the United States, perhaps even the world-the First Marine Division."

In the middle of all this activity was Knox Heafner, a schoolteacher from North Carolina. Calling her the light of his life, Knox would be Davis' confidant for life. Courting was tough on reveille, so they eloped. They were married for 62 years. Whenever they were apart, they wrote each other every day.

War did strike on 7 Dec. 1941, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Davis was at New River, Camp Lejeune, N.C., commanding the 1st Antiaircraft Battery.

By July 1942 Capt Davis was in New Zealand. At 0830 on 7 Aug., he was in a Higgins boat headed toward an undefended Guadalcanal beach. Japanese fighter-bombers winged in low. "Shot and shell. It seemed like everybody was shooting at everybody and everything. I felt very uneasy out there, the Japanese aircraft strafing and bombing and our own ships firing. I was happy to get ashore," said Davis.

His command post was on the fringe of Henderson Field. Captured from the Japanese, the field was named for the Marine dive-bomber pilot, Maj Lofton Henderson, killed in the Battle of Midway. Davis ringed the meadow with his antiaircraft armament. He was ready for anything-Japanese Betty bombers at noon or the Japanese battleships at night.

"We were the first American troops in history to be heavily shelled by enemy battleships," said Davis.

"We had no time to build bunkers," he recalled. "Our bombs were just left in the kunai grass. When grass fire threatened the bombs, 1 ran to extinguish it. Once I lost a boot while running toward a fire. I found myself standing with one shoe and one bare foot on top of a 500pound bomb to keep the fire off it."

"Oh, the 'skipper' always protected his people," recalled former Sergeant Ronald Cleary. "Once in a bombing, I saw a jeep speeding our way. It was Captain Davis and a corpsman. He wanted to be sure nobody was hurt."

The Terrible Umurbrogol
"They were exciting times on Guadalcanal," Capt Davis wrote in his book, "The Story of Ray Davis." Davis' baptismal fire may have been with antiaircraft gunners, but his heart was with the infantry. After the New Britain campaign later in WW II, Maj Davis approached Col Puller, commanding the First Marine Regiment, saying, "I've been in the special weapons business long enough, and I'd like to get into the infantry."

Davis wrote, "Puller hired me on the spot to be his first battalion commander. Chesty was really a key in my career development through the years and without any design."

At Peleliu, Davis "really joined the infantry," and the initiation came hard on the heels of the amphibious assault. "Ten yards off the amphibian tractor, a mortar fragment pierced my knee. Machine-gun bullets flew from two directions. I'm not proud that my battalion had 71 percent casualties, including me. I was so very proud of my Marines. [They] never faltered or fell back." One of his companies was reduced to 90 men.

"This bold and ingenious man" was instrumental in helping save the whole left flank of the invasion force," said BGen Gordon D. Gayle, USMC (Ret), who had combat commands on Guadalcanal, New Britain and in Korea. As a major, Gayle commanded 2d Bn, 5th Marines. His efforts merited him the Navy Cross.

"Chesty's 1st Marines made the central thrust into the terrible and bizarre Umurbrogol ... the incredible jumble of ridges and cliffs," explained Gayle in his book "Bloody Beaches: The Marines at Peleliu."

Davis said, "It was the most difficult assignment I've ever seen!" His citation for the Navy Cross states that casualties tore large gaps in the lines. "His right flank company was disorganized by pointblank enemy cannon fire. ... He rallied and personally led combined troops into those gaps to establish contact and maintain a hasty defensive position..."

"For the First lime... I Felt Fear"
In 1949 LtCol Davis had few clues of a juggernaut in North Korea. Just back from duty on Guam, he became Inspector & Instructor of the 9th Marine Corps Reserve Infantry Bn in Chicago. This put him with a brand of Marine for whom he developed a special respect-"Marines," he said, "with full civilian responsibilities, jobs and families, but bounding with esprit de corps. World War II was fought in the main by Reserves."

Summer training with reservists at Camp Lejeune put Davis with Col Homer L. "Litz the Blitz" Litzenberg. When the North Koreans overran the South, President Harry S. Truman sounded, "To arms." Commanding the Seventh Marine Regiment, Litzenberg offered LtCol Davis the 1st Bn.

"My second war thus began as my Reserve infantry battalion was ordered to Camp Pendleton [California]. I caught a plane and a milk train to Pendleton, arriving one August 1950 day about 0500 and was greeted by Colonel Litzenberg with: 'Where the hell've you been? You've got five days to gather 800 men to fill your battalion!'"

Camp Pendleton was roiling with unattached Marines dispatched from their own disbanded Reserve units. Commandeering a few trucks, Davis, his officers and noncommissioned officers cruised around Pendleton, crying: "Who wants to go to Korea?" His efforts paid off. "We got 800, spirited and ready to go to war." The heroic battalion he commanded at the Chosin Reservoir would be 60 percent Reserve Marines.

Training of Litz's 1st Bn, 7th Marines began with firing off the fantail of the hurriedly boarded transport ship on the way to war in Korea. Mortars, machine guns and rockets were fired at anything the ship's crew could discard or at nothing at all.

In mobile reserve, the battalion hit Inchon in September 1950, a few days after the invasion. The Marines honed skills attacking vacant hills on the way north to the Yalu River.

Nevertheless, resistance to the advancing Marines grew.

Intelligence officers and the higher headquarters finally admitted that the Chinese had crossed the Yalu from China. The Davis battalion had just killed 600.

Word came from General of the Army Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo about a new enemy: the giant Communist Fourth Army, made up of four smaller armies.

Davis leveled with his troops: there would be trouble. They would be outnumbered, but they were, after all, Marines. Yet, a corporal voiced: "There's a billion of them, and they can make more."

As the Chinese legion grew in the south, a few of the nation's billion got within the Davis perimeter. "I scrambled to pull on my pistol belt, then my boots. For the first time in my combat experience, I felt the serious effects of fear. My left leg shook so much I could hardly get my boot on. ... They [the Chinese] fled, though, without firing a shot."

With Chinese carpeting the terrain, GEN MacArthur ordered U.N. troops to pull back. The 7th Marines, under Litzenberg, and the 5th Marines, commanded by LtCol Raymond L. Murray, were now in North Korea at a Chosin Reservoir backwater named Yudam-ni.

There was more ahead than a harrowing march through overwhelming enemy to rejoin the main elements of 1stMarDiv commanded by MajGen Oliver R Smith at Hagaru-ri for the bitter march to the sea. "Fox" Co, 2/7, under the command of Capt William E. Barber, was cut off and besieged.

"You've got to get them," Litzenberg told LtCol Davis. "Come back here in 20 minutes with a plan."

"I proposed a bold dash over the ridges to the high ground overlooking Fox," recalled Davis. Col Litzenberg feared he'd never see Davis again.

It was a brutal trek for Davis' battalion, strung a half-mile through a treacherous cold that jammed weapons, numbed brains, and disjoined fingers and toes. Shrouded by blizzards, Davis' Marines caught the fire of enemy flankers. Davis radioed Barber that his Marines would fight their way in. The fight through to Fox was brief. Davis didn't have much time.

Two rounds passed through the battalion leader's clothing, and a mortar fragment ringing on his helmet knocked him "to the deck."

"Once a sniper kept me and the old man in a hole," recalled Sgt Leroy Pearle, LtCol Davis' radioman. "Colonel Davis was everywhere along the line, point to rear. His calmness had its effect. They'd follow him without question."

Davis climaxed the relief with a hand-shake. Then his battalion led Fox and the two regiments (5th and 7th) on the main supply route (MSR) to Headquarters, 1stMarDiv at Hagaru-ri. Then it was Davis, Puller, Litzenberg, Murray, MajGen Smith and the rest of the 1stMarDiv to fight to the sea.

"It was retreat hell! We are just attacking in another direction," MajGen Smith said.

Davis insisted that the 1953 Korean War armistice triggered the end of communist expansion in Northeast Asia. In September 2002 he returned to Chosin at the head of a delegation of veterans and families of those missing in action (MIA).

Face to face with receptive past and present North Korean leaders, Davis envisioned improved relations aiding the discovery of MIAs and return of veterans to where they fought.

Things Will Change Tonight

During Gen Davis' career, he seemed to always move to the sound of the guns. After the Korean War, it wasn't long before the next action. This time he was a general officer, but it was once again in the Pacific.

Then-MajGen Ray Davis saw it long before he commanded the 3dMarDiv. It was set in a static, permanently defensive position, which gave only the North Vietnamese Army liberty to maneuver. The McNamara Line barriers or strongpoints holding Marine battalions in fixed positions were designed to keep the enemy away. The Marines were tied down along that line.

The arrival of MajGen Davis on the battlefields of Vietnam as the commanding general of 3dMarDiv brought about a revolution in tactics, morale and shock to the enemy.

The assistant division commander in 1964, Davis took command on 21 May 1968. From that moment, the division's approach to the war changed. Companies would occupy battalion defense positions. Whole battalions would be "freed up" as a mobile striking force.

"We wouldn't wait for the enemy to attack. Now, we'd go after him. My goal was to go in and ferret out the system," recalled the general.

From all this came Operation Dewey Canyon. It was fathered and named by MajGen Davis. He gave its execution to the 9th Marines commanded by Col Robert H. Barrow. The holder of the Navy Cross for his actions in the Korean War, Barrow also had served with the guerrillas in China during WW II.

Until Dewey Canyon, the NVA had been barreling down from the north on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Trucks and lorries in parades of 1,000 burdened vehicles a day were supplying the enemy efforts in the Da Krong and A Shau valleys. All this was for the new communist spring offensive, which Davis was there to abort.

Operation Dewey Canyon was a regimental, helicopter-borne hopscotch thrust. Marines, protected by artillery fans from the hilltops, scoured the valleys for enemy arms and munitions.

Climaxing his mission strategy, Col Barrow ordered hotel Co, 2/9 to lay an ambush on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. With that, Capt David F. Winekoff shredded a lengthy parade of overstocked NVA traffic, which was first confined in its tracks by U.S. artillery. It also slowed the movement on that trail to a very cautious trickle.

Years later Gen Barrow said he was well aware of risks of dissent from diplomatic quarters for entering Laos. Success of the strike, however, mollified objections.

Gen Davis said he had every right as commanding general to protect his troops. Col Barrow was credited "with relentlessly executing" the Dewey Canyon thrust across the valleys "that uncovered the largest quantity of weapons ever captured or destroyed in a single operation."

Leadership From Top Down
"Guadalcanal had to happen, but not Korea," said Gen Davis, when he was well into his 80s and emphasizing the need for national preparedness. The war in Korea was invited by downsized American forces, which eventually pursued a defensive no-win posture and settled for a draw.

"In Vietnam we also made partial commitment and never supported our forces. It was a total disaster; our limited commitment led to the destruction of our limited will to win, [and] 58,000 American lives [were] lost in a war that should not have happened."

Col Warren H. Wiedhahn, USMC (Ret), a close friend of Gen Davis who had known and served with the general since the Chosin Reservoir days, said, "There was much that Ray Davis accomplished that was not under the gun. In manpower [at Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps], dealing with Marine allocations worldwide, he was hailed in his Legion of Merit citation for augmenting the scope of personnel processing in the whole Marine Corps."

A tour as Commanding General, Marine Corps Development and Education Command (MCDEC), Quantico, beginning in July 1970, gave Davis an opportunity to oversee "the whole panoply of education and development and right some wrongs."

His last active-duty post, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, began on 12 March 1971. As a four-star general, he had enough experience to know what was going on and had the trust and confidence of the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

All in all, Davis said he had never concentrated on promotions. When promoted to brigadier general in 1963, he said, "Promotional chances were minimal; I just waited for the ball to bounce."

Davis closed 34 years of active service as a Marine on 31 March 1972 at 1000 in Washington, D.C. That same day at 1400, he was pledging loyalty in Atlanta as executive vice president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

"Oh, he loved Georgia, even bought land near Atlanta when a second lieutenant to assure he'd settle there when the battles were won," recalled Col Wiedhahn. "He never stopped working for his family, friends, veterans."

Close to the family? Raymond Gilbert Davis Jr. told how he collapsed at the close of a long-distance race in France. "Dad caught me before I fell. I didn't even know he was there.

"While Dad was in Paris, Mom and Dad used off-duty [time] to take us all over Europe."

Ray Davis considered veterans a breed apart. GEN Claude "Mick" Kicklighter, USA (Ret), former Assistant secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs, said of Davis, "No matter what the official business, he'd also bring the cause of veterans or a veteran to the top levels of government, agenda or not."

Gen Davis' strong initiative as chairman of the Presidential Commission for the Korean War Memorial stemmed partially from his "unhappiness with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial." Its emphasis, he said, was on the fallen with less consideration for the hundreds of thousands who served with honor and survived.

"The Korean War is no longer a forgotten war, but in fact a forgotten victory which our memorial will document and celebrate for all time to come."

Struck by a massive heart attack, Gen Davis passed away on 3 Sept. 2003 at age 88. He is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Garden in College Park, Ga. However, Gen Davis will live on in history as truly one of the giants of the Corps.