Oscar Davis Jr. wasn’t in uniform. He had no maroon beret. And the 92-year-old could hardly be expected to jump from an airplane.
But in a room filled with 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers on Saturday, Davis fit right in.
“He’s still one of us,” said Capt. Andrew Hammack, commander of A Company, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. “He’s just not currently reporting for duty.”
More than 70 years ago, a much younger Davis was assigned to “Animal” Company of the 505th PIR. He served with the unit in Holland and then Belgium during World War II.
It was in the latter, amid the Ardennes forest and the Battle of the Bulge, that Davis was wounded.
With the Germans shelling his unit, Pvt. Davis — then assigned as a radiotelephone operator — was knocked down by a large piece of shrapnel.
Only the radio on his back protected him from sure death. But the German artillery barrage also knocked down a tree and through a stroke of bad luck, that tree landed on Davis, pinning him and causing a significant spinal injury.
The young paratrooper would spend three weeks paralyzed from the waist down, but would ultimately rejoin his unit in Germany.
The wait for recognition for his injuries, however, was much longer.
In a dining room at Heritage Place in Fayetteville, where Davis now lives, the old paratrooper finally received his Purple Heart Medal, 72 years, one month, and two weeks after he earned it.
The medal, awarded to troops who are wounded or killed in action against an enemy of the United States, traces its roots to the nation’s oldest military medal, the Badge of Military Merit that was first awarded by Gen. George Washington.
Davis had long ago been told he would receive the honor. But the award paperwork was never signed amid the business of the war.
Decades later, he said the medal was worth the wait, smiling from ear to ear as Lt. Col. Marcus Wright leaned down to pin it to his jacket.
“This has been some day,” Davis said. “I couldn’t believe all this was going to happen. I just want to thank the lord.”
Friends, family, and more than two dozen soldiers with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division attended the ceremony.
Wright, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, presided over the event.
“All I can say about this is, ‘Wow,'” he said. “I’m absolutely honored to be here today.”
Wright said Davis was part of the division’s storied history. And played an important role in the 82nd Airborne earning one of its many nicknames.
Following the war, with the division assigned to occupation duty in Berlin, Wright said Davis and another soldier were working a checkpoint when an officer’s vehicle drove past.
Davis and the other paratrooper snapped to attention “like any good enlisted soldier,” Wright said. When the vehicle passed them, they relaxed, but realized the car had slowed to a stop just past their post.
They watched as the car backed up through their checkpoint, as the two soldiers again snapped to attention, he said. Then the vehicle pulled forward again, as the paratroopers snapped to attention a third time as the car finally drove off.
A short time later, the sergeant of the guard arrived and informed the paratroopers that famed Gen. George Patton was in the vehicle. And that he was so impressed by their discipline that he had to drove by and see it again.
Patton would give the 82nd Airborne Division its nickname of “America’s Guard of Honor,” saying, “In all my years in the Army and all the honor guards I have ever seen, the 82nd’s honor guard is undoubtedly the best.”
Wright said there’s little doubt Davis contributed to the good impression the division’s paratrooper had on Patton.
“This fine young gentleman here is part of that legacy,” he said. “This is part of our history.”
After the medal was awarded, dozens of people waited in line to shake the veteran’s hand and offer their congratulations. Soldiers from A Company presented Davis with a unit coin and a shirt.
The medal ceremony was the culmination of nearly two years of work by the Veterans Legacy Foundation, a Harnett County-based volunteer organization that has helped more than 100 veterans receive military awards that are owed to them.
John Elskamp, executive director of the foundation, said volunteers scoured an archive of war reports to find proof of Davis’ injuries.
The Purple Heart was the latest medal the group had recovered for Davis. In late 2015, the group helped the World War II veteran to receive the Bronze Star and other medals that were awarded to him in a ceremony at the U.S. Army Airborne Special Operations Museum.
Military editor Drew Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.