- Associated Press - Friday, September 25, 2015

SALINA, Kan. (AP) - Assigned to a reconnaissance platoon, Army Demolition Engineer Jim Deister, a private first class, had been in battle two days when he was moved to a support base. The Army troops hadn’t yet dug into their positions when they were overrun by 1,500 North Vietnamese. His platoon was ordered across a canal to protect an artillery base, the Salina Journal (https://bit.ly/1KtlVGR ) reported.

Deister, 22, was shot in the chest, stunning him. He laid motionless on a trail before trying to move to a friend. But the enemy shot Deister in the head. Still alive, he drifted in and out of consciousness, likening his experience to a slide show: “… seeing one slide, then missing two or three.”

Meanwhile, 21-year-old Sammy Davis, also a private, was among 42 Americans clinging to a position across the canal. He was manning a 105-millimeter howitzer while the Viet Cong sent waves of 150 to 250 men his way.

An enemy rocket hit his big gun and sent Davis into a foxhole. A howitzer behind him fired at the enemy onslaught with a “beehive round,” a shell with 18,000 tiny arrows, or “flechettes,” that cover a large pattern. Some hit him.

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It awakened Davis, who unloaded 180 rounds from an M-16 rifle into a wave of Viet Cong, and when that ammunition was spent, he moved to an M-60 machine gun. When those shells were gone, he maneuvered the damaged howitzer into place and was able to get off a few rounds.

“At that point, I didn’t know if I would survive the night,” Davis said.

He heard someone holler from across the canal: “Don’t shoot, I’m a G.I.” Davis thought it was a ploy often used by the enemy who had learned to speak that phrase in fluent American English.

A flare exploded overhead, illuminating the canal shore. Davis caught a glimpse of Gwendell Holloway, a black man from Stockton, California, who had been shot in the back. Knowing there were no black men in the North Vietnamese Army, Davis, himself badly injured, set out to save his comrades.

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With 30 beehive hits from his mid-thigh to his lower back, an AK-47 (rifle) bullet wound on his right thigh, a broken back and broken ribs, Davis probably would not have been able to swim if he’d known how. He grabbed an air mattress. A hole had been shot it in, but he tied it off and was able to inflate it and float across the canal.

Once across, he found Holloway in a foxhole with two other men. One of them was Deister. The foot of another soldier had been shot off.

“We thought Jim was dead,” Davis said, but he wanted to move him and the others to safety.

He threw Deister over a shoulder, and dragged the other two soldiers back to where he had crossed the canal, using Holloway’s gun to fight off the enemy. He put Deister on the makeshift flotation device and floated back to his position.

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Lying on his back, Deister recalled seeing flames shooting across the sky and thinking “They should turn off the lights. They’re going to see us.”

Davis returned to rescue the other two wounded soldiers. Deister was placed with a number of dead bodies and was loaded on a helicopter. But an Army medic in the chopper noticed a bubble form over Deister’s mouth. Using a stethoscope, he detected a weak heartbeat.

“Ol’ Jim’s tough. They started giving him fluids,” Davis said. But at the time, he figured the man he saved would die. Once back at the field hospital, Deister was rushed into surgery.

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After a year, Deister returned home to Kansas, and some 20 years later, after a search and a lucky tip, he and Davis met in August, 1988, at a Vietnam Veterans reunion in North Platte, Nebraska.

“I love him like a brother. We’re Vietnam veterans, combat veterans,” Deister said. “He saved my life.”

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Information from: The Salina (Kan.) Journal, https://www.salina.com

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