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Today's Medal of Honor Moment for 28 May

The only Medal awarded for today came in WWII, during the breakout from the Anzio beachhead.


Staff Sergeant Rudolph B. Davila distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action, on 28 May 1944, near Artena, Italy. During the offensive which broke through the German mountain strongholds surrounding the Anzio beachhead, Staff Sergeant Davila risked death to provide heavy weapons support for a beleaguered rifle company. Caught on an exposed hillside by heavy, grazing fire from a well-entrenched German force, his machine gunners were reluctant to risk putting their guns into action. Crawling fifty yards to the nearest machine gun, Staff Sergeant Davila set it up alone and opened fire on the enemy. In order to observe the effect of his fire, Sergeant Davila fired from the kneeling position, ignoring the enemy fire that struck the tripod and passed between his legs. Ordering a gunner to take over, he crawled forward to a vantage point and directed the firefight with hand and arm signals until both hostile machine guns were silenced. Bringing his three remaining machine guns into action, he drove the enemy to a reserve position two hundred yards to the rear. When he received a painful wound in the leg, he dashed to a burned tank and, despite the crash of bullets on the hull, engaged a second enemy force from the tank's turret. Dismounting, he advanced 130 yards in short rushes, crawled 20 yards and charged into an enemy-held house to eliminate the defending force of five with a hand grenade and rifle fire. Climbing to the attic, he straddled a large shell hole in the wall and opened fire on the enemy. Although the walls of the house were crumbling, he continued to fire until he had destroyed two more machine guns. His intrepid actions brought desperately needed heavy weapons support to a hard-pressed rifle company and silenced four machine gunners, which forced the enemy to abandon their prepared positions. Staff Sergeant Davila's extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army.

One of my themes when teaching military history or blathering about it here on the blog is that wars are won at the small unit level.  They can be lost by any level.  But if the small unit level is not sound, and does not produce good small unit leaders who can step just beyond the line of duty, you won't win, absent a huge combat power overmatch.

We hear about the Pattons, Bradleys, and Eisenhowers.  We rarely hear about the Staff Sergeant Davilas.  But without the Staff Sergeant Davilas, well, our understanding and view of Patton, Bradley, and Eisenhower would be markedly different from what it is now.  The Army history of WWII, in the big books that cover the Italian Campaign, doesn't mention Davila and his fight at all - and in fact, except for one smaller book on the Rome-Arno Campaign, doesn't mention the fighting on 28 May, 1944 - which resulted in the breakthrough that allowed Allied units to enter Rome on 6 June, an event overshadowed by a different battle, in France.

Alexander had intended the VI Corps breakout to be the start of the second thrust aimed at destroying German resistance south of Rome. However, Clark had never accepted Alexander's view that the liberation of Rome was secondary to the destruction of the German armies in Italy. The American Fifth Army commander was now convinced that Alexander's plan to trap the enemy at Valmontone was impossible because of the heavy concentration of German troops in the area. Fearing that the Caesar Line would prove too difficult an obstacle for VI Corps, influenced by intelligence reports which indicated that the area north of Anzio was being denuded of enemy troops, and wanting Americans to liberate Rome, Clark decided to shift the bulk of VI Corps to the north for an all-out drive on the Italian capital. Brushing aside Truscott's protests, and without consulting his staff or Alexander, Clark ordered the 3d Division and 1st Special Service Force to continue toward Valmontone, but he directed the 1st Armored and the 34th, 45th, and 36th Infantry Divisions to join the northern advance of the 85th and 88th Divisions.

Some historians have argued that Clark's decision to shift the direction of the offensive allowed a significant portion of the enemy's army to escape past Valmontone, since the weakened American forces in the vicinity and the Eighth Army still struggling up the Liri valley thirty miles to the south were not capable of preventing that movement. Meanwhile, north of Anzio, the redirected Fifth Army units began to encounter increasingly stiff resistance from enemy units now dug in on the Caesar Line. Although Alexander accepted Clark's fait accompli with good grace, the Allies were unable to destroy the German armies south of Rome and possibly end the Italian campaign in June 1944. In addition, the slow progress made by the 45th and 34th Divisions between 27 and 30 May indicated the possibility of a renewed stalemate just miles south of Rome.

Yet on the evening of 27-28 May, patrols of the 36th Division scored a major coup when they discovered a gap between the 362d Infantry and Hermann Goering Divisions atop Monte Artemisio. In a move which more than made up for the 36th Division's earlier failure on the Rapido, the 141st, 142d, and 143d Infantry regiments quickly occupied the heights, and artillerymen soon brought Highway 6, the main German supply line, under fire at Valmontone. To General Truscott this was the turning point in the Allied drive to the north. Kesselring was furious with Mackensen for allowing the ridgeline to fall and ordered it retaken at all costs. But all of the German counterattacks failed, and when Valmontone became untenable because of American artillery fire, Mackensen was relieved of command and replaced by Lt. Gen. Joachim Lemelsen.

The new Fourteenth Army commander could do little to reverse the tide of events. When units of the II and VI Corps began to exploit the gap made by the 36th Division, and when the FEC and Eighth Army renewed their attacks (north of Frosinone), Kesselring was forced on 2 June to order all German units to break off contact and withdraw north. Declaring Rome an open city on 3 June, the Tenth and Fourteenth Armies conducted an orderly retreat through the city. Only the suburbs were contested. On orders from Hitler, the wholesale vandalism and demolitions that had characterized the evacuation of Naples the previous fall were not repeated.

Dozens, if not hundreds of little fights like Davila's made those paragraphs read the way they read.  And since some of those paragraphs talk about slow progress, the Germans clearly had some good small unit leaders on the battlefield, as well.

Lieutenant Davila (via a battlefield commission) is one of those uniquely American stories, in ways both good and bad - none of the bad attaching to Davila.  Born in El Paso to a Spanish father and Filipino mother, he was raised in California.  While recommended for a Medal of Honor, he was instead awarded a Distinguished Service Cross.  Davila's wife Harriet, believing that Davila's ethnicity played into his not receiving the Medal of Honor, campaigned on his behalf.  Because of her efforts, and others, Davila was among the 21 Asian-Americans awarded Medals of Honor in 2000.  But that was too late for Harriet, who died several months prior to the award. 


His citation reads like his fellow Marne soldier Audie Murphy. Many awards of the Distinguished Service Cross started out as Medal of Honor recommendations. The recent upgrades strike me as political acts since the degree of separation between a Medal of Honor act and a Distinguished Service Cross act is usually quite small.

Here's how the New York Times reported on this fight on May 29, 1944 (their reports were always delayed by a day or two, sometimes more).