Monday, March 10, 2008
Heroes in Our Midst
For the past few months, the Lewiston Morning Tribune has been running a series of stories about local World War II veterans. The series has been very popular with readers, the heroic stories are breathtaking.
Today, the Tribune has a story about our own Jesse Davis. Jesse is well known in these parts and Russ and I are proud to call him our friend. Evan Ellis of KQQQ 1150 was also talking about this story on this morning's news. Jesse is Evan's grandfather in-law. Thank you for your service, Jesse. America is able to enjoy freedom because of your sacrifice. We will do our best not to waste or take for granted the freedoms that you have fought to preserve on our behalf. God bless you and your family.
A series of close shaves
Veteran from the Palouse 'was a mess when he first came home'
By Joel Mills
Monday, March 10, 2008
JOHNSON - He can joke about it now, but World War II was a series of harrowing close shaves for Jesse Davis.
There were booby traps and a bridge that nearly fell from underneath him in Germany. And then there was that 88 mm artillery shell that took out the front wheel of his Harley-Davidson, catapulting him along a country lane.
"My helmet came off and I went down a gravel road on my head," Davis says, sitting in an easy chair in his living room, a wry grin spread across his face. "So, I've got rocks in my head."
But Davis, 82, wasn't as cheerful right after he returned from the European Theater in 1946, says his wife of 62 years, Shirley.
"He was a mess when he first came home," she says of her then-new husband, who was barely 21 years old. For years, he kept his war stories to himself. "He didn't tell them for a long, long time."
Among other horrors, he once drew the grisly job of retrieving soldiers killed in the Malmedy massacre during the Battle of the Bulge. "The bodies were frozen solid," Shirley says.
"They stacked 'em up like cord wood," adds Davis' youngest son John, 56, who now manages the family farm west of Johnson in rural Whitman County.
"I had a lot of bad dreams," Davis adds, his smile now gone. "I guess I had to refight the war."
Davis led the life of a typical Palouse farm boy before he shipped out for England on Oct. 30, 1944. He grew up on the farm his grandfather, William Jesse Davis, founded 122 years ago. He played baseball for the old Johnson School and for Colton High School. After graduation, he started taking classes at Washington State College in Pullman.
But in 1943, faced with getting drafted or taking an ag exemption to work on the farm, Davis dropped out of school and volunteered for the Army.
"I just felt I had a patriotic duty," he says.
Davis was assigned to the 276th Combat Engineers, and did his basic training at Camp Gruber near Muskogee, Okla., and maneuvers in Tennessee.
His trip across the Atlantic was uneventful. But the close calls started on Christmas Day 1944, when he was crossing the English Channel on a New Zealand-flagged ship bound for Le Havre, France.
"It sucked up a mine with a propeller and disabled the ship," says Davis, who was by then a sergeant with a 12-man squad under his command.
The men aboard had to bail over the side into landing craft for the rest of the voyage, he says. Landfall was followed by an arduous, 22-mile uphill hike through the snow. His squad collapsed for the night in an old Catholic monastery.
As a member of an engineering battalion, Davis and his men spent most of their campaign clearing minefields, repairing roads and bridges, and cleaning up the booby traps the retreating German army had left behind as vicious gifts.
"We did a lot of deactivation of antipersonnel mines on captured equipment," he says.
One time he was on a hill, examining blast holes that had been drilled for a rock-crushing operation set up by his men.
"Well, I bumped up against a wire," he says. A German soldier had taken an American hand grenade, pulled the pin, placed it in a hidden tin can and attached a trip wire. If his leg had tugged a fraction of an inch more on the wire, it would have pulled the grenade from the can, releasing the striker lever.
"It was about three-eighths of an inch from coming out," he says.
But two of Davis' closest calls were probably at the infamous Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, Germany. After fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, his squad arrived at the bridge across the Rhine River just after its capture on March 8, 1945. Davis and his men drew the dangerous duty of guarding the bridge, which the Germans were now trying to destroy.
They watched over the bridge on a 24-hour rotation, and Davis would flip a coin to see who got stuck manning the steel span through the nights, watching for Germans floating explosives down the river.
"I wasn't real popular with my squad," he jokes. "I'd have 'em shoot at anything in the river that moved."
His squad members earned a Presidential Unit Citation for their bravery.
Davis got the first of his two Purple Hearts on the bridge when, on March 11, an 11-inch shell from a German railway artillery gun hit a steel beam directly over his head. "It killed 12 men all around me," he says. But he survived with a shrapnel wound to his left foot and a perforated right eardrum.
Davis' hearing has never fully returned.
On March 17, Davis tempted fate again when the heavily damaged bridge unexpectedly failed. "I had just walked off," he says. Suddenly, the 325-meter bridge collapsed with an enormous rumble. "There was no indication. When it went, it went in a hurry."
There was a company of Army engineers cutting out and replacing damaged beams when it collapsed. Twenty-eight were killed, and 93 were injured. Davis frantically joined in the rescue effort.
"You just tried to help what you could and get people out of the water," he says.
One of his last major scrapes came when Davis was riding that Harley-Davidson motorcycle near Montabaur, Germany, on April 23, 1945. He was racing through an intersection the Germans were randomly shelling, hoping to make it through on sheer speed. But as luck would have it, the bike took a direct hit.
Again, Davis survived. He was awarded his second Purple Heart. The war in Europe ended two weeks later.
But even then, he wasn't safe. The ship he boarded in England for the return trip broke in two just one day into the voyage, and another ship had to come rescue the men aboard. "We transferred ships right there in the middle of the ocean," he says.
After Davis got home, he returned to WSC (now Washington State University), where he finished degrees in agricultural education and economics. He taught farm management for the Community Colleges of Spokane for 18 years in Whitman, Spokane and Lincoln counties. He even did a stint as a baseball scout for the Cincinnati Reds.
He also raised a family, and tended the farm. He still drives tractor and combine, John says. But life was anything but smooth those first few months back home after the war.
Shirley recalls one incident on July 4, 1946. Davis was driving down their country lane when a local kid waved a cap pistol at them. Out of instinct ingrained from his combat experience, Davis ducked down, and Shirley had to grab the wheel to keep them from careening into the ditch. She calls it shell shock.
He calls it the continuation of the nightmares he went through in the war.
"I'm lucky to be here."