An Arkansas History Minute: the legacy of Herman Davis
Herman Davis went from deep poverty in a remote corner of Arkansas and became the most decorated Arkansan of World War I.
He was born just outside what is now Manila in Mississippi County in 1888. The family lived in a small shack outside the town near Big Lake and ran a small store. The family was desperately poor. He had to quit school after fourth grade in order to go to work to help the family, mostly as a hunter, and developed a reputation in the community as an expert shot, which would serve him well in the war.
When World War I erupted in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson urged the nation to remain neutral. However, the horrors of the war were far removed from Davis’s struggles to scratch out a living with a wife and young daughter. By 1917, continuing German provocations drove the U.S. into the war and a draft was unveiled for only the second time in American history. Davis was called up, and at 5’3”, he barely qualified for the army.
Davis was sent to France in June 1918. He was a modest soldier and won the respect of his company. On one occasion, he took out five German troops at a thousand yards with his bolt-action rifle, a distance he reportedly dismissed as “good shooting distance.” On Oct. 10, he singlehandedly charged into a German machine gun nest, capturing the gun and killing the gunnery crew. For this act, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The French awarded him their two highest medals, the Military Medal and the Croix de Guerre.
In the predawn hours of Nov. 11, 1918, Allied and German generals agreed to a cease-fire that would go into effect at 11 a.m. that morning, ending the Great War once and for all.
Davis would make it back to Arkansas by summer 1919 and remarry soon afterward. He would observe the first Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1919, after President Wilson proclaimed it a national holiday and the nation paused to remember the sacrifices and service of American troops in the war. More than 117,000 Americans had died, including more than 2,000 Arkansans. Across the nation, memorials were being planned and built to honor the Doughboys and for individual heroes of the war.
But Davis was content to work at the Big Lake Hunting Club. He would not talk about his experiences, and stored his medals in his tackle box. Word of his wartime heroism leaked out around Manila as it had around the country, and he slowly acknowledged his exploits.
Poison gas had been widely used by the Germans during the war, killing tens of thousands. Many more were injured, including Davis. Not long after his return from France, Davis developed a crippling case of tuberculosis caused by the gas. He could not afford a doctor, and what veterans services were available were too expensive. He found some additional labor jobs in the swamps, which only worsened his health. Area veterans tried to help him with his money situation by arranging paid speeches, but Davis refused. Finally, in Oct. 1922, his friends put together the $48 needed to take him to the veterans hospital in Memphis and have him admitted. They petitioned the government for the $1,800 in back pay owed to him. Davis’s health collapsed, and he died on Jan. 5, 1923. Two weeks later, his back pay arrived.
Arkansans raised $5,000 to build a memorial to him, also raising money for his family. Dedicated in 1925 as Herman Davis State Park, the memorial still stands in Manila.