The real Forrest Gump: The Medal of Honor recipient behind the movie


Sergeant First Class Sammy Davis found three of his fellow GIs in a foxhole behind enemy lines in Vietnam. Two were severely wounded and one presumed dead, but he carried them to a river and floated them to safety on an air mattress, one by one. He found a medic’s bag and tended their wounds but refused to treat his own.

Sammy Davis stands
Sammy L. Davis stands third from the left at the Medal of Honor recipient ceremony Nov. 19, 1968. The military actions of Forrest Gump were based off of Davis’ actions on the battlefield. (Sammy Davis)

A rescue helicopter landed to airlift the wounded and dead. Davis loaded his fellow soldiers onto the helicopter and then collapsed. He later woke up in a military camp in Japan. “Thank you, Lord,” he prayed. He received the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions when he returned to the United States.

This story may sound like a scene straight out of “Forrest Gump,” and for good reason. Screenwriters based everything from Lt. Dan’s and Bubba’s characters, the Vietnam War scenes and the reception of the Medal of Honor on Davis’s experiences. The footage of Forrest Gump receiving the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon B. Johnson is actual footage of Davis, who spoke to BYU ROTC cadets on campus Oct. 3.

Sammy Davis was born in Ohio but raised in California. Military service runs in his family, with members serving in the Spanish-American War, WWII and the Korean War. He was a German Lutheran but is now a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Faith has always had an important role in my life,” Davis said.

Davis prayed for the things he needed while in Vietnam. “Sir, just let me do my job,” he often prayed.

Davis travels to schools and universities to speak about his experiences. He allows everyone in the audience to hold his medal when he speaks.

Major Chanda Mofu, member of the United States Army and professor of military science at BYU, said the Medal of Honor is “the nation’s highest military award for actions of valor in combat.”

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Sammy Davis’ Medal of Honor, awarded him in 1968 by President Johnson. Davis lets audience members pass around the medal wherever he speaks.

Medals go to soldiers who put their lives on the line to defeat a single, significant attack. Mofu said Medal of Honor recipients span all wars and comprise a small group of people.

Gregory Wright, a senior from Virginia studying geography, is a cadet in the Army ROTC who heard Davis speak. He said actually holding the Medal of Honor was surreal. “The meaning behind that is so significant to our country,” Wright said. “To be able to hold one in real life is sublime and humbling.”

Davis’ actions demonstrated selfless service to his country and his fellow soldiers. Mofu said Davis speaking on campus was an inspiration to the ROTC cadets and helped build the morale of the BYU community.

ROTC cadet Garrett Falk, a freshman from New Jersey studying mechanical engineering, said medals are given for different reasons in today’s world, but the Medal of Honor is the most sacred medal.

Mofu added that it is human nature to be self-interested. Davis’ actions were a demonstration of selfless service and Christlike love, which are both values of the Army. “I know I’m not a hero,” Davis said. “I did for my brothers what I knew they would do for me. You do what you know is right.”

Davis doesn’t wear the Medal of Honor for his own actions but for his brothers-in-arms.

“It’s daunting and inspiring to hear a man who put his body on the line,” Wright said, adding that at the end of the day the only thing people have in this world are those whom they can lean on.

People can surround themselves with people who truly have our best interest at heart, Wright said. “If you don’t know Sammy Davis’ story, I would strongly encourage you to look it up. You could learn a lot from it,” he said.

Davis closed his speech by giving words of counsel to future generations. “The message that I have for all those who come is that no matter what you’re faced with in life, you don’t lose until you quit trying.”

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