Tom Davis Service

The name Tom Davis is well known to many citizens of Livingston and Overton County. When we hear that name, we automatically associate it with the title Tom's death brought about ... the first American to die in combat in Vietnam. On the lower right hand corner of the front page of the June 21st issue of the Overton County News there was a small paragraph containing information about a service to be held this past Saturday on the square in Livingston to honor Tom. The announcement also stated that members of his unit would be present. Reading that information brought me to the square that day. Prior to the beginning of the service, several military bikers arrived. The extent of my knowledge about this group when I walked on the square was absolutely nothing. Just a few minutes later, two large buses rolled in. And again, my knowledge about those riding on the buses was absolutely nothing. I assumed that both the bikers and those who came in by bus all had military backgrounds. As the buses unloaded, one of the obvious things that could be seen about this group was that they all wore identical tee shirts with the initials "ASA" across the front. Once again I was clueless, I had no idea what "ASA" stood for.


This photograph, along with others, was sent back home to the Davis family following Tom's death.  The family does not have any information about those pictured with Tom.


When the service began, Retired Captain Duane Craig who served in the Vietnam War as a helicopter pilot with the United States Army spoke. He recalled how many Vietnam veterans were treated upon their return from service. "We were spit on and called names like 'war mongers' and 'baby killers.' Upon returning home, the Vietnam veteran found his friends and neighbors no longer liked him, that they were unable to separate the war from the warrior." Because of this type of treatment, a veterans organization called "Vietnam Veterans of America" was chartered in 1979 with the founding principle that "Never Again Shall One Generation of Veterans Abandon Another." Captain Craig stated "This principle is one of the reasons today's veterans are held in high esteem."

Gary Spivey, President of the Southeast Asia Army Security Agency Veterans Association (ASA - the initials on the tee shirts I had no idea about) also spoke to the group. He described exactly how Tom Davis died, the details of which will follow. But first, I would like to share some information from a letter he wrote to the Davis family during Christmas 2004. Many details about Tom's military career are revealed in this letter that explain much more than just the fact that he was the first American killed in that war. He has this to say about Tom's early days in the military:

"After completing basic military training, Tom had been selected to join the Army Security Agency (ASA), a top secret organization that picked its recruits from high scorers on a battery of aptitude tests. Tom had been trained at the ASA school in Fort Devens, Massachusetts, as a Radio Direction Finding Intercept Operator. Tom's job was to listen for enemy radio transmissions as he traversed the countryside in a specially-equipped 3/4 ton truck. When he picked up a signal, he would plot a line on a map from his location in the direction from which the signal originated. Another team working the same target nearby would plot a second line. Where the two lines intersected would show the location of the enemy transmitter. Tom's unit, the 3rd Radio Research Unit, had been dispatched to Vietnam in May 1961 by President Kennedy in one of America's first acts of commitment to the support of South Vietnam against the Viet Cong communist insurgency supported by North Vietnam."

The details of Tom's death are described as follows:

"On December 22, 1961, Tom Davis entered into history. He was riding in the front seat of the truck next to his Vietnamese driver. Nine other South Vietnamese troops were in the back. As they proceeded on a provincial highway about 10 miles west of Saigon, their eyes scoured their surroundings. Enemy activity in the area had been increasing, and another radio direction finding team had only narrowly escaped a recent ambush attempt. Tom could not have known, and none of us knew until much later, that the communist military command in the area had ordered strong action against the direction finding teams because of their success in disrupting guerilla operations. Shortly before noon, a remote-controlled landmine detonated under the tailgate of the truck. The troops in the back were assaulted by Viet Cong guerillas with rifle and machine-gun fire and hand grenades as they attempted to escape the vehicle, which had come to rest in a culvert at the side of the road. Tom kept his wits, scrambling from the cab. He hurled his satchel, containing his secret communications codes, into a rice paddy to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy. He pulled his injured driver into the culvert where the driver concealed himself in the water beneath the truck. Urging his team to 'run for it,' Tom ran up the gravel road, turning and firing as he went, drawing enemy fire to himself and away from his driver and other team members. At a position about 50 feet in front of the vehicle, he was hit by a bullet that pierced his skull, killing him instantly. At that moment, he became, in the words of the President, 'the first American to fall in defense of our freedom in Vietnam.' Only his driver survived, and from him we know this story. Two weeks later, Tom was buried at Good Hope cemetery here in Livingston. The Army Security Agency compound at Tan Son Nhut Air Base on the outskirts of Saigon was given the name 'Davis Station.'"

The service on the square concluded with participation of the local James T. Davis Post Memorial Post 5062 through firing of rifles and playing of taps. The second part of the service was moved on to Good Hope Cemetery for the dedication of a flagpole placed near Tom's grave by the Southeast Asia Army Security Agency in memory of their fellow soldier. After the dedication service at Good Hope, a meal was provided by the Davis family at the VFW hall in Livingston for the visiting veterans and their family members. The group concluded the day in Livingston with a visit to Overton County Historical Museum.

During the afternoon, I had a chance to find out about the military bikers present for the ceremony. I talked with Retired Army Major Bob "Bulldog" Ousley, President of Rolling Thunder, TN-1 Chapter, who spent 20 years in service. Major Ousley served 20 months in Vietnam during 1968-1970. Part of the information he shared with me about their organization is as follows: "Rolling Thunder®, Inc.'s major mission is to publicize the Prisoners of War and Missing in Action issue; to educate the public of the fact that many American prisoners of war were left behind after all past wars; and to help correct the past and to protect future veterans from being left behind should they become prisoners of war-missing in action. Their members are committed to helping American veterans from all wars. This organization, started by Vietnam Veterans, was incorporated in 1995 and has over 85 chapters nationwide. Rolling Thunder members generally ride motorcycles, but the organization is a veterans service organization, not a motorcycle gang or club. The motorcycles get public attention making it easier for Rolling Thunder to get their message out. "You Are Not Forgotten" is one of several mottos the organization has. Rolling Thunder works diligently to lobby congress to institute legislation and laws that will insure no political decision or lack of effort will result in a single American being abandoned in a foreign land. According to statistics Bob Ousley provided, those missing from World War II alone are 78,708 soldiers. Rolling Thunder believes that leaving even one American imprisoned on foreign soil is unconscionable, but to leave thousands is unforgivable. Currently, Tennessee has four Rolling Thunders chapters - one in Smyrna, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Johnson City, and later this year, one may be chartered in Memphis."

The entire day was a very impressive one, but I must say when those two large buses rolled in on the square, I was concerned that these people might think the Town of Livingston didn't care very much about our own hometown young man. The buses were completely filled with what I found out later to be members of Tom's unit, some of which traveled some as far as Albuquerque, New Mexico, New York, and many other states as well, to honor someone most of them didn't even know. I had to wonder why there were so many more of them than there were of us. I found out later it had been planned that way. Two years ago, plans were made that during ASA's annual convention, held yearly in various cities, that the 2006 convention would be held in Nashville, and during that event, a trip to Livingston would be included. The purpose of the trip was to visit Tom's hometown and to honor his memory with the service held on the square and at Good Hope.

Gary Spivey served at Davis Station for three years beginning in 1964. As a result of the planning for his group's trip to Livingston, a very special friendship has been formed with the Davis family. Although he didn't have the opportunity to personally meet Tom, he says, "Through the Davis family, I have come to know Tom. I have walked the streets of his hometown, have seen the site of the family drugstore where he worked as a boy, the hills where he hiked and hunted, and the football stadium named in his honor by the school where he won his letter as a defensive halfback and was crowned the Harvest King. I have seen the family home where he grew up and where he lay in state in January 1962."

On display at the Overton County Historical Museum is a handcrafted memorial piece placed on Tom's casket during his memorial service in 1962. The very detailed gift made by the Vietnamese soldiers who worked with Tom required very intense labor. These soldiers went without sleep in order to finish it in time to be shipped with Tom's body. Prior to coming home to the Overton County Historical Museum, it was on display at the Tennessee Museum in Nashville.

Considering how I started that day knowing next to nothing about the participants of the service to honor Tom, by the end of the day, I had a new sense of enlightenment and definitely a new appreciation for those who have served and continue to do so in military service. What they do and have done on our behalf is so often taken for granted and not fully appreciated as was emphasized by those who spoke during the ceremony. Understanding in more depth the meticulous duties involved in Tom's job in the military, and learning about the events that led up to his death only strengthened the love and respect we are feel for one of our own. Members of Tom's unit along with the Davis family, are to be commended for allowing us to share this very special day.