Big Lake produced World War I hero


    The ducks and geese, flying southward in autumn from the cold northland, were
    the targets that trained the woodsman in the fine qualities of marksmanship
    which probably saved a company of Americans in France from annihilation.

    — George M. Moreland, "Herman Davis: An Arkansas Immortal,"
    Memphis Commercial Appeal, Aug. 8, 1926

When General John J. Pershing announced the 100 greatest heroes of World War I, the fourth name from the top of the list was Private Herman Davis of Manila, Ark. Davis' friends were shocked.

They knew Davis as an excellent hunter and fisherman, someone who had never ventured far from his beloved Big Lake, except for an 11-month U.S. Army tour of duty. Reportedly, Davis missed the call when his draft notice arrived because he was hunting and fishing on Little River.

When he returned from the war, he seemed unchanged. Davis didn't talk about his experiences in the battlefields of France. A friend helped him find a job with a Big Lake hunting club. It was back to business as usual — hunting and fishing.

Davis was said to assume that he'd simply done what any other soldier would have. The military did not then have the public relations machine in place to inform newspapers about their hometown heroes.

Only when Gen. Pershing issued the list did anyone discover that Davis was Arkansas' greatest World War I hero. At the urging of friends, Davis finally showed them his medals. They were again shocked when he pulled them from an old fishing tackle box.

Two statements ultimately define Arkansas' greatest World War I hero:

  1. Davis kept some of the most treasured medals of military service next to his prized fishing lures;

  2. Only two times did Davis discuss his war exploits, and both were with close friends in duck blinds on Big Lake.

It has been written that Davis wiped out a German machine gun nest "with a coolness he might have displayed when aiming at a flock of mallards flying southward over his beautiful valley home in Arkansas."

Whatever his actual style and frame of mind, Davis earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at Molleville Farm, near Verdun, France, on Oct. 10, 1918. The citation described his actions as follows:

    On duty as a company runner, he was accompanying the left assault platoon of his company during the advance through the woods, when it was fired on by an enemy machine gun. As soon as the gun opened fire, the members of the platoon scattered and attempted to flank the gun, but Private Davis pushed on ahead, being the first to reach the nest, attacked it single handed, and killed the four enemy gunners. His gallant act enabled his platoon to continue the advance.

With his duties as a runner or scout, Davis worked ahead of his company and often encountered the enemy. Other instances of his bravery have been reported, including killing 11 Germans, one by one, as they emerged from a dugout. Another instance helped confirm the legend of his shooting ability. Along front line trenches, German soldiers could be seen about 1,000 yards away, moving as if they were out of rifle range.

Davis reportedly said, "Why that's just good shootin' distance," then proceeded to kill five Germans before the others took cover.

Davis' exploits may have grown with time, but there is little doubt he was an excellent marksman.

As George Moreland wrote in Memphis' Commercial Appeal in 1926: "Even before his government pinned upon his breast the badge of sharpshooter he had known he could shoot. A woodsman from birth — a son of the swamp section of Arkansas — he had learned to shoot straight in early boyhood."

If Davis' heroics did grow with time, it wasn't because of anything Davis said.

In an Arkansas Historical Quarterly article, "Herman Davis: Forgotten Hero," which appeared in 1955, Margaret Smith Ross chronicled Davis' life, from his birth on January 3, 1888, at Big Lake Island to his death on January 5, 1923, at a Memphis hospital. Ross reported that Davis never wore his medals in public, but his wife did wear them occasionally during public functions she attended with Davis.

And it was Ross who found no evidence of Davis recounting his war experiences, except for the two times in duck blinds on Big Lake.

In addition to the Distinguished Service Cross from the U.S. government, the French government awarded Davis the Croix de Guerre with palm, a gilt star for the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire, which Moreland termed "the highest military decoration in the world."

Poison gas Davis encountered during the war reportedly contributed to the tuberculosis that killed him just two days after his 35th birthday.

However, Davis' presence remains prominent near Big Lake. A granite monument honoring him stands in Manila, just off Highway 18, at Herman Davis Memorial Park.