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East Texas Heroes: John Davis

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TYLER (KYTX) -- What started off as a position in the Marine Corps Band turned into a tour of duty as an intelligence officer for John Davis of Tyler.  He served in the South Pacific during World War II.  And that led to a 22-year career.

"I had always wanted to travel around the world and the Marines were everywhere," Davis told us.

John Davis was raised in Tyler and felt the call of the Marines in August 1941, before the start of World War II.  He was stationed in San Diego and his clarinet skills got him his first assignment.  Davis told us, "they put me in the big 125 piece band there in San Diego."

And being in Southern California he even got a taste of Hollywood in a film that featured him as part of the Marine Corps Band.  He said, "20th Century Fox came down before Pearl Harbor and made the movie "To the Shores of Tripoli."

But on December 7, 1941, everything changed.  After the bombing of Pearl Harbor the U.S. military feared an attack on the mainland was next.  "I'll never forget it.  They issued us World War I helmets," Davis said, "we had our Springfield rifle, bayonets, ammo belts and not one round of ammunition, waiting because we didn't know where the Japanese were, so waiting to see if they came in."

It was an attack that never came but the U.S. found itself in a war.  And the Marines put Davis' other skills to use in a new role.  He told us, "very few Marines could type so they put me in Marine intelligence."

In spring 1943 Davis boarded the SS Lurline with 5,000 Marines and headed to South Pacific.  He was stationed at Guadalcanal.  Davis said, "Guadalcanal had already been secured but we got bombed by the Japanese."

His job was to establish and staff communication centers on islands across the South Pacific.  Sometimes they sent and received messages working with Navajo code talkers to encrypt outgoing messages and decode incoming transmissions. "Orders to different people, to different regiments and battalions," he told us.

They intercepted Japanese messages too.  "We had broken the Japanese code so we knew what they were saying but they didn't know what we were saying," Davis told us.

But despite their specific duties the men of Davis' signal battalion were Marines and Marines fight.  In his first battle, the Battle of Guam, Davis experienced a deep loss.  He said, "a friend of mine from Tyler was killed about 2,000 yards from me."

That man's name was Welbourn Dodd. He said, "we went in together."

Davis still owns a camouflage coat that's very important to him.  If this 70-year-old coat could talk it would tell you it's the same jacket Davis wore for 20 days during that battle, and the same jacket he was wearing when he saw Welbourn die.  

Despite the loss Davis pushed through and carried out his missions bravely, including an aerial drop of surveillance photos on to the deck of a ship.  He was on a different ship with the actor Henry Fonda the night before he took off in a plane and made the special delivery out of the open door of that moving plane, with the help of another Marine.  "While he was holding me by the belt out the open door we dropped it," Davis told us, "I came back and reported to the Colonel, operation complete, photographs delivered."

There were light moments too.  He developed strong bonds with the other Marines in his battalion and they even adopted a pet, a cat they named Combat.  "We took him with us from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. He got wounded but he survived," Davis told us.

Davis set up another message center on Okinawa shortly after the invasion on April 1, 1945.  It took nearly 3 months to secure the island and it came at a high price.  "Death, lots of it," Davis said.

The Marines sent Davis back home to Tyler in June.  He was in Alameda when he found out about the bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  "That was the beginning of the end," Davis said, "we wanted to win the war and we were going to win the war so everyone went all out to do their job, and to get back home to friends, family and loved ones."

He's proud of his service and says he'd do it again for the country that means so much.  "It means freedom, it means independence, and it means a country for the people, all the people," Davis told us.

And that's what makes Lieutenant Colonel John Davis an East Texas Hero.  After the war ended he ended up at a Marine fighter squadron in Grand Prairie, Texas.  He left the Marines in 1963 and retired home to Tyler.

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