On Saturday, when President Donald J. Trump passed on celebrating American war heroes because ... rain, it immediately reminded me of stories I was told during a couple of cookouts I attended.
The first was when I visited one of my best friends. He was a soldier in the U.S. Army and stationed at Fort Bragg, in Fayetteville, N.C. He took me to a Memorial Day cookout on the base. Because of the torrential downpour, I figured it wouldn’t be well-attended. I arrived to find soldiers cooking, eating, and playing basketball in the rain.
“Rain?” my friend responded when I asked if the cookout was canceled. “We’re soldiers. Rain don’t stop shit.”
The second memory was when I met Thomas Davis and Isaiah McMillan in Andersonville, Ga., during “The Ride Home,” an annual day of celebration honoring former American Prisoners of War and the families of Americans still Missing in Action.
I expected a day of solemn reverence during the parade, luncheon and tribute. What I got instead was more laughter than tears. The expected pity party was replaced with literal war stories and anecdotes recounting the pain and tragedy that forged a lifelong friendship between heroes.
Sgt. Porter E. Calloway, Corporal Isaiah R. McMillan and Sgt. Thomas J. Davis were part of a six-man team providing “close-in” mortar support for two 196th Bravo platoons on a search and destroy mission from atop Hill 407, Que Son Vally in the Quang Tri Province of Vietnam. Right before lunch, the search and destroy teams radioed that they had walked into a 30-man ambush.
“We could see [the line platoons] getting wiped out,” explained McMillan. “I said: ‘Dave, we need to get off this hill.’”
So they ran off the hill, into a rice patty and right into an ambush.
“It was probably a one-man ambush with an AK-47,” Davis recounted. “He could have killed us all if he wasn’t so anxious. But he just opened fire.”
Knowing they were exposed and that their only chance for survival was to somehow escape the rice patty, Calloway, McMillan and Davis hit the ground and returned fire. When they attempted their escape, Sgt. Calloway was shot by enemy fire.
“I told Dave [Davis], ‘We can’t leave him. Somebody’s gotta go back and get him,’” McMillan said. So under heavy fire, Davis went back into the rice patty and rescued Calloway. Davis sprained his ankle in the process.
The three men managed to move into the tree line where they hunkered down and discovered they had almost run out of ammunition. The three men devised a plan on how to survive until their comrades could rescue them. They decided that if they were discovered by the enemy fighters, they would set their weapons to “rock and roll” (automatic fire) and simply try to shoot their way out until they ran out of bullets.
However, the Viet Cong had a different plan. Knowing American soldiers were in the area, they bombarded the three fighters with gas grenades. The enemy soldiers eventually found all three soldiers and dragged them out of the bunker. Calloway was severely injured. Davis had possibly broken his ankle. The gas grenades had knocked McMillan out.
“McMillan and I could have escaped, and evaded,” said Davis. “But you never leave behind a friend. Ever. If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably do the same thing all over again.”
The three Americans were eventually bound to trees and moved—while under heavy American fire—over the course of three days until they reached a camp with other American prisoners of war. During the journey, Calloway would succumb to his injuries.
McMillan and Davis would spend five years as prisoners of war.
McMillan was a 20-year-old newlywed when he was captured in Vietnam. He had volunteered for the army one month out of high school. He had married his high school sweetheart and had a son. Davis, also 20, was one of the newest enlistees when the two were captured on March 11, 1968.
As the two men regaled me with stories of their time spent in Prisoner of War camps, the anecdotes surprisingly varied between pain and suffering and hilarious shenanigans. Davis rehashed his five bouts of malaria, which McMillan describes as “shaking like a leaf on a tree.” He weaved it into a story about McMillan’s penchant for stealing food from their captors, including a weeks-long project of using food bits to slowly lure a chicken to their quarters and the feast they cooked when they stole a prized pig from the Vietnamese guards.
The pair was held in a camp called “Happy Valley,” where they suffered dysentery, brutal conditions and torture. Their diet was limited to rice, small animals and whatever they could forage in the surrounding forest on their daily food excursions. They watched helplessly as many of their fellow POWs passed away from injuries, gunshot wounds and various illnesses. They spoke of a skin disease that left puss-filled sores all over their bodies which caused their clothing to fuse to their skin.
Every injury was susceptible to infection, forcing them to submit to rudimentary surgeries and dental work with no anesthesia. They fought through snakebites, insect swarms, starvation, and being bombed during American attacks.
More treacherous than the inhuman conditions was the mental torture. They were subjected to a “re-education” effort enabled by Robert Garwood, a Marine who turned traitor.
“Really what they were trying to do was brainwash us,” explained McMillan.
“To keep from wasting your mind,” Davis told The Root, “I knew McMillan’s life story. He knew my life story. I knew every girlfriend he ever had, what kind of car he drove ... everything, just to keep our minds active.”
McMillan, known as the jokester of the group, told the story of how he would make his fellow soldiers laugh by cursing out their captors in English: “I talked about his mama, his daddy, his dog and he would just smile,” McMillan said.
McMillan was then called in front of the leaders of the camp. Sure he was going to be hailed and possibly sent home for keeping up the soldiers’ morale, he willingly went to the meeting, only to discover that the guard he had cursed out for days could actually speak English.
“They said, ‘You talked about the guard’s mama,’” McMillan said, barely holding in laughs while re-telling the story. “‘You talked about the guard’s daddy. You even talked about the guard’s dog.’”
“I did the only thing I could do,” McMillan said. “I said: ‘When? Who? Not me!’ and they said: ‘I think when the war is over, you should stay here.’”
But instead of upsetting McMillan, he explained that the encounter made him happy and filled him with hope.
“That was the first time I had ever heard them talk about letting us go home.”
The two, along with other captured servicemen, stayed in Happy Valley until 1971 until they were moved to North Vietnam to Plantation Garden. On March 16, 1973, after 1,832 days in captivity, Davis and McMillan were released during Operation Homecoming.
After their release, both men continued to serve in the Army. McMillan retired in March 1993 and currently resides outside of Augusta, Ga. Davis retired from the Army on October 1997 and now lives outside of Augusta where he currently works as a real estate agent in McDonough, Ga.
When asked about his time as a prisoner of war, McMillan says:
“I’ll be honest with you, it doesn’t bother me at all. I have come to grips with it and, you know what? It has never crossed my mind. The Vietnamese, the American government, it’s all in the past.
“And I have come to grips with the fact that you can’t live in the past.”