A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Much More to the Story

By Cathy Cruise, MFA '93 on November 7, 2017

Mason communications officer John Hollis is a history buff, seasoned journalist, and author whose second book was published in October from Hugo House Publishers. The Making of a Hero: The Life and Death of Sgt. Rodney M. Davis, tells the story of Hollis’s wife’s uncle, an African American who was presented a posthumous Medal of Honor for saving the lives of five fellow Marines in one of the fiercest battles of the Vietnam War. Although Hollis knew Davis’s narrative would make a great book, it wasn’t until he began researching the events that unfolded that day in 1967 that he found the story was even more riveting than he’d imagined.

John Hollis

What was the essential revelation you uncovered? 

I found out all five men Sergeant Davis saved were white. At that time, the country was about to split at the seams over the issue of black and white, but Davis and his fellow Marines of all colors were brothers in every sense despite being stuck 10,000 miles from home and in the closest thing there was to hell on earth. Davis considered them his brothers, even though notorious Jim Crow laws in the South would have prevented him from even eating in the same restaurant with them. It takes a special man to fight for a country that denies him full rights as a citizen, a more extraordinary one still to willingly lay down his life for that country. 

What happened that day? 

Davis was among a company of 200 Marines who inadvertently walked into a trap set by 2,500 North Vietnamese soldiers. It was chaos, shooting from every direction. Davis was in a trench with five other Marines when an enemy grenade landed at their feet. The others didn’t see or hear it, but Davis saw it, jumped on it, and used both hands to pull it underneath this body and absorb the blast. He was killed right away. All five of the others survived.  

How hard was it to research? 

Incredibly hard. It took about seven years. I interviewed more than 50 Marines who were there that day, and remain eternally thankful to the Pentagon, the Marine Corps, and the U.S. Navy for giving me full access to information and records.  

What doors has this book opened for you? 

In 1987, the U.S. Navy commissioned a guided missile frigate in Davis’s honor. The USS Rodney M. Davis was the first Navy warship named after an African-American Medal of Honor recipient. My wife’s family and I were all invited onboard. About four years ago, I was invited to the Pentagon after they got wind of the book. And three years ago, I was invited to the White House when President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to a group of men whose valor had been previously downplayed because of their race or ethnicity. I’ve covered the Olympics, a Super Bowl and five college basketball Final Fours. But sitting in the East Room hearing Obama speak and watching him present the awards to those guys was the most amazing thing I’ve done in my life. 

What’s coming up next? 

I’m about to start working on a book about a jailbreak attempt in New York City in 1981, and have already begun receiving some publisher interest. 

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