We visit battlefields like Shiloh and Gettysburg. We watch “Valkyrie,” “Band of Brothers,” and “The Blue and the Gray.” The memorials and monuments of the Civil War and World War II hold our attention, but we are largely unfamiliar with The War that was supposed To End All Wars – The Great War – World War I. Why? Perhaps part of it was that there was not the allure or the romanticism of the Civil War – no brother fighting brother on our own soil. There were no radio sets or movie reels or John Wayne in the Pacific. World War I was largely covered by newspapers, which maybe (or maybe not...) reached the fifty percent of our population that was still living in rural areas.
4.3 million American troops fought in World War One. 126,000 died (half from the influenza epidemic of 1918) and another 235,000 were wounded. The Great War gave us poison gas and fighter planes. We sang the song “Over There” by George M. Cohan. The war gave us Alvin York – I know him as Gary Cooper portrayed him in Sergeant York (one of my favorite movies!). Our own Manila, Arkansas, gave us Herman Davis.
Herman Davis was born on January 3, 1888, at Big Lake Island (now Manila) in Mississippi County, and he grew up in the wooded swamp that is now part of the Big Lake National Wildlife Reserve. His father died when he was in the fourth grade - he had to drop out of school to help support his family. He became an expert outdoorsman and sharpshooter and made money as a hunting guide. When World War I started, Herman was drafted, even though he was only 5’3” and thirty years old. He trained at Camp Pike (in North Little Rock), then left for France on June 15, 1918.
Despite his age and small stature, Davis turned out to be quite the soldier. Shooting was as natural to him as breathing, as he proved on the battlefield. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at Verdun, France, where he killed four German machine gunners. In other action, he killed fifteen enemy gunners in a machine gun nest, as well as eleven enemy soldiers climbing out of a dugout. France presented him with the Croix de Guerre with palm, the Croixe de Guerre with gilt star, and the French Medaille Militaire.
When Herman came back home from the war, he began work at a fishing and hunting club at Big Lake. His family and friends did not know of his heroism in the War until it was published in a newspaper. When General Pershing published his list of the top 100 heroes of World War I, Herman Davis was fourth. His friends, family, and neighbors were shocked – was this actually the Herman Davis they knew? When they asked to see his medals, he took them out of his fishing tackle box and reluctantly showed them. He very rarely wore them.
By 1922, Herman was suffering from tuberculosis caused by exposure to poison gas during the war. His friends from the Dud Cason American Legion in Blytheville took a destitute Herman to the hospital in Memphis, where he died in surgery on January 5, 1923, two days after he turned 35 years old.
A fund drive in Mississippi County, including a penny drive by school children, raised enough to build a life-sized statue of Herman. The city of Manila donated a one-acre site for the statue and a monument, dedicated on Memorial Day 1925, and his remains were buried there. The site became our 6th state park – and our smallest – in 1953 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
When you're driving through Manila on Highway 18, be sure to keep an eye out for Herman Davis Memorial State Park. How fitting a place for the monument to one of Arkansas’ finest heroes – one from The War to End All Wars.