Forty years ago, a World-Herald editor invited Omaha trial attorney James Martin Davis to write a Memorial Day article about his uncle, a World War II Army staff sergeant who was killed in combat.
That effort, published in 1981 in the newspaper’s Magazine of the Midlands, set Davis on a lifelong quest to give testament to the suffering, sacrifice and heroism of tens of thousands of enlisted men and women like his uncle and namesake, Jim Laferla.
In June, The World-Herald will release a paperback compilation of Davis’ writings over the past 40 years. Titled “Memorial Day: Our Nation’s Time to Remember,” the book is a reflection on war, sacrifice and valor.
Davis’ writings are from the perspective of a reluctant soldier, drafted into the Army after his first year of law school and sent to Vietnam, assigned to the 4th Infantry Division in 1969. He emerged from his yearlong tour of duty as a decorated combat infantryman, indebted to his comrades.
“I was lucky to survive that war,” Davis said. “There is no human explanation for why some of us lived and others had to die.”
His editor for the first decade of tributes to America’s combat soldiers — living and dead — was the late Hollis Limprecht, whom Davis called a “ramrod straight, polished and dignified” decorated veteran of WWII. Limprecht had been a combat infantry officer; the two immediately bonded.
“After the story about my uncle appeared, Hollis encouraged me to write about my war,” Davis said. “He said it would be therapeutic not just for me, but for readers as well. He was right.”
Davis received more than 100 cards, letters and phone calls in response to his March 1987 piece, “What Vietnam Was Really Like.” It ran on the front page of the Midlands section and remains his most popular essay.
“It was surprising, given the attitude of the country toward Vietnam before that,” Davis said. “It showed a cultural transition in terms of how the public viewed Vietnam vets.”
When the Magazine of the Midlands folded in 2006, Davis’ annual essays found a home on The World-Herald’s op-ed page.
In “Why Many Combat Soldiers Don’t Talk About Their Wars,” published Nov. 11, 2020, he talked about the “deep, piercing scars” of losing comrades in combat.
“You’re told in combat that you have to deal with the living and let the chaplains worry about the dead. That mindset is hard for many to understand. For the combat veteran, no explanation is necessary. For the civilian, no explanation is possible.
“Most Americans will never know what combat soldiers endure when they are tired and tense and alone and afraid. …You survive when your unit becomes tough. The ultimate test is trusting your life to your comrades. You are taught to think of your buddy first because he’s thinking of you. All we have in combat is each other.”
Letters of praise and gratitude for Davis’ patriotic essays have appeared in The World-Herald’s Public Pulse throughout the decades.
Former Omaha deputy police chief Jack O’Donnell once thanked Davis by saying, “You put into words the feelings we cannot express.” O’Donnell, a combat infantryman, was severely wounded in Vietnam.
When Davis entered military service, he took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. He renewed that oath as a special agent in the U.S. Secret Service, later as attorney-in-charge of the United States Organized Crime and Anti-Corruption Strike Force, and yet again as an attorney practicing law.
“That oath has no end date,” he said.
In today’s World-Herald, Davis writes about four Rangers he knew from the 75th Infantry Regiment of K Company who specialized in long-range reconnaissance patrols in enemy territory, the most dangerous missions in the war zone.
The article, “It Hurts When Your Heroes Die,” is one Davis has tried unsuccessfully to write over the years.
“I worried that any words I put on paper would be inadequate to describe who they were and what they did,” he said. “In the field, they set up ambushes, engaged in hit-and-run actions and attempted to capture enemy soldiers. When it came to special operations, they were masters of the game.”
But they were not indestructible. No soldier is.
The first time Davis visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C, he went looking for those Rangers, code named Romeo 1-5, who had helped his missions. Seeing the Rangers’ names etched in the black granite reminded Davis of how much he owed them.
His patriotic reflections will continue.
“War is prolonged trauma,” he said. “There are no unwounded soldiers in combat.”
His book is a poignant illustration of his mantra: Memorial Day is our nation’s holy day of obligation.
“It’s not about picnics and barbecues and the start of summer,” Davis said. “It’s about honoring our war dead by remembering them on one special day a year.”
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