JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP) — August 9, 1967, could’ve been the last day on earth for Warrant Officer Paul Davis. Yet God had other plans for his life.
The Battle of Landing Zone Pat had broken out in the Song Re Valley of Vietnam as the U.S. Army tried to destroy what had become a hub of activity for Communist North Vietnam.
Davis, then a 22-year-old helicopter commander, was preparing for one of the 700 combat missions he took part in during his deployment to Vietnam. He had often flown as the “wingman” for their unit commander. But before he could get into his Huey, Captain John “Bo” Thompson told him: “I’m going to take your place on this mission.”
Thompson jumped in his own aircraft and took off. Soon word came back: the enemy had shot down both Thompson’s chopper and that of Major William Harvey. Davis would have been flying in that position if not for the last-minute change. There were no survivors. Thompson was one of 22 men from Davis’s small unit who died during his 12 months in Vietnam.
When the word came that Thompson’s aircraft was down, Davis’s crew was next to respond. As he ran to his aircraft, he heard two life-changing words: “Change seats,” which came to him as a clear communication from God that he has never forgotten.
As the senior pilot and aircraft commander, he typically flew in the left seat. But for this mission, Davis flew in the right seat.
While flying over the spot where the earlier aircrafts had been shot down just minutes earlier, his own chopper came under fire.
“The aircraft pitched up and began to spin violently,” Davis said. “The cockpit filled with smoke, shrapnel, and debris. We had been hit and were going down.”
One of the enemy’s anti-aircraft rounds that hit their helicopter also hit Davis’s copilot, Chuck Iannuzzi, wounding him severely. Using every bit of the flying experience he had, Davis managed to get the aircraft under control and executed an emergency landing into the middle of the battle zone. While Iannuzzi would take many months to recover from his wounds, he survived. He would later credit Davis’s experience in that situation as a key reason they both were alive.
During his year in Vietnam, Davis earned numerous awards for valor, including two Purple Hearts, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star, 35 Air Medals and a Silver Star; one of the highest awards given to a U.S. soldier.
But as Davis looks back over 50 years later, something else stands out.
“I don’t talk about the medals to draw attention to myself, but to draw attention to the Lord because he has saved my life many, many times,” Davis said. “And none of that compares to sharing Christ with youth and with men and women in prison.”
Davis has served in prison ministry for the past 45 years. It started when an 11-year-old boy on his wife, Jade’s, church bus route was arrested. The couple’s eyes were opened to the needs of those in detention after visiting him. In the four and a half decades since, Davis has ministered to inmates in prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers throughout the Jacksonville area, and numerous Florida state prisons.
Today, as a leader for the prison ministry at North Jax Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., he serves weekly at two adult prisons and ministers at two juvenile detention centers. In the last six months, over 70 men have made decisions to follow Jesus through gospel presentations and mentoring ministry.
“That’s all for God’s glory,” said Davis, citing John 12:32. “It has nothing to do with me. It has nothing to do with us. It just has to do with our being faithful to what God has called us to do.”
Davis also serves as a NAMB-endorsed, Southern Baptist chaplain and the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police Associates, a national organization that supports law enforcement officers throughout the country. Through that work, he has had the opportunity to preside over funerals for reserve police officers who have died or were killed in the line of duty.
Davis, who earned both Master of Ministry and Doctor of Ministry degrees after turning 50, says his experience in Vietnam helped prepare him for his later ministry.
“I’m without excuse because I’ve seen God’s faithfulness lived out tangibly,” Davis said. “It’s helped me a lot in ministry to kids—to share with them and see what’s going on in their lives. As a Bible teacher with middle school kids at church, youth camps and mission trips for over 45 years and in prison ministry, I have been able to share with thousands of students and adults that there’s hope in Christ. Nothing is impossible with Jesus.”
Davis can’t explain why he and his crew survived while so many others did not.
“It was not about my goodness,” Davis said, “but rather the grace, mercy and sovereign will of God that saved me all throughout the year I flew attack helicopter gunships in Vietnam.
“Why did God spare my life in Vietnam? It wasn’t to get a bunch of medals and pats on the back. He left me here for his glory.”
Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Doug Carver, executive director of chaplaincy at NAMB, urges Southern Baptists to express gratitude to those who served the nation, particularly with Veterans Day approaching.
“Take time today, and every day to thank a veteran like Paul Davis for their selfless and sacrificial service,” Carver said. “Continue to pray for our Southern Baptist military chaplains as they serve the religious needs of our troops, especially those deployed to the Middle East in harm’s way.”
Published November 11, 2023