As the leader of a machine gun platoon during World War II, Army 1st Lt. Rudolph Bianco Davila’s job was to cover the backs of the rifle company in front of him. When that company was about to be ambushed by Germans, he did all he could to keep them from being slaughtered. His bravery earned him the Distinguished Service Cross and eventually the Medal of Honor.
Davila was born on April 27, 1916, to his father, Nicolas Davila, who was Spanish, and his mother, Maria, who was Filipino. He was born in El Paso, Texas, but he, his sister and two brothers were raised in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
To help support his family during the Depression, Davila worked at vineyards and helped restore state missions as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps, an L.A. Times article said.
According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, Davila joined the Army in 1939 when job opportunities were scarce. He was busy training recruits for jungle fighting by the time U.S. involvement in World War II was in full swing. Davila said he expected to be sent to the Pacific theater, but because of his Asian heritage, he was instead sent to Italy in early 1944 to fight during what became known as the Battle of Anzio.
Davila said his heavy machine gun platoon, which was part of Company H of the 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, was halfway to Rome when he performed some of the most heroic duties of his life.
On May 28, 1944, Davila’s division was near Artena, Italy, and was trying to break through the German mountain strongholds surrounding the Anzio beachhead where the Allies had come ashore. His platoon’s mission was to protect a 130-man rifle company.
“They were ahead of me, climbing this hill. I was behind them,” Davila said in a Congressional Medal of Honor Society interview. “The idea was that if they ran into trouble, I would bring out four of my machine guns and clear the way for them.”
The rifle company was already on the other side of the hill when Davila crested it ahead of his platoon. As soon as he did, Germans who were waiting to ambush the rifle company fired on them.
“This hill was covered in tall grass, so there was no cover for the rifle company that was lying there on the forest floor,” Davila said.
His machine gunners were still on the back side of the hill and reluctant to jump into the fray. Many of the men retreated, but Davila stayed and demanded their help.
“I yelled back, I said, ‘Bring up a gun.’ And the gunners would not respond because they could see the bullets coming, just skimming the grass and barely missing me,” he remembered.
Within a few seconds, he had those men pass him up the parts of a machine gun, which he put together while crawling on the ground. Then, from a kneeling position, he opened fire on the enemy so he could see if his shots hit, despite the fact that enemy bullets were whizzing past the gun’s tripod and between his legs.
“I had my hand on the trigger already, so by the time I got up on my knees, the gun was already firing,” Davila said. “I swept up and down the [railroad] tracks [below the hill] where the enemy was.”
Davila ordered one of his gunners to take over the position so he could crawl forward to a better vantage point and direct the fire using hand and arm signals. Those actions silenced two enemy machine guns.
From there, Davila’s platoon was able to set up its three remaining guns, which they used to drive the enemy to a reserve position 200 yards to its rear. Davila got shot in the leg at some point but ignored the wound and dashed to a burning tank. Despite the bullets crashing into its hull, he jumped into the tank and began shooting at the enemy from the vehicle’s turret.
After causing some damage that way, Davila jumped off the tank and ran about 130 yards in short bursts before crawling about 20 more toward a house the enemy was using to hide its machine guns.
“I spotted two rifle barrels shooting from a window, so I took one grenade and pulled the pin and threw it into the building. Then I ran around the house where the door was,” he explained. “There was a stairway going straight up, and there was a shell hole from a tank that fired into the house.”
Climbing to the attic, Davila straddled the large hole and opened fire into it with a borrowed rifle, taking out five enemy soldiers who were running away. Despite walls crumbling around him, Davila continued to shoot until he’d destroyed two more enemy machine guns.
Thanks to Davila’s heroism, the enemy fled the area, and the U.S. rifle company that likely would have been slaughtered survived.
After the fight, Davila received a battlefield commission to second lieutenant. He was eventually advanced in rank to first lieutenant, but his time in combat ended in late 1944 when he was seriously wounded in the right shoulder by a tank shell.
Davila’s company captain told him he would recommend Davila for the Medal of Honor; however, he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest medal for valor, instead.
Over the next six years, Davila underwent more than a dozen operations on his damaged arm. According to the L.A. Times, during one surgery to remove scar tissue, a main nerve was accidentally cut, paralyzing that arm.
One good thing that came out of his time in hospitals was that he met his wife, Harriet, who worked in a Modesto, Calif., hospital during Davila’s stay there. The pair went on to have five children.
Davila eventually went back to school, getting his bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Southern California in 1959. After receiving his master’s degree in sociology, he went on to teach high school history and work as a counselor for 30 years in the L.A. City School District.
The L.A. Times said Davila was known to be an excellent cook and gardener and that he built both the family home in L.A.’s Harbor City neighborhood, as well as a second home in Vista, Calif. That’s where he and his wife moved in 1977 after he retired from teaching.
In 1996, the National Defense Authorization Act called for a review the records of Asian American, Native American and Pacific Islanders who received the Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Cross during World War II. The review was to see if any of those service members may have been passed over for the Medal of Honor due to prejudices of the time.
The review revealed that Davila had been affected. His medal was finally upgraded 56 years after his actions in World War II. He received it on June 21, 2000, from President Bill Clinton during a White House ceremony alongside 21 other men whose medals were also upgraded to the nation’s top military honor. Davila was one of only seven who were still alive to receive it.
One other person who wasn’t in attendance was his wife, who had petitioned the government for years on her husband’s behalf to get the medal upgraded. Sadly, she died six months before the ceremony.
At the time of the award, Davila brushed off any suggestions that racial bias kept him from earning it.
“I’m very grateful for the nation that has honored me,” he said in his Congressional Medal of Honor Society interview. “I hold no resentment against the fact that it took them this long.”
He said part of that empathy stemmed from a lifelong philosophy his mother instilled in him when he was young: “Nobody is better than you are, but you are no better than anyone else.”
Less than two years after received the Medal of Honor, on Jan. 26, 2002, Davila died after a long illness, according to the L.A. Times. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.