SALINA, Kan. (KSNW) — In the movie “Forrest Gump,” the fictional titular character is awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor. In that scene, actor Tom Hanks’ face was superimposed over that of real-life Medal of Honor recipient Sammy Lee Davis. In fact, Davis is known as “The Real Forrest Gump.”

Davis saved three wounded men in Vietnam, including Ulysses native Jim Deister, who now resides in Salina.

In 1967, Deister served with the Ninth Infantry Division as a demolitions specialist. His squad was deep in Vietnam’s Upper Mekong Delta near Saigon.

On his 22nd birthday, Deister would take part in what was to be his final mission, where he would receive a near-fatal injury.

“They told us we were expected to be hit … so that night … I was dozing, and I heard a mortar slide down the tube, and that’s a sound that you never forget,” Deister said.

Seconds later, Deister says a ground assault began. An estimated 2,000 enemy soldiers surrounded Deister and his squad.

“I was away from the guys I was familiar with, and so as soon as the assault began, I started trying to get back to them, and I got, I thought somebody hit me with a two-by-four,” Deister said.

Deister had been shot in the chest.

“It knocked me down, stunned me, of course, and I laid there on the trail, and the VC were running by, and I was looking up, and they had AK-47s,” Deister said.

Courtesy: Jim Deister

Incredibly, during a break in the fighting, Deister got to his feet and continued toward his men.

Suddenly, everything went black.

“And then the next thing I remember was a nurse shining a light in my face,” Deister said. “And she wrote me a note, she said, ‘Do you know where you’re at?’ I said, ‘Well, last night I was in Vietnam,’ she said, ‘That was three weeks ago, and you’re in Japan now.'”

Deister had been shot point blank in the head.

“We’d always talked getting the ‘million dollar wound’ and being able to go home, but nobody ever really thought it would happen to them,” Deister said.

Deister had no idea how he had been rescued or even who had rescued him, but on a fateful day more than 20 years later, Deister happened to pick up a book about the Vietnam Medal of Honor recipients.

“The first thing that caught my eye was the date … November the 18th, 1967,” Deister said. “I said, ‘Oh, the place, I was there. Let’s see what this guy has to say.'”

Deister learned about the heroic deeds of Seargent Sammy Lee Davis. Despite suffering excruciating injuries, including a broken back, Davis single-handedly took on the enemy after most of his unit was killed.

In the chaos, Davis noticed an American soldier calling for help across a nearby canal.

“He couldn’t swim, so he grabbed an air mattress, and he held it, he held it shut, and he came across the canal,” Deister said.

It was then Deister read Davis would find three wounded men across that canal.

“And one was shot in the head. And I thought, ‘Oh, well,’ my heart flew clear up here, ‘Do you suppose this could be?'” Deister said.

After reading about Davis, Deister shared his incredible story with an acquaintance.

“I showed him that book, I said, ‘You know, I was at this place,’ and so he said, ‘I know this guy. He’s a friend of mine, let’s call him!'” Deister said.

That initial phone call gave Deister and Davis hope.

“He asked me a few more questions, and he said, ‘It could be. I want to meet with you,'” Deister said.

Deister and Davis would meet at the Nebraska Vietnam Veterans’ Reunion.

“And he looked around the room, and he came right up to me, he said ‘I’ve seen you before, I knew who you were,'” Deister said.

The tearful reunion would bring closure to both men. As it turned out, Davis mistakenly believed Deister had died in Vietnam all those years ago.

“He said, ‘When I found you, I had to push a little bit of your brains back in. I thought you were dead, but I didn’t want to leave your body,'” Deister said.

Davis collapsed shortly after bringing Deister to safety, never knowing the man he saved had cheated death: the man with a ‘million dollar wound’ living to tell the tale and unraveling the mystery behind his miraculous rescue.

“If Sam is the real Forrest Gump, then I’m the real Lieutenant Dan,” Deister said.

Deister and Davis would go on to speak together at a number of events for veterans. As a result of his injury, Deister lost his hearing. After Vietnam, he would go on to become a rehabilitation counselor for the deaf and hard of hearing.


If you would like to nominate a veteran for our Veteran Salute, email KSN reporter Hannah Adamson at hannah.adamson@ksn.com.