TUNICA, Miss. — The sons of Ben and Hattie Davis give special meaning to the term “band of brothers.”
Eleven in all, their combined 158 years of service to the U.S. military make them brothers in arms as well as brothers raised on a family farm in rural Alabama.
Seven of the 11 gathered in mid-July at a hotel and casino in Mississippi for a reunion thick with brotherly love and military pride. They laughed together, told stories from their days growing up and serving the country and reminisced about what it was like to be black in the U.S. military in the 20th century in America.
But in the end, they talked less about racism than the lack of respect all veterans feel from their fellow Americans.
“Being in the military, it was a fine thing,” said Lebronze Davis, who fought in the Vietnam War and has survived cancer and heart surgery. “We all think we’ve done an outstanding job.”
In 2017, the Davis men were honored by the National Infantry Museum Foundation. The names of the 11 brothers and their uncle are engraved on four paving stones installed at the museum.
“What these brothers did out of love for both family and country is nothing short of remarkable,” foundation president Pete Jones said in a statement to The Associated Press. “Their sense of duty is unrivaled, and is the kind of spirit that makes our nation’s armed forces the greatest in the world.”
Sixteen siblings — the 11 veterans, plus three sisters and two brothers who did not enter the military — grew up on a 60-acre (24-hectare) cotton farm in Wetumpka, Alabama, where their parents worked hard to put food on the table. Mom was the disciplinarian, dad had a softer approach.
“Their moral and ethical values were pristine,” said Arguster, the youngest at 67 years old.
When the boys graduated high school, it seemed natural to enter the military.
Military experience runs long in the Davis family. The brothers’ uncle, 99-year-old Master Sgt. Thomas Davis, survived Pearl Harbor’s surprise attack.
Ben Jr. was the first brother to enlist. He joined the Navy in 1944, while World War II was still raging.
Arguster served in the Air Force for four years and then the Air Force Reserve until 1998.
Lebronze, 70, saw the heaviest fighting of the group: He survived jungle ambushes as an Army soldier in Vietnam, where he developed advanced napping skills.
“I can go out in any bushes and sleep like a Holiday Inn,” Lebronze said. “You learn how to do it because you are so tired. But guess what, you can hear a gnat go by you.”
The brothers talk often, and try get together every year. This year, seven of them traveled to Tunica, Mississippi, for some gambling and buffet action to celebrate three July birthdays. They spoke with an Associated Press reporter in a meeting room at the Horseshoe hotel.
The Davis roll call features a mix of personalities.
Octavious, the brothers agree, is the jokester. An Army veteran, he drew riotous laughter when he told a bear-in-the-woods joke.
“We just like to get together and talk trash and just have a good time,” said Octavious, 80. “All of us are close.”
Lebronze is known as the straightforward brother. Brothers Frederick, 68 — the serious one — and the more practical Julius, 73, joined him in serving in the Army during Vietnam.
Eddie, 89, also served during Vietnam, but that was just part of his 23 year career with the Army and Air Force. He has a more spiritual side, while Army veteran Nathaniel, 75, is no-nonsense.
Washington, a six-year Army veteran, has passed away. Ben, Alphonza, who served 29 years in the Army, and Calvin, who did four years in the Navy, couldn’t attend.
In their years after serving, the brothers have worked for the U.S. Postal Service and the Bureau of Prisons, as electricians and businessmen. And they clearly have shared personality traits: friendliness, strong work ethic, mutual respect.
They remember being disrespected too, like the white-only drinking fountains and “colored-only” waiting areas they endured while growing up in the years of legal segregation.
“These were the norms we saw,” Nathaniel said.
But the brothers said they didn’t experience much racism in the military. Julius does recall when his base in Mobile, Alabama, was put on alert the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
“Everybody thought that black people were going to tear the town up,” he said.
Octavious says the brothers don’t often talk with one another about their military experiences. Lebronze won’t watch war movies and he doesn’t even dream about his time in Vietnam.
But they all boomed a collective “no” in response to one question: Are veterans respected as much today as in the past?
Arguster says he has grown weary of the overused phrase, “thank you for your service.”
“I would much rather hear them say, ‘Thank you for helping to keep this country free.’”