Iowan Ed Davis, a proud WWII Marine who fought for veterans' health rights, dies of COVID-19
Edison “Ed” Davis never went pheasant hunting with the other fathers and sons in State Center, a rural burgh on the outskirts of Marshall County. Returning with hearty backslaps and new jokes, the group seemed closer after the outings, carrying as many stories as they did birds.
A smooth talker who could befriend just about anybody, Ed liked to be the life of the party, his daughter Becky Greenwald said. So, as a child, she couldn’t understand why her dad would rather tinker in the garage or read his U.S. News & World Report instead of yuk it up with the guys. And she’d always heard her father was a great shot to boot.
“I’ve done enough killing in my life,” her dad told her when she finally asked.
Ed didn’t have to fill in the pregnant pause lingering between them. Becky knew he was talking about the months he spent on Okinawa’s hills as a private first-class rifleman in World War II fighting Japanese soldiers hiding in caves and tunnels as the Marines island-hopped to an American victory.
She’d come to understand that the echoing booms of bullets took him right back to the Ryukyu Islands, where a Japanese bomb exploded under his feet, mangling his leg and stamping the paperwork for his Purple Heart. An artist traveling with the unit captured the moment in black pastel, a cherished drawing he’d hang next to the medal when he made it back home.
She’d learn that the smells of gunpowder reminded him of the stretcher teams — always one short man and one tall man, to keep the stretcher level on earth dunes, her father said — sorting soldiers into two piles: dead or injured. A few times, faint calls for help came from the dead pile, the team having incorrectly categorized a still-breathing Marine.
He used to say that his unit’s casualty rate was “102 percent,” Becky recalled. “They turned over so many people that there was even more that had to come into the unit than started,” her father told her.
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When he enlisted, Ed was a 17-year-old kid fresh out of high school and eager to follow his older brothers into a just war. Having stayed in China to disarm the Japanese after their surrender, by the time Ed returned stateside he was 21 and had seen action in some of the war’s toughest battles, leaving just a little piece of his soul among the sandy beaches.
A proud Marine, an eager American Legion leader and a frequent volunteer who lent his legs to march in parades or his stories to speak to high school classes, Ed never romanticized war. He spent the rest of his life suing for peace, unafraid to criticize Uncle Sam’s failures and demand better treatment for veterans.
On Oct. 12, Ed died of COVID-19 in Highland, California, where he had basked in warm winters during retirement. His nursing home survived an outbreak earlier in the summer, but the virus seeped back in as the season changed.
In the last few years of his life, he’d talked about wanting to see a century, Becky said. Instead, her father’s body returned to Iowa on his 95th birthday.
As America celebrates the 75th anniversary of World War II’s end, the men and women who fought on those front lines and home fronts are dying exponentially. From September 2019 to September 2020, 245 WWII veterans were projected to die a day, according to Veterans Administration models.
And those estimates were calculated before COVID-19. Now, with the pandemic ravaging care centers and the virus eager to take up residence in the lungs of the elderly, losses in the Greatest Generation are accelerating — and the chance to capture their stories is waning.
From Colo to China
Born in 1925, Ed was smack dab in the middle of the seven Davis children, the last boy before three girls added their feminine touch to the house.
Like many others in Colo, he got up with the sun for chores on the family farm, dressed in hand-me-downs for school and tooled around on the weekends, not much to do but scoop the loop.
“I think the Davis boys were pretty rowdy and active,” Becky said. A friend of her father’s once recalled that the four brothers would “zoom into the parking lot, run into school and get to their seats just in time for classes to start.”
Up until the later part of his life, Ed told stories only about the lighter side of his time in the Pacific, content to remember the few smiles men shared. A nonsmoker, he was able to trade away cigarettes, considered gold to some, for just about anything he wanted.
He laughed about sneaking some of the officers’ special fruit cocktail for his fellow enlisted men and refilling the can with water — which later soaked a suspicious officer checking inventory. And about how some guys started drinking torpedo propellant after discovering alcohol in the fuel.
“That’s why they started putting something in that would make people really sick if they drank it,” Becky said.
He was still island-hopping when news broke about a bomb, bigger than anyone had ever seen, forcing Japan to surrender. War for her father's unit continued for a few days as they tried to tell the Japanese soldiers cloistered in caves that fighting was over.
Ed was quickly reassigned to China, where Americans were helping root out Japanese soldiers and deport them back to their home.
The first off the train in Peking, now Beijing, Ed was handed the key to the city. His commanding officer barked at him to get back on the train; the C.O. wanted to star in the photo as receiving the honor. Soon after, Ed stood in formation as Japanese forces surrendered to the Chinese.
“How’d you switch gears from being on Okinawa and killing the Japanese to actually saving their lives by getting them out of China?” Becky once asked her father.
“Those were the orders,” he said frankly.
Finding peace in the fields
As a child, Becky couldn’t wait for her dad to get home for lunch. His store, Farm Equipment and Motor Co., which he opened after attending Simpson College on the G.I. Bill, was across the street from their house on the edge of town.
“He used to joke about how he walked to work every day,” Becky said.
By the time the sun was high in the sky, Becky and her two sisters whipped themselves into a tizzy waiting to run up to their dad as they saw him crest the driveway. They’d beg him to hold their arms and flip them upside down or lie on the ground and raise them in the air on his knees like they were flying.
After work, Ed tended to his parents’ fields, coming home covered in dirt, dog-tired. Becky once told him she was sorry for him, all that work he had to do.
Oh no, he told her, he found calm in the fields, a peace in the quiet.
As much as he loved a party — often taking his wife to a dance hall near Bondurant — he enjoyed reading, settling into his favorite chair with his favorite magazine after a long day at the store.
When the family wasn’t boating in the summer, they took road trips, making memories at Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Once, they drove up to Quebec, where they passed by a tobacco farm.
“So what did he do? My dad just drives us right into this farm and he stops and talks to the guy and says, ‘Hey, can you show us this?’” Becky remembered. “Here we go, we get this tour of this guy's farm.”
In the 1970s, Ed's passenger was a then-unknown Jimmy Carter, whom he carted around eastern Iowa in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. Somewhere along the rural gravel roads, he met a young Joe Biden. A lifelong Democrat, Ed wouldn't live long enough to see him elected president.
But, the trip that sticks out most in Becky’s mind is the RV trek they took from Iowa to California, stopping in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the city responsible for the atomic bomb — and, in a way, for the cause that would come to define the second half of Ed’s life.
Fighting for fellow veterans
Ed never went into the heart of Hiroshima or Nagasaki after the bomb dropped, but in China, he heard the stories of their devastation. He’d meet men who had been in the blast zone, piecing together that they all seemed to talk about strange ailments. He’d get on ships that had carried troops exposed to radiation and wonder what remained in the nooks and crannies.
“They just didn't know, I think, the impact of all of that,” Becky said. “But he was ahead of the curve with his advocacy for those veterans.”
In the late 1970s, he joined the National Association for Atomic Veterans — founded by Iowan Orville Kelly — and traveled the region giving talks on the importance of studies into atomic radiation’s effects and keeping pressure on the VA to cover health-care costs and offer disability compensation to those exposed in the war and after.
When Vietnam War veterans started seeing illnesses connected to Agent Orange exposure, Ed segued to fighting the VA for coverage of those as service-connected injuries. The topic was controversial then, Becky said, and he got a lot of flak locally.
“He said to me once that, as a World War II vet, they just didn’t do enough for the Vietnam vets that came back,” Becky said. “They came back as war heroes, and Vietnam vets had a really tough go of it with the sentiment at the time. He just kind of felt like they didn't do enough, and he always felt bad about that.”
Ensuring those guys got help stateside was his way of atoning, Becky said.
Becky has spent the last few weeks sorting through her father’s collection of papers and photos. In the images, she sees all the places her father talked about: the barracks, the Great Wall. She feels like she’s connecting to a new side of him through the camera’s lens.
When the world opens up again, she wants to go to the Pacific, to China and the islands. She wants to feel the ocean mist he talked about, feel the warm sun and the cool moon he remembered.
She wants to be in the place that so formed her father, to see it and smell it, and, maybe, find the little piece of his soul he left there all those years ago.
Iowa Mourns is a series of remembrances about Iowans who lost their lives to COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. If you've lost a loved one to COVID-19 in Iowa, let us know by filling out this form or emailing Iowa Columnist Courtney Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org.