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Former Harding professor remembered through statue

by Heber Taylor | March 13, 2011 at 6:00 a.m.

— The late Kenneth Davis Jr. joined the faculty of Harding University in Searcy in 1953 and taught music and directed choruses for 35 years before his retirement in 1988. He was beloved and respected by his students.

He was their “Uncle Bud,” and they will never forget him. A committee of former students, led by Carol Lewey, who sang in Davis’ a cappella chorus and later worked as his assistant, began raising money for memorials for Davis in 1995. More than 500 former students have contributed to the effort so far.

The committee also raised funds by selling CDs that had songs from LP records made in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s. The recordings included solos by Davis, who died in March 2005. His “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” is a longtime favorite.

Last summer, on July 31 — Davis’ birthday — two of the memorials were in place, and a dedication ceremony was held. One memorial was a seated statue in bronze of Davis, sculpted by Ron Moore of Mountain Home. The statue sits by a lily pool, the second memorial, which was named the Kenneth Davis Lilly Pool after Davis’ former students had the pool renovated.

“Our goal in naming the lily pool for Dr. Davis — ‘Uncle Bud’ — was to have his legacy become real for the many students who will never have the opportunity to know the man we knew,” said Linda Thompson, one of Davis’ former chorus singers and now a Harding psychology professor.

The other memorial is a music scholarship named for Davis, and his former students are working to get the scholarship fund up to a size that will allow them to begin awarding scholarships.

Thompson said “Uncle Bud” was amazingly talented and had a wonderful voice.

“He shared his talent with the world by developing wonderful a cappella choruses that toured around the world, including behind what was then the ‘Iron Curtain,’ spreading the good news of Jesus through music. He also created an ensemble called Belles and Beaux that entertained our troops in other countries on USO tours.

Betty McDaniel Davis, who married Kenneth Davis in January 1951, went on trips to the Far East and to Germany with him and Harding choruses. On a USO Belles and Beaux tour that included Iwo Jima, an island in the Pacific Ocean, he showed her a foxhole in a sulfur pit that he had used during World War II.

Kenneth Davis was a senior at North Texas University when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Earlier, he had been at Harding from the fifth grade through his sophomore year of college.

He had earned a degree in music from North Texas at age 19 before volunteering for the Marines in November 1942. He went to Officers Training School and was a second lieutenant at 20.

Davis was with the 4th Marine Division that trained in North Carolina and California and went to the Pacific in January 1944. The division was soon in combat in the Marshall Islands. Davis’ job was leading an artillery platoon armed with 75-millimeter guns mounted on half-track vehicles.

After that campaign, the 4th regrouped on Maui, a Hawaiian island. While there, a chaplain asked Davis to direct a Marine chorus. He accepted and decided then that he wanted to be a choral director after the war.

The 4th Marine Division’s next action was against the heavily defended island of Saipan. As a forward observer for the division artillery, Davis was up front with the division’s infantry when he was wounded on June 29. He was on the phone, lying flat and trying to reach his own artillery, when Japanese artillery shrapnel hit him in the head, left shoulder and back. He said that some brave Navy medical corpsmen came during the barrage to put sulfur on his wounds.

Before being wounded, he had organized a counterattack against 70 attacking Japanese soldiers. Three Americans were killed and 18 were wounded, and 68 of the Japanese were killed. A combat correspondent wrote an article about the incident.

Davis was awarded a Bronze Star for going forward to locate a Japanese machine gun that was holding up the Marines. There was no cover for his protection, and he dodged and weaved, hoping not to get hit. When he found the Japanese gun, he marked its location on his map, and fellow Marines took out the enemy gun with mortar shells.

Once he was up three days and nights without sleep, and the next night he slept in a foxhole by a railroad track. Japanese soldiers came down the track during the night, and some stopped to sit on a stump. When Davis woke up the next morning, he was surprised to see several dead Japanese soldiers close to his foxhole. Marine guards had shot them while Davis slept.

His wounds on Saipan kept Davis in a hospital on New Caledonia for four months. He missed the Marines’ battle for Tinian Island, but he was back for Iwo Jima in February and March of 1945. The Japanese wanted to defend it — whatever the cost — because it was only 758 miles south of Tokyo.

Iwo Jima casualties were more than 4,000 for the 4th Marines, and the 3rd and 5th Marines’ casualties were also high. Davis lost 30 pounds in 30 days. When the battle was won, he got out of his foxhole, walked about five steps and passed out.

The next battle for the 4th Marines was to be the invasion of Japan, but the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan ended the war. Davis believed that the bombs had saved his life. He thought the division would have been sacrificed to make a beachhead in Japan. In its four island campaigns, the division had suffered 17,722 casualties.

Instead of invading Japan, the division moved back to Maui, and Davis continued to direct the Marine chorus there. He came home in December 1945 as a first lieutenant. He was discharged as a captain in March 1946.

After retiring from Harding, he and Betty helped churches in Romania for several years. On the ship going to the Pacific in 1944, he had suggested to fellow Marines that they should kill as few Japanese as possible and try to convert as many as possible to Christianity. That idea didn’t go over too well.

But when Davis was interviewed for a World War II story in 1995, he was still Great Commission-minded.

“Saving souls should be widespread, and wars should be avoided,” he said.

Carol Lewey, who lives in Oneonta, Ala., said about Davis: “In everything he did, he did it as a Christian. He saw the good in people, not the bad.”

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