Mexican War Vet Wages Deadliest Gunfight in American History

By Fournier, Richard | VFW Magazine, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Mexican War Vet Wages Deadliest Gunfight in American History


Fournier, Richard, VFW Magazine


Former Army officer Jonathan Davis achieved the unbelievable-he single-handedly killed 11 outlaws with a handgun and Bowie knife in Gold Rush-era California. No other American civilian ever came even close to matching this incredible feat of arms.

On a cold December day on a mountainside in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, Mexican War veteran Jonathan Davis faced 14 seasoned murderers. In a matter of minutes, he killed 11 of them with handgun and knife in what writer John Boessenecker called "the single most extraordinary feat of self-defense by an American civilian in the annals of the frontier."

Including two good guys, a total of 13 men actually died in this one incredible shootout. Yet Davis cannot be found in books with titles like Written in Lead: Legendary American Gunfights and Gunfighters, Draw: The Greatest Gunfights of the American West or Deadly Dozen: Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West.

This remarkable deed also is unequalled in the urban East and quite possibly on the battlefield using these types of weapons. To show just how phenomenal a feat of arms this really was, it's necessary to add some perspective. This means not only comparing other civilian shootouts, but also throwing wartime firefights into the mix.

RARITY IN CONTEMPORARY COMBAT

Let's start with the military. After 1970, even war-zone firefights (that is, using small arms only and not including mortar/rocket attacks, booby traps or mines) involving the deaths of eight or more Americans in a single action can be counted on two hands. In 1971, the last full year of ground combat involving U.S. infantry units in Vietnam, there were only three such firefights.

On Grenada in 1983, 10 Americans "were killed by enemy action in total. Neither Lebanon (1983-84) nor Panama (1989) recorded a lethal firefight of this intensity in terms of U.S. KIAs. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, there were no small- arms actions that claimed the lives of seven GIs. An exception to the rule occurred in Somalia with 18 U.S. KIAs on Oct. 3-4, 1993, which up until the Iraq War was the deadliest single battle since Vietnam, measured by hostile American fatalities.

Even the current wars barely approach Davis' record from small -arms combat. The deadliest single firefight in 10 years of war in Afghanistan took nine GIs' lives in 2008 (another claimed eight in 2009). In Iraq, only two actions claimed 11 American lives with small arms in a single firefight other than the 17- day Battle of Fallujah in November 2004.

Keep in mind that Davis defended himself with a handgun and knife. Finding someone who did the same even in the major wars is a trick. With a rifle, Sgt. Alvin York killed nine Germans on Oct. 18, 1918, in France. Numerous machine gunners have racked up amazing body counts, but with the "weapons used by Davis it is still rare indeed.

One GI who achieved the near- impossible was Pfc. John R. McKinney. On May 11, 1945, in a battle that lasted 35 minutes, he personally killed at least 40 Japanese. This all took place at Umiray Outpost on a 150-yard-long sandy beach near Dingalan Bay, Luzon, Philippines. A member of A Co., 123rd Regt., 33rd Div., McKinney was awarded the Medal of Honor. Though most of his foes fell to his machine gun, the citation also states he used a rifle, rifle butt and knife to dispatch the enemy.

During the Korean War, Pfc. Herbert K. Pililaau of C Co., 23rd Inf. Regt., 2nd Inf. Div., covered the retreat of his unit with a Browning Automatic Rifle and hand grenades until his ammunition ran out. He then fought with an entrenching tool and bare fists until being killed. Forty enemy dead were found around his position. No doubt, other GIs in Korea, and later Vietnam, personally killed impressive numbers of the enemy.

But here again, how many "were by handgun and/or edged weapon?

CIVILIAN SHOOTOUTS RACK UP BODY COUNT

Lethal civilian violence has taken a hefty toll throughout American history. …

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