Sergeant First Class, United States Army
TAMPA, Florida -- Cars lined nearby streets in every direction, and people poured into the church in the waning daylight.
Nearly 500 of them -- young and old, black and white, many dressed in their Sunday best -- packed the sanctuary and balcony and hallways of College Hill Church of God and Christ on N 30th Street.
They came to honor Army Staff Sergeant Wilbert Davis, who on April 3, 2003, became Tampa's first casualty in the war with Iraq.
Davis' body lay 1,000 miles away in Arlington National Cemetery, Section 60, headstone 7867.
But the mourners made sure his spirit filled every moment of Wednesday's memorial service.
This was not a funeral. It was a celebration of a life well-lived.
The multitude clapped, sang, laughed, stomped their feet and shouted "Hallelujah!" and "Amen!" and "Praise Jesus!"
A trumpet played and drums sounded. There were organs and pianos and soloists whose voices shook the building and every soul inside it.
There were letters from the president and the governor and a pair of senators. The mayor made a proclamation. It was a sendoff for a king, not a common soldier.
To hear friends and family tell it, Davis was anything but common. Davis, 40, grew up in the East Tampa neighborhood of College Hill.
In 1975, at age 12, Davis pitched for the Belmont Heights Little League and led the team to the World Series. Even his teammates came for Wednesday's service.
He graduated from Tampa Bay Tech, then worked at a Tampa Electric Co. plant.
While a young man, he fathered two daughters before moving to Anchorage to live with his older sister. Cynthia Davis, an Army wife, persuaded her brother to enlist. He served in the 3rd Infantry Division.
Before leaving for the Middle East, he lived outside Savannah, Ga., with his wife, Huiok, and their two young boys. March 31 was the last time Huiok heard from him.
He died April 3 while en route to Baghdad with journalist Michael Kelly. Davis lost control of the Humvee he was driving when his convoy came under fire. The Humvee overturned into a canal. Both Davis and Kelly died in the crash.
Bob Davis, Wilbert's brother, took the podium Wednesday and flashed a smile.
"I don't believe in sad occasions," he said. "I'm grateful to God for the 40 years he allowed me to spend with my brother."
He told the story of a drill instructor Davis once had who told his troops: "All you idiots, fall out!"
Wilbert Davis remained, standing at attention, while the others left. The instructor asked if there was a problem. Davis replied: "There sure were a lot of them, weren't there, sir?"
The crowd roared with laughter.
It was the raucousness of the service -- the pure joy of it, really -- that made the final silence so stark, so loud in its own way.
A cadet played taps as several other soldiers stood at attention, saluting a portrait of Davis.
Day is done,
The smiles and claps and hallelujahs and amens fell to tears and bowed heads. Then it was over.
"I think he really would have appreciated this," said Davis' mother, Willie Mae Lane. "I miss him so much. He's just away for a while. I'll see him again.
"He's my hero."
Outside, in Woodland Terrace Park, a group of young boys played basketball under a streetlight, laughing and playing in the neighborhood where Wilbert Davis -- hero -- grew up.
US Army Photo
Army Sergeant Wilbert Davis was a strong family man with a lot of love in his heart, said Huiok Davis, his wife of nearly 10 years. He is also Tampa's first casualty in the war with Iraq.
Davis, 40, was killed Thursday, along with journalist Michael Kelly, when the Humvee they were riding in went into a canal en route to Baghdad, family members said.
News of Davis' death was not as quick to reach the world as that of Kelly, editor-at-large for The Atlantic Monthly and a columnist for The Washington Post.
Although the graduate of Tampa Bay Tech still does not appear on official casualty lists, his family was notified Friday.
A representative from MacDill Air Force Base notified Davis' mother and a daughter that Davis was driving with Kelly, an embedded journalist, when they died, said Davis' brother Bob Davis, director of the Upward Bound and College Outreach programs at the University of South Florida.
Wilbert Davis, who joined the military in the mid-1980s, was part of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.
Knowing he would be directly in harm's way, Davis still looked forward to serving when he left Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Georgia, for Kuwait two months ago, Huiok Davis said.
``I don't know what to say. He was that dedicated,'' she said.
Huiok, 43, said she met her husband in Texas. The couple and their two children, Terry, 13, and Wil, 8, moved to Hinesville 15 months ago, she said.
Terry Davis said he will miss his father helping him build model cars. Before leaving for the Middle East, Wilbert Davis had remodeled Terry's bedroom.
"My dad was a nice man, and he tried to help everybody he could when he could,'' Terry said. "He loved his family very much.''
Wilbert Davis also had two daughters living in Tampa, Shantell, 20, and Shatika, 21.
"He was a very competitive, very independent person,'' his brother Bob, said. "He was a person who had goals and was determined to reach those goals.''
At age 12, he was the pitcher when the Belmont Heights Little League went to the World Series, said Bob Davis, who also noted his brother was glad to go to Iraq.
He felt he was doing something positive, Davis said.
The soldier, who worked for Tampa Electric Co. before joining the Army, had served at military bases in Korea and Germany.
Details of the accident that killed Davis are sketchy.
Son Terry said the Army told his mother that his father and the journalist were riding across a bridge in the Humvee when it flipped and landed in a canal. He said the family wasn't told how the vehicle overturned.
Wilbert Davis was the fifth child of eight. Four, including Bob Davis, are still in Tampa.
One brother, Sol, is owner of Sol Davis Printing Co.
Army Staff Sgt. Wilbert Davis, 40, of Alaska, assigned to 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Georiga; killed in a vehicle accident in central Iraq.
The Army and Wilbert Davis were a perfect match. “He was just meticulous in everything he did,” said his mother, Willie Mae Lane. A brother, Robert, said, “Wilbert didn’t believe in mistakes.”
Davis, 40, and journalist Michael Kelly died April 3, 2003, when their Humvee went into a canal near Baghdad. Davis had served in the Middle East several times and “probably knew his way around pretty well,” his brother said.
Wilbert Davis was one of eight children. His father died when he was 3, and his mother raised the family on her own. They lived in a public housing project in Tampa. “We were as poor as you could be,” his brother said.
Davis excelled at sports. At age 13, he was a pitcher for the Belmont Heights Little League, which produced such baseball greats as Dwight Gooden and Gary Sheffield. Davis had to win 13 games in a row to get the team to the Little League World Series, his mother said. “He did. But he threw his arm out pitching.” The family said the team came in third.
Davis joined the Army 15 years ago at the urging of a sister, Cynthia Williams, who was married to an Army man.
Davis’ wife, Hui Ok, said, “He had so much love to give for his children and his family.”
They had two sons, Terry, 13 and Wilbert Jr., 8, who live in Savannah, Georgia. Davis also had two grown daughters in Tampa.
His brother said Wilbert Davis “died as a soldier fighting for this country, and we’re content with that. We’re sad, but we know he fulfilled his life purpose.”
Section 60, Gravesite 7867, Arlington National Cemetery
DOD IDENTIFIES NON-HOSTILE ARMY CASUALTY
The Department of Defense announced today the name of a soldier who died Thursday when his vehicle ran off the road into a canal in Iraq.
Staff Sergeant Wilbert Davis, 40, of Alaska, was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Georgia.
The incident is under investigation.
Will Davis , center, 8, hands a rose to his mother Hui Ok Davis, right, wife of
Army Sergeant First Class Wilbert Davis, from her husbands casket, Friday, April
18, 2003, at Arlington National Cemetery. Davis was killed in Iraq on April 3 in a vehicle
accident. Others with Davis are unidentified.
Posted: 18 April 2003 Updated: 22 April 2003 Updated: 24 April 2003 Updated: 8 July 2003 Updated: 30 October 2004 Updated: 11 February 2006 Updated: 15 May 2008
Photo By Michael Robert Patterson, May 2008
Headstone for Sergeant Davis being prepared for installation.
Photo By M. R. Patterson, 27 June 2003
Photo By M. R. Patterson, 24 April 2004