A look at James Wagner Davis

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Posted: Tuesday, February 23, 2010 9:39 am | Updated: 6:01 pm, Mon Feb 4, 2013.

There are two Iredell County facilities that come to mind when one says "Davis Hospital."

One is the multi-million dollar operation on Old Mocksville Road, "Davis Regional Medical Center," that opened in March of 1984.

For many older Iredell residents, though, "Davis Hospital" brings to mind the dilapidated structure on West End Avenue.

Glass is broken, paint is peeling, a fallen, dead tree covers part of the front lawn and dead, brown vines mar the exterior walls.

This presents a sad picture of what was once a very busy and vital part of Statesville.

In addition, the facility on West End Avenue is said to be haunted.

Be this as it may, there is another mystery associated with the hospital and its founder, Dr. James Wagner Davis.

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Physicians are among the most visible and most respected members of any community. Any discussion of prominent Iredell physicians will include the name of Dr. James Wagner Davis. After all, he is the only Iredell doctor to have a working hospital named for him.

Dr. Davis was a complex man, a workaholic, with many diverse interests. Among other accomplishments, he was a Master Mason, the treasurer of the North Carolina Republican Party and the prime mover in the establishment of a radio station, WSIC ("We Serve Iredell County"), in Statesville.

By one estimation of Dr. Davis' practice of nearly 40 years, most of it taking place in Statesville, he performed thousands of major operations. In addition, he delivered thousands of babies.

What possible mystery could there be about one of our county's most prominent men?

The mystery concerns Dr. Davis' military service during the First World War. It will come as no surprise that Dr. Davis was a member of the U.S. Army Medical Corps during that conflict.

What confounds us is Dr. Davis' assertion that, during that time while he was overseas, he was detailed by no less a person than General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, the head of the American Expeditionary Force, to undertake a secret mission into Russia.

The mystery is two-fold: What was the nature of the mission, assuming there was one, and why was 1st Lieutenant James W. Davis of the U. S. Army Medical Corps the one sent?

In June of 1919, some seven months after hostilities between the Allies and the Central Powers had ended, Dr. Davis was part of the Third American Army, the Army of Occupation, and was stationed as a member of the American Military Mission in Berlin.

According to the biography of Davis written by LeGette Blythe, "James W. Davis, North Carolina Surgeon" (Charlotte: W. Loftin, 1956), it was from Berlin that Davis went into Russia to meet with top Soviet government leaders.

"It was during this assignment that he [Dr. Davis] was sent on a highly confidential mission into Russia with instructions to confer with certain russian leaders, reportedly Lenin and Trotsky and perhaps others whose names have become commonplace as founders of the Soviet Union," wrote Blythe.

In the thirty-six years that followed until his death, Dr. Davis avoided talking of this phase of his overseas service. Sometimes he referred casually to having talked with Lenin and other architects of the Communist structure, but never would he reveal just where he had gone in Russia and what had been the purpose of his mission.

Blythe further quotes Dr. Davis, "This service was assigned me after I told General Pershing that I was a single man (at the time) and no one was dependent upon me and that I was glad indeed to accept this assignment and the risk involved.

"I had rendered America ... one of the most difficult and trying assignments that had ever been given an officer in a foreign country among strange people, because it was so confidential ... only verbal orders were issued about this and had I been lost or liquidated in the performance of this duty nothing would have been said about it."

While having impeccable medical credentials, there is nothing about Dr. Davis which hints that he was especially skilled in foreign languages, and nothing to suggest that he had even a passing acquaintance with the Russian language.

Likewise, there is nothing to indicate that he had any training, formal or otherwise, in diplomacy or negotiation.

The best that can be said is that Dr. Davis was unquestionably bright and personable, and that he was relatively young — he had just turned 32 on June 8, 1918 — but that he was a man with great potential in medicine and that he came from a rural background.

This is certainly not a criticism, and it may be that these very qualifications (or lack of them) that caused Dr. Davis to be chosen for a mission: his innocence in matter of the world outside of the field of medicine.

Certainly Russia had physicians as skilled as Dr. Davis and with more experience. Davis had received his Doctor of Medicine Degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine only five years earlier, in the spring of 1913.

Surely both the the Russian and the U.S. State Department had skilled negotiators and linguists. So why would Dr. Davis have been chosen for a secret mission?

In November 1954, Dr. Davis wrote to the Republican Senator from Utah, Arthur V. Watkins, who at the time was the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee, which eventually condemned Senator Joseph McCarthy's "witch hunt" of Communist agents within our federal government.

Dr. Davis supported Sen. McCarthy's efforts to hunt down and identify Moscow's agents, and mentioned to Sen. Watkins his own service in Russia as a validation that he knew what he was talking about.

After Dr. Davis' return to the United States, he is said to have followed events in the Soviet Union closely, and on more than one occasion to have confided to close friends that he had once talked personally with Lenin.

But never, even after practically all the participants had died, did he ever go into detail about his mission into the U.S.S.R.

In his biography of Dr. Davis, LeGette Blythe stated, "A recent search of record in the office of the Adjutant General of the Army indicates that the office has no records ... to show that the Statesville surgeon had served as a representative of the military forces or the Department of State."

Did Dr. Davis fabricate the "secret mission" story to garner praise or admiration? This would not seem likely, as he won enough laurels in his chosen profession to satisfy the greatest of egos and those honors are indisputable.

Dr. Davis passed away on the third floor of his hospital on Tuesday, May 31, 1955, eight days before his 69th birthday, and less than 100 feet from the location where he was born, which had been his maternal grandparents' homeplace.

Dr. Davis took the full story of his "mission to Moscow" with him to the grave, which, for several years, was located on the grounds of his hospital. After the sale of this property, Dr. Davis' remains were moved and reinterred in the cemetery of Davis Memorial Baptist Church in Wilkes County.

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The Soviet Union has been defunct since 1990. Current relations between the United States and Russia, while perhaps not to be described as "chummy," are unquestionably better that they were when the two super powers threatened each other with nuclear annihilation.

Perhaps with the Freedom of Information Act and with increased accessibility by scholars to early Soviet documents, someone may discover what Dr. Davis' mission was about and why he was chosen to attempt it.

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