Benjamin O Davis, Jr, a 1936 graduate of West Point, probably did not have any premonition when he graduated that he and his father were destined to write an interesting chapter in American military history. At the time of his graduation from West Point, the Army had a total of two black line officers, Davis and his father. Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. would be the first black general in the United States Army and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. would be the first black general in the United States Air Force. They both earned their stars through sheer ability at a time when prejudice against blacks was official policy within the US military.
The grandson of a slave, Davis senior was born in 1880. He enlisted in the black 8th volunteer infantry during the Spanish-American War, serving as a temporary first lieutenant. After the war he enlisted in the regular Army as a private, serving in the 9th United States cavalry, one of the Buffalo Soldier regiments. A promising young soldier, he shot up in rank to squadron sergeant major. He came to the notice of the commander of his unit, Lieutenant Charles Young, then the only black officer in the Army. With Young’s encouragement and tutoring, he took the officer’s test at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on February 2, 1901. For the next 39 years he served in various postings, including military attaché to Liberia and professor of military science at Tuskegee. It took persistence to stay in an Army where blacks served only in segregated units and where he was often the only black officer in the entire Army, but on October 25, 1940 Davis became the first black in American military history to earn a general’s star.
His son found the going just as tough initially. At West Point Davis Junior was officially shunned by almost all of the other cadets, who would only speak to him in the line of duty. He ate his meals alone and had no room mate during his four years. However, his hard work and ability earned grudging respect judging from this inscription in the West Point year book for 1936:
The courage, tenacity, and intelligence with which he conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year won for him the sincere admiration of his classmates, and his single-minded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him.
Such respect did not change the fact that he was black in an Army that had no love for black officers. His application to the Army Air Corps was summarily rejected because the Army Air Corps did not accept blacks. He found himself serving as a professor of military science at Tuskegee just as his father had years before.
With the advent of World War II the military was still segregated, and opposition to blacks serving as pilots was intense. However, the Army Air Corps could not ignore that blacks had passed the tests to qualify as aviation cadets. To his delight, Captain Davis was assigned to the first training class for black fighter pilots. He was the first black to solo in the Army Air Corps and got his wings in March 1942.
Trained at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, the 99th Pursuit squadron was activated in 1941 and sent overseas to North Africa in April 1943. Now a Lieutenant Colonel, Davis Junior was in command. In September he was called back to the States to help form the all black 332 fighter group. After he arrived back, an attempt to kill the project was made by senior Army Air Corps officers alleging deficiencies in the record of the 99th. Furious, Davis held a news conference at the Pentagon, with his father, to defend his men, and challenged the accuracy of the charges. Further investigations determined that the 99th had performed as well as similar white units.
The 99th served in the Sicilian Campaign and in Italy. In the Spring of 1944 it was joined by the 100th, 301st and 302nd pursuit squadrons and formed the all black 332nd fighter group under Davis. The 332nd flew as escorts for bombers flying bombing raids into Czechoslavakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland and Germany. The 332nd became known as the Red Tails, or Red Tail Angels, for the red paint on the tails of their planes, and for the skill with which they guarded the bombers they escorted. The men of the 332nd in their time in combat destroyed 261 enemy planes, damaged another 148, and flew a total of 15,533 combat sorties. They suffered 66 pilots killed. 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses for heroism were earned by the pilots, along with other awards for valor, and the 332nd received three President Unit Citations. A bomber group, the 477th Medium Bomber Group, consisting of the 616th, 617th, 618th and 619th bomber squadrons, was formed from Tuskegee Airmen, with Colonel Davis placed in command, but the War ended before the unit was deployed overseas.
Davis throughout the War personally led his units in combat. His courage and leadership earned him a Silver Star and a Distinguished Flying Cross as well as other decorations. He would see combat again in Korea and would retire as a Lieutenant General, the first black general in the Air Force, and the second black general in American military history.
In a life of accomplishment I think it is presumptuous to assume that one day in his career stood out for Davis more than one other. However, I suspect that the day he and the men of the 99th received decorations from his father, General Davis, had to be a special one:
It had been a hard fight, but father and son had led the way to achieve the right for black Americans to fight for their country, just like any other Americans.