Monday, November 17, 2014

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.

Arlington, VA              Visited November 2012

I’ve decided to dedicate November in respect to war veterans by doing posts from Arlington National Cemetery.  This month its an honor to post on Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., commander of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and the first black four star general officer in the United States Military. 

Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr. was born December 18, 1912 in Washington, DC.  His father, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. was a career military officer who had been one of the original Buffalo Soldiers in Utah during the late 1800’s.  In 1940 Benjamin Davis, Sr. attained the rank of brigadier general, becoming the first black general in the history of the U. S. Military.  

Young Benjamin’s mother died when he was four years old and he was raised largely by his grandparents as his father was stationed in various locations stateside and abroad.  When he was 13 in 1926 he went for a ride in a barnstorming plane and his craving to fly was hooked. 

After high school he attended University of Chicago but was nominated for admission to the U.S. Military Academy, where he enrolled in 1932.  Sadly, Davis’ time at West Point was characterized by racial bigotry and intentional shunning by the otherwise all-white student body.  The isolated cadet refused to be intimidated by four years of daily racism and graduated in 1936, 35th in a class of nearly 300.  Davis later recalled his experience,

Cadet Davis

''Living as a prisoner in solitary confinement for four years had not destroyed my personality, nor poisoned my attitude toward other people,'' he would write in recalling his thoughts upon graduating. ''I had even managed to keep a sense of humor about the situation; when my father told me of my many supporters, the many people who were pulling for me, I said, 'It's a pity none of them were at West Point.' ''

Cadet Davis’ character was ultimately vindicated by the Academy; as demonstrated by the inscription under his picture in the Academy yearbook,

“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.

Soldiers' Davis Sr. and Jr.
When Davis graduated he became just the second black line officer in the army – the only other being his father, Benjamin Sr.   Denied access to flight school because of his race, Benjamin Jr. was assigned to an infantry unit stationed in Fort Benning, GA.  Looking for a way to avoid having a black officer command white enlisted men, the army moved Davis to a training position at the all-black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. 

Following the entry of the U.S. into World War II, President Roosevelt (bowing to political pressure) authorized the formation of the first black aviation wing - the 332 Fighter Group -  at Tuskegee Institute.  Davis signed up and became one of the first ‘Tuskegee Airmen”.  He was the first black man to solo a U.S. warplane.  In July 1942 Benjamin Davis was promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed in command over the first all black fighter squadron.  The 99th Pursuit Squadron saw extensive combat action in the North African and Sicily Campaigns. 

Having returned stateside to train another unit, Colonel Davis found himself having to defend the performance of the 99th against charges that it had performed poorly and therefore needed to be decommissioned.  One white commander testified that, “the Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot.”  An inquiry revealed that the black fighter pilots had actually performed well in comparison with the rest of the army air force.  About this time the issue of  the competence of black pilots in combat was settled by the remarkable success of the Tuskegee Airmen in the skies over the invasion of Anzio.  Overall, the “Red Tails” (as they were known) flew over 15,000 sorties, shooting down 111 Luftwaffe planes.  Davis himself received the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his personal performance as a fighter pilot. 

From the movie Red Tails a great scene - "We Fight!".  From the same movie a short air combat scene.

Here is a stirring short video of General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr personally decorating his son and other Tuskegee Airmen.

At the end of the war Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was tasked with drawing up a racial integration plan for the newly formed U. S. Air Force – which became the first service to branch to fully integrate.  His career for next two decades advanced up the command ranks in the Pentagon and in overseas assignments.  During the Korean conflict Davis took command of another fighter wing, flying the new F-86 Sabre jet fighters.  In 1960 Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was permanently promoted to brigadier general.  In 1965, while serving as chief of staff of the U.N. Air command in South Korea, Davis received his final active duty promotion; attaining the rank of lieutenant general (3 stars).  General Davis, Jr. retired from the service in 1970.


Formal portraits of the General in mid and late career.

Following his military service General Davis served in a variety of public roles, most prominently as a deputy secretary in the Department of Transportation, where he developed the U. S. Air Marshall aviation safety force. 

In 1998 President Clinton promoted Davis to the rank of full Four Star General – again, the first black man ever to attain the top rank in the U. S. Military.  By this time General Davis had begun to battle the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.  He lost his wife of 66 years in early 2002, and a few months later Benjamin O. Davis, Jr passed away at the age of 89 – July 4, 2002.  He was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.   President Clinton’s words at Benjamin O. Davis’ ultimate promotion well describe his remarkable career and service to his country.

"General Davis is here today as living proof that a person can overcome adversity and discrimination, achieve great things, turn skeptics into believers; and through example and perseverance, one person can bring truly extraordinary change"

Fellow 'Red Tails' honoring their fallen commander at the burial ceremony
for Benjamin O. Davis, Jr at Arlington Cemetery.

I saw General Davis' grave on a visit to the cemetery with my son and nephew on the way to Georgia for Thanksgiving.