FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) - A man who was shunned because of his race during his four years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., back in the early 1930s would go on to become the first African-American general in the U.S. Air Force.
Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was born in 1912 to Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., an Army officer who would go on to become the Army’s first African-American general.
When the younger Davis went on a flight as a teenager with a barnstorming pilot in Washington, D.C., he became hooked on flying. But it would be another 16 years before he would pin on his pilot wings.
At West Point he was shunned by his classmates and was given the silent treatment throughout his four years at the Academy, never having a roommate and taking meals alone. Despite the hardships, Davis graduated 35th in his class out of 278, and pinned on second lieutenant as one of only two line officers in the Army – his Dad being the other.
He initially applied for the Army Air Corps, but was rejected because of his race. He was assigned to an all-black 24th Infantry Regiment, one of the old Buffalo Soldier regiments. To avoid placing him in an all-white unit, Davis was next assigned to the all-black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
In 1941, Davis was assigned to the first training class at Tuskegee Army Air Field and earned his pilot’s wings in early 1942 as one of five black officers to complete the course. He was the first black officer to solo an Army Air Corps aircraft. Four months later he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and named commander of the first all-black air unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron. It was the beginning of the famed “Tuskegee Airmen.”
They would see their first combat action over the skies of North Africa flying the Curtiss P-40 fighter, but later that year Davis would be called back to the U.S. to take command of the larger 332nd Fighter Group, preparing to head overseas.
After reports from senior leaders that his old unit had performed poorly during combat, Davis held a news conference in the Pentagon to defend his unit and present his case to the War Department studying the use of black servicemen. Critics were silenced in early 1944 when black pilots shot down 12 German planes over a two-day period while protecting the beachhead at Anzio, Italy.
Davis and his unit, nicknamed “Red Tails,” for the distinctive markings on their planes, flew missions deep into German territory. His pilots flew more than 15,000 sorties downed 111 enemy planes and destroyed or damaged 273 on the ground. Davis led many of those missions and was awarded the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts.
In July of 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order ending segregation within the military and Colonel Davis was instrumental in drafting the Air Force plan to implement this move.
Over next two decades, Davis would serve in the Pentagon and at overseas posts, and again see combat during the Korean War as the commander of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing in Korea. He would serve in important posts in post-war Japan and Germany and in 1961 returned to the U.S. where he served as the Director of Manpower and Organization at Headquarters, U.S. Air Force.
He would later serve as chief of staff for U.S. Forces Korea, the commander of the 13th Air Force in the Philippines and as deputy commander in chief of the U.S. Strike Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. He retired from active duty in 1970 as a lieutenant general.
After his retirement, Davis continued serving in government, overseeing the development of airport security and highway safety as the Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Environment, Safety and Consumer Affairs.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton promoted Davis to four-star rank and on July 4, 2002, he passed away at the age of 89. He was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.