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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Born, December 18, 1912

Today in 1912, Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr. was born in Washington, D.C.. Davis is remembered today as the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen during the Second World War and as the first general of African descent in the United States Air Force. He defied the discrimination that riddled this nation during the 20th century and achieved goals that few men, black or white, could ever hope to achieve.

Davis's father was a U.S. Army officer who was stationed in Wyoming with an all-black cavalry unit at the time of his son's birth. Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. would become a brigadier general in the Army, but it would take him nearly 40 years to achieve that rank. When the younger Davis received his commission as a Second Lieutenant in 1936, the Army had a total of two black line officers---both named Benjamin O. Davis.

Benjamin Davis, Jr.'s love affair with flying began at an early age. When he was 14 he had a chance to take a ride with a barnstormer, one of the pilots who thrilled audiences with their aerial tricks in the years after the First World War. That flight convinced him that he was fated to become a pilot. After attending the University of Chicago, he entered the US Military Academy at West Point. At that time, only three Americans of African descent had ever graduated from West Point; Davis would be the fourth. Racism was alive and well in the Armed Forces, and it showed: Davis was shunned by most of the other cadets, who rarely spoke to him other than to issue or receive orders. In 1936, he graduated 35th in a class of 276.

Davis applied for service in the Army Air Corps, the predecessor to the Air Force. The Corps did not accept black candidates and he was instead assigned to the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment at Fort Benning, Georgia. Despite the fact that he was an officer, base rules barred him from admission to the base officer's club. He attended the Infantry School at Fort Benning, then went on to teach military tactics at Tuskegee Institute, a black college in Alabama. His father had held the same position years before.

By 1941, it was clear that the United States was going to become involved in the Second World War. That year, the War Department created a training class at Tuskegee Army Air Field for black pilot candidates. Davis, now a captain, was assigned to this class. In March, 1942, he graduated with five other officers and pinned on his wings for the first time. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in July and was placed in command of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, an all-black unit. The squadron was sent to North Africa in early 1943 and first saw combat that June. After the end of the North African campaign, the 99th leant support to the allied invasion of Sicily.

In September, 1943, Davis was ordered back to the United States. He was given command of the 332nd Fighter Group, another all-black unit made up of four squadrons. The group arrived in Italy in early 1944 and were soon being called the Red Tails because of the bright tail markings on their fighters. They flew escort missions deep into Germany, where they shot down 111 enemy planes and destroyed 273 on the ground with a loss of 66 of their own aircraft. During their time on escort duty, they lost no bombers to enemy fighters. Davis was awarded the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross during this time. In the summer of 1945, with the war in Europe over but the war in the Pacific still raging, Davis took command of yet another all-black command, the 477th Bombardment Group. The war ended before the Group could be deployed overseas.

In July, 1948, President Harry Truman ordered the racial integration of the US Armed Forces. By then, the Air Force was a separate service and Davis was an Air Force colonel. He helped write the de-segregation plan for the Air Force, which was the first branch of the military to fully reach the goal of complete racial integration.

Davis was called to combat again during the Korean War when he assumed command of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing. He flew the new F-86, a far cry from the propeller-driven aircraft of the last war. Over the next 15 years, he rose in rank to Lieutenant General and eventually commanded the 13th Air Force. He retired in 1970.

Even after his retirement, Davis continued to serve his country. He headed the US Federal Sky Marshal Program and was later named Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Environment, Safety and Consumer Affairs. In that capacity he was one of the supporters of the 55 mile an hour speed limit that was the law on US interstates until the mid-1990s.

On December 9th, 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Davis a fourth star, making him a full general. He died on July 4, 2002 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., not very far from where he was born 89 years earlier.

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