Davis, Benjamin O.,Jr

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Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.

Born December 12, 1912
Washington, D.C .
United States Air Force general

Overcoming obstacles and achieving great things was a longstanding tradition in the family of Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. His father, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. was the U.S. Army's first African American general. And even as Davis, Sr. spent the years during World War II advising the U.S. government on race-related matters, his son, Davis, Jr., was leading the Tuskegee Airmen as they showed what black servicemen could achieve. Only the fourth African American to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, Davis, Jr. endured harsh treatment at the academy and was told he would never realize his dream of becoming a military pilot. He not only became a pilot but led hundreds of other black pilots as they trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama and went on to combat duty in Europe. Under Davis's command, the Tuskegee Airmen became a highly skilled, disciplined unit that, among other accomplishments, never lost any of the bombers they escorted. Davis went on to become the first African American air force officer to reach the rank of general.

A tradition of pride and determination

Davis was born in Washington, D.C., at the home of his grandparents, Louis and Henrietta Davis. His mother, Elnora, died in 1916 and his father soon left Washington to serve with the U.S. Army in the Philippines. Surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins, Davis and his sisters, Olive and Elnora, were part of a large, supportive family. A calm, serious boy, Davis always felt deep pride when he saw his father dressed in his army uniform.

In 1919, Benjamin Davis, Sr. married an old family friend named Sadie Overton. Assigned to teach military science and tactics at Tuskegee Institute (the school for African Americans founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington), he moved his family to Alabama. Even though he had seen how his ambitious, dedicated father experienced many career setbacks because of his race, Davis, Jr. felt his father had also given the Davis children an example of determination to follow.

As soon as they left the grounds of the Tuskegee Institute, the Davis family experienced the racial prejudice that dominated the South at that time. The "Jim Crow" segregation laws required separate schools, restaurants, movie theaters, rest rooms, and even drinking fountains for black and white people. Although forced to endure this inequality, Davis, Sr. was not about to show any fear of the Ku Klux Klan, a group that expressed their hatred for blacks in many ways, including violence. When the Klan rode past Tuskegee, Davis, Sr. stood under his front porch light in his white dress uniform, his family seated behind him.

Dreaming of flying

When he was thirteen and back in Washington, D.C., for the summer, Davis, Jr.'s uncle took him to see some barnstormers (pilots who performed daring stunts in the air to entertain audiences) at nearby Bolling Air Field. Davis was awestruck, and when his father later paid for him to take a ride with a barnstormer, he decided he loved airplanes and wanted to be a pilot.

The Davis family moved to Cleveland when Davis, Sr. was assigned as an instructor to a black National Guard unit. Davis, Jr. graduated—with the highest grades in his class— from Cleveland's Central High School in 1929. He entered Western Reserve University in Cleveland but was not happy there. He still wanted to fly planes, but there were no training programs available for black pilots. Prejudices against blacks led many people to believe that blacks did not have the ability to fly airplanes.

Shunned at West Point

Davis's father suggested that he apply to West Point, even though no other African Americans had attended the academy in the twentieth century (there had been three black graduates in the nineteenth century). All applicants had to be appointed by an official of the U.S. government, such as the president or a member of Congress, so Davis got an appointment from the only black member of the House of Representatives, Oscar DePriest of Illinois. Davis took the school's entrance exam in March 1931 and, to his deep shame, failed. The next year, he studied hard for the exam and passed it easily.

When Davis arrived at West Point in July 1932, he was told that he would be rooming alone—no white cadet would be asked to share a room with him. He also quickly learned that he would be given the "silent treatment." In a practice that was usually given only to those who had broken the school's honor code (by, for example, cheating on a test). Other students would speak to him only in the line of duty. Davis was to spend the next four years shunned by his fellow cadets, eating his meals in silence and studying and attending activities by himself.

Discouraging words from a general

Determined to succeed in spite of the discrimination, Davis grew accustomed to life at West Point, settling into a routine of academic study, military training, and drills. At a New Year's Eve dance in New York during his second year, Davis met a Connecticut schoolteacher named Agatha Scott. He saw her again a year later, and the two fell in love.

As graduation approached, Davis expressed an interest in applying to the Army Air Corps (at that time, the air force was still part of the army). But West Point's superintendent, General William Connor, told him he should give up that dream because the Air Corps would never train black pilots and white troops would never serve under black officers. Despite these discouraging words, Davis did not give up his dream.

Prejudice at Fort Benning

In June 1936, Davis graduated from West Point, ranked 35th in a class of 276. Two weeks later, he married Agatha in the West Point chapel. Now a second lieutenant, Davis was assigned to the army base at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he and Agatha quickly learned that they were not to be treated like other new arrivals. Instead, white officers and their families avoided the Davises.

At Fort Benning, Davis worked with Company F, a black unit commanded by white officers. In the segregated army, African American soldiers were being trained not for combat but to perform service jobs, such as keeping equipment clean, groundskeeping, and cleaning stables.

In September 1937, Davis attended the army's Infantry School, studying war tactics and military history. His next assignment was the same one his father had been given several years earlier: teacher of military science and tactics at Tuskegee Institute. Now a captain, Davis knew he deserved a more challenging, responsible position and considered quitting, but jobs were hard to come by and he decided to stay in the army.

More opportunities open up

Davis's prospects began to change for the better in September 1940 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt—responding to pressure from the African American community, which had helped him get elected—made his father a brigadier general. Davis, Sr. was given command of the 9th and 10th Cavalries at Fort Riley, Kansas, and he requested that his son serve as his aide.

As the 1930s drew to a close, it appeared that the United States might eventually become involved in World War II, which began in September 1939 with Germany's invasion of Poland. The U.S. government began preparing its armed forces for possible war, an effort that included—again due to the pressure applied by civil rights groups—the formation of a black flying unit to be called the 99th Pursuit Squadron.

Davis was overjoyed when, in 1941, he received orders to serve as the commander of the 99th, and to report to the Tuskegee Army Air Field for flight training. This facility had been created just to train black pilots; the army's rules about segregation wouldn't allow black and white pilots to be trained together. And even this air field was segregated, with white instructors having separate housing and other facilities. The nearly 1,000 black pilots were angry about this, but Davis told them to let it go, and to focus on their own achievements.

The Tuskegee Airmen prepare for combat

After completing their classroom studies, the Tuskegee Airmen began their flight training, learning in bulky BT-13 airplanes how to perform the many maneuvers they would need as fighter pilots. When the Japanese bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (December 7, 1941), the United States entered World War II. The airmen knew they would soon have a chance to test their skills. They earned their "wings" (became pilots) on March 7, 1942, becoming the first African Americans to enter the U.S. Army Air Corps. They all knew that future opportunities for others might depend on their performance in the war.

Performing well in Italy

One year later, the Tuskegee Airmen finally received their combat orders. The 99th Squadron was sent to North Africa, where Allied troops (mostly from the United States and Great Britain) had been fighting the German army in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The Germans surrendered just before the 99th Pursuit Squadron arrived, but the Allies were also getting ready to invade Italy so the Tuskegee Airman would still have their chance in battle.

Their first combat mission took place on June 22, 1943, with a successful attack on Pantelleria Island off the coast of Tunisia. The squadron performed strafing missions (flying low and raining bullets onto the enemy) and escorted the heavy bombers, protecting them from enemy aircraft.

During the later invasion of Sicily (an island off the southern coast of Italy), they protected troops landing on the beaches and chased enemy planes away from navy ships. Lieutenant Charles B. Hall became the first member of the 99th Pursuit Squadron to shoot down an enemy plane. Soon they were flying up to twelve missions per day, bombing air fields, railroad yards, bridges, and factories.

A false report

On September 3, Davis was called back to the United States to command the new 332nd Fighter Group, which was made up of three squadrons of African American pilots who were training for duty. Davis soon learned that the 99th Squadron had been criticized by Colonel William Momyer who had submitted a report stating that they were poorly disciplined, didn't work together as a team, and tended to panic under fire. The report concluded: "The Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot." Momyer suggested that the 332nd be assigned to noncombat duty and that plans to train more black pilots be cancelled.

Knowing that the report was based not on the 99th Squadron's performance record but on racism, Davis was furious. But when he met with a committee from the War Department, he did not talk about racism. He simply showed the committee the proof of what the squadron had accomplished in Italy. The government then conducted its own study of the black pilots' performance, which revealed no difference between this and any other combat unit.

The 332nd gets its chance

The 332nd arrived in Italy in January 1944 and immediately learned that the 99th Squadron had just played a key role in the Allied victory at Anzio (a town on Italy's seacoast). They had shot down twelve enemy planes. News of what the 99th had accomplished reached the U.S. newspapers.

Davis was disappointed when the 332nd Squadron's first assignment was to patrol the coast (guarding harbors and escorting supply ships) instead of entering combat. In his autobiography, Davis wrote that he felt this was "a betrayal of everything we had been working for and an intentional insult to me and my men." Nevertheless, Davis behaved as if the squadron were performing an important role.

In March 1944 the 332nd was assigned to escort bombers. Davis was promoted to colonel, and the squadron moved to a new base at Ramitelli on Italy's east coast. From there they accomplished a successful mission to Munich, Germany, where only thirty-nine pilots managed to hold off one hundred German fighter planes and even shot down five of them. Nicknamed the "Red Tails" because of the distinctive red paint on their planes, the Tuskegee Airmen gained a reputation for staying with bombers over the target (the most dangerous part of a bombing mission) and for always safely escorting the bombers back to base.

Davis had personally led the mission to Munich, and in honor of his performance he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, which was pinned onto his uniform by his father.

A long list of accomplishments

Those who had hoped that the Tuskegee Airmen would perform well and thus prove that African American servicemen were as capable as whites were thrilled at their performance record. Among them they earned more than a hundred Distinguished Flying Crosses as well as three Distinguished Unit Citations.

"The best-managed base … "

The Germans surrendered in May 1945, ending the war in Europe. Davis was assigned to command the 477th Bombardment Group, which was preparing to fight the Japanese when they too surrendered in August. The following March, Davis moved the 477th to Lockbourne Air Base near Columbus, Ohio, which became the first black air base that was not under the control of white officers. Under Davis's command, Lockbourne became—according to an inspection report—"the best-managed base in the Air Corps." In fact, white troops and white civilian employees worked under African American officers with no problems.

In September 1947 the U. S. Air Force became a separate branch of the armed forces. An even bigger change occurred the following year, when President Harry S. Truman (1884-1975; see entry) signed Executive Order 9981, which called for integration of the armed forces. All-black units were to be abolished and black troops fully integrated with white troops. Many felt that the Tuskegee Airmen had had a huge effect on the change of attitude that allowed this step to occur.

Commanding at home and overseas

In 1949 Davis became the first black officer to attend the Air War College. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he commanded pilots both at U.S. bases and overseas. He worked at the Pentagon (the headquarters of the Department of Defense) as head of the Fighter Branch, commanded pilots fighting in the Korean War, and served in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Germany. During the Vietnam War, Davis commanded the 13th Air Force, based in the Philippines.

By the time of the Vietnam War, 50,000 African Americans were serving in the armed forces in all capacities and there were twelve black army generals, three black air force generals, and one black admiral. African Americans earned twenty of the 277 Medals of Honor awarded during the war.

A busy retirement

Having reached the rank of major general (three stars) and after serving thirty-three years in the military, Davis decided in 1971 that it was time to retire. He became director of public safety for the city of Cleveland, then went to work for U.S. Secretary of Transportation John Volpe to help with the problem of "skyjacking" (armed hijacking of passenger planes), which was then a frequent occurrence. New security systems suggested by Davis resolved the problem in nine months.

In 1989 Davis proudly witnessed the elevation of an African American to the most important post in the military when General Colin Powell became the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (a group made up of the heads of all the branches of the armed forces). Davis received his own high honor on December 9, 1998, when he was made a four-star general by President Bill Clinton, who said, "He earned this a long time ago."

Where to Learn More


Applegate, Katherine. The Story of Two Generals, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. and Colin L. Powell. New York: Dell, 1992.

Davis, Benjamin O. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.: An Autobiography. Washington, D.C.: Smith's Press, 1991.

Reef, Catherine. Benjamin Davis, Jr. Frederick, MD: Twenty-First Century Books, 1992.

Web sites

Gropman, Alan L. "Benjamin Davis, American." [Online] Available http://www.afa.org/magazine/897benja.html.

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. commanded the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American pilots whose excellent performance during World War II helped break down barriers for blacks in the armed forces.

The 761st Tank Battalion

While African American aviators were proving their courage and loyalty in the skies above Italy, black soldiers on the ground were also making a name for themselves. Made up of the U.S. Army's first black tankers (soldiers who operate armed tanks), the 761st Tank Battalion was praised for its performance in France as the Allies fought their way across several European countries in pursuit of the Germans.

Although widespread racism and discrimination kept African Americans from climbing the ranks of the U.S. Army, there were some white army officers who wanted to offer them more opportunities. One of these was Lieutenant Lesley James McNair, who as commanding general of army ground forces is credited with having allowed the 761st Tank Battalion to come into existence.

General McNair (who would later lose his life in the war) first visited the battalion at their training camp in Louisiana, and when they arrived for duty in France on October 31, 1944, he told them, "I am damned glad to have you with us. We have been expecting you for a long time, and I am sure you are going to give a good account of yourselves." General George S. Patton (1885-1945; see entry) also visited and welcomed the men of the 761st.

Having joined the army's 26th Division, the 761st Battalion entered battle on November 8, 1944, at Athaniville, France. For the next 183 days they would fight without stopping, advancing through six European countries, killing 6,266 enemy soldiers, and capturing 15,818.

One especially brave member of the battalion was Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers of Tecumseh, Oklahoma. Severely wounded in the leg when his tank ran over two mines, Rivers refused to leave the battle and stayed for three more days of combat, even though he had a bone protruding from his wound. During a later exchange of gunfire with German troops, Rivers was killed when his tank was hit by an armor-piercing shell. Veterans of the 761st are still pursuing a Medal of Honor for Rivers.

It was not until January 24, 1978, that the 761st Battalion's excellent combat record was recognized. On that day, they received a Presidential Unit Citation.

Tuskegee Airmen's Record

  • 111 enemy aircraft shot down
  • 150 enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground
  • 1 German navy ship destroyed (an unusual feat for an air squadron)
  • 40 other enemy boats and barges destroyed
  • 200 escort missions completed without ever losing a bomber (the only fighter group to do so)