Rising Above It All

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Following the United States’ entry into World War II, African-Americans raced to the recruiting stations to join the U.S. military. Like their white countrymen, they yearned for the opportunity to battle Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Before combating the dark forces of totalitarianism, however, they had to take on the rampant prejudice and mistreatment commonplace throughout the armed forces. Segregation was prevalent inside and outside the military, and bigotry was widespread. All too often, in all branches, the belief lingered that blacks were inferior to whites. Determined African-American leaders launched a campaign to force President Franklin Roosevelt to increase African-American participation in the war effort. He agreed, and one of the measures taken involved the creation of black fighter squadrons. The most famous of those units was the one taking shape outside Tuskegee, Alabama. At the head of this formation stood an African-American colonel who fully appreciated the discrimination his men suffered. He had experienced it firsthand as he climbed through the ranks. Rather than back down, however, he determined to prove just what he and his fellow African-Americans were capable of. His name was Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr. This is the story of how he battled through every adversity to lead the Tuskegee Airmen to victory and ultimate glory against America’s enemies.

Even before entering military service, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. well knew the formidable challenges facing black officers. He was born in Washington, D.C. in mid-December 1912 to Lieutenant Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. of the 9th U.S. Cavalry, part of the famed “Buffalo Soldiers.” His earliest memories were of life on a military post outside Cheyenne, Wyoming where white officers and their families oftentimes refused to acknowledge him and his parents when they attended social events. As a boy, he saw his father repeatedly petition for a command in both white and mixed regiments, but institutional biases against black officers limited Davis Sr.’s assignments to outposts such as the Philippines or to African-American colleges as a military instructor at places like Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Father and son alike saw how discrimination resulted in the promotion of white officers over more capable African-American ones. Ultimately, Davis Sr. gained promotion to lieutenant colonel, but narrow-minded thinking remained entrenched, particularly in the South. For example, in 1923 the Ku Klux Klan paraded through Tuskegee, Alabama to protest a new veterans’ hospital staffed with African-American doctors and nurses. Among those watching the display was young Benjamin who stared in awe as his father fearlessly stood on the family’s front porch wearing his white dress uniform as the white-robed Klansmen marched by. This inspiring image could not help but motivate Benjamin to consider a career in the U.S. military.

Over the next few years, Benjamin Jr.’s resolve to join the armed forces increased as he evaluated the prospects open to African-Americans. Like other middle class blacks, Davis was limited in his career options — primarily to fields like teaching or dentistry. Benjamin not only wished for a more exciting profession, but he also yearned to fulfill a long-held dream. In 1926 he had met a barnstormer and experienced the joy of flying. His desire intensified the next year after Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris. The dream remained alive throughout his time at Cleveland, Ohio’s Central High School, Western Reserve University and University of Chicago, Illinois. Knowing he was unlikely to achieve his goal as a civilian, he focused his sights on securing an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Benjamin saw graduation from the Academy as a way to satisfy his ambition and to secure a victory on behalf of his fellow African-Americans, in particular vindicating the memory of Cadet Alonzo Parham who was forced to leave the Academy in 1930 after flunking mathematics. Supported by Illinois Representative Oscar DePriest, the only African-American in Congress, he undertook and passed the Academy’s rigorous entrance examination. In fall 1932 he entered the hallowed halls of West Point with visions of a glorious future, but he quickly realized his fellow cadets would not go easy on him.

As he stepped onto West Point’s parade ground, Cadet Davis had a long road in front of him. It was not just the multifaceted curriculum or the harsh military discipline that stood in his way, but more importantly was history itself, as the fact remained that no African-American had graduated from the Academy in over forty years. Determined to perpetuate this dubious record, white cadets undertook to isolate the new plebe, or freshman cadet, by forcing him to room alone and silently endure the traditional hazing by upperclassmen. Classmates further denied Davis the camaraderie of the mess hall and compelled him to eat all his meals alone. Worst of all, however, was his being subjected to the “silent treatment” — meaning no one, neither his class nor others, spoke to him outside official duty all four years of his academy experience. It was a punishment normally reserved for those guilty of honor violations, but in Davis’ case it was simply because he was there. Despite this blatant discrimination, Benjamin refused to succumb to despair, and instead, he devoted himself to military life. His perseverance and determination resulted in him graduating 35th out of 278 in the Class of 1936. By then, he had also merited a form of grudging respect from his classmates. The 1936 West Point yearbook, the Howitzer, reflected this hard-earned esteem as it honored his courage, tenacity, and intelligence in warranting him universal admiration. It was believed his “single-minded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him.” Unfortunately, the color of his skin still posed an impediment to his future assignments.

Upon being commissioned a second lieutenant, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. became the second of two African-American line officers in the U.S. Army — the other was his father. Neither his unique accomplishment nor his Academy record impressed his superiors, however; they resolved he would not command white troops. It was natural, therefore, for his petition to join the Army Air Corps in late 1936 to be rejected on the basis blacks were not admitted into the flying corps. Rather, he was assigned to the all-black 24th Infantry at Fort Benning, Georgia. He found Southern racism as widespread as ever, as evidenced by the fact he was consistently barred from the fort’s officers club. Davis refused to lose heart and dedicated himself to performing his regimental duties. Occasionally, he would meet someone who suggested he depart the military and enter the civilian world, pursuing some career such as law. He rejected this advice and remained focused on his military career. In June 1937 his decision appeared justified when he was admitted to the Army’s Infantry School at Fort Benning. As at West Point, his classmates shunned him, but he persevered and graduated after a year of training, drill and study. But once again, his superiors dismissed his qualification to command. To avoid upending decades of military tradition, Army brass assigned Lieutenant Davis to Tuskegee Institute as professor of military science, the same position his father had held when Benjamin was a boy. He proved extremely capable and climbed through the ranks to major, but he still yearned to fly. His dream was finally realized in late 1941 when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the incorporation of black pilots into the Army Air Corps as part of the U.S.’s preparations to enter World War II.

Despite finally achieving his dream, Benjamin still confronted the discriminatory views pervasive throughout the Army Air Corps. Air Corps officers established a base for black pilots at Tuskegee Army Air Field in compliance with President Roosevelt’s directive, but they were determined to prove African-Americans did not have the reflexes and skills to be fighter pilots. To their shock, Major Davis overcame all obstacles to become the first African-American to solo in an Army Air Corps plane. He graduated in March 1942, and soon after, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was given command of the 99th Pursuit Squadron — the first of the “Tuskegee Airmen.” Within a year he led his men into combat. His unit first saw action in 1943 when they supported the Allied invasion of North Africa and launched the offensive against Sicily by attacking German forces on the island of Pantelleria. To Davis’ dismay, however, certain Air Corps commanders later denounced the 99th for allegedly underperforming and demanded the squadron be removed from active duty. Davis stormed into Washington, D.C. and waged a one-man campaign on behalf of his fellow warriors. Appearing before the War Department, and even holding a press conference at the newly constructed Pentagon, he argued there was no truth to the allegations. Indeed, he said, his pilots flew more than white ones, sometimes as many as six missions a day. He further maintained his pilots never shied away from combat, validated in January 1944 when members of the squadron shot down twelve enemy aircraft over two days. Davis’ spirited defense and a full investigation of the 99th’s actions finally laid to rest questions regarding the capabilities of African-American pilots.

With the future of African-American pilots settled, Colonel Benjamin Davis journeyed to Ramitelli Airfield, Italy to command the 332nd Fighter Group, commonly called” Red Tails” for their distinctive red-tipped aircraft. In June 1944 he climbed into a P-47 Thunderbolt and led his fighters as part of a bombing raid over Munich, Germany. As they approached the city, over 100 German planes descended on them, but Davis and his men held formation. Moments later, Davis led a charge of eight P-47s against eighteen Messerschmitt BF-109s. Benjamin watched in pride as enemy aircraft spiraled out of the sky and the others fled for safety. For his courage, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and he later received the Air Corps’ Silver Star for “gallantry in action” over Austria. His greatest victory, however, came on March 24, 1945 when he led a mission over Berlin itself. Seated in a P-51 Mustang, the hottest fighter in the inventory, he and the Red Tails not only fought but also downed three of Germany’s newest invention, the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet aircraft. More spectacularly, however, was the fact that no American bombers were lost. Shortly thereafter, with sixty combat missions under his belt, Davis was transferred back to the U.S. to command the 477th Composite Group, but Germany surrendered before the group was ready for combat.

Following war’s end, Benjamin Davis continued to break down racial barriers to secure a place for himself and his fellow African-Americans in the new U.S. military. In 1946 he became base commander of Lockbourne Army Air Base, Ohio, and his professional demeanor ensured a harmonious relationship between black pilots and those whites serving on the base. He also won over local residents. Within months, he and the airmen were valued members of the community. Inspired by Davis’ example, the Chief of Staff of the newly established United States Air Force issued a directive in early 1949 racially integrating white and black units — the first military branch to do so. That summer Davis was the first African-American to attend a military war college when he entered the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama. Upon graduation in 1950, he was assigned to the Pentagon to head the Air Defense Branch of Air Force Operations before being named Wing Commander of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing flying F-86 Sabres during the Korean War. In each capacity, Davis primarily led white subordinates, but he always enjoyed the confidence of his men. His superiors continued to place great trust in his abilities as well. Finally, in May 1960 he literally became “a star” when he was promoted to brigadier general — the first African-American Air Force officer to receive that rank. Additional promotions to major general and lieutenant general preceded his retirement in 1970. Perhaps the greatest honor, however, came in 1998 when President Bill Clinton awarded Benjamin Davis the four-star rank of full general. The pioneer of black aviation died four years later on Independence Day, July 4, 2002 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. As befitted this true American hero, a Red Tail P-51 Mustang roared across the hallowed grounds.

Benjamin O. Davis’ life story is one of courage and perseverance. Throughout his life, he refused to back down in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. From being shunned by his West Point classmates to convincing his Air Corps superiors to allow African-Americans to fly, Davis refused to allow the forces of oppression to win. He never gave in to bitterness or resentment, and he never gave anyone reason to doubt his absolute commitment to do his duty. He was always at the forefront of the action, whether in the skies over Europe or in challenging prevailing social attitudes. In the end it was his tenacity that won victory for himself, his men, and ultimately, America itself. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. truly was a fighter — in the highest sense of the word.

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One response to “Rising Above It All

  1. I had the distinct honor of meeting this warrior in 1992 when he came to Maxwell AFB, AL to share his experiences with the Air Command and Staff class of ’92. He was a very impressive man who absolutely loved his country despite all road blocks he encountered throughout his life. Very nicely done Jake! Thank you for bringing his story to us all.

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