In Black America Podcast: The Legacy of General Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
On this edition of In Black America, producer/host John L. Hanson Jr. speaks with the late General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Davis was an aviation pioneer; he was one of the most famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. However, his military career spanned five decades and three wars. He was the first African-American officer in the Army Air Forces, and was a member of the first African-American pilot-training class at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama.
Davis was born on December 18th, 1912 in Washington, D.C., the son of a retired Army brigadier general. He was the first African-American to graduate from West Point. His four years there were not pleasant. Being an African American, he was officially “silenced” by all cadets–no one spoke to him for four years except on official business; he roomed alone and he had no friends.
Davis served in the infantry and taught military science at Tuskegee until May 1941 when he transferred to the Air Corps. He earned his wings in March 1942. Because of the war and his ability, promotion followed rapidly. As a lieutenant colonel in 1942, six months shy of his 30th birthday, he assumed command of Tuskegee Army Air Base’s 99th Fighter Squadron, the oldest and most famous unit of the Tuskegee Airmen, first in North Africa and later to Sicily. He flew P-51s in combat, and came home in October 1943 to form the 322d Fighter Group. Two months later the 322d were in Italy providing escort missions for bombers and he could say that they never lost a single bomber to enemy aircraft. In the spring of 1945 Davis led a squadron of fighters on a hazardous mission against airfields in southern Germany and was awarded a Silver Star.
Segregation ended in the services in 1948 with a presidential decree. Davis then attended Air War College, served in the Pentagon, where he gained approval to create the Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team. He was sent to Korea in 1953 to command a fighter wing. The following year he received his first star and moved to the Philippines as vice commander of the Thirteenth Air Force.
Davis served two tours in Germany with Twelfth Air Force and at Headquarters U.S. Air Forces in Europe. He returned to the United States and held various staff assignments until he returned to the Philippines as commander of the 13th Air Force, Clark Air Force Base.
His last assignment was at MacDill AFB, Fla., as deputy commander in chief, U.S. Strike Command, with additional duty as commander in chief, Middle-East, Southern Asia and Africa.
Davis retired from the service Feb. 1, 1970. His military decorations include the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, Army Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, Legion of Merit with two oak leaf clusters, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters, Air Force Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters and the Philippine Legion of Honor. He wrote his autobiography, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American: An Autobiography about of his experiences at West Point and his commands.
President Bill Clinton advanced him to general on Dec. 9th, 1998. Davis died on July 4th, 2002. He was age 89.