In 1954, Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr. became the second person in his family to achieve the rank of general – his father was the first – and the second African American to become a general. His father was the first. Both their paths to flag rank had been distinguished, but not without difficulty.
B. O. Davis, Jr., was born in Washington, D.C. in 1912. After accompanying his parents to various military duty assignments, he graduated from Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio in 1929, and went on to attend Cleveland’s Western Reserve University, and then the University of Chicago. He attended university in Chicago in order to establish residency there so that black Republican Congressman, Oscar De Priest of Illinois, could appoint him to West Point. In July 1932, he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
Here began a deplorable period: for four years, Benjamin Davis was "silenced" by his fellow cadets. Cadets use "silencing" to punish a classmate for having committed some infraction of the rules. In Davis’ case, his infraction was the sin of being black. General Davis said of that period, "It was designed to make me buckle, but I refused to buckle. They didn’t understand that I was going to stay there, and I was going to graduate. I was not missing anything by not associating with them. They were missing a great deal by not knowing me." General Davis graduated 35th in a class of 276, becoming one of two black regular line officers in the U.S. Army; His father was the other officer. Fifty years would pass before he returned to West Point.
General Davis says in his autobiography that several of his Academy classmates wrote to him in later years to apologize for the "silencing" and to express regret for having participated in it. In his autobiography, "Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American," there's a photo of him at SHAPE in Belgium in 1969 standing with three of his former cadet classmates. The pictured classmates are Generals William Westmoreland, J. A. Heintges, and H. M. Estes, Jr.
In 1987, more than a half-century after his graduation,
General Davis came back to West Point. In the visitors center there was an exhibition titled "The Great Train of Tradition" featuring photographs of outstanding cadets from 1819 to 1950. The Class of 1936 was represented by photos of only two graduates: Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the commander of American forces in Vietnam - and a former superintendent at West Point - and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. "Under my photo," he wrote in his memoirs, "were the words: ‘World War II hero, helped integrate Air Force.’ Hooah, I thought, I’m home."
After graduation from West Point, he applied for pilot training but was turned down because the Army had no Black units in the Army Air Corps. From 1937 until 1941, he served first as commander of an infantry company at Fort Benning, GA and later as professor of military science at Tuskegee Institute. Then, in May 1941, he joined twelve cadets at Tuskegee for the first flight training program for blacks. He received his pilot’s wings in March 1942 and transferred to the Army Air Corps in May 1942.
He was assigned as Commander of the all black 99th Pursuit Squadron - later designated the 99th Fighter Squadron - at Tuskegee Army Air Base and moved to North Africa with his unit in April 1943. Later, the unit moved to Sicily where they flew P-40s in the Mediterranean Theater. In October of 1943, Davis returned to the States and assumed command of the 332nd Fighter Group at Selfridge Field, MI. Two months later, he returned with the Group to Italy. By summer, the group had transferred to the P-47 and recorded their first kills.
On 9 June 1944, Col. Davis was leading 39 Thunderbolts escorting B-24s on a bombing mission to Munich, Germany when more than 100 German fighters attacked the flight as they approached the target city. The men of the 332nd destroyed 5 ME-109s and damaged another. The bombers completed their mission and returned to base without a loss. Col. Davis was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission.
Later, Davis led the first Italy based fighter group to escort bombers to Berlin, a round trip flight of 1,600 miles. The pilots of the 332nd, flying their distinctive red-tailed P-51 Mustangs, were attacked by twenty-five ME-262 jets as they neared Berlin, but managed to down three of the enemy fighters and the bombers under their protection once again completed their mission without losing an aircraft. The 332nd, under Davis’ command, flew more than 15,000 sorties against the Luftwaffe, shot down 111 enemy aircraft and destroyed 150 more on the ground while losing only 66 of their own aircraft to all causes. They did not lose a single bomber during their 200 escort missions, a truly noteworthy achievement attesting to the courage, skill, and discipline of the pilots.
General Davis’ service career spanned WW II, Korea, and Vietnam. He commanded the 51st Fighter-Interceptor squadron in Korea and flew the F-86 in the Korean War. During the Viet Nam War, he commanded the 13th Air Force from 1967 to 1968. He retired as a Lieutenant General in 1970 and was advanced to four-star rank in 1998 by President Clinton. General Davis died on 4 July 2002 of pneumonia at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. He is interred at Arlington National Cemetery.