Benjamin O. Davis Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps to become one of the most storied military commanders of his generation.
Tuesday marks the 66th anniversary of his promotion to brigadier general, the first Black military officer in the United States Air Force to achieve the rank.
Davis Jr. broke the color barrier in the upper echelons of the nation’s military for only the second time in the nation’s history. The first to do it was his father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., who was appointed to brigadier general in the U.S. Army 14 years earlier.
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Davis Jr. is most remembered as a legendary combat pilot and commander of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.
A decade before President Dwight D. Eisenhower made him the first Black general in the Air Force, Davis Jr. received the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Following in his father’s footsteps
When Davis graduated from the Military Academy at West Point in 1936, he became only the second active Black officer in the U.S. armed forces. The other man was his father, Army Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr.
On Oct. 25, 1940, Davis Sr. became the first African American to achieve the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army.
Davis Sr. was appointed by Roosevelt right before the election that year, which made his promotion doubly controversial, according to Politico.
Despite his heroism and exceptional leadership, Davis Jr. still faced racism throughout his military career, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
“He was ostracized at West Point and then was barred from commanding white troops and turned away from segregated officers' clubs in the war years,” The New York Times reported.
Davis spent four years at West Point and graduated in June 1936, earning him the commission of second lieutenant. But racist policies prevented the young officer from becoming a pilot in the whites-only Army Air Corps. Instead, he was assigned to the all-Black 24th Infantry Regiment at Fort Benning.
A meteoric rise
From there, Davis Jr. went on a meteoric rise through the ranks.
In early 1941, he was a captain when the War Department, as it was known then, began flight training at Tuskegee Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama, where Davis finally got flight training and was one of five Black pilots to graduate.
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense
A year later, in 1942, Davis Jr., now a lieutenant colonel, was given command of the 99th Pursuit Squadron — the Army Air Forces' first all-Black aviation units, according to the Defense Department.
By the summer of 1943, the men were seeing combat in the air over North Africa.
Months later, Davis got new orders to return to Tuskegee to lead the the 332nd Fighter Squadron. Around this time controversy flared after Davis learned Army brass were planning to end combat training for Black pilots, prompting Davis to hold a news conference at the Pentagon, where he defended his men.
“All the blacks in the segregated forces operated like they had to prove they could fly an airplane when everyone believed they were too stupid,” Davis wrote in his autobiography, “Benjamin O. Davis Jr.: American.”
Undeterred, Davis returned to combat flights over Europe, where his all-Black squadron flew thousands of missions and shot down hundreds of enemy planes while escorting U.S. bombers.
The Air Force was created in 1947 under President Harry S Truman, who tapped Davis, now a colonel, to oversee the desegregation of the ranks in 1948.
Man of honor
Davis Jr. remains one of the most respected and historic leaders of all the U.S. armed services.
Last year in November, the U.S. Air Force Academy named its airfield in honor of Davis, saying he was “instrumental in driving this institution towards a much more diverse and a much more inclusive population, reducing attrition rates of minorities, and crucial in developing the plan to integrate women at the United States Air Force Academy.”
Davis' life served as an example of the power of perseverance, courage, character and extraordinary competence, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said a year ago during the airfield naming ceremony.
“Some have had to bear a heavier burden than others to teach us all what right looks like,” Goldfein said. “Today, we celebrate one of these men.”
The U.S. Military Academy also named a barracks after Davis in 2017.
Died on the Fourth of July
Davis retired from active military service on Feb. 1, 1970, as a lieutenant general.
Twenty-eight years later, on Dec. 9, 1998, President Bill Clinton promoted him to the rank of four-star general.
One of the Tuskegee airmen under Davis Jr.'s command, Rudolph “Val” Archer, an Atlanta resident, died earlier this month at 91.
Davis Jr. died on the Fourth of July in 2002.
He is buried with his wife, Agatha, in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
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