Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
President Clinton promoted Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. to the rank of General for his great contributions to the United States. Gen. Davis’ life is an incredible story of personal triumph and significant military accomplishments.
His career was a series of firsts. He was the first African-American to graduate from West Point Military Academy during the 20th century. He was the first African-American general in the Air Force and the first African-American commander of the Tuskegee Airmen during WW II. But more significant than these firsts, was his enduring example of determination. He was an example of how one man’s dream and personal determination overcame tremendous personal adversity.
GEN Davis was strongly influenced by his father. His father was the first black general in the Army. In the 1920’s, his father served on the teaching staff at Tuskegee Institute. In those days segregation and acts of discrimination were common place. The KKK terrorized the Davis family. They carried flaming torches past their house. During these terrorist acts his father would put on his dress white uniform and stand on the porch with his family as a show of pride and defiance.
Davis had two overpowering goals. The first goal was to Attend West Point and the other was to become an aviator.
During the four years at West Point he was treated as if he didn’t exist. He was excluded from social events. He was shunned and given the silent treatment. He didn’t have a roommate nor was he invited to eat at anyone’s table. But despite the silent treatment he graduated 35th out of a class of 276 in 1936. Later, GEN Davis, JR reflected, “I was silenced solely because cadets did not want blacks at West Point. Their only purpose was to freeze me out. What they did not realize was that I was stubborn enough to put up with their treatment to reach the goal I had come to attain.”
In his second year at West Point his second goal of becoming an aviator was addressed. He was told he could not be a pilot in Army Air Corps because there were no black aviation units. The dream was stifled but not extinguished.
After graduation he was sent to Ft. Benning, Ga. The same negative treatment he received at West Point continued. His commanding officer did not visit him. He was not welcomed and even his classmates from West Point still wouldn’t talk to him or his wife.
Policy during WWII was separate and not equal. It was at Ft. Benning where he considered the most insulting action taken against him during his entire career. He was not allowed to enter the Officer’s Club. Only white officers were allowed. African-American officers received worse housing, trained in inadequate training facilities and were trained by white officers of a lower caliber. He had entered an era when the military felt that blacks “were not deemed fit to command white troops.”
His break came in 1941 when he was reassigned back to Tuskegee for Aviation training. Tusgegee was called the “second Tuskegee Experiment”. The experiment was to prove that black aviators were just as capable as their white counterparts. “It worked ‘famously’ and stood as a ‘powerful symbol’ of what African-Americans could achieve given the opportunities to do so; and would provide important role models for blacks everywhere in a time when few existed and many were needed.”
The 332nd Fighter Group combat record was exceptional. At the end of the war the unit totaled 111 enemy planes shot down. One of the most remarkable achievements was the destruction of a German Navy destroyer by assigned aircraft. They earned three Distinguished Unit Citations never losing one bomber it escorted. The unit awarded approximately 1000 individual awards. In fact they shot down 12 German fighters in two consecutive days during January, 1944.
Davis credits his success to his wife and his father who always told him, “Don’t give up, no matter what. Gen. Davis’ life exemplified one who has overcome tremendous odds and achieved unequaled success in the U.S. military.
Additional information on General Ben Davis