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Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.

Benjamin Davis, Jr.

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.

Credits - U.S. Air Force Museum Photo Archives

Benjamin Davis, Sr.

Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.

Credits - U.S. Army Photo


Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr., who would become the first African-American general in the U.S. Air Force, was born in Washington, D.C., on December 18, 1912. His parents were Elnora and Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr., the first African-American general of the U.S. Army. He lived on a number of military bases while a child and attended high school in Cleveland, Western Reserve University, and later the University of Chicago. In July 1932, he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., although the Academy actively discouraged blacks from applying.


While at West Point, Davis, because he was black, endured four years of shunning. He had no roommate, no one ate with him, and no one spoke to him unless issuing an order. Nevertheless, he graduated in the top 15 percent of his class in June 1936 with a commission as a second lieutenant of infantry. He was West Point's first African American graduate since Reconstruction and, according to historian Alan Gropman, only the fourth African American to graduate from West Point. Although he should have been able to choose which branch of service to enter because of his high class rank, when he requested the Air Corps, he was told that there were no aviation slots and no black units for him to join. So he and his bride, Agatha Scott, were sent to racially segregated Fort Benning, Georgia, where he commanded a black infantry company.


In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt decided to create an African American flying corps and assigned Davis to lead it. The unit, the 99th Fighter Squadron, more commonly known as the Tuskegee Airmen, went on to distinguish itself in Europe during World War II. Probably the unit's greatest achievement was that it did not lose a single bomber to an enemy fighter during its 200 escort missions, which totaled about 10,000 sorties into some of Germany's most heavily defended areas. Davis entered Advanced Flying School in May 1941 and received his pilot wings in March 1942. He moved with his unit to North Africa in April 1943 and later to Sicily and other locations in Italy.


President Harry S Truman integrated the air force in 1948, and Davis helped the service design plans for desegregating its bases. In the summer of 1949 Davis attended the Air War College, a key assignment because promotion beyond colonel depended upon attending war college, and until then, segregation had barred black officers from attending the school. After completing his studies there, Davis he served at Headquarters USAF at the Pentagon. During the Korean War, he commanded a racially integrated flying unit.


In the years after the war he received the important position of vice commander of 13th Air Force and commander of Air Task Force 13 (Provisional) at Taipei, Taiwan. In two years Davis built a formidable defensive air force from scratch to deter Communist forces on mainland China from launching an air or sea attack on the Republic of China on Taiwan.


He continued to be promoted and in 1965 became the first African American in any military branch to become a lieutenant general. Before he retired in 1970 he served as deputy commander in chief of U.S. Strike Command and as commander of the 13th Air Force in Vietnam.


From 1970 to 1975, Davis served as an assistant secretary at the Department of Transportation. In 1978 he was on the Battle Monuments Commission, and in 1991 he published his autobiography, Benjamin o Davis, Jr., American: An Autobiography. In January 1997, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor.


President Bill Clinton awarded Davis his fourth star, advancing him to full general, in 1998. Davis died in Washington, D.C., on July 4, 2002.