First Afro-American Air Force General,
Lt. Gen. Benjamin Davis Jr., Inducted Into The National Aviation Hall
July 23, 1994. Retired Lt. Gen. Benjamin Davis Jr., the first Afro-American Air Force general and founder of the Tuskegee Airman, was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of fame in Dayton, Ohio. Because Colin Powell has served as the top military officer in the country and is mentioned as presidential timber, it is difficult for some to understand today that things were not always so with black Americans. At one point, only a few de cades ago, the armed forces were not integrated.
Although blacks served, they did so in specialized units, generally commanded by whites, and suffered discrimination not only in promotions, but even in fundamental human rights. We have come a long way, but it is useful to recall when such equality did not exist and racial discrimination was both pervasive and humiliating. During World War II, a group of blacks was sent to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and trained as pilots. The famous Tuskegee airmen went on to serve with distinction in the European theater and the years thereafter. The most famous of these men was Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. Davis was the first black to graduate from West Point in this century. His four years there were not, however, pleasant.
Because he was black, he was officially "silenced" by all cadets-no one spoke to him for four years except on official business; he roomed alone; he had no friends. That so many cadets, faculty members, and senior officers could allow such behavior is astonishing. This was surely one of the most shameful chapters in West Point history. Nonetheless, Davis graduated but was promptly turned down for pilot training-no black officers were allowed in the Air Corps. While he was serving in the infantry in 1940, this policy was reconsidered, and Davis was sent to Tuskegee for pilot training. Because of the war and his ability, promotion followed rapidly, and soon he was a lieutenant colonel commanding the 99th Fighter Squadron in combat. After one year with this all black unit in Italy, Davis was promoted to colonel and tasked to form the 322d Group.
This black fighter group served admirably for the remainder of the war. segregation ended in the services in 1948 with a presidential decree. Davis then attended Air War College, served in the Pentagon, and 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. After tours in Taiwan, Germany, the Pentagon, and a return to Korea-while also gaining two more stars-Davis became commander of the Thirteenth Air Force at Clark Air Base. He obviously relished this command at the height of the Vietnam War and was reluctant to leave in July 1968 to become deputy commander of US Strike Command. He retired from that assignment in 1970. It is surprising that no one has yet written a biography of the first black Air Force general. For now, however, we must be content with his autobiography, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American: An Autobiography (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).
This memoir is extremely well written. Some reviewers have commented that Davis was obsessed by his West Point experience, and although that is too strong a statement, clearly he was deeply affected by it. (Actually, most cadets are deeply affected by their academy experience, but few have such negative memories as did Davis.) The humiliation he suffered there stayed with him his entire career, and it was not until 1987-more than 50 years after his graduation-that he returned for a visit. Throughout, this book is marked by a sense of patriotism and faith-faith especially in himself and his cadet sweetheart who became his wife and who supported him so unfalteringly throughout his career. In one sense, this is a moving and touching love story. The criticism of this book is that it insufficiently discusses the key operational issues Davis faced in his several commands in three different wars. The issue of race overshadows all and takes priority in the recalling of events. As a consequence, we are left with a poignant story that reveals clearly why Benjamin Davis was a successful man, but not why he was an equally successful senior commander.
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