Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr. (1912–2002) became the first black U.S. Air Force general on October 27, 1954. He also became the first black air force officer to complete a solo flight in 1941 and the first black man to command an airbase. During World War II Davis received two promotions in one day in 1943 when he was promoted first to major and then to lieutenant colonel. President Bill Clinton elevated Davis to the rank of four-star general, and in 1994, President Clinton named him to the Board of Visitors of the U.S. Military Academy. Davis’ career paralleled that of his father, U.S. Army Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis Sr., in rising to the rank of general, albeit in another branch of the armed forces. Davis was born in Washington, D.C., and began his college education in 1929 at Western Reserve University (now known as Case Western Reserve University) in Ohio. He attended the University of Chicago from 1930 to 1932, after which he was able to enter the U.S. Military Academy when he passed the qualifying examinations on his second try. Davis faced racial bias just as his father had during his army experience. It has been reported that none of Davis’s West Point classmates spoke to him during his years at the academy, except when absolutely necessary. With a class rank of 35 out of 278, he graduated from West Point in 1936 as the first black with this achievement in the twentieth century. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and elected to serve in the U.S. Air Force. He was informed that blacks were ineligible for that branch and was assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he was excluded from membership in the officers’ club. In 1941, after a tour of duty at Fort Riley, Kansas, Davis was chosen to command the 99th Pursuit Squadron, an all-black flying unit authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt. The squadron trained at Tuskegee Army Air Base in Alabama and went on to fame as the “Tuskegee Airmen,” despite the fact that they were subjected to tremendous racial bias. Davis commanded the 332nd Fighter Group, comprising four black squadrons. This group saw action in Europe and achieved an enviable escort duty and combat record. When it flew escort duty, the group never lost a bomber to the enemy. The exploits of the 332nd are considered to have been instrumental in the 1948 decision of the U.S. armed forces to become integrated. In 1951 Davis became the commander of the integrated 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing in Korea and the Thirteenth Air Force in Vietnam. He became a lieutenant general in 1965. Davis retired from the air force in 1970 and took a position as director of public safety in Cleveland, Ohio. From 1971 to 1975 he served as the director of civil aviation security, assistant secretary of environment, safety, and consumer affairs for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Davis was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1944. He received numerous military awards, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. When the White House ceremony at which he was promoted to four-star general was held, twenty of the original Tuskegee Airmen were in attendance to give praise to his courageous leadership of the 332nd unit. President Clinton was given an honorary signature Tuskegee Airman jacket at the time. Davis published his book, Autobiography: Benjamin O. Davis Jr.: American, in 1991.
Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis Sr. (left) served in the U.S. Army from the Spanish-American War through World War II. His son, Air Force General Benjamin O. Davis Jr., served in Korea and Vietnam. Father and son were both highly decorated soldiers.