Father, Son Become African-American Military Pioneers
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 2013 In the early stages of American military history, it was rare to find a high-ranking African-American leader, considering the civil inequalities and unrest prevalent in those times.
But an African-American father and son -- Benjamin O. Davis Sr. and Benjamin O. Davis Jr. -- broke racial barriers and led honorably, leaving an indelible mark on America’s military heritage.
The Davis family, fittingly, hailed from the nation’s capital, and perhaps this foreshadowed their impact on U.S. military history. The elder Davis studied at Howard University before entering military service in the 8th U.S. Volunteer Infantry on July 13, 1898, during the Spanish-American War.
Following that service, he enlisted as a private in the regular Army on June 18, 1899, serving as a corporal and squadron sergeant until Feb. 2, 1901, when he earned his commission as a second lieutenant in the cavalry.
Davis Sr. served in a variety of positions, ranging from border patrol duty in 1915 to a professor of military science and tactics at Wilberforce University in Ohio. He also served in the Philippines from 1917 until 1920 as a “Buffalo Soldier.”
Then, as a lieutenant colonel, he taught military science and tactics at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., until 1924, in the first of his two teaching stints there. He also served on special duty with the State Department in Liberia, and as a special advisor on race relations in Europe during World War II.
The elder Davis made history when he was promoted to brigadier general Oct. 25, 1940, the first African-American to wear the star insignia in the U.S. military. He retired on July 14, 1948, after 50 years of service. He died Nov. 26, 1970.
His son, Davis Jr., was the fourth African-American graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and became the U.S. military’s second African-American general officer. He graduated from West Point on June 12, 1936, commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry, and was first assigned to Fort Benning, Ga.
Like his father, Davis Jr., served as a professor of military science at the Tuskegee Institute. In May 1941, he entered advanced flying school at nearby Tuskegee Army Air Base and received his pilot’s wings, along with four other African-American officers, in March 1942 -- later to be joined by almost 1,000 Tuskegee Airmen.
Davis Jr., now in the Army Air Corps, assumed command of the 99th Fighter Squadron. Although he finally was permitted to serve as a pilot, he still faced racial discrimination.
Nearly 90 days into his command, and after the squadron had flown many combat missions under Davis's leadership, the 33rd Group commander accused the Tuskegee Airmen of not having the same desire to fight as white pilots. The group commander recommended removing Tuskegee Airmen from combat.
The general who reviewed the report endorsed it, according to records, and commented that "the Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot."
After the proposal reached Washington, Davis Jr. was called to testify on his unit’s behalf before the War Department's permanent Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies. Davis Jr. provided examples of his unit’s flying acumen, and maintained that his men were as eager for combat as white pilots.
He noted that because they were undermanned, they flew more often -- up to six more combat missions per day. Davis Jr. convinced the advisory committee, and his unit remained in place and displayed exemplary service in North Africa and Sicily.
Unlike his father, who spent a majority of his career as a military professor, the younger Davis served as a commander for a variety of units. He attended the Air War College in 1949, and upon graduation, served as the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for operations.
Davis Jr. joined his father in the general officer ranks Oct. 27, 1954, when he was temporarily promoted to brigadier general. The promotion became permanent May 16, 1960. He continued to serve as a commander in a variety of capacities, and he became a lieutenant general on April 30, 1965.
After 33 years of service, Davis Jr. retired in 1970. He continued his public service as Cleveland’s director of public safety. He later was director of civil aviation security and an assistant secretary at the U.S. Transportation Department.
On Dec. 9, 1998, Davis Jr. received his fourth star from then-President Bill Clinton. He died July 4, 2002.
(Brittainy Joyner, office of the assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, contributed to this article.)