Tuskegee Airmen's Leader Gets Fourth Star
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 14, 1998, Dec. 14, 1998 Retired Lt. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the Air Force's first black general officer, received his fourth star Dec. 9 from President Clinton at a promotion ceremony here.
"He (Davis) earned this honor a long time ago," Clinton said. The president praised Davis as "a hero in war, a leader in peace, a pioneer for freedom, opportunity and basic human dignity."
"Through example and perseverance, one person can bring truly extraordinary change," he said. "You are the very embodiment of the principle that from diversity we can build an even stronger unity, and in diversity we can find the strength to prevail and advance."
Davis, whose father became the Army's first black general officer in 1940, is the first black to graduate from West Point this century. He retired almost 30 years ago after an extraordinary career that included command of the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.
Officially the 99th Pursuit Squadron and, later, the 332nd Fighter Group, the Tuskegee Airmen were all-black air crews trained in Tuskegee, Ala. Known for their red-tailed P-51 Mustang fighters, Davis and his men never lost a bomber to the enemy in hundreds of escort missions over Europe.
That record in combat made a lie of a then widely held military perception that blacks couldn't fly and wouldn't fight. Davis fought constantly to keep his units on the line. When his group commander in North Africa recommended his unit be removed from combat, Davis' convincing testimony before a military panel led not only to reinstatement but to more African-American squadrons being sent overseas.
Clinton said the Tuskegee Airmen's extraordinary success and the invaluable contributions of other blacks and minorities in the war helped to turn the tide against official racism.
"Their efforts helped pave the way for President Truman's historic order 50 years ago mandating equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed services," he noted. "This led to an end of segregation in our forces."
Davis, 86, is the only African American to become a four- star general in retirement and is the only the third in the Air Force; the other two are James H. Doolittle and Ira C. Eaker in 1985. Nine retired Army lieutenant generals were elevated in 1954; the only Navy man so honored is Adm. Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear Navy.
During the ceremony, Clinton recognized Sen. John McCain as the driving force behind an amendment in the 1999 Defense Authorization Act that authorized Davis' fourth star. McCain is a former Navy pilot and was a POW during the Vietnam War.
The presidential hall in the Old Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House, was packed with a standing- room-only crowd that included the secretaries of defense and veterans affairs and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Several Tuskegee Airmen, African-American graduates of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., were among the invitees.
Clinton said Davis knocked again and again on shut doors until they finally opened, until his sheer excellence and determination made it impossible to keep them closed. And once the doors opened, the president said, Davis made sure they stayed open for others to follow.
"He was my mentor, an officer I would have gone to hell with if he'd asked me to do so," retired Lt. Col Herbert E. Carter said after the ceremony. "I'm proud and thankful that at last full recognition has been expressed for his service and his performance as an officer." Carter said he spent seven years under Davis' command.
African American F-16 pilot Darren Gray of Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., said he hadn't known much about Davis and the Tuskegee Airmen until he entered the Air Force Academy. At the academy, Gray said, he learned how much of a debt he owed to their ground-breaking efforts.
"They have a heritage project out there, and I watched the films and read books," Gray said. "They were pathfinders for me. They paved the road. I wouldn't be in the position I'm in now if it hadn't been for the excellence those guys represent."