One Moment in Time
By Eugene Harper
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 17, 2002 I remember our meeting nearly 20 years ago as if it were yesterday. The then-retired three-star had insisted that we meet at my office, despite my deference and offer that we meet at a place convenient to him. But my location was fine for him -- next door to where he regularly shopped at the commissary at then- Cameron Station, Alexandria, Va.
The once-bustling small installation and the ramrod- straight general are both gone now. Both were victims and success stories: Upscale civilian housing has replaced the military office complex, a success story plucked from being a base closure victim. And the general died July 4 at age 89, the success story of a decorated, honored military careerist after being a victim of discrimination when it was the law and order of the land.
The general walked into my office that day, Nov. 10, 1983, and the room took on an instant air of distinction and pride. He greeted me with a steady, firm hand grip. His physique bested his then-70 years by at least half a century. His dress was informal casual: slacks, open- collared shirt, sports coat. His consuming presence wouldn't allow me to check out his footwear.
We sat down and talked 45 minutes. Well, he did most of the talking -- after all, it was all about him. His voice was crystal clear, not overbearing or officious -- and again, his presence wouldn't allow me to misunderstand a single syllable. His words vividly said "WYSIWYG" before the term for "what you see is what you get" became common in the computer age.
Benjamin O. Davis Jr. came from good stock. His dad had been the first African-American general officer in U.S. history: Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. So, too, was the son destined for military duty. On the way, he landed at the U.S. Military Academy back in the day when most men of color had to prove themselves worthy to wear the uniform, let alone be officers and West Pointers. For example, he received the silent treatment from his fellow cadets: No one talked to him because he was black.
But the younger Davis set his sights higher, much higher: He really wanted to take off -- to fly, that is. "Flying was the thing to do in the '20s and '30s," he recalled. "It combined the features of sports, art, science, adventure and -- particularly in those days -- danger.
"When I was at West Point, cadets were indoctrinated on the other armed forces' branches. We spent three weeks at Mitchell Field (Mich.) in 1935, flying in observation and bomber aircraft. That, along with the interest in flying I always had, caused me to apply for pilot training."
Davis related that his first application made it from West Point to Army headquarters in Washington. "I met all the requirements academically and physically," he said. "But in those days of the segregated Army, the answer came back from the chief of the Army Air Corps that because there were no blacks in the Army Air Corps and it was not contemplated to have aviation in any of the black units, the application was disapproved."
He went on to graduate from the academy and was an infantry officer when the Army contacted him in 1941 at Fort Riley, Kan. "They approached me because they knew I had applied and had been turned down six years earlier," he said.
The Army had activated the all-black 99th Fighter Squadron in March 1941 and had formed an Air Corps program to train African-American pilots at Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in rural Alabama. Military historian Alan Gropman said then-military leaders considered this an experiment at best and "an unwarranted political intrusion" at worst.
The Army felt the 99th needed his professional leadership, Davis said. And, besides his father, no other regular Army black officers except chaplains existed. Davis and 12 others began in that first class; only five completed it. Washouts were not unusual in fighter pilot training -- a 50 percent to 60 percent washout rate was average.
"The flight training we received was as good as any you would ever find," Davis said. "The problem was segregation and its effects on the mind. But that was balanced off against the flying mission -- the fact that we were flying airplanes."
The graduated pilots remained at the Tuskegee base, even as more classes arrived for flight and ground-crew training. Davis assumed command of the 99th in August 1942, and plans were made to deploy. His unit was first scheduled to go to Liberia, but in November 1942, Allied troops landed in North Africa. This meant pilots no longer had to stage in Liberia before flying into the Mediterranean area.
"From our viewpoint in Alabama, it looked as though there were problems in where we would be used, when actually all that was probably involved was an overall change in the tactical mission," Davis said.
The squadron finally arrived overseas in North Africa in April 1943. By that time, the pilots had about 150 hours in tactical training and flying, Davis recalled. The 99th provided close-air support to ground units and then began escorting bombers to targets in Sicily as Allied forces moved toward Italy.
Davis returned to the states in August 1943 to take command of the all-black 332th Fighter Group. He also addressed mounting criticism of the 99th's performance overseas.
"We had a lot of complaints that we didn't shoot down many aircraft," Davis said. His answer was the 99th didn't come into contact with many enemy airplanes. He said a unit evaluation questioned the pilots' aggressiveness, stamina and ability to fight under pressure. A report recommended moving the squadron farther away from the front lines and replacing it with a white unit. He said neither action took place.
The 99th flew more support missions until its pilots broke formation and attacked enemy fighters over the Anzio beachhead in Italy in 1944. In less than five minutes, the pilots shot down five German planes, followed by seven more victories over the next two days.
"I think everybody realized the 99th's performance at Anzio proved that the bad evaluation had been all wrong," Davis said. "Without these subsequent events, heaven knows what would have happened, especially after the recommendation that blacks not be continued in combat operations."
The 332nd Fighter Group deployed to the theater and went on to earn a sterling reputation: According to an Air Force biography, Davis' 332nd Group flew more than 15,000 sorties against the German air force, shot down 111 enemy aircraft and destroyed another 150 on the ground while losing only 66 of its own aircraft to all causes.
The tails of the group's P-51 Mustang fighters were painted red, and the unit became known across Europe as "the Red Tails" as thousands of sorties gave rise to its reputation as bomber escorts supreme. Flight discipline in some other escort units was loose, and pilots freely broke formation to go hunting. Davis' standing order to stay with the bombers was clear. The Red Tails' crowning and unusual achievement: They never lost a bomber under their escort protection.
Davis moved over to the newly formed Department of the Air Force in 1947 and went on to a variety of assignments and positions throughout the world, including combat flying and command in the Korean War. He retired as a lieutenant general in 1970. He served as an assistant secretary of transportation, setting up the nation's first sky marshal program.
I hadn't heard much about Gen. Davis since our meeting in 1983. A work colleague's parents lived in the same building as Davis and his wife, and my co-worker would confirm his parents' occasional contact with them.
Then I remember the 1995 cable television movie "The Tuskegee Airmen"; actor Andre Braugher played the general. I recall the story about Davis receiving his fourth star in 1998, the first African American general to be so honored in retirement. At the time, he was one of only three general officers in history to receive this distinction. I read his obituary a few days ago, which recounted his illustrious career. And I've just viewed a closed-circuit broadcast of the general's funeral service on July 17 at Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, D.C., where dignitaries and colleagues recounted his life with poise and dignity.
Along with these, I can return to that memorable interview, in that office on that day in November. I can replay those 45 significant minutes in my mind, on demand and unambiguously -- just as the general presented himself.
Davis gained a reputation for discipline, esprit de corps and excellence starting with his early Tuskegee days as a no-nonsense leader. We can only hope that his spirit of dedication to duty, honor and country continues to soar among us, just like he flew in the cockpit and in life. Heaven knows what would have happened without him.
(Some material came from an article by the author in the February 1984 SOLDIERS magazine.)