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Ceremony Awarding General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. a Fourth Star, Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, The White House, Wednesday, December 09, 1998

President Clinton; Members of the Cabinet; Members of Congress, including Senator John McCain, whose legislative efforts helped make this day possible; Service Secretaries and Service Chiefs; General Davis and Mrs. [Elnora Davis] McLendon; the legendary Tuskegee Airmen; Janet [Cohen]; Distinguished guests; Ladies and gentlemen.

The President and I are deeply proud to host this gathering today, and I thank you, Mr. President, for taking the time to be here. The poet Langston Hughes once wrote, "America is seeking the stars." General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., you are the best of America, and today America awards you a fourth star.

General Davis is often held up as a shining example of what is possible for African-Americans. But today we honor him not only as a great African-American. We honor him because, like his father before him, he is a great warrior, a great officer, and a great American.

The Tuskegee Airmen who stand in our midst today displayed incredible heroism in the skies of yesterday. Their record is as remarkable as it is renowned, never losing a plane that they were protecting to an enemy fighter in 10,000 sorties over North Africa and Europe. They were the first black fighter squadron, and by their great and good fortune they were led by then-Colonel Davis.

In their first escort mission, he and 38 American fighters held off more than 100 German attackers. In perhaps their most spectacular mission, Colonel Davis led the Tuskegee Airmen on a 1,600-mile escort mission to Berlin. Until that day, the Allies had shot down only two of the new German jet fighters. But on that day alone, Colonel Davis and his Tuskegee Airmen downed three.

Throughout a lifetime of service in the Air Force, few did more than General Davis to prove that black and white Americans could not only serve together -- indeed, that white soldiers would serve under a black superior -- but that they could succeed together.

Near my office in the Pentagon are several paintings of the Tuskegee Airmen, including one celebrating the service of General Davis. In brilliant and bold display, they depict him, his wife Aggie, several of the fighters he has flown and some of the bombers he once escorted. The title is that last command we hear from a flight leader as his formation dives into battle, "Drop Tanks, Follow Me." The Air Force and the entire US military have heard General Davis calling follow me for half a century.

On a personal note, I want to say how moved I was by the interview that my wife, Janet, conducted with you on a program entitled Personal Diaries some years ago. I will never forget the moment she asked you about your now legendary experience at West Point where for four years not a single classmate would speak to you except on official business. None would break the code of silence. But their silence could not break your spirit because your pride and your patriotism and love of country was deeper than the racism that was all around you.

In Spartacus, you can find the comment that "valor is common, but great souls are rare." You, sir, are among the rarest of souls, and as we acknowledge you with this fourth star, so well deserved, so long in coming, you permit us to shine in your greatness.

Before we hear from our Commander-in-Chief, I would like you to hear from one of the warriors who flew and fought alongside General Davis. Colonel William Campbell was a Tuskegee Airman who flew 146 combat missions and went on to a distinguished Air Force career. He has earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit and 13 Air Medals. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to present an airman, a patriot and a hero, Colonel William Campbell.