Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr.

Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr. was born in Washington, DC, on December 18, 1912. His father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., was a US Army officer stationed in Wyoming with an all-white cavalry unit. Unfortunately, his mother, Elnora Dickerson Davis, passed away due to complications after giving birth to the couple’s third child in 1916.

At the age of thirteen, Davis Jr. was given the opportunity to fly with a barnstorming pilot at Bowling Field Air Base in Washington, DC. Due to this experience, he decided that he wanted to be a pilot. He graduated from Center High School in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929 and went on to attend Western Reserve University before transferring to the University of Chicago.

In July 1932, Davis graduated from college and entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. His spot at West Point was sponsored by Representative Oscar day priest, a republican congressman from Illinois who was, at the time, the only black member of Congress. He graduated there in 1936 and became the first African American to do so since 1889.[1]

Of his experience at West Point, Davis said that his classmates rarely spoke to him outside of their duties and often gave him the silent treatment in an attempt to get him to drop out of the academy. He refused to do so, and according to a 1936 yearbook, he eventually earned the respect of his classmates. A yearbook biographical note states, “The courage, tenacity, an intelligence with which he conquered a problem in comparably more difficult than please bear one for him. The sincere admiration of his classmates, and his single-minded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him.” When he graduated, he was thirty-fifth in a class of two-hundred-and-seventy-six.[2]

In June 1937, Davis attended the United States Army infantry School at Fort Benning. From there, he was assigned to teach military tactics at Tuskegee Institute.[3]

In 1941, the Roosevelt administration ordered the War Department to create a black flying unit. From there, Captain Davis was assigned to the first training class at Tuskegee Army airfield. In June of that year, he was part of the first class of aviation cadets, class 42-C-SE. In March of the following year, he graduated from the training program. He and his four classmates became the first African American combat fighter pilots in the United States military. Davis soon became the first African American officer to fly solo in an Army Air Corps aircraft.[4]

In July 1942, Davis was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and named commander of the first all-black air unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron. In the spring of 1943, the squadron was sent to Tunisia, where they saw combat for the first time on June 2.[5]

In September 1943, the United States deployed Davis to take command of the 332nd Fighter Group. However, when he arrived to command the group, there was an attempt to stop using black pilots in combat. Senior officers in the Army Air Force recommended to General George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, that the 99th Pursuit Squadron be removed from combat operations because it had supposedly performed poorly. Having never heard of such an accusation, Davis held a press conference at the Pentagon to defend his men and present his case to the War Department Committee studying the use of African American service members. General George Marshall ordered an inquiry but allowed the 99th to continue its duties. That inquiry later reported that the 99th Pursuit Squadrons’ performance was comparable to all other air units. The questions about the squadron’s ability were put to rest in January 1944 when the pilots shot down twelve German planes in two days during the Battle of Anzio.

Colonel Benjamin Davis Jr. And his 332nd Fighter Group arrived in Italy shortly after the Battle of Anzio. By that summer, Davis took over the all-black 477th Bombardment Group, stationed at Goodman Field, Kentucky.

During the war, Davis led sixty-seven missions in P-47s and P-51 mustangs. He received the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross on June 9, 1944.[6]

After the war, in July 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which ordered the racial integration of the armed forces. Colonel Davis was one of the officers that helped draft the plan to integrate the Air Force, the first of the military branches to integrate fully.

In 1949, he attended the Air War College. He later worked at the Pentagon, drafting the staffing package and gaining approval to create the Air Force Thunderbird flight demonstration team.

Davis saw combat again in 1953 when he commanded Korea’s 51st Fighter-Interceptor wing. He was the Director of Operations and Training at Far East Air Force headquarters in Tokyo from 1954 to 1955 and then became the Vice Commander of the 13th Air Force and Commander of Air Task Force 13.[7]

In April 1957, he served as the Chief of Staff of the 12th Air Force, United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE). When these forces were transferred to an airbase in Germany, he assumed new duties as Deputy Chief of Staff for operations in West Germany. In July 1961, he returned to the United States, where he served as the Director of Manpower and Organization and Deputy Chief of Staff for Programs and Requirements. He was officially promoted to Major General in 1962.[8]

In February 1965, he was assigned the position of assistant deputy chief of staff, programs, and requirements. He remained in that position until he was appointed Chief of Staff for the United Nations Command and US Forces in Korea (USFK) in April of that same year. In 1967 he assumed command of the 13th Air Force at Clark Air Base in the Republic of the Philippines.

Davis became the Deputy Commander in Chief of the United States Strike Command in August 1968. He also had additional duties as Commander and Chief of Middle-East, Southern Asia, and Africa. He held that position for two years until he retired from active military service on February 1, 1970.

On December 9, 1998, Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was promoted to General, with President Bill Clinton pinning on his four-star insignia.[9]

Davis passed away at the age of 89 on July 4, 2002, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. At the time of his death, he had Alzheimer’s disease. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


[1] “Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Collection”, Smithsonian National Space and Air Museum.
[2] Tim G.W. Holbert, “A Tradition of Sacrifice: African-American Service in World War II”,” World War II Chronicles, World War II Veterans Committee (XXI)., 2003.
[3] “GENERAL BENJAMIN OLIVER DAVIS JR”, AF.mil. United States Air Force.
[4] “Air Force Historical Support Division > Home”.
[5]J. Todd Moye, Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2010), 99.
[6] Britannica, “Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. United States general,” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Benjamin-O-Davis-Jr
[7] “AIR FORCE HISTORY: Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr”, Tinker Air Force Base.
[8] “GENERAL BENJAMIN OLIVER DAVIS JR”, AF.mil. United States Air Force.
[9] “General Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr”, Biographies. United States Air Force.

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