Academy names airfield in honor of first black Air Force general

Army Air Forces Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander of the 332nd Fighter Group, stands in front of his P-51D Mustang in Ramitelli, Italy, in March 1945. (Army photograph)

The U.S. Air Force Academy Nov. 1 named its airfield in honor of Air Force Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the service’s first black general and the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen in Africa and Europe.

The project to name the previously unnamed airfield was “an incredible journey,” Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria said at the naming ceremony.

Davis was “instrumental in driving this institution towards a much more diverse and a much more inclusive population, reducing attrition rates of minorities, and crucial in developing the plan to integrate women at the United States Air Force Academy,” Silveria said.

Army Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the Army’s first black general, poses for a photo with his son, Army Air Forces Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., and Army Air Forces Lt. Col. Noel F. Parrish, commander of the Tuskegee Army Air Field, sometime between 1942-45. (Army photograph)

The son of Army Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the Army’s first black general, Davis entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in July 1932. Upon his graduation, the Army had two black infantry officers — Davis and his father.

He faced racism throughout his military career. Davis’ obituary in the New York Times noted: “He was ostracized at West Point and then was barred from commanding white troops and turned away from segregated officers’ clubs in the war years.”

While a cadet, Davis had sought to join the Army Air Corps but was rejected because segregationist policies of the time designated the Air Corps as whites-only. Instead, he graduated in June 1936 with a commission as a second lieutenant of infantry. His first assignment was to the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment at Fort Benning, Ga.

In early 1941, the War Department began training black pilots at the Tuskegee Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama. By then a captain, Davis was part of the first graduating class of five pilots. 

The first five fighter pilots graduated from the Tuskegee program on March 7, 1942. From left to right are: instructor R.M. Long, George Roberts, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., Charles DeBow, Mac Ross, and Lemuel Curtis. (Army photograph)

In July 1942, now a lieutenant colonel, he took command of the 99th Pursuit Squadron — the Army Air Forces’ first all-black aviation unit. By the summer of 1943, the unit was in North Africa flying combat missions.

That fall, Davis was called back to Tuskegee to take command of a new unit, the 332nd Fighter Squadron, where he found out that the Army was considering stopping black pilots from flying in combat. He defended his men in a news conference at the Pentagon.

“All the blacks in the segregated forces operated like they had to prove they could fly an airplane when everyone believed they were too stupid,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Benjamin O. Davis Jr.: American.” 

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall ordered an investigation, and Davis spoke to the investigating committee, which found essentially no difference in performance between black and white units. 

By then, though, Davis was already back in the fight in the skies over Italy. The men under his command flew more than 15,000 sorties, down 112 enemy planes, and destroyed or damaged 273 on the ground. His units lost just 66 of their planes and only about 25 of the bombers under their escort.

From left, Army Air Forces Lt. Col. Benjamin Davis, 99th Fighter Squadron commander, meets with Army Air Forces Lt. Gen. Carl Spaatz, commander of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, and Secretary of War Henry Stimson in Tunis, Tunisia, sometime between 1942-45. (Army photograph)

Davis led dozens of missions in P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs. He received the Silver Star for a strafing run into Austria and the Distinguished Flying Cross for a bomber escort mission to Munich on June 9, 1944.

He would go on to serve in several commands, in Europe and the United States, before the end of the war. In 1947, Davis transferred to the newly created Air Force and was tapped by President Harry S. Truman to help draft the service’s desegregation plan.

Davis’ life served as an example of the power of perseverance, courage, character and extraordinary competence, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said at the naming ceremony.

Army Air Forces Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., right, takes command of the 477th Composite Group at Goodman Field, Ky., in June 1945. At the far left is his father, Army Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the Army’s first black general. (Army photograph)

“Some have had to bear a heavier burden than others to teach us all what right looks like,” Goldfein said. “Today, we celebrate one of these men.”

Davis’ great-nephew, Douglas Melville, said he would always stress the importance of making the world a better place. “He would always say, ‘Doug if you can only stand tall by requiring someone to sit on their knees, you are the problem.'”

Davis died July 4, 2002, at 89 and is buried with his wife, Agatha, in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. In 2017, the U.S. Military Academy named a barracks after Davis.
The academy’s Airmanship Programs — soaring, parachuting and powered flight — operate out of the airfield, which opened in 1974.

Benjamin O. Davis Jr. became the Air Force’s first African American general officer in 1954 and retired as a lieutenant general in 1970. He received his fourth star in 1998. (Air Force photograph)

T-52A and T-41D Mescalero aircraft line up before takeoff at the U.S. Air Force Academy airfield in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 15, 2010. (Air Force photograph by Mike Kaplan)