July 19, 2002

Obituary: General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., 89

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., former commander of the Tuskegee Airmen and an alumnus of the University, died July 4 in Washington, D.C. of Alzheimer's disease at the age of 89.

Davis was born in Washington, D.C., to the Army's first black officer, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. He enrolled at Case Western Reserve University, and then transferred to the University of Chicago, where he finished his undergraduate education. Davis then applied to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point with the sponsorship of Oscar De Priest, a Chicago-area legislator and Congress's only black representative at the time.

Davis, Sr.,was denied admission to West Point, but Davis, Jr., entered in 1932. Despite being completely ostracized by his fellow cadets—who refused to talk to him outside of official contexts or to room with him—Davis became its fourth black graduate, finishing 35th in a class of 216. His years at West Point, according to Davis, felt like being "a prisoner in solitary confinement."

The Army named Davis as a second lieutenant after he finished West Point, the second black line officer in the Army. The only one to precede Davis was his father.

Racism continued to block Davis's path after his graduation in 1936, in the same class as William Westmoreland. He was unable to enter the Army Air Corps, and upon taking a position at Fort Benning in Georgia, was refused entrance into the base officers' club.

The beginning of World War II, however, caused pressure on the Eisenhower administration to integrate the U.S. Armed Forces, and the War Department developed an all-black flying unit in 1941. The unit trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field, and would be known afterwards as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Davis took command of the unit, which entered the war in 1943. They gained attention not only for their role in history, but for their skill in combat. The Tuskegee Airmen shot down 111 planes and destroyed another 150 grounded planes during 15,000 sorties. Davis himself received the Distinguished Flying Cross for a 1944 mission to Munich, in which the 39 planes under his command shot down 5 planes. The success of the Tuskegee Airmen was influential in Harry Truman's 1948 order to integrate the armed forces.

His military career continued through 1970, through various positions at the Pentagon and service as the chief of staff of American forces during the Korean War. Davis received his third star for his work in Korea, and his fourth from President Clinton in 1998, the highest rank the Army offers during peacetime.

Later, he commanded the 13th air force in the Philippines and the United States Strike Command, a division of the military begun after the Cuban Missile Crisis to deal with global military crises.

Davis left the military to work under Carl Stokes, the mayor of Cleveland and the first black mayor of a large American city. His tenure as director of public safety ended after six months after Davis left due to tensions between himself and Stokes. His military experience appealed to the Department of Transportation, however, and Davis returned to work for the federal government, working on anti-hijacking programs and overseeing the sky marshal program.