Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.: An Aviator Tested in Battle
Written By: Dr. J. Holmes Armstead
Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was serving at Tuskegee College in 1940 as professor of military science when new orders summoned him to Fort Riley, Kansas. Upon arriving to his new post, he was assigned duties as aide de camp to the newly appointed Commanding General of the 4th Cavalry Brigade. His responsibilities included organizing the general’s staff, maintaining official correspondence, and supervising the official schedule. Captain Davis was uniquely qualified for his new assignment as the general he was tasked to serve was Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the father of the new aide.
The elder Davis had rotated in repeated assignments teaching military tactics at Wilberforce and Tuskegee universities for nearly 20 years. Such positions would ensure he did not command white officers or enlisted personnel in the then strictly segregated US Army. The events of the early career of Benjamin O. Davis Jr. would have heretofore indicated that his trajectory would mirror that of his father, with a dearth of command opportunities and few possibilities for advancement within the military system.
These new assignments for both men bode well. Perhaps their skills and intelligence would be recognized. Perhaps enhanced career opportunities might indeed become available for them both in the coming conflict. As the two senior Black regular Army officers on active duty at the time, their prospects were suddenly looking a good deal better. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. set about performing his duties in an exemplary fashion.
After nearly a year at Fort Riley, the War Department announced that it would begin recruiting African American aviators to be assigned flying positions in the Army Air Corps. Excited by the new possibilities, Captain Davis reported to the medical facility on post the day after the public announcement and requested a regulation flight physical. He was surprised when he was informed of his failure due to the mysterious discovery of a heart condition. General Davis immediately called the chief of Army personnel, Major General Fox Connor, who gave instructions that the younger Davis was to report the next day for another physical. Interestingly enough, he then passed with “flying” colors. It seems that Army doctors had not gotten the word the day before that Negroes might actually be able to qualify for flying assignment and should be tested seriously. Reassignment orders were issued, and Captain Davis reported shortly thereafter to Tuskegee Army Air Field, where he began primary flight training.
After his training was completed, Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was named commanding officer of the newly formed 99th Pursuit Squadron. The orders for deployment to support active combat operations in North Africa followed shortly after his appointment. The squadron arrived in North Africa in the Spring of 1943 and saw combat for the first time in June of that year as part of a dive-bombing mission in Operation Corkscrew. They later supported the invasion of Sicily.
In September 1943, Benjamin O. Davis Jr. reported back to the US to take command of the 332nd Fighter Group, a larger all-Black unit readying for overseas deployment. Soon after his arrival back in the States, there was an attempt by several Congressmen and Senators to stop the use of black pilots in combat. Senior officers in the Army Air Forces recommended to the Army chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, that Davis’ former unit, the 99th, be removed from combat operations as it had performed poorly and hence constituted a waste of desperately needed resources. This infuriated Davis as he had never been told of any deficiencies concerning his squadron. He immediately held a news conference defending the combat record of the 99th. He went on to present his case to a War Department committee that was studying the use of Black servicemen and he testified before a congressional hearing. The results were somewhat mixed.
General Marshall ordered an inquiry but allowed the 99th to continue fighting in the meantime. Chief of the Army Air Forces, General H.H. “Hap” Arnold, accompanied Colonel Davis to the hearings to demonstrate his support. The inquiry eventually reported that the 99th’s performance was comparable to other air units, and superior to many, but any unanswered questions about the squadron’s fitness were summarily answered in January of 1944 when its pilots shot down 12 German planes in two days while protecting the Anzio beachhead. These exploits of the “fighting 99th” were witnessed by more than 20,000 infantrymen on the beach who were quite relieved to see the German fighters removed from the skies. The congressional hearings were immediately recessed when the headlines and photos reached its members.
Colonel Davis and the 332d Fighter Group arrived in Italy, now a four-squadron group. They painted the tail of their aircraft rudders a distinctive bright red and were now dubbed the “Red Tails” by other air corps units. The group was based at Rametelli Airfield and began flying escort missions deep into German controlled airspace, providing cover for the B17 (Flying Fortresses) and B24 (Liberators) heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force. Their record of success spread quickly, and bomber squadron Commanders began requesting the 332 Fighter Group to fly cover for them. By the time hostilities ended in Europe in May of 1945, Davis had achieved distinction as an aerial commander, but more importantly the “experiment” of using Black men as warriors and fighter pilots was deemed a success.