World War II: General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.

Tuskegee Airman

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. in Cockpit
(Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

General Benjamin O. Davis was the first four-star general in the US Air Force and earned fame as the leader of the Tuskegee Airman during World War II. The son of the US Army's first African-American general, Davis commanded the 99th Fighter Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group in Europe and demonstrated that African-American pilots were as skilled as their white counterparts. Davis later led the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing during the Korean War. Retiring in 1970, he later held positions with the US Department of Transportation.

Early Years

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was the son of Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. and his wife Elnora. A career US Army officer, the elder Davis later became the service's first African-American general in 1941. Losing his mother at age four, the younger Davis was raised on various military posts and watched as his father's career was hampered by the US Army's segregationist policies.

In 1926, Davis had his first experience with aviation when he was able to fly with a pilot from Bolling Field. After briefly attending the University of Chicago, he elected to pursue a military career with the hope of learning to fly. Seeking admission to West Point, Davis received an appointment from Congressmen Oscar DePriest, the only African-American member of the House of Representatives, in 1932.

West Point

Though Davis hoped that his classmates would judge him on his character and performance rather than his race, he was quickly shunned by the other cadets. In an effort to force him from the academy, the cadets subjected him to the silent treatment. Living and dining alone, Davis endured and graduated in 1936. Only the academy's fourth African-American graduate, he ranked 35th in a class of 278.

Though Davis had applied for admission to the Army Air Corps and possessed the requisite qualifications, he was denied as there were no all-Black aviation units. As a result, he was posted to the all-Black 24th Infantry Regiment. Based at Fort Benning, he commanded a service company until attending the Infantry School. Completing the course, he received orders to move to Tuskegee Institute as a Reserve Officers Training Corps instructor.

General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.

  • Rank: General
  • Service: US Army, US Army Air Forces, US Air Force
  • Born: December 18, 1912 in Washington, D.C.
  • Died: July 4, 2002 in Washington, D.C.
  • Parents: Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis and Elnora Davis
  • Spouse: Agatha Scott
  • Conflicts: World War II, Korean War

Learning to Fly

As Tuskegee was a traditionally African-American college, the position allowed the US Army to assign Davis somewhere where he could not command white troops. In 1941, with World War II raging overseas, President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress directed the War Department to form an all-Black flying unit within the Army Air Corps. Admitted to the first training class at nearby Tuskegee Army Air Field, Davis became the first African-American pilot to solo in an Army Air Corps aircraft. Winning his wings on March 7, 1942, he was one of the first five African-American officers to graduate from the program. He would be followed by nearly 1,000 more "Tuskegee Airmen."

99th Pursuit Squadron

Having been promoted to lieutenant colonel in May, Davis was given command of the first all-Black combat unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron. Working up through the fall of 1942, the 99th was originally scheduled to provide air defense over Liberia but later was directed to the Mediterranean to support the campaign in North Africa. Equipped with Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, Davis' command began operating from Tunis, Tunisia in June 1943 as part of the 33rd Fighter Group.

Arriving, their operations were hampered by segregationist and racist actions on the part of 33rd's commander, Colonel William Momyer. Ordered to a ground attack role, Davis led his squadron on its first combat mission on June 2. This saw the 99th attack the island of Pantelleria in preparation for the invasion of Sicily. Leading the 99th through the summer, Davis' men performed well, though Momyer reported otherwise to the War Department and stated that African-American pilots were inferior.

Benjamin O. Davis in a flight suit and helmet standing in front of a P-51 Mustang fighter.
Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. during World War II. US Air Force

As the US Army Air Forces were assessing the creation of additional all-Black units, US Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall ordered the issue studied. As a result, Davis received orders to return to Washington in September to testify before the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies. Delivering impassioned testimony, he successfully defended the 99th's combat record and paved the way for the formation of new units. Given command of the new 332nd Fighter Group, Davis prepared the unit for service overseas.

332nd Fighter Group

Consisting of four all-Black squadrons, including the 99th, Davis' new unit began operating from Ramitelli, Italy in late spring 1944. Consistent with his new command, Davis was promoted to colonel on May 29. Initially equipped with Bell P-39 Airacobras, the 332nd transitioned to the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt in June. Commanding from the front, Davis personally led the 332nd on several occasions including an escort mission which saw Consolidated B-24 Liberators strike Munich.

Switching to the North American P-51 Mustang in July, the 332nd began to earn a reputation as one of the best fighter units in the theater. Known as the "Red Tails" due to the distinctive markings on their aircraft, Davis' men compiled an impressive record through the end of the war in Europe and excelled as bomber escorts. During his time in Europe, Davis flew sixty combat missions and won the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross.


On July 1, 1945, Davis received orders to take command of the 477th Composite Group. Consisting of the 99th Fighter Squadron and the all-Black 617th and 618th Bombardment Squadrons, Davis was tasked with preparing the group for combat. Beginning work, the war ended before the unit was ready to deploy. Remaining with the unit after the war, Davis shifted to the newly formed US Air Force in 1947.

Three F-86 Sabre fighters flying in formation.
Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, leads a three-ship F-86F Sabre formation during the Korean War. US Air Force

Following President Harry S. Truman's executive order, which desegregated the US military in 1948, Davis aided in integrating the US Air Force. The next summer, he attended the Air War College becoming the first African-American to graduate from an American war college. After completing his studies in 1950, he served as chief of the Air Defense Branch of Air Force operations. In 1953, with the Korean War raging, Davis received command of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing.

Based in Suwon, South Korea, he flew the North American F-86 Sabre. In 1954, he shifted to Japan for service with the Thirteenth Air Force (13 AF). Promoted to brigadier general that October, Davis became vice commander of 13 AF the following year. In this role, he aided in rebuilding the Nationalist Chinese air force on Taiwan. Ordered to Europe in 1957, Davis became chief of staff for the Twelfth Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. That December, he began service as chief of staff for operations, Headquarters US Air Forces in Europe.

General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

Promoted to major general in 1959, Davis returned home in 1961 and assumed the office of Director of Manpower and Organization. In April 1965, after several years of Pentagon service, Davis was promoted to lieutenant general and assigned as chief of staff for the United Nations Command and US Forces in Korea. Two years later, he moved south to take command of the Thirteenth Air Force, which was then based in the Philippines. Remaining there for twelve months, Davis became deputy commander in chief, US Strike Command in August 1968, and also served as commander-in-chief, Middle-East, Southern Asia, and Africa. On February 1, 1970, Davis ended his thirty-eight-year career and retired from active duty.

Later Life

Accepting a position with the US Department of Transportation, Davis became Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Environment, Safety, and Consumer Affairs in 1971. Serving for four years, he retired in 1975. In 1998, President Bill Clinton promoted Davis to general in recognition of his achievements. Suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Davis died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on July 4, 2002. Thirteen days later, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery as a red-tailed P-51 Mustang flew overhead.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).