Just as his father was the first black general in the history of the United States Army, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was the first black general in the United States Air Force, from which he retired with four thoroughly deserved stars.
He was the commanding officer of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, who, despite incredible racial discrimination against them, shot down 111 of Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe – and destroyed or damaged 273 more on the ground, in operations that cost them 70 of their fellow pilots, who were killed or missing in action.
Gen. Davis, as their leader in dozens of missions, flying P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs, lead strafing runs into Austria and bomber-escort missions, in which these dedicated fighters never lost a bomber they escorted.
They had to be dedicated. For they were carefully watched by some officers who thought that all blacks were incapable of effective military flying. On base, after base, after base, Gen. Davis and his fellow fighter pilots were barred from officer’s clubs. But these men, despite such racial discrimination, loved this country enough to risk and sacrifice their lives.
I had the great honor of interviewing Gen. Davis, one of the most militarily impressive and congenial generals I have ever met.
At the beginning of the interview, he asked, “Are you related to Chaplain Kinsolving who used to be at West Point?”
I replied that he was my father to which the general responded:
“I will never forget him. He was the only person at West Point who ever spoke to me – and he risked great unpopularity to do so.”
The New York Times in his extensive obituary, reported otherwise, as follows:
“In his four years at West Point, no one would room with Cadet Davis; and no one would speak to him outside the line of duty. But he surmounted the bigotry and he graduated 35th in a class of 276, as only the fourth black graduate in the military academy’s history.”
For his combat leadership he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star, among many other decorations.
My interview with the general came after his retirement from the Air Force, followed six months later by his resignation as director of public safety for the city of Cleveland.
In Cleveland, he was appointed by Mayor Carl Stokes, the first black to be mayor of a large city. The Times notes that “he was brought in to stem a rising crime rate and to ease tensions between blacks and the city’s police. He stayed in his post for only six months, then resigned over what he saw and publicly denounced as the Stokes administration’s failure to deal firmly with black extremist groups.”
That and his subsequent five years of distinguished service with the U.S. Department of Transportation in developing brand new security measures and air marshals at airports plus anti-hijacking measures are remembered with deepest gratitude by millions of us who now mourn his passing at age 83, at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. On Wednesday, he will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Ben Davis persevered through the hell of silencing at the Point (except for the cadet chaplain). His Tuskegee Airmen responded to continued discrimination by shooting down 12 German planes over Anzio in two days – and that he stood up to black racist extremists in Cleveland. This is all understood in the selected title of his autobiography: “Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.: American”
May God bless and keep him, as he goes from strength to strength in the life of the world to come.
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on master silvered wings
Onward I’ve climbed
To reach out and touch
The face of God
– From “High Flight,” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
O Lord God of Hosts, stretch forth, we pray Thee, thine almighty arm to strengthen and protect the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen of our country. Support them in this day of battle and in the time of peace keep them safe from all evil. Endow them with a true sense of sacrifice in a full realization that in their service this government of the people by the people and for the people has not perished from this earth.