Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr. was born and raised in a tradition of military service. His father, Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr., first entered the military in 1898 during the Spanish-American War and subsequently became the first African American general officer in the U.S. armed forces.
When Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was born in 1912, his father was a first lieutenant. The racial barrier the younger Davis faced took several forms. In July 1932, he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and throughout his four years there he was shunned, simply because of his race. He had no roommate, and other cadets did not speak with him unless officially necessary. Cadet Davis refused to be intimidated into abandoning his ambitions and successfully completed West Point, graduating in June 1936.
Despite his desire to become a pilot, he faced a continuing racial barrier. There were no flying units open to blacks at that time and thus no aviation openings for Davis, who went into the infantry as a second lieutenant. President Roosevelt’s plan to form an African-American squadron in the Army Air Corps provided him the opportunity to achieve his goal. He was chosen to command the unit, entered flying training at Tuskegee, and earned his wings in March 1942.
As commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron, Davis led the group both in North Africa in April 1943 and subsequently in Sicily. When a number of senior leaders of the Army Air Forces tried to get the 99th Fighter Squadron removed from combat that year, Davis strongly refuted accusations about the squadron’s performance and noted that its combat skills improved with experience. He gained a delay, and the squadron’s subsequent performance ended any more suggestions to remove them from combat.
His perseverance, service, and superb leadership led to a distinguished career. Among some of the highlights, he commanded the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing in Korea in November, 1953, returning to Korea in 1965 to serve as chief of staff for the U.S. Forces in Korea and the United Nations Command in Seoul. In 1967, he assumed command of the Thirteenth Air Force at Clark Air Base, Republic of the Philippines. In 1968, he was assigned as deputy commander in chief, U.S. Strike Command, with an additional duty as commander in chief, Middle East, Southern Asia and Africa.
Overcoming another significant barrier, General Davis was the first African American general officer in the United States Air Force, attaining the temporary grade of brigadier general in October 1954 and the permanent grade of brigadier general in May 1960. He retired from the Air Force in February 1970 at the grade of lieutenant general. In 1998, President William Jefferson Clinton advanced General Davis to the rank of full general. Speaking at the promotion, President Clinton said, “Gen. Davis is here today as living proof that a person can overcome adversity and discrimination, achieve great things, turn skeptics into believers; and through example and perseverance, one person can bring truly extraordinary change." In 2015, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he had been shunned and treated as invisible for four years as a cadet, announced that it would be naming a new cadet barracks after General Davis.