Part 2 in a series

“Red Tails,” a new Hollywood motion picture starring Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Oscar nominee Terrence Howard is scheduled to be released January 20 in theaters across the nation. It tells the story of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black aviators in the United States Armed Forces. The AFRO reported on the adventures of the iconic airmen who despite battling prodigious racism and Jim Crow in America, fought for their country during World War II with incredible courage and honor and in the process shattered myriad racial stereotypes. In the wake of Hollywood’s depiction of the mythic aviators, the AFRO has unearthed the real story of the Tuskegee Airmen told through the stellar reporting of AFRO greats like Art Carter, Ollie Stewart and Vincent Tubbs.

The Ascension of Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.

“Pandemonium reigned supreme at the 99th Fighter Squadron’s operations tent, in February, 1944, as crack pilots returned from their history-making air attacks against the Germans, running their scoreboard to twelve Nazi planes destroyed, two probably destroyed, and four damaged during two days of fighting – a record for the current invasion of Anzio and Nettuno Beaches, South of Rome,” wrote the AFRO’s Art Carter in February 1944. The headline of Carter’s story was, “With Colonel Davis’s Flyers in Italy,” with the sub-head, “We’ve Been Waiting for This.”

Indeed, the Tuskegee Airmen had been waiting for their chance to fly for their country and when they got the chance the record is clear; America’s first Black aviators were extraordinary. And they were led by one of the most extraordinary military men in U.S. history, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.

(September, 1944) Father awards the Distinguished Flying Cross on his son in Italy (AFRO Archive Photo)

His father Benjamin O. Davis Sr., after 42 years of military service became the nation’s first Black general.

And of course Jim Crow in the Army was nothing new for the younger Davis. After he attended the University of Chicago he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1932 and was shunned by virtually all his classmates during all four years at the venerable military academy.

Few spoke to Davis while he was at West Point; he never had a roommate and he ate alone in the dining hall, but despite his isolation he graduated in 1936, 35th in a class of 278.

After he was commissioned as a second lieutenant he and his father were the Army’s only two Black line officers.

At the start of his senior year at West Point, Davis pursued his love of flying – allegedly sparked during a flight with a barnstorming pilot when he was 13 – when he applied for the Army Air Corps, only to be rejected because he was Black.

However, Davis eventually followed in the footsteps of his father when he was assigned to teach military tactics at Tuskegee Institute. And also like his father, this was a way for the Army to avoid having a Black officer in command of White soldiers. Nevertheless, Davis became one of the five first officers to get his wings from the Tuskegee Army Air Field on March 7, 1942.

Later that year Davis was named commander of the Army’s first all-Black air unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, which was eventually known as, “the Fighting 99th.”

The 99th saw its first action in Tunisia in North Africa in the spring of 1943 and later supported the Allied invasion of Sicily. But, in September of 1943, Davis was brought back to the United States to command another, larger all-Black squadron, the 332nd Fighter Group.

However, dubious reports of poor performance by Davis’ old unit the 99th was at the core of calls by some senior officers in the Army Air Forces to end the use of Black pilots in combat. An outraged Davis, who claimed he had never been informed of any unsatisfactory reports connected to the 99th, took the bold step of calling a press conference at the Pentagon to defend his men.

Davis was clearly persuasive and the 99th was permitted to continue flying and ultimately the reports of deficiencies with the group were largely debunked.

But, in January of 1944 any doubt about the Fighting 99th’s fitness was wiped out with the group’s stellar performance at the Anzio beachhead in Italy, where they shot down 12 Nazi planes.

In 1998, Davis at age 86 was honored as a four-star general by President Bill Clinton, the culmination of a groundbreaking and transcendent military career. But, arguably the greatest moments of his sparkling six-decade military service came as the charismatic and seemingly fearless young leader of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.

The AFRO’s Carter reported from Italy on one of those amazing moments in 1944.

“In a setting replete with drama that bordered on the Hollywood style, four pilots of the Mustang Fighter group, including its commanding officer Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross,” Carter wrote.

“The most dramatic and sentimental phase of the colorful thirty-minute ceremony was the pinning of the picturesque bronze cross on the chest of Col. Davis by his father, Brig. Gen. B. O. Davis, Sr., who declared that the occasion was “the happiest moment of my life.”

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor