He soared high through unfriendly skies

July 12, 2002|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Next to the listing for "discipline" in dictionaries, they should put a picture of the late Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr.

It would be a fitting tribute to a war hero and a reminder of the valuable lessons that he has left us about living.

Whether sitting for an interview or riding in a Jeep, General Davis seemed even to sit at attention -- chin up, chest out, shoulders back -- the very embodiment of discipline until his final years.

Such memories came rushing back to me when I heard that General Davis had died at age 89 of Alzheimer's disease at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington on the Fourth of July.

He could hardly have left us on a more appropriate date. General Davis called it a "privilege" to be an American, even when some Americans did not feel privileged to have him.

At West Point, General Davis was "silenced" for all of his four years because he was black. That meant none of his fellow cadets would speak a word to him except in the line of duty. No black cadet since the 1800s had made it all the way through. But General Davis did. He felt like "a prisoner in solitary confinement," he would later write. Yet he persevered. In 1936, he graduated 35th in a class of 276 students.

"I was always a pretty stubborn kid," General Davis told me in an interview in 1991 after his autobiography came out.

I asked him if any of his classmates had ever apologized. "Oh, yes," he said. "They all have."

We were sitting in the Air and Space Museum. Behind us were P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs, speedy propeller-driven fighter planes like those General Davis flew during World War II as commander of the "Tuskegee Airmen." Named for the Alabama base where they trained, they were the only black flying units in America's segregated military.

General Davis showed not an ounce of resentment for the extra burdens his African ancestry had brought him.

I later discovered that he had revisited West Point in the late 1980s and seen a new photo exhibit of outstanding cadets. The Class of 1936 was represented by just two graduates: Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of American forces in Vietnam and a former superintendent at West Point, and General Davis.

Living well is the best revenge, it has been said. Outlasting your tormenters isn't bad, either.

General Davis' sense of honor, duty, patriotism and discipline came early. His father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., an officer in a black cavalry unit when the younger Davis was born, later became the Army's first black general. In 1954, the younger Davis became the first black general in the Air Force.

But first, he and his men had to shatter some racial myths. In 1941, many of the top brass in the War Department resisted pressures from the Roosevelt administration, which was itself pressured by civil rights leaders, to create a black flying unit. They insisted that blacks lacked the mental and physical abilities for combat aviation. Blacks mostly were relegated to menial chores in the military.

So when they finally had their opportunity to fly for their country in Europe against the German Luftwaffe, a lot was riding on their wings. Under General Davis' command, the 332nd Fighter Group compiled an outstanding record. They shot down 111 enemy planes and destroyed or damaged 273 on the ground while losing more than 70 of their own pilots who were killed in action or missing.

Their proudest achievement: Not one of the bombers they protected on escort missions was lost to an enemy fighter.

That performance record was very important to the young men in those bombers. "We would watch them as they dispersed the enemy with their superior skills," a former navigator on a B-24 bomber over Italy recalls in Stephen Ambrose's World War II book The Wild Blue. "They never let the Germans get close enough for our gunners to fire at the enemy."

Let the record show that bigotry often fell away at high altitude over enemy territory.

General Davis left the Air Force as a lieutenant general, wearing three stars, the senior black officer in the armed forces. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded General Davis his fourth star, advancing him to full general.

His battle against racism at home continued long after the battle against Nazism abroad ended, General Davis used to say. His fight is now done. For the rest of us, the fight goes on.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun.

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