Graduating from West Point in 1936, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. became one of only two black line officers in the US Army at the time--the other was his father. Initially assigned to the infantry in July 1941, he joined 12 cadets in the first flying training program for blacks at Tuskegee, Alabama. He received his wings in March 1942, after becoming the first black officer to solo an Army Air Corps aircraft. These Tuskegee graduates went on to form the core of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, which entered World War II in June 1943 with Lieutenant Colonel Davis in command.
After 4 months of flying P-40s in the Mediterranean Theater, he returned to the States, took command of the 332d Fighter Group, and deployed with this unit to Italy in January 1944. By summer the group had transitioned to P-47s and began scoring their first kills. On 9 June 1944, Colonel Davis led 39 Thunderbolts escorting B-24s to targets at Munich, Germany. Near the target the 332d took on more than 100 German fighters, destroying five Me-109s, and damaging another. For his leadership and bravery on this mission, Davis was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Later, flying the distinctive 332d "Red Tail" P-51 Mustangs, Davis led the first Italy-based fighter group to escort bombers to Berlin, a distance of 1,600 miles.
Approaching Berlin, they were attacked by 25 Me-262 jets, but the 332d downed three of the enemy fighters. Under Davis command, the group flew more than 15,000 sorties against the Luftwaffe, shot down 111 enemy aircraft, and destroyed another 150 on the ground, while losing only 66 of their own aircraft to all causes. Most noteworthy, not one friendly bomber was lost to enemy aircraft during the Groups 200 escort missions. The unique success of this all-black outfit highlighted Colonel Davis leadership, along with the courage and discipline of his airmen.
Following the European War, Davis returned to the States to command the 477th Composite Group and the 332d Fighter Wing. In 1953, he again saw combat when he assumed command of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing and flew the F-86 in Korea. With his promotion to brigadier general, Davis became the first black to earn a star in the US Air Force. He retired as a lieutenant general in 1970, and served under President Nixon as Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Environment, Safety, and Consumer Affairs.
Prior to World War II, the United States armed services were rigidly segregated. Faced with the requirements of the Selective Service Act of 1940 and a White House decision to create black flying units, the Army Air Corps established primary, basic, and advanced flying courses at Tuskegee, Alabama. Operating from July 1941 to June 1946, a total of 992 black aviators received their silver wings at this school. The highly successful wartime efforts of these airmen led directly to President Truman signing Executive Order 9981 in July 1948 which mandated equal treatment and opportunity for all people in the US armed services.