A Soldier's Story

By Brown, Roscoe C., Jr. | The New Crisis, September/October 2002 | Go to article overview

A Soldier's Story


Brown, Roscoe C., Jr., The New Crisis


Backstory

We were in Italy when I first met Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. It was 1944, and I had just reported to the 332nd Fighter Group as a replacement pilot. During a briefing for my first combat mission, Davis, the first Black general in the Air Force, made an impression that lasts to this day.

Reed thin, more than 6 feet tall and impeccably attired in his khaki uniform, he strode into the briefing room with a grim face and focused eyes. I remember thinking, "This is a man to follow (also not to disappoint)." His briefing was crisp and pointed. "Stay with the bombers," he said. The 332nd was assigned to fighter escort duties for the B-17s and B-24s flying over targets in enemy territory.

It was the words to stay with the bombers that led to the all-Black Tuskegee Airmen's record of not losing a bomber we were escorting to enemy fighters, a record achieved by no other fighter group in the Army Air Force at the time. Our pilots respected Davis' order, realizing that in his no-nonsense manner, he would ground and court-martial any pilot who left the bombers to seek glory by shooting down enemy planes not attacking the bombers.

Davis had taken command of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first all-Black air unit in 1942, and soon led the larger 332nd Fighter Squadron (the Tuskegee Airmen). Our exploits in the skies over Europe in World War II led to the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces. He also became the first Black person to graduate from West Point in the 20th century, the fourth in the U.S. Military Academy's history. Shunned by his classmates and challenged by his White military instructors, he nonetheless graduated in 1936 in the top tier of his class.

What qualities made Davis such an outstanding leader? Clearly, he had embraced the military code of "duty, honor and country," but he went beyond that. To the dismay of some of his pilots and enlisted men, he believed in "going by the book." He felt that as African Americans placed in the position of pioneers in a racist society, it was incumbent upon the Tuskegee Airmen not to behave in a way that would cause the military brass to call off the experiment that gave Blacks a chance to fly. Rigid and tough though he was, the general was fair and eventually the Airmen recognized what he was doing was for the betterment of the group. …

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