Excellence in All We Do: Profile of An American Airman

  • Published
  • By Col. Dwayne E. Thomas
  • 36th Mission Support Group comander
Two weeks ago, I had the great fortune to attend the 36th Wing Annual Awards ceremony. It was a celebration and recognition of Team Andersen's best-of-the-best. The evening's keynote speaker, The Honorable Robert Underwood, President of the University of Guam, particularly moved me. He used humor as his platform to discuss the very serious Air Force core value of "Excellence in all we do." As I listened intently to Dr. Underwood's message, it dawned on me that the Air Force, although the youngest of the military services, has always, at it's core, valued, acknowledged and emphasized the importance of excellence in every endeavor.

When we think of Air Force excellence from an historical perspective, the early pioneers come to mind. We often think of Billy Mitchell, Carl Spaatz, Jimmy Doolittle and Hap Arnold. There is one name that is conspicuously absent from this list of distinguished Airmen: Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. This Air Force legend and pioneer is widely known as the commanding officer of the Tuskegee Airmen. However, this was just a small piece of a much larger and important story of excellence: the trials, tribulations, successes and failures General Davis. His life, like other Air Force pioneers, should be studied and more importantly, comprehended by all Airmen today. Using the concept of excellence as a benchmark, I will explain how General Davis was the quintessential example of what it means to be an excellent Airman.

General Davis displayed excellence while defending his historic 99th Fighter/Pursuit Squadron's performance in North Africa during WWII. General Davis was the commander of the 99th. This unit was truly historic as it was the result of the Army's experiment to see if blacks had the air discipline and skill to fly in combat. The 99th was the first all black Army Air Force flying squadron, and was also known as the now famous "Tuskegee Airmen." The 99th flying P-40 fighters began their combat missions in North Africa flying bomber escort missions for American A-20s, B-25s, and B-26s. After several successful missions, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Gen. Carl Spaatz and James Doolittle visited the 99th to congratulate the unit on their success. Shortly after the unit moved to Sicily, General Davis was asked to return to the United States and was given the opportunity to command the 332nd Fighter Group and ensure they were ready for combat operations.

After assuming command, General Davis learned some very disturbing news. The commander of the 33rd Fighter Group, the unit the 99th was subordinate to, filed a disparaging report to the War Department that concluded "...the 99th demonstrated insufficient air discipline and had not operated satisfactorily as a team." The commanding officer questioned the courage of the black pilots and their ability to maintain their composure under fire was called into question. The commanding officer recommended that the unit be removed from combat operations and relegated to coastal patrol missions. Interestingly, this report was endorsed by General Spaatz, who stated, "...the 99th had been given a fair test in combat." Another endorsement remarked, "The Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot." Many Army Air Force senior leaders based their bias of the 99th on a 1925 Army War College report, which referenced false anthropological literature. Moreover, the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, Henry H. Arnold, recommended to Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, that the 99th be removed from tactical operations, the 332nd Fighter Group sent to noncombat areas, and the planned 477th black bombardment group abandoned.

General Davis was ordered to the Pentagon to testify on the subject. He was facing incredible opposition from every level of leadership in the Army Air Forces, coupled with a racist Army War College study and armed with a clear understanding that the fate of black pilots in combat rested on the War Department's decision. He framed his argument carefully without expressing his rage about the distortions and inaccuracies.

He was careful not to blame it all on racism, but instead, he presented the irrefutable facts in a way that appealed to the Congressional Committee's sense of fairness and reason. He displayed incredible skill through his dissection of the negative report and showed through detailed analysis that the performance of the 99th was on par with any other existing fighter squadron. As a result of his persuasive testimony and the ensuing investigation, the 99th's performance was found to be equal to the performance of other P-40 squadrons in the theater. General Davis' professional and personal understanding of excellence was decisive and helped change the hearts and minds of the Army Air Force's leadership. This single action was an integral part of the foundational argument to quickly integrate the Air Force and eventually the other branches of the Armed Services.

Senior leaders demonstrate excellence by taking the skills they've learned and applying them in a myriad of circumstances. General Davis' ability to appreciate the importance of the Tuskegee Airmen program, the 332nd Fighter Group and 447th Bombardment Group was pivotal and set the conditions for integrating Army Air Forces, U.S. Air Force pilots and the Air Force as a service. General Davis, stated, "...even at that early date (Tuskegee experiment) it was apparent to us that the lot of blacks in the postwar military and particularly in the postwar Air Corps would be largely determined by black combat performance during the war." He learned from his father, Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., United States Army, the importance of fighting for his beliefs, the virtue of ambition and the importance of having a spirit to win at all costs. He learned from his father that racial discrimination was only an obstacle; a tool used by the weak-minded and through perseverance, good would eventually triumph over evil.

His parents instilled the belief that he was as good as anyone else and emphasized the importance of the golden rule. His father believed integration of blacks in the military and society was the only way America could represent the democratic principles of the Constitution. General Davis understood the historical significance of the Tuskegee flying experiment and the importance of the program for black pilots.

General Davis realized that every milestone-setting event he was involved with was one step closer to parity and equal treatment in the Armed Services. He used his analytical ability gleaned from his many experiences to blaze a trail for integration of the Air Force. It is clear that President Truman's executive order calling on the armed forces to provide equal treatment and opportunity for black servicemen was based largely on the successes of General Davis. His ability to understand his place in history and embrace excellence was truly awe-inspiring. General Davis held a variety of increasingly responsible positions in the Air Force and retired as Deputy Commander of U.S. Strike Command. On Dec. 9, 1998, Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was promoted to General. President Bill Clinton pinned on his fourth star.

General Davis' life was a shining example of what one person, armed with a keen sense of excellence, morality and an understanding of the importance of his actions, can do to change the course of history. President Clinton said it best at General Davis' funeral, "General 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." The story of General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., beyond the Tuskegee Airmen, and the 332nd Fighter Group, must be studied, understood and become more of an integral part of the Air Force's rich, short history!