Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who broke color barriers and shattered racial myths as the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, the pioneering black fighter pilots of World War II, died on Thursday. He was 89.
He died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, an Air Force spokesman said.
General Davis, who was a son of the Army's first black general, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., was the first black cadet to graduate from West Point in the 20th century and one of the first black pilots in the military. His leadership of America's only all-black air units of World War II helped speed the integration of the Air Force, and in 1954 he became its first black general.
Like his father, General Davis struggled against racism. He was ostracized at West Point and then was barred from commanding white troops and turned away from segregated officers' clubs in the war years.
A trim 6 feet 2 inches with a sometimes piercing gaze, a deep voice and an erect military bearing, General Davis carried himself with the knowledge that the stakes were huge: The wartime performance of his men was closely watched by officials who believed that blacks lacked the intelligence and courage to succeed as pilots.
''All the blacks in the segregated forces operated like they had to prove they could fly an airplane when everyone believed they were too stupid,'' General Davis said years later.
The airmen commanded by General Davis compiled an outstanding record in combat against the Luftwaffe in the European theater in World War II. They shot down 111 enemy planes and destroyed or damaged 273 on the ground at a cost of more than 70 pilots killed in action or missing. They never lost an American bomber to enemy fighters on their escort missions.
As the leader of dozens of missions in P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs, General Davis was highly decorated, receiving the Silver Star for a strafing run into Austria and the Distinguished Flying Cross for a bomber-escort mission to Munich.
In his autobiography, ''Benjamin O. Davis Jr.: American'' (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), General Davis told of the pressures that he and the fliers who came to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen, for the base where they trained, had encountered in the face of racism. ''We would go through any ordeal that came our way, be it in garrison existence or combat, to prove our worth,'' he said. ''Our airmen considered themselves pioneers in every sense of the word.''
Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr. was born on Dec. 18, 1912, in Washington, his mother having returned home while his father was stationed in Wyoming as a lieutenant with an all-black cavalry unit. At 14, he went up with a barnstorming pilot at Bolling Field in Washington in an open-cockpit plane, wearing goggles and a helmet, and after a few dives and steep turns had ''a sudden surge of determination to become an aviator.'' Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 inspired him all the more.
After attending the University of Chicago, he entered the United States Military Academy in 1932, having been sponsored by Representative Oscar De Priest of Chicago, the only black member of Congress. His father had been denied an appointment to West Point.
In his four years at West Point, no one would room with Cadet Davis and no one would speak to him outside the line of duty. But he surmounted the bigotry and isolation and graduated 35th in a class of 276, only the fourth black graduate in the military academy's history.
''Living as a prisoner in solitary confinement for four years had not destroyed my personality, nor poisoned my attitude toward other people,'' he would write in recalling his thoughts upon graduating. ''I had even managed to keep a sense of humor about the situation; when my father told me of my many supporters, the many people who were pulling for me, I said, 'It's a pity none of them were at West Point.' ''
When he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1936, the Army had a grand total of two black line officers -- Benjamin O. Davis Sr. and Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
At the start of his senior year at West Point, Cadet Davis applied for the Army Air Corps but was rejected because it did not accept blacks. He had hoped that he would at least be assigned to duty with white troops, but his first posting was with the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment at Fort Benning, Ga. He was not allowed inside the base officers' club, a snub he would regard as one of the greatest insults of his 37 years of military life.
He later attended the Army's Infantry School at Fort Benning, but then was assigned to teach military tactics at Tuskegee Institute, a black college in Alabama, something his father had done years before. It was the Army's way to avoid having a black officer command white soldiers in the days when segregation prevailed and black troops performed menial tasks with little hope of promotion.
For years, his father had been rotated from one noncombat post to another, often teaching assignments at black colleges, to keep him from commanding white troops. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. served 42 years before he was given the star of a brigadier general.
Early in 1941, responding to pressures for broader black participation as war approached, the Roosevelt administration told the War Department to create a black flying unit.
Captain Davis was assigned to the first training class at Tuskegee Army Air Field, and in March 1942 he won his wings as one of five black officers to complete the flying course. In July -- having been promoted to lieutenant colonel -- he was named commander of the first all-black air unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron.
The fighter squadron went to North Africa in the spring of 1943 and on June 2, operating out of Tunisia, saw combat for the first time, a dive-bombing mission against the German-held island of Pantelleria. During the summer, the 99th squadron flew missions supporting the invasion of Sicily.
In September, Colonel Davis was called back to the United States to command the 332nd Fighter Group, a larger all-black unit preparing to go overseas. But soon afterward, it seemed that the military was about to scuttle its use of black pilots in combat. The top brass of the Army Air Forces recommended to the Army chief of staff, Gen. George Marshall, that the 99th be removed from tactical operations on the ground that it had performed poorly.
''The Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot,'' one Army Air Forces officer maintained.
Having never been told of any deficiencies, Colonel Davis was incensed. He held a news conference at the Pentagon to defend his men and then stated his case to a War Department committee studying the use of black servicemen.
General Marshall ordered a top-level inquiry, but permitted the 99th squadron to continue fighting. Months later, the inquiry rated the 99th's performance as comparable to those of other air units in the Mediterranean theater. But questions about the squadron had essentially been put to rest in January 1944, when its pilots downed 12 German fighter planes in two successive days over the Anzio beachhead in Italy.
Colonel Davis and his 332nd Fighter Group arrived in Italy soon after that. Based at Ramitelli, and called the Red Tails for the distinctive markings on its planes, the four-squadron unit compiled an outstanding record on missions deep into German territory.
In the summer of 1945, Colonel Davis took over the all-black 477th Bombardment Group, which was stationed at Godman Field, Ky.
In July 1948, President Truman signed an executive order providing for integration of the armed forces. Colonel Davis helped draft an Air Force blueprint on integration that went into effect the next year, the wartime performance of his fliers having already created a climate for ending segregation.
General Davis served at the Pentagon and in overseas posts over the next two decades. He gained the three stars of a lieutenant general in May 1965, when he was the chief of staff for American forces in South Korea. He was later commander of the 13th Air Force, based in the Philippines, and assistant commander of the United States Strike Command, with headquarters in Florida.
In 1998 President Bill Clinton awarded him a fourth star, the military's highest peacetime rank.
General Davis retired from the military in 1970, then became director of public safety in Cleveland, serving in the administration of Carl Stokes, the first black to be mayor of a large American city. Brought in to stem a rising crime rate and ease tensions between blacks and the city's police, he stayed in the post for only six months, then resigned over what he saw as the Stokes administration's failure to deal firmly with black extremist groups.
He then joined the United States Department of Transportation, directing antihijacking efforts. In his five years with the department, he supervised the sky marshal program, security measures at airports and programs to curb cargo thefts.
He is survived by a sister, Elnora Davis McLendon, of Washington. His wife, Agatha, died in March.
In June 1987 -- more than a half-century after graduating from West Point -- General Davis returned there to see the changes that had been made since the days he was a social outcast and to use its archives for his autobiography.
He walked into the visitors center to see an exhibition titled ''The Great Train of Tradition'' -- photographs of outstanding cadets from 1819 to 1950.
The Class of 1936 was represented by photos of just two graduates: Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the commander of American forces in Vietnam and a former superintendent at West Point, and General Davis. Under his picture were the words: ''World War Hero, Helped Integrate Air Force.''