In March 1941 the Army began to train, in the terminology of the day, an all-Negro flying unit - the 99th Pursuit Squadron. It was shortly renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron with the service-wide change in nomenclature. This was the Tuskegee Airmen experiment-a small step in the long-term process in integrating all races into the American armed forces.
The group deployed in April, 1943. The destination was North Africa. As the black airmen sailed to the war zone, there was a realization that they represented only a small fraction of the 4,000 troops onboard the converted luxury liner SS Mariposa. Reflecting on what it felt like to be in close quarters with an overwhelmingly white complement of troops, Davis later wrote that he and his men were released “at least for the moment, from the evils of racial discrimination. Perhaps in combat overseas, we would have more freedom and respect than we had experienced at home.”
The squadron arrived at Casablanca and from there took a slow train to an isolated location not far from Fez in the Moroccan desert for indoctrination training with new Curtiss P-40L Warhawk fighters. Experienced pilots of the 27th Fighter Group, including the highly accomplished Philip Cochrane, taught the 99th's pilots the tricks of the air fighting trade. Instruction included mock dogfights with the 27th's North American A-36 fighters, dive-bombing versions of the P-51 Mustang. It was an invigorating experience for Davis who viewed relations with the other units in the area as excellent.
At the time, the 99th had to be attached to existing white fighter groups because not enough blacks had graduated from Tuskegee to form the three squadrons that would normally make up a fighter group. How the black and white pilots related to each other in this arrangement depended in large part on the attitude of the host group's white commander, and Davis' high hopes were soon deflated.
Davis got the first inkling of what that attitude would be when he reported to the headquarters of the fighter group to which the 99th would be attached in combat. He was greeted by Colonel William W. “Spike” Momyer, the 33rd Fighter Group's commander, “not in a friendly manner, but quietly official.” According to Chris Bucholtz's account of the meeting in his unit history, Momyer did not return the salutes of Davis or the 99th's deputy commander.
The snub would be a harbinger of things to come. For now, though, Davis had responsibilities to carry out, so he put aside the condescension that he had encountered. Performing satisfactorily in the coming real-world test is what mattered to him.
According to Gropman, Davis gathered his men before their baptism of fire and told them: “We are here to do a job, and by God, we're going to do it well, so let's get on with it.” Led by Davis, the 99th went into action on June 2, 1943, flying from a former Luftwaffe base at Fardjouna on Tunisia's Cap Bon Peninsula. Enemy positions on the island of Pantelleria were targeted in dive-bombing raids as part of Operation Corkscrew.
On June 9th, the 99th came into contact with Luftwaffe fighters for the first time. While escorting a dozen Douglas A-20 bombers back from a raid over Pantelleria, five of the 13 P-40s broke away from the formation in hot pursuit of the attacking Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Led by Charles W. Dryden, these five P-40s scattered as they chased the faster enemy planes in a futile attempt to knock them out of the sky.
Such aggressiveness was not fundamentally undesirable; after all, fighter pilots were expected to be pugnacious in the air. But staying with your squadron mates was a cardinal rule in air fighting. While peeling off to give chase was not an uncommon reaction of greenhorn fighter pilots, in the coming months the failure to maintain the formation's integrity in this one instance would feed a narrative aimed at unraveling the black flying program.
Overall, Davis was pleased with the squadron's performance, and on June 11th Pantelleria fell, becoming, in Davis' words, “the first defended position in the history of warfare to be defeated by the application of air power alone.” Davis felt validated about his view of the 99th when he received a note from the colonel serving as the Allies' area commander, stating: “You have met the challenge of the enemy and have come out of your initial christening into battle stronger qualified than ever.”
In mid-June, missions included providing cover for shipping in the Mediterranean. Then, on July 2nd, Davis led a dozen of his squadron mates on a bomber escort mission to Castelvetrano in southwest Sicily when the formation was jumped by enemy fighters from above. In the ensuing encounter, the 99th lost two of its pilots, Sherman W. White and James L. McCullin, but the squadron also scored its first aerial victory with Charles B. Hall's shootdown of a Focke-Wulf Fw 190.
The events affected the squadron's psyche. For the first time the men of the 99th felt the mixed emotions of losing close friends in combat and the elation of downing an opponent. The latter prompted a congratulatory visit by the supreme Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was accompanied by senior air commanders, Lieutenant General Carl A. Spaatz and Major Generals James H. Doolittle and John K. Cannon.
The invasion of Sicily proceeded apace and the 99th moved to the island, setting up operations at Licata on July 19th. The squadron flew a variety of missions, but did not have much contact with enemy fighters. Fighting continued until the German and Italian forces completed an evacuation on August 17th. Early the next month, Davis was surprised to be recalled to the United States to take command of the newly-formed all-black 332nd Fighter Group.
Each mission flown by the 99th had honed the skills of its pilots. However, because of the way Momyer limited the interface between the 99th and the group's other three squadrons, the black pilots did not have the benefit of the experience of the white pilots. For the men of the 99th, there was no substantive mingling with the group's other pilots as normally would have been the case. The tension within the group was unnecessary and counterproductive, exposing Momyer's racial intolerance as a weak spot in the character of an otherwise superb officer who became an ace and who proved his skill as an air tactician.
Within a matter of months after the 99th had arrived in North Africa, Momyer indulged his true feelings and cut the rug out from under Davis by clandestinely filing a field assessment of the 99th's performance that panned the squadron's air combat results across the board. About the pilots of the 99th, Momyer wrote, “It is my opinion that they are not of the fighting caliber of any squadron in this group.” He unfairly extrapolated from the June 9th mission, claiming that the pilots hold formation “until jumped by enemy aircraft, when the squadron seems to disintegrate.” Momyer was saying, in effect, that the pilots of the 99th were cowardly.
Momyer's boss, Major General Edwin J. House of Twelfth Air Support Command, added his own commentary in which he claimed the consensus among his fellow officers and medical professionals was “that the sic negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot.” These aspersions echoed overtly racist passages from the infamous 1925 Army War College memorandum, which had asserted that blacks are “by nature subservient” and “mentally inferior.” House went so far as to recommend that the 99th have its P-40s exchanged for the less maneuverable Bell P-39 Airacobras with reassignment to the northwest coast of Africa. House further recommended that if and when a black fighter group was formed, it should be held back for homeland defense.
Virtually the entire chain of command, including Northwest African Tactical Air Force commanders, Lieutenant General Spaatz and Major General Cannon, endorsed the Momyer document. Canon added his own comments. He asserted that the 99th's pilots lacked the stamina and lasting qualities of white pilots, concluding that the black airmen had “no outstanding characteristics” when operating in wartime conditions and when compared with their white counterparts.
The assessment received its potentially most damaging endorsement when it hit the desk of Army Air Forces Chief Henry H. “Hap” Arnold. Reflecting his longstanding doubts about the black flying experiment, Arnold sent a series of recommendations to Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall that called for the 99th and the three new squadrons of the 332nd to be moved to a “rear defense area.” Also, it was recommended that the air combat training program for blacks be abandoned. The Arnold recommendations, if implemented, would have been the death knell for African Americans in frontline military aviation for years to come.
Davis knew nothing of the negative assessment until his return to the United States since Momyer had gone behind his back. Furious at the unfair charges and at being totally blindsided, Davis would answer Momyer's accusations before a formal government panel the next month. It would be a make-or-break moment for the 99th Fighter Squadron, the 332ndFighter Group, the 477th Bombardment Group (an all-black medium bombardment unit receiving stateside instruction at the time), and the pilots-in-training at Tuskegee.
With William Momyer's accusations having gained traction in the Army Air Forces' hierarchy, the experiment in black military flying never faced a more serious challenge to its existence. By default, Benjamin Davis, Jr. would shoulder the heavy burden of defending the 99th Fighter Squadron. For starters, on September 10, 1943, Davis held a press conference in which he calmly described the progression of the 99th from the time he assumed command and made the case that blacks were beginning to prove that they could indeed be effective combat pilots. He spoke highly of the men serving with him. It seemed to go well.
Yet, Time magazine had gotten wind of Momyer's critique and the Arnold recommendations. In an article published on September 20th, the magazine insinuated that the Tuskegee Airmen were not up to the job. Davis was furious as was his spouse, Agatha Scott Davis. She sent a letter to the editor that chastised the magazine for having “created an unfavorable public opinion about an organization to which all Negroes point with pride” and in doing so risked impairing “one of the strongest pillars upholding Negroes' morale in their effort to contribute to the winning of the war.”
Compounding the problem for Davis, he faced less than easily swayable decisionmakers. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson was steeped in the establishment, a product of Phillips Academy, Yale College, and Harvard Law. In 1891, fresh out of law school, he had joined the New York law office of Elihu Root, whose client list would eventually read like a who's who of the New York social register, running over with names like Carnegie, Gould, Whitney, and Harriman. When Root left his law practice to become a member of William McKinley's cabinet, Stimson became one of the firm's name partners and maintained the firm's tradition of public service by rotating in and out of government.
As a lifetime Republican and staunch opponent of the New Deal, Stimson was flabbergasted that Franklin Roosevelt offered him the position of Secretary of War in 1940. However, putting domestic matters aside, Stimson concurred with the broad outline of Roosevelt's foreign policy, and the President, for his part, respected Stimson's prior service as William Howard Taft's Secretary of War, especially his efforts at modernizing the Army. Stimson did not take long to accept the appointment.
On the subject of race during World War II, Stimson's official postwar biography, written in collaboration with McGeorge Bundy, stated in a section subtitled “The Army and the Negro,” that he proudly considered his “convictions were those of a northern conservative born in the abolitionist tradition.” Indeed, “he believed in full freedom, political and economic, for all men of all colors.” Yet, he refused to accept what he called “social intermixture” of the races.
Just as fiercely as Stimson scorned the view that African Americans should be held back because of their race, he rejected the idea of full-blown and immediate racial integration, the “jump at one bound from complex reality to unattainable Utopia” he called it. In other words, Stimson, like many elites in the decade before the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, adhered to the doctrine of “separate but equal” as affirmed by the Court in its 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson.
There was, in his view, a long and undeniable history, what he termed “the persistent legacy” of separation of the races and it was “hardly constructive” to promote the sudden undoing of that state of affairs as did some “radical and impractical” African American leaders during the war. Although such leaders were not mentioned in Stimson's biography, he surely had in mind passionate civil rights advocates like Walter White and A. Philip Randolph, heads of the NAACP and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, respectively.
At best, Stimson was ambivalent about the employment of black troops on a large scale during the war. Theater commanders were “not enthusiastic in accepting Negro units; in each theater there were special considerations which made Negro troops a problem. But,” as his biography notes, “fair-minded soldiers agreed that the Army must make full use of what Stimson called the 'great asset of the colored men of the nation.'”
If there was a soft spot in Stimson's attitude on race, it emanated from his experience in battle during World War I. As someone who had spent years championing military preparedness and months calling for intervention, he felt compelled to join the Army. On May 31, 1917, at 49 years of age, Stimson went in at the rank of major and spent the summer acquainting himself with the workings of artillery units at Fort Myer in Virginia. After a personal appeal to the then Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and Army Chief of Staff Major General Hugh L. Scott, Stimson's formal assignment came through - second in command of the New York-weighted 305th Regiment, 77th Division in the field artillery at Camp Upton on Long Island.
He was sent to France in advance of his unit. After further training, he was reunited with his fellow New Yorkers and led them into battle near the Baccarat sector on July 11, 1918. Stimson's frontline service lasted three weeks before he received a transfer order back home to lead the 31st Artillery in a workup at Camp Meade in Maryland. He had spent nine months abroad and had briefly tasted combat.
Before he and his new unit could deploy to the frontlines, the Armistice was signed. Suddenly, Stimson was a civilian again. Though he later joined the Reserves and attained the rank of brigadier general, his rank upon discharge from his last active-duty assignment is how he is remembered. From the end of World War I, he was most often referred to by close friends as Colonel Stimson.
Importantly, the experience of leading men in battle revealed to him what he and Bundy described as “the quality of the enlisted men of the regiment.” These men, “drafted soldiers of New York City and its environs,” though possessing “little formal education” and seeming to be “underfed,” represented “almost every national strain in the American melting pot” and proved to be “quick, resilient, and endlessly resourceful.” Stimson “was joyfully astonished” by the industry of the diverse troops under his command.
Looking back on his service in uniform, he recognized that the experience had above all else “taught him the horror of war.” But also “he learned as he worked with the men of his own Army that the strength and spirit of America was not confined to any group or class. 'It was'” Stimson said, “'my greatest lesson in American democracy.'”
After the war, Stimson admitted to “having at first opposed as unwise the training of colored officers.” He had an “early mistrust of the use of the Army as an agency of social reform.” Once he changed his mind, no doubt under pressure from the White House and owing to the exigencies of the manpower shortage, he “found his own sympathies shifting.” He made three inspection tours of African American units in training and “each time he was impressed by the progress achieved by intelligent white leaders and colored soldiers working together.”
His biography recounts one such visit, describing the message he had given to the members of the 99th Fighter Squadron: “the eyes of everybody were on them” and “their government and people of all races and colors were behind them.” Looking past World War II, Stimson felt the future success of blacks in the military depended on “such an officer as Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.” who, according to Stimson, stood as “direct refutation of the common belief that all colored officers were incompetent.” Stimson further stated, “Davis was exceptional.”
Rendered with the benefit of hindsight in the postwar era and taken at face value, it was high praise for the leader of the all-black flying units. But, in lavishing acclaim on the Army's most visible black pilot, Stimson betrayed a disquieting personal belief when he hastened to add that “in the development of more such exceptions lay the hope of the Negro people.” It was as if he was saying that to be successful African Americans had to be “exceptions.” Patronizing if not latently prejudicial, this frame of mind or worse infused the War Department's thinking on the matter of race, and it was this thinking that African Americans were up against during their wartime service and that Davis had to overcome in the defense of his squadron at home.
Davis knew that the stakes were high when he sat down on October 16th to testify before the War Department's Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies, a panel created a year-and-a-half earlier to handle issues revolving around the Army's employment of blacks. A couple sympathetic members sat around the table: Truman Gibson, a black attorney from Chicago who served as Secretary Stimson's civilian advisor on Negro affairs, and Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the beleaguered squadron commander's father. However, the committee was headed by an Assistant Secretary of War whose fairness in the treatment of minorities could reasonably be suspect.
John J. McCloy was described by Stimson as a “great find.” Like Stimson, McCloy had commanded a field artillery battery for a few weeks in France during World War I, graduated from Harvard Law School, and temporarily given up a lucrative blue-chip legal practice in New York to work in government. At the War Department, McCloy served as one of Stimson's four key aides throughout the entirety of the war.
As Bundy put it, “For five years McCloy was the man who handled everything that no one else happened to be handling… He became so knowing in the ways of Washington that Stimson sometimes wondered whether anyone in the administration ever acted without 'having a word with McCloy.'”
Considerably younger than his boss, McCloy would return to New York after the war and parlay his public stature into a small fortune, beginning with the negotiation of his name into the shingle of the law firm best known for its representation of the Rockefellers. He then headed the World Bank and served as the American High Commissioner for Germany. His professional life culminated with his appointment as Chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank.
His nonprofit involvement included longtime service as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation followed by a stint as head of the Ford Foundation. In later years, he chaired the Council on Foreign Relations. In private life he retained great influence in legal, business, and government circles and was widely viewed as an archetype of the foreign policy establishment. He and a handful of other former high-ranking officials with the same Ivy League pedigree and brand status - men like George Kennan and Dean Acheson - came to be called the “Wise Men.”
However, this was not a universally shared view. Various minority group members had grave doubts about McCloy. None more acutely in the early war years than Japanese Americans.
McCloy used all of his lawyerly skills to help draft Executive Order 9066, which stripped Japanese Americans of their constitutional rights and authorized their wholesale detention during the war. President Roosevelt signed the document on February 19, 1942. This was done despite the knowledge that the small percentage of Japanese Americans who might pose a national security risk in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor were already either in custody or under surveillance.
McCloy feared the Supreme Court would declare the internment program unconstitutional. With oral arguments pending in May 1943, McCloy withheld a military report on the West Coast evacuation that would have undercut the government's case. While most of the Justices expressed reservations about the roundup of a whole class of citizens, they were inclined to defer to the judgment of the commander-in-chief and his officers in military matters. Without ruling on the constitutionality of the program, they decided the defendants in two cases could be detained on the narrow grounds of having violated curfew orders. The third case, Korematsu v. United States, was remanded to a lower court.
Because there was growing sentiment to end the internments by spring 1944, McCloy seemed willing to bend and allow greater numbers, though not all, of the internees out of detention. According to Kai Bird, McCloy's biographer, McCloy went to the White House where Roosevelt himself “put thumbs down” on the proposal to allow a “substantial number” of Japanese Americans to return to California. It was an election year, and McCloy attributed the President's decision to political advisors who expressed concern about how perceived weakness on Japanese American internment would jeopardize the California vote.
Bird wrote, “McCloy now almost single-handedly blocked every step toward early release.” Indeed, McCloy stopped at nothing to prevent the Executive Order from being overturned by the Supreme Court. He did so at that point in the full knowledge that continued detention was not for national security reasons but rather for political expediency.
With Machiavellian cunning, McCloy quietly released the report that he had previously withheld, thinking now that the report's scurrilous charges against Japanese Americans would alarm the Justices sufficiently to win them over. As Bird pointed out, “the report contained false information.” On December 18, 1944, the Supreme Court issued its opinions in the remaining cases. In one of the cases, the Justices unanimously decided to free a Japanese American while avoiding the central constitutional issue. However, in the Korematsu case, the Court ruled in a six-to-three decision to uphold the conviction, thereby affirming, albeit on narrow grounds, the constitutionality of the Executive Order.
McCloy had gotten his way, but his success in eking out a legal win was eventually seen almost uniformly as a travesty of justice and it proved to be ephemeral. In separate rulings that came well after McCloy's role in the sordid affair had faded from memory, the Supreme Court reversed itself.
The bullheadedness displayed by McCloy in the wartime internment of Japanese Americans was equally apparent in his policy towards Jewish refugees during the war. In March 1944, the War Refugee Board's John Pehle presented a plan to the administration suggesting that an executive order be issued to grant refugees temporary haven in the United States given the reluctance of Congress to liberalize immigration laws. McCloy weighed in on the matter, urging caution.
While McCloy had been quick to embrace an executive order to put Japanese Americans in detention centers, he argued against adoption of an executive order to open up the country to fleeing refugees on a temporary basis. McCloy's reasoning was that national security was at stake in the former but not the latter; humanitarian considerations played little if any part in his deliberations. Stimson agreed with McCloy.
McCloy's objections to opening doors for Jewish refugees extended beyond just the United States. In the same month of his efforts to restrict refugee settlement on American soil, he testified zealously on Capitol Hill to block Jewish refugees from settling in Palestine so as not to offend the region's Arab population and to retain United States access to wartime oil supplies. His testimony was in response to a resolution introduced in Congress calling for the “free entry of Jews” into Palestine with the eventual formation of “a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth.” McCloy's persuasive powers nipped the humanitarian plan in the bud, and the Jews who might have been saved became statistics as the death toll at extermination camps continued to rise.
In a separate matter related to Hitler's Final Solution, starting in late June 1944 Jewish and humanitarian leaders made repeated requests to bomb the rail lines leading to Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp. The month before, the Germans began deporting the first batch of Hungary's Jews to Auschwitz in a plan to annihilate what was the last remaining large Jewish community in Europe. There could be no mistaking what awaited the transferees because almost contemporaneous with the deportation a couple Jewish inmates at Auschwitz, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, escaped and wrote a 30-page report describing the camp's daily horrors in great detail.
The report on Auschwitz made no difference to McCloy. The fact that hundreds of thousands of innocents faced certain death without some kind of intervention failed to move him; his letters of refusal incorporated the dispassionate argument that ending the war had to take precedence and the false assertion that the requested bombing would require the diversion of “considerable” resources. More than half of Hungary's 800,000 Jews were left to die in the Auschwitz gas chambers.
In the first year of America's involvement in World War II, blacks experienced little to assuage their concerns about the Army's racial policies. On January 15, 1943, Secretary Stimson's first civilian advisor on Negro affairs was so frustrated by the Army's slow-to-change treatment of blacks and the delay in deploying the new all-black fighter squadron that he quit. The decision by William H. Hastie, Jr., a Harvard Law graduate, former federal judge and dean of the Howard University Law School, prompted the Army to finally commit to send the 99th Fighter Squadron into combat.
Nine months after Hastie's departure, the commander of the squadron was now having to defend his pilots' in-theater performance. Benjamin Davis, Jr. was the public face of the black pilots. As the senior black officer in the Army Air Forces, he carried a greater share of the weight in the fight for the so-called Double V: the hoped-for dual victories in the contemporaneous wars against totalitarianism abroad and racism at home.
It was a marathon that required fighting individual battles one at a time. Davis literally alternated between the battlefields of Sicily and the internecine skirmishes within the War Department, having recently left command of the 99th in the capable hands of his deputy, Major George S. “Spanky” Roberts, while he returned to the states for his next assignment. The load on his shoulders was immeasurable, but if anyone could stand up to the likes of McCloy and reverse coldhearted governmental inertia it was Davis for he embodied exactly the right combination of strengths including intellect, courage, perseverance, poise, moral rectitude, and an old-fashioned style of charisma that did not necessarily play well on camera but that in-person could be mesmerizing, as if he could will things to happen.
Like other hard-driving air commanders of his time, Davis wouldn't win a popularity contest. But he could rally and spearhead his men to ultimate success in contested skies. And behind the scenes in Washington, when in the company of officers and policymakers unaccustomed to sitting across the table from a black man possessing the stature of a peer, his intensity, depth of character, record of performance, and heavy focus on the facts could, and usually did, carry the day.
Davis knew that the fate of the “experiment” in black military aviation hinged on his presentation before the McCloy Committee, as the advisory panel was commonly called. Rather than succumb to the temptation to let off steam, he employed “the utmost discretion.” As he confided in his memoir, “It would have been hopeless for me to stress the hostility and racism of whites as the motive… although that was clearly the case. I had to adopt a quiet, reasoned approach, presenting the facts about the 99th in a way that would appeal to fairness… ”
In defense of the 99th, Davis pointed out that it “had performed as well as any new fighter squadron, black or white” in similar circumstances. He conceded to “some mistakes in the first missions,” but, he explained, “this would have been true of any squadron handicapped by a lack of experienced pilots.” He pointed out that the squadron's pilots had matured quickly “from inexperienced fliers to seasoned veterans.”
Directly refuting Momyer's claim that the black pilots lacked composure when under fire, Davis referred to the bomber escort mission he had led on July 2nd, detailing how “we had stayed right with our bombers and absorbed the attacks of the enemy planes.” Importantly, Davis explained that the 99th had not shot down more than a single enemy plane up to that point because the squadron's missions were mostly dive-bombing and support of ground troops in which “encounters with enemy aircraft were pract