There is a tendency to lump all of Davis’s World War II commands into the general category of “Tuskegee airmen.” The truth is he had multiple commands as he rose in rank. As a Lt Colonel, he took command of the 332nd Fighter Group at Selfridge Air Force Base on the outskirts of Detroit. Saturday, the relative freedom from prejudice he enjoyed overseas while in combat, reared its ugly head again. The most visible signal was that the black officers were not permitted to use the officers club. Despite the fact this was in direct violation of Air Force regulations, the base commander’s decision to restrict entry was supported up to the 1st Air Force headquarters in Washington.
The 332nd consisted of the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. The first challenge Lt Col Davis had was to institute discipline. In his book, he remarked that no cadres had been established. There was extensive personnel turbulence preventing the development of unit cohesion, and there was no appropriate respect and separation between the various ranks. While he could not do much about the prejudiced environment, he could solve the internal problems and did.
In January 1944, after completing training in the assigned P-39 fighter-bombers, the unit deployed to France. Much to Davis’s disappointment, the unit was assigned to low-risk, noncombat coastal patrolling. Recall that all the issues surrounding the false report of the 99th’s capabilities were not resolved until March. Finally, after the report was completed and the superior performance of the black pilots finally recognized, the 332nd moved into the 306th Wing for an active combat role escorting heavy bombers of the 15th Air Force. As part of this, the unit was re-equipped with P-47’s and Davis was promoted to full Colonel. But the 99th had not been forgotten, and Davis was promised the unit would join with the 332nd following a complex tactical operation with the 12th Air Force. According to Davis, General Cannon, the commander of the 12th, “regarded the 99th as his most hardened and experienced P-40 unit and wanted it for pinpoint divebombing missions close to our front-line troops.” Davis credits the record of the 99th as a single most significant factor in guaranteeing a role for black pilots in the Air Force.
After moving the unit to Ramitelli, Italy, the 332nd began combat missions as part of the 15th Air Force. In short order, his unit destroyed enemy fighters in conjunction with escort missions supporting B-17s and B-24s. In July, the unit received an aircraft upgrade to P-51. Davis had the tails of the aircraft painted red to allow for identification. The “Red Tails” was born.
Between June and September, the unit flew numerous sorties across the European Theater targeting oil refineries and enemy hangers on the ground in addition to ground support. In one mission to Yugoslavia, the unit destroyed 30 aircraft on the ground. However, another issue arose as a result of the intense activity of the unit. Typically, in the Army Air Corps at that time, a full tour of combat duty consisted of completing 50 missions. Since the 332nd was all black, it does not have the replacement pipeline that allowed pilots to go home after 50. Instead, some pilots flew 70 missions, with the associated risk of death or injury, before being sent home.
The bomber crews were quick to notice the dedication and performance of the 332nd. They would send complements via teletype or telephone and appreciated that the unit would stick with their formations during the most dangerous mission times. In addition, Davis always allocated fighters to covering crippled bombers on their way back to base.
The pattern was set, and the unit continued to perform exceptionally. As the war drew down, the 332nd participated in a mission on March 24, where it escorted the 5th Bomb Wing on a mission over Berlin. With a 1600 mile round-trip, it was the longest escort mission of the war. In addition to the length, the unit saw intense combat, engaging the new Nazi jet fighters whose capabilities easily outperformed the P-51. Despite that, three were shot down with another three “probables.” As a result of his performance, the 332nd was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation – an award rarely given to any unit.
Looking back, perhaps the unit’s most significant accomplishment was in the lives they saved rather than the enemy planes they shot down. The Red Tails achieved the distinction, as Davis remembered, “of never losing a single bomber to enemy fighters on an escort mission.”
Story Source: Benjamin O. Davis Jr’s autobiography