- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

Hundreds gathered on a shady hill at Arlington National Cemetery to say farewell to a military man who soared over discrimination in the U.S. armed forces and became the first black general in the Air Force.

Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was buried yesterday with full military honors during an afternoon grave-site service. Gen. Davis, 89, died July 4 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest. He had Alzheimer's disease.

Actor Bill Cosby and D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams were among the mourners. They joined the roughly 400 family members and friends at the service, including members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, which Gen. Davis led during World War II.

In sweltering heat, the horse-drawn caisson approached, and the pallbearers carried the flag-draped casket to its final resting place on a hill surrounded by trees. Gen. Davis is buried not far from his father, Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. A 17-gun salute was fired. Air Force jets and vintage military aircraft, including a pair of P-51 Mustangs of the type flown by the Tuskegee Airmen in Europe, roared overhead.

At the grave site, Gen. Lester L. Lyles, commander of the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, spoke briefly about the military leader who was the first black to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in the 20th century.

"General Davis' final resting place sits on a hill. He now goes to join his bride, Agatha. Together they served, together they sacrificed, and now they will rest together," Gen. Lyles said before presenting the flag to Gen. Davis' sister, Elnora D. McLendon.

Family members each placed a red rose on the casket before leaving the grave site. Mrs. Davis died in March.

Col. Harold Ray, an Air Force chaplain, presided over a funeral service yesterday morning at Bolling Air Force Base in Southeast.

"Gen. Davis' leadership convinced military commanders that segregation was unnecessary and, therefore, an unconscionable waste," Alan Gropman, a faculty member at the National Defense University, said during the eulogy.

"If he demonstrated blacks could fly, fight and lead with the same courage and skills as whites a notion foreign to white America in 1941 he would destroy the myth of racial inferiority. But to do so he had to risk his life over foreign fields in the distant skies,"Mr. Gropman said.

"The Tuskegee Airmen shared his vision and courage, and he and they succeeded."

Gen. Davis made integration work, Mr. Gropman said. "The armed forces set the example for American society."

Dressed in bright red blazers, members of the Tuskegee Airmen were seated throughout the chapel, listening as Gen. Davis was eulogized as a man of physical and moral courage and a genuine American hero.

They snapped a final salute at his grave site.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta recalled that, after his military career, Gen. Davis organized the first federal Sky Marshal program to combat airliner hijackings. He also served as assistant secretary of transportation.

"He is a pioneer. He is a hero. He is a role model," Mr. Mineta said. "And his life of duty, honor and integrity will serve as an example for many generations to come."

Retired Air Force Col. Charles F. McGee said the Tuskegee Airmen gathered at Arlington with a single purpose: "To render one final salute to our leader."

A native of Washington and a 1936 graduate of West Point, Gen. Davis participated in the first flight-training program for blacks at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama.

He was the first black to fly solo in a military aircraft, and received his pilot's wings in 1942.

During World War II, he commanded the Tuskegee Airmen in Europe as commander of the 332nd Fighter Group, the pilots escorted bombers on 200 air missions over Europe and not one of the bombers they protected was lost to enemy fire.

In 1954, he became the first black general in the Air Force.

After more than 33 years of military service, Gen. Davis retired with the rank of lieutenant general in 1970 and was appointed assistant secretary of transportation for environment, safety and consumer affairs by President Nixon. In 1988, President Clinton promoted him to a four-star general.

His military decorations include the Air Force and Army Distinguished Service medals, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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