3

The Long Ride of Colonel Young

“Get a good life insurance policy, with your family as beneficiary. Bring your Bible and yourself.”

Advice of Charles Davis Young to a friend joining the Tenth Cavalry

 

The first black colonel in the United States Army, Charles Davis Young, was born in 1864 in Tennessee, the son of slaves.  His father escaped from slavery in January 1865 and served in the Fifth Regiment Heavy Artillery, United States Colored Troops.  Settling in Ripley, Ohio after the War, Young’s father had saved enough from his military pay to buy land and build a house.  Charles Young attend an otherwise all white school in Ripley and graduated at the top of his class.  Young greatly admired his father, and decided to follow in his footsteps and embark on a military career.  In 1883 he earned appointment to West Point by coming in second on the competitive examination in his Congressional District.  When the first place candidate decided not to go, Young was admitted.

Young’s years at West Point were trying.  He roomed for three years with John Hanks Alexander, the only black cadet at West Point.   The attitude of the rest of his class to him can be gauged by the nickname he was tagged with:  ” the load of of coal”.  As many cadets before and since, he struggled with mathematics and had to repeat his first year as a result.  However, he discovered a hitherto unknown facility for foreign languages and learned several.    The disdainful attitude of most of his fellow cadets was constant, but his endurance and good humor throughout ultimately led to friendships with some white cadets that lasted the remainder of his life.  Young graduated last in his class in 1889.  He was the third black to graduate from West Point and would be the last until 1936.

His service with the Army was largely with the segregated “Buffalo” black cavalry regiments of the Ninth and the Tenth which had earned reputations for valor and professionalism.  On duty Young developed a reputation as all Army, a stern disciplinarian and stickler for regulations.  Off duty he was a kind and cultured man who took an interest in the professional development of his subordinates.  One of those subordinates in 1900 was Sergeant Major Benjamin O. Davis.  Young encouraged him to take the Officer Candidates’ test and tutored him for the test.  Davis passed and was ultimately commissioned.  In 1940 he was promoted to Brigadier General, the first black to attain that rank in US military history.

During the Spanish-American war Young was promoted to the temporary rank of Major of Volunteers and commanded the 9th Ohio, a black volunteer regiment, Young thus becoming the first black to command a regiment in American military history.  Due to the brevity of the War, the 9th Ohio did not see service overseas, a fate common to most of the volunteer regiments raised in that War.  Young did serve in combat in the Philippines, commanding a troop of the Ninth Cavalry in the fight against Insurrectos on Samar.  His courage and leadership caused his men to give him the nickname “Follow me”.

Interspersed with command duties with troops, Young had the usual variety of assignments that were common for Army officers during this time period.  He served as superintendent of two national parks and was assigned as military attache in Haiti and Liberia.  In 1912 he wrote The Military Morale of Nations and Races, which postulated that with good training, and good leadership and fair treatment, the members of any race could make good soldiers.  He dedicated the book to Theodore Roosevelt, a personal friend who had taken an interest in Young’s career.  During the Punitive Expedition in 1916 into Mexico, Major Young attained notoriety due to successful cavalry charges against Mexican bandits while commanding a squadron of the Tenth Cavalry.  Young was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and assigned to command Fort Huachuca in Arizona.

With the US heading to War in Europe it was assumed that Young might become the first black general in the US Army.  That prospect came to an end when Young failed a medical exam in early 1917 due to high blood pressure and damage to his kidneys, a legacy from his service in Liberia.  Young was retired, a retirement that Young protested.  It is likely that racism played a large factor in his retirement, more than a few white officers reacting with dismay to the prospect of serving under a black general.   Writing to Theodore Roosevelt for help in gaining reinstatement, Roosevelt immediately offered him command of one of the two black regiments Roosevelt planned to serve in the Rough Riders that Roosevelt had received Congressional approval to raise for service in World War I. Roosevelt said Young would have carte blanche in choosing the officers of his regiment.  Alas, President Wilson refused to authorize the raising of the Rough Riders.

In June 1918, to show he was physically fit for service, Young rode horseback the 500 miles from Xenia, Ohio to Washington DC.  The trip to Washington took 16 days.  Young experienced both racism and respect from the various Whites he encountered.  In a town with a bad reputation for racism against blacks, Young’s attempt to gain reinstatement was met with sympathy by local whites who asked what they could do to help.  Young responded that there was nothing they could do for him, but he would be grateful if black troops traveling through the town would receive a kind welcome.

Young met with Secretary of War Baker who promised to look into the situation.  On November 6, 1918 Young was placed back on active duty and promoted to Colonel.  He remained on active duty until his death in 1922 when he died of nephritis.  He is buried, appropriately, in Arlington.  When he was buried, an estimated 100,000 people lined his funeral procession.

3

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.: American Eagle

benjaminodavisjr02

Benjamin O Davis, Jr, a 1936 graduate of West Point, probably did not have any premonition when he graduated that he and his father were destined to write an interesting chapter in American military history.  At the time of his graduation from West Point, the Army had a total of two black line officers, Davis and his father.  Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. would be the first black general in the United States Army and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. would be the first black general in the United States Air Force.  They both earned their stars through sheer ability at a time when prejudice against blacks was official policy within the US military.

The grandson of a slave, Davis senior was born in 1880.  He enlisted in the black 8th volunteer infantry during the Spanish-American War, serving as a temporary first lieutenant.  After the war he enlisted in the regular Army as a private, serving in the 9th United States cavalry, one of the Buffalo Soldier regiments.  A promising young soldier, he shot up in rank to squadron sergeant major.  He came to the notice of the commander of his unit, Lieutenant Charles Young, then the only black officer in the Army.  With Young’s encouragement and tutoring, he took the officer’s test at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on February 2, 1901.  For the next 39 years he served in various postings, including military attaché to Liberia and professor of military science at Tuskegee.  It took persistence to stay in an Army where blacks served only in segregated units and where he was often the only black officer in the entire Army, but on October 25, 1940 Davis became the first black in American military history to earn a general’s star.

His son found the going just as tough initially.  At West Point Davis Junior was officially shunned by almost all of the other cadets, who would only speak to him in the line of duty.  He ate his meals alone and had no room mate during his four years.  However, his hard work and ability earned grudging respect judging from this inscription in the West Point year book for 1936:

The courage, tenacity, and intelligence with which he conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year won for him the sincere admiration of his classmates, and his single-minded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him.

Such respect did not change the fact that he was black in an Army that had no love for black officers.  His application to the Army Air Corps was summarily rejected because the Army Air Corps did not accept blacks.  He found himself serving as a professor of military science at Tuskegee just as his father had years before.

With the advent of World War II the military was still segregated, and opposition to blacks serving as pilots was intense.   However, the Army Air Corps could not ignore that blacks had passed the tests to qualify as aviation cadets.   To his delight, Captain Davis was assigned to the first training class for black fighter pilots.  He was the first black to solo in the Army Air Corps and got his wings in March 1942.

Trained at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, the 99th Pursuit squadron was activated in 1941 and sent overseas to North Africa in April 1943.  Now a Lieutenant Colonel, Davis Junior was in command.  In September he was called back to the States to help form the all black 332 fighter group.  After he arrived back, an attempt to kill the project was made by senior Army Air Corps officers alleging deficiencies in the record of the 99th.  Furious, Davis held a news conference at the Pentagon, with his father, to defend his men, and challenged the accuracy of the charges.  Further investigations determined that the 99th had performed as well as similar white units. Continue Reading