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VISN 6 Recognizes Early Black Military Leaders

Composite image of pioneering Black Generals in the U.S. Military

This image shows images of a few of the pioneering leaders who led America from its segregated military past to the diverse, powerful organization we recognize today, in which any member can legitimately see themselves reaching the pinnacles of leadership.

By Staff Compilation
Thursday, February 12, 2015

When he founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915, Carter G. Woodson labored under the belief that historical truth would crush falsehoods and usher in a new era of equality, opportunity, and racial democracy. Based on that premise, for all Americans to commemorate and celebrate the contributions made by people of African descent to our nation, February is Black History Month.

There has been no war fought by or within the U.S. in which African Americans did not participate. Their actions, alongside those of other Americans in the military, helped to fuel the great engines of change. On July 26, 1948 President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, desegregating the United States military. Now, more than 2.4 million Veterans claim African-American heritage. Among those African American Veterans through our last century have been great military leaders, whose legacies have meant a stronger nation and more cohesive military force. Here is a brief mention of the pioneering leaders who led America from its segregated military past to the organization we recognize today, in which any member can legitimately see themselves reaching the pinnacles of leadership.

Colin Powell, was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989–93) and U.S. Secretary of State (2001–05), the first African American to hold either position. In April 1989 Powell became a four-star general, and that August President George H.W. Bush nominated him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As chairman, he played a leading role in planning the invasion of Panama, and Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations of the Persian Gulf crisis. He retired from the military in 1993, then was appointed U.S. Secretary of State by President George W. Bush in 2001.

Daniel “Chappie” James was the first African-American four-star general in the history of the US military. In 1949 James received the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor when he rescued a fellow pilot after a flame-out in a T-33 at 50 feet above the ground. Then James flew 101 combat missions in the P-51 and F-80 aircraft. His handling of the Khadafy incident, when he was involved in an armed face-to-face standoff with the Libyan leader, prompted President Nixon to nominate him for Brigadier General in 1970. General James’ rapid rise to flag officer culminated in August 1975, with his assignment as Commander in Chief, North American Air Defense Command at which time he was promoted to the rank of four-star general.

Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. entered military service on July 13, 1898, during the War with Spain and on February 2, 1901, he was commissioned a second lieutenant of Cavalry in the Regular Army. He was promoted to brigadier general (temporary) on October 25, 1940, retired on July 31, 1941, and recalled to active duty with the rank of brigadier general the following day. He retired on July 14, 1948, after having served fifty years.

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. became the first African American general in the U.S. Air Force. In 1943 he organized and commanded the 332nd Fighter Group (the Tuskeegee Airmen). By the end of the war Davis himself had flown 60 combat missions. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1954. After retiring in 1970 he was named director of civil aviation security in the U.S. Department of Transportation, where he devised and coordinated measures that effectively ended a wave of aircraft hijackings in the United States.

During his tour aboard the USS Jouett, Captain Samuel Gravely was elevated to the appointment of Rear Admiral in 1971, the highest rank ever attained by a black American in the Navy. President Richard Nixon promoted Vice Admiral Gravely in September of 1976 to assume control over the entire Third Fleet, including 100 Navy ships, and 60,000 sailors at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Frank E. Petersen, the first African American promoted to the rank of General in the U.S. Marine Corps, saw combat in Korea as a fighter pilot where he flew 64 combat missions and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. Petersen then flew more than 250 combat missions in Vietnam. He became the first Black Marine Corps general officer in 1979.

Erroll M. Brown, the first African-American promoted to flag rank in the U.S. Coast Guard, when he was promoted to Rear Admiral in July 1998, was the Coast Guard’s chief engineer. Brown was responsible for an annual budget of $1 billion.

Roscoe Robinson, Jr. was the first African American to become a four star general in the U.S. Army. He was promoted to Brigadier General in 1975 and became Commanding General of the United States Army Garrison, Okinawa. In 1976 he was promoted to major general and assigned as the first African-American to command the 82nd Airborne Division at fort Bragg, North Carolina. He was promoted to the rank of General in 1982.

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