As I walked out the door of a local merchant earlier this year, I looked at the change in my hand. A shiny new 2021 commemorative quarter caught my eye. I smiled and thought, “Good, they finally did it.”

The U.S. Mint is honoring the Black World War II Tuskegee Airmen, particularly the pilots of the 332nd fighter pursuit group who flew the “Red Tail” P-51 Mustangs. They are mostly known for protecting the heavy bombers of the 15th Air Force over Southern Europe and North Africa in over 200 missions. Very few bomber crews were lost to enemy fire. Hundreds, maybe thousands of children and grandchildren of those bomber crews owe their lives to those skilled fighter pilots.

Over 20 years ago, at Holman Field in Saint Paul, my son and I met Colonel Charles McGee, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen. He was raising funds to help restore a P-51 Razorback Mustang. We got his autograph and remarked that it was an honor to meet a hero of WWII. Colonel McGee, who was later promoted to brigadier general (he’s 101 years old today), told us that the real hero of the Tuskegee Airmen was General Benjamin O. Davis.

 

   
benjamin davis
Lieutenant General Benjamin O. Davis Jr.

 

In 1936 Davis was the first Black man to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point since Reconstruction. For four years, he was “silenced” by his fellow classmates. They refused to speak to him outside of class. Still, he persisted and graduated. Many of those classmates made amends to him after the war, according to his autobiography. However, others never would. In the Army Air Corps in the 1940s, Davis had to fight racism, bureaucracy and strong resistance to the idea of training Black pilots for combat.

I recently had lunch with a Black friend of mine, Dan Raggs. We were at a restaurant near Holman Field. The subject of the Tuskegee Airmen came up. Dan knew of them. I asked if he knew who Benjamin O. Davis was. He didn’t. We had been talking about sports, and I mentioned that it seemed most young boys know all of the great Black athletes and civil rights pioneers. Why don’t school history books mention a great leader like Davis? Even Howard Zinn fails to mention Davis in his 800-page treatise, A People’s History of the United States, and Zinn was a bombardier in the Army Air Corps in WWII.

 

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My son and I probably would never have known about Benjamin Davis had it not been for Charles McGee. He was spreading history the old way by telling his story to younger generations. In this spirit, I hope to smile again at a shiny new commemorative coin with the image of General Davis on it—an often overlooked hero from the Greatest Generation.

— Jim Ginther

Jim Ginther lives in Highland Park.

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