On Ben and Hattie Davis’ farm in Wetumpka, Alabama, their 16 children learned the value of family and hard work. But they also learned they wanted something more for their own lives, a realization that led 11 sons into the military, including three who chose the Air Force. The service was an escape for Arguster, Eddie and Julius Davis, whether from a life of little promise in their small, central Alabama town during the 1950s or from an Army draft notice during wartime.
“I thought the farm life was hard at the time, but it taught us all great lessons like how hard work pays off,” Arguster said. “But that was the type of work none of us boys wanted to continue. The military was an escape for all of us boys. Our options were to stay and work on the farm, which we didn’t want to do, find a minimum wage job in the area where we lived, or try to move to some city where we didn’t know anybody. I think the military gave us the opportunity to earn money and grow up a little bit, to be out on our own, and was a great steppingstone for many of us. I know it was for me.”
The Davis brothers’ parents had one goal for their children – to finish high school, because their father didn’t make it past the third grade, and their mother only made it to the ninth grade. Each brother graduated, and three earned college degrees. Military careers made secondary education possible for several of them.
The 11 brothers served a combined 158 years in the military, beginning with Ben Jr., now 88, who gave 33 years of service. Other than the three Airmen, seven served in the Army, including the late Washington Davis, and two had Navy careers. Edward, the second-oldest brother, became the family’s first Airman when he enlisted in 1951. Unlike his brothers, Edward lived his teen years with his natural mother and grandmother in Pittsburgh. After high school, he was working with the Pennsylvania Railroad and was trying to get into college when he enlisted in the Air Force to avoid getting drafted into the Army.
“We have one uncle who is a Pearl Harbor survivor, Thomas Davis, in Montgomery,” said Edward, now 85. “At the time I was going to (Elmore County Training School), he was in the Navy during World War II and came back to school. The little kids were so happy to see him. Little by little, as time went along with the situation in Alabama, the military became an option because for a lot of them, it was a matter of going to school or working on the farm. My thing was avoiding the Army because you hear of all that glory in the Air Force.”
Edward completed his certification in preventive medicine at the University of Denver in 1952 and left active duty in 1955. However, he continued his education on the GI Bill while in the Air Force Reserve until his unit was activated for the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. A year later,Edward joined the Army and served until his retirement in 1980. He worked for the U.S. Postal Service until 1994, when he worked part time with his wife in a funeral home in Pittsburgh until 2005.
In June 1964, Julius followed his brother into the Air Force and served for almost 12 years when he left as a technical sergeant in 1976. After high school, he had an opportunity for an academic scholarship at Alabama A&M University, but didn’t want to wait. He began his Air Force career in inventory management, but eventually became a procurement advisor, when he was selected for the job at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“It ended up being a family tradition, but we didn’t look at it that way,” said Julius, now 68 and living in Wellington, Florida, where he and his wife own an executive search firm for nuclear utilities. “Growing up in a small town in Alabama in the 1940s and 1950s, there were not many opportunities for black people. We didn’t look at it as a family tradition; it was just a way out. I told a couple of my brothers that I don’t know if any other family accomplished that, having that many brothers go into the military.”
Julius’ education also benefitted from his Air Force career. He used the GI Bill to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration from California State University in Sacramento.
Even though the youngest Davis brother had seen 10 before him choose the military as an escape from life in Wetumpka, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Arguster would become the 11th. He was the only brother to go directly to college when he attended Tuskegee Institute after his high school graduation in 1970. But when Arguster returned for the fall semester in 1971, he withdrew and moved to California. After having no luck finding work for three months, Arguster was inducted into the Air Force Nov. 1, 1971, and his first duty station was Carswell Air Force Base, Texas, in vehicle operations. He quickly learned the Air Force would help him reach his goal of returning to college.
“After about six months there, I found out the Air Force had a tuition assistance program that paid 75 percent of tuition, and I jumped on that immediately,” the 62-year-old said. “I went to evening classes at (Texas Christian University), and they even provided noon classes on base.”
When Arguster left the Air Force four years later, he remained in the area so he could complete his bachelor’s degree in business management.
“So I actually squeezed eight years of living into six by doing four years of active duty and receiving a college degree, and I did all of that without touching my VA benefits,” he said. “I used those VA benefits to earn two associate degrees in auto mechanics and air conditioning and heating.”
Three years after leaving active duty, Arguster joined the Air Force Reserve and served another 19 years before he retired as a senior master sergeant in 1998. He and his wife, Linda, moved back to Alabama in McCalla near Birmingham after he retired from the U.S. Postal Service in 2009.
“Once we saw the ones ahead of us succeeding, we thought, ‘OK, that’s not too bad,’” he said. “You get a place to stay, free meals and clothing, the opportunity to travel, and you make money too. So what more could you ask for? I think the ones who went ahead of us paved the route for a better option to make our lives better.”
As each brother began to earn money in the military, he picked a project to help the parents back in Wetumpka. The project may have been buying a new refrigerator, installing a bathroom, or putting gas in the house, Arguster said.
The brothers became closer after their father died in 1984, and the mother died in 2001. For years, they selected a destination where they could travel to meet and play golf. Five brothers still live in Alabama, including three who live only about two hours from Arguster in Montgomery.
“We still all talk to one another,” he said. “Within a week’s time after we talk to one of our brothers, we all know how each one is doing, whether we talked to them or not. We really became closer after both of our parents passed. I think that is the way they would have wanted it.”
The brothers who chose the military, whether for a career or as a step in the right direction, remain proud of the decision they made as young adults.