In Freedom Flyers, J. Todd Moye recounts one of the greatest tales of the Second World War and of US history - that of the Tuskegee airmen. Aviation, civil rights and Second World War enthusiasts know about these remarkable men. But Moye takes us beyond the story's superficial feel-good factor and furnishes the details that give gravitas to this saga.
First, he shows us that it almost didn't happen. Some African-Americans protested at the creation of an "all-Negro" aviation unit as a mere continuation of the Jim Crow policies that were pervasive at the time, not only in the American South but throughout the country, which Moye illustrates when he takes us into Michigan, California and elsewhere.
Fortunately, "perfect" did not defeat "good", and the war department went ahead with its plans, selecting Tuskegee Institute in Alabama over other potential choices as the location for training these flyers. This was in part because it had already been established as a hub of black aviation; in 1935, it was the first black college to add aviation to its curriculum. Once the choice was made, work began on Tuskegee Army Airfield, which would go on to become a self-contained all-black city.
Neither the creation nor the deployment of these flyers was easy, and Moye cites countless examples of attitudes that made the task so daunting. One was the army's official view, dating back to the First World War, that it was not a "sociological laboratory" and that segregation should be maintained. At the start of the Second World War, an Army War College study noted that "the Negro", although merely a "sub-species" of the human family, needed to pull his share of the war's load - and then provided a comprehensive list of negative stereotypes to justify continued segregation.
The abuse meted out to the Tuskegee flight crews by their white commanders covered all aspects of their lives, including their being designated "trainees" even though they were commissioned officers, which meant they were prevented from using officers' clubs. The insults were myriad: at a base in South Carolina, black pilots observed white men in uniform eating at the "whites-only" portion of the cafeteria. When the diners turned their backs, the black officers could see the letters "PW" stencilled on the white men's uniforms: they were German prisoners of war.
The acts of racism, petty and otherwise, that Moye relates show why these pilots often talked about the "double V" - victory over both the foreign enemies abroad and domestic segregationists at home. As one pilot quoted here explained: "What we did, we did out of our own inner pride...not patriotism. We were not patriotic, because they took that away from us. How could you be patriotic to a country that did that to you?"
But they persevered, and the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron became one of the safest and best aviation units anywhere. Bomber pilots said the pilots of the 99th provided better cover than anyone; some say they never lost a bomber.
One of the most interesting aspects of this work is Moye's account of what these airmen and their African-American ground crews accomplished after the war, collectively and individually. Their wartime efforts showed that "Negroes" could fly and maintain highly sophisticated equipment, and helped lead to the eventual desegregation of the US Armed Services, with the Air Force, created in 1947, leading the way. Tuskegee would prove to be a social laboratory after all.
Individually, many Tuskegee airmen rose to high positions in government and industry, or were trailblazers in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. But just as importantly, many simply led lives of quiet dignity, setting an example for their fellow citizens, black and white.
Moye does an admirable job in recounting these men's heroic and painful struggle. Through them, we are reminded that history gives us people we need when we need them, so that we all may progress. This story teaches - and should be read. It also inspires. Moye tells of an older brother of one of the Tuskegee lieutenants who made his uniformed brother go to downtown Monroe, Michigan so that soldiers would salute him, even dragging him across the street to receive salutes.
Such is the pride that these courageous warriors instilled in their race. But not only their race. I mentally saluted these men as I read Moye's work, and should I see a Tuskegee airman in person, I would gladly cross the street to salute him in person.
Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II
By J. Todd Moye. Oxford University Press 252pp, £14.99. ISBN 9780195386554. Published May 2010.