The “Good War” and the African American Combat Experience

9 reviews of titles about black soldiers in WWII.

The Hot Topic feature for May is African Americans during World War II. This selection of reviews from current and past issues of Choice highlights key readings on this important and timely theme. Choice publishes more than 7,000 reviews of print and electronic resources annually. For more information on the Choice platform of products and services, visit

Broadnax, Samuel L. Blue skies, black wings: African American pioneers of aviation. Praeger, 2007. 180p ISBN 0275991954, $44.95; ISBN 9780275991951, $44.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE August 2007

Broadnax provides a long-needed book. He has been a newscaster and journalist, and graduated with Class 45-3 as a Tuskegee Airman in March 1945. This was just too late for him to fly his P-51 in combat. However, he tells what it was like to be an African American man of courage and skill in the racist south and US Army of that time. It required much for one to put up with the indignities inflicted on those young men at that time. Likewise, it must have been gratifying to see their commanding officer, who had been a captain in a segregated army, retire little more than two decades later as a lieutenant-general in an integrated US Air Force. The Tuskegee Airmen helped edge their country a little closer to its self-proclaimed image, as did many other whites and African Americans. Broadnax paints a clear picture of how those young men earned their commissions as second lieutenants in the US Army Air Force of more than six decades ago. Their story is well worth reading now. Perhaps some readers will be inspired to edge us even closer to the dream. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers; lower- and upper-division undergraduates; two-year technical program students. —M. Levinson, University of Washington

Dryden, Charles W. A-train: memoirs of a Tuskegee airman. Alabama, 1997. 421p ISBN 0-8173-0856-3, $29.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE October 1997

Dryden’s book is the autobiography of an African American career officer in the US Air Force through two wars and the transition from segregation to integration. During WW II, Dryden graduated from the Tuskegee Army Flying School and served as a pilot with the 99th Pursuit Squadron. He also saw action during the Korean War. His memoirs are, however, much more than another repetition of the exploits of the 99th in North Africa, Sicily, and Europe. The book’s real value is its depiction of racial segregation and Jim Crow in both military and civilian life before, during, and after WW II. Although he frequently appears bitter as he describes personal encounters with racism, Dryden convincingly argues that the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen contributed significantly toward bringing about the desegregation of the US armed forces and the establishment of equal opportunity for all military personnel. For additional reading see Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.’s American: An Autobiography (CH, Jul’91) and Richard N. Dalfiume’s Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces: Fighting on Two Fronts, 1939-1945(1969). Photographs, index and glossary. Summing Up: All levels. —R. E. Marcello, University of North Texas

Green, Michael Cullen. Black Yanks in the Pacific: race in the making of American military empire after World War II. Cornell, 2010. 207p ISBN 0801448964, $35.00; ISBN 9780801448966, $35.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2011

During the decade following WW II, the US embarked upon two great historical journeys—the civil rights movement and the Cold War. In this brief but thought-provoking study, Green examines the interaction of these two forces through the eyes of African American soldiers stationed in postwar Asia. Although Army life was far from perfect, black GIs experienced much better social, political, and economic conditions in occupied Asia than they did in the US. Unlike some of the civil rights leaders at home, African American soldiers did not accept the theory that they had become tools in the imperialistic domination of “colored peoples” around the world. Instead, they accepted the legitimacy of US Cold War goals and sometimes even came to look down upon their “colored” Asian allies. Green concludes, “One of this story’s central ironies is that many African Americans enjoyed the privilege of first-class, consumption-based citizenship in an authoritarian institution dedicated to the use of force.” A fascinating sidelight is Green’s examination of the sad fate of African-Asian offspring left behind. A thoughtful, provocative study that skillfully integrates the interplay of domestic and foreign policy. Summing Up: Highly recommended. African American, military, diplomatic, and Asian history collections, all levels. —C. J. Weeks, Southern Polytechnic State University

Homan, Lynn M. Black knights: the story of the Tuskegee airmen, by Lynn M. Homan and Thomas Reilly. Pelican Publishing, LA, 2001. 336p ISBN 1-56554-828-0, $23.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2001

Homan and Reilly, museum exhibition specialists, here provide the latest of 20 titles written so far on the then-controversial WW II experiment to educate African American pilots and associated personnel for frontline combat and support services with the Army Air Forces. The story, which has also been told as an HBO movie, is fairly well known. The authors here review the then-popular belief that blacks were incapable of mastering the intricacies of flight and the Tuskegee Experiment (named for the Tuskegee Institute where the training was held), which proved the skeptics wrong. A full account of the activities of the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group in Europe is provided, along with details on such ground personnel as nurses and mechanics. The work is distinguished for its inclusion of many firsthand reminiscences from veterans of the grand experiment and concludes with a helpful bibliography and index. Summing Up: Recommended for WW II and minority history collections, particularly those without coverage of this endeavor. —M. J. Smith Jr., Tusculum College

Moye, J. Todd. Freedom flyers: the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. Oxford, 2010. 241p ISBN 9780195386554, $24.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2011

As director of the Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project, Moye (oral history, Univ. of North Texas) supervised the collection of 800 interviews with those involved with the Tuskegee Army Air Field, the remarkable all-black virtual city that developed as part of the Army Air Corps’ segregated training of black pilots. These interviews serve as the basis for an enriching, deeply humane, and academically rigorous volume on the project. Some of the Tuskegee airmen served in combat, where they performed well (albeit not as flawlessly as later “never lost a bomber” myth had it); others itched to serve but never had a chance. All were critical in bringing the Air Force, and the military as a whole, to its astonishingly rapid move to desegregation after WW II. Overseas, one of the airmen who was shot down was picked by a white southern man to be his roommate in a German POW camp, in the knowledge that he was not a German spy. Back home, disembarking from his ship, one airman veteran heard a private order “whites to the right, Negroes to the left.” For the men, everything had changed; for the US, nothing had changed—yet. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. —P. Harvey, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

O’Neill, William L. A democracy at war: America’s fight at home and abroad in World War II. Free Press, 1993. 480p ISBN 0-02-923678-9, $24.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE October 1994

O’Neill (Rutgers Univ.) has written a broad and engaging study recounting and assessing the American experience during WW II. O’Neill vigorously points out deficiencies and problems in the American conduct of the war at home and abroad: the strategic, tactical, and moral flaws; the inhibiting influence of politics, public opinion, and prejudice on mobilizing the nation; and the denial of full democracy to a variety of groups, including Japanese Americans, African Americans, and women. But he also emphasizes—indeed celebrates—the manifold strengths and successes of American democracy at war. Drawing on the enormous and still-burgeoning literature on WW II, the book nicely complements such standard accounts as James MacGregor Burns’s Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (CH, Sep’71) and John Morton Blum’s V Was for Victory (CH, Sep’76), and connects as well to O’Neill’s own study of postwar America, American High (CH, Apr’87). It also provides useful perspectives for assessing both the legend of the “Good War” and recent efforts, represented by Paul Fussell’s Wartime (CH, Jan’90), to overturn that notion. This spirited and excellent study will be appreciated by general readers and specialists alike. Summing Up: General readers; upper-division undergraduates and above. —J. W. Jeffries, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Phillips, Kimberley L. War! what is it good for?: black freedom struggles and the U.S. military from World War II to Iraq. North Carolina, 2012. 343p ISBN 9780807835029, $34.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2012

“Nothing else made Negro citizenship conceivable, but the record of the Negro soldier as a fighter,” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote of black Civil War soldiers. This richly detailed and powerful work explores the fate of African Americans in the 20th-century military from WW II to Iraq and Afghanistan. Phillips (Brooklyn College, CUNY) exposes both the truth and the fallacies of Du Bois’s words by showing how African Americans’ pride in military service has “coincided with the appeals from other African Americans who considered war inimical to their freedom struggles.” This reviewer knows of no other work that juxtaposes those two stories—military service and the nonviolent civil rights struggle—so centrally and effectively. The author finds that by 1967, many African Americans questioned “the logic that made militarism and war integral to their concepts of citizenship.” The military undeniably provided opportunities denied to black working men (and more recently women) elsewhere, yet the “nation’s wars have distorted and suppressed their freedom struggles.” Today, when African Americans make up about 25 percent of the military, this work will be indispensable to understanding why so many black men and women serve, and how their service both advances and limits them. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries. —P. Harvey, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

Sandler, Stanley. Segregated skies: all-black combat squadrons of World War II. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. 217p ISBN 1-56098-154-7, $24.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2012

Sandler’s excellent study concentrates on the Tuskegee Airmen of WW II but also includes an examination of the 477th Bombardment Group. The author uses a variety of sources, including official records, interviews, and secondary sources. His bibliography alone compels the scholar of modern American history to read the book. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is at last beginning to take its rightful place in US history. The Tuskegee Airmen were the fighter squadrons—99th, 100th, 301st, and 302nd, and then the 332nd Fighter Group formed by the squadrons. Sandler describes the Airmen from inception of the squadrons through the combat of WW II. He finds that their performace was about the same as those of other figher units, despite the fact that these units started with a far smaller pool of talent, a condition examined by the author in the context of the pervasive denial of equal opportunity for African Americans. The story of the 477th is even more compelling and even less known. These remarkable men were not allowed to fly in combat but nevertheless were heroes indeed. They met incredible discrimination within and without the military with an open resistance whose courage was even more remarkable because of the time period. Together, these Tuskegee Airmen and the men of the 477th remind readers that human beings do matter. Some, perhaps many, have a greatness that at times enables them to show the way. Summing Up: General; undergraduate. —J. P. Hobbs, North Carolina State University

Takaki, Ronald. Double victory: a multicultural history of America in World War II. Little, Brown, 2000. 282p ISBN 0-316-83155-7, $27.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2000

The publisher claims that Takaki, by presenting a view of WW II as seen through the eyes of ordinary, diverse Americans, has broken new ground. This is nonsense. The literature of WW II contains a plethora of accounts about the role of women, African Americans, Native Americans, and other “ordinary” Americans. Takaki argues that the war presented a contradiction in that while this country allegedly fought for the preservation of the Four Freedoms, it denied those same freedoms to women and minorities at home and in the military. This, too, is hardly a novel argument. He further asserts that the WW II experience provided the stimulus for the civil rights and women’s movements after the war when these same groups insisted that this country live up to the principles for which the conflict was fought. Once more, this argument only confirms what many other studies assert. Takaki’s book is based almost entirely on secondary sources, and it has no bibliography. It contains endnotes and photographs. Summing Up:Accessible to general readers and undergraduates, but other, more scholarly accounts, both monographs and general works, do a much better job of presenting the “good war” from the perspectives of minorities and women. —R. E. Marcello, University of North Texas