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Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II

 by J. Todd Moye, Oxford University Press, 2010, $24.95.

 In this well-written history of the pioneering African-American pilots and ground crews who fought for liberty abroad while being denied its benefits at home, J. Todd Moye chronicles a now familiar story. To his credit, Moye draws on three elements to set this book apart as the best overall account of how blacks who aspired to fly for the Army Air Corps were accepted into an experimental program at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama starting in 1941, and then amassed a remarkable wartime record that ultimately led to the integration of the U.S. armed forces.

First, the sheer sweep of reference materials is unmatched. Preexisting studies in addition to new sources have been combed through to augment the narrative. The exhaustive re – search has been synthesized to create a comprehensive retrospective from the prewar days, when flying for the military was just a distant dream for African Americans, through the forging of a laudable legacy that had a profound influence on the incipient civil rights movement of the postwar years.

Second, the book is enriched by a cornucopia of reminiscences of those who lived the experience. Moye headed the Tuskegee Air – men Oral History Project for the National Park Service. Over the course of the last decade, he and a cadre of professionals under his direction recorded hundreds of interviews that captured the stories of pilots, mechanics, armorers, cooks and nurses who defied the odds to achieve success in the hitherto exclusionary world of military aviation.

Third, the author’s historical sensibilities and erudite analysis offer nuanced insights necessary for a full grasp of this complicated saga. For example, readers learn that the black community did not universally embrace the War Department’s announcement of the trailblazing flying program. Many African Americans agonized over the program’s segregated nature. Militant factions went so far as to suggest that blacks should reject it. On the other hand, there was the school of thought led by Tuskegee Institute President Frederick Patterson, who grudgingly concluded that a segregated military flying program for blacks was better than none at all.

In recounting how the Tuskegee Airmen succeeded in protecting U.S. bombers, Moye introduces the voices of some of the bomber crewmen who were grateful for their help, a poignant addition.

Freedom Flyers reminds us that there are times when the human spirit has triumphed over prejudice. It is a window on the possibility that anyone can climb to the noblest of heights. If there is anything to regret, it is that the oral history program did not start earlier, so even more words of the Tuskegee Airmen could have been captured for posterity.


Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here