A black fighter pilot’s World War II story reflects an era when prejudice against African-Americans permeated every facet of life in the U.S.
In 1942, Harlem resident Buddy Bowman patriotically heeds the call to enlist in World War II. After being snubbed by Captain Thomas G. Richardson, the white officer who becomes his nemesis (and with whom he later makes peace), Bowman signs on as a lowly â€œArmy Air Corps Jock Strap,” as the support units are jokingly called. Many incidents in the novel are based on real events, but have been rearranged and reassigned. Some characters are based on real people, such as [then] Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. the 1936 West Point graduate, who, in 1942, led the new–and now historic–all-Negro 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group. Other characters seem to serve as narrative props, included only to be killed in training or war–i.e., the hipster from Philadelphia and the jazz man from New Orleans. The story follows Bowman through his initial assignment to latrine duty, to flight school and assignments overseas and eventually North Africa and Italy, where he qualifies (and gains â€œAce” status) as part of the 99th Fighter Squadron flying in support of the B-25 bombers involved in the Italian Front. He and three friends practice stunt flying and dub themselves â€œThe Four Panthers.” On his last mission, Bowman is shot down and captured by the Nazis; he meets up with Richardson in prison, and after a train wreck, they flee together into the Romanian countryside. When Richardson is gravely wounded, Bowman is forced to leave him behind, finding shelter with a group of helpful peasants. After making contact with Allied Forces, he makes reconnaissance flights over Serbia and Croatia for the partisans and carries on a blazing love affair with the gorgeous Mariza–though he never forgets the equally lovely Tina, his sweetheart during training in the Deep South. (Bowman names his plane The Macon Belle in her honor.) Weisleder’s wholesale incorporation of military source documents (a typewritten list of targets, confidential memos, equipment checklists and â€œUseful Romanian Translations”) slows the pace, as do the perfunctory love story and awkward chapter transitions. Nonetheless, the compelling truth behind this saga will keep the pages turning.
Bowman’s struggles ring with authenticity and illuminate a little-known chapter in World War II history.