Book Review: Black ’41: The West Point Class of 1941 and the American Triumph in World War II

In 1991, Bill Yenne published Black ’41: The West Point Class of 1941 and the American Triumph in World War II. This book recognizes the accomplishments of the West Point class of 1941 and follows them through their first days at West Point until their 50th reunion. The book took into account the preparation before World War II, the war itself, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. It also recognizes the accomplishments of exceptional classmates who helped to shape American history.

This was the second time I had read Black ’41. I pulled it off the shelf because I’m interested in military academies as well as World War II history. It also met the criteria for the Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge, where I had to read a book that I had already read.

Black ’41 is 388 pages long and covers 17 chapters. Additionally, it has four appendices to include a directory of all the classmates from 1941. The directory include name, West Point company, and when they left the military. The other appendices showed the Army organization of World War II, the Army organization of the Korean War, and decorations awarded to members of the class of 1941.

While the book tried to reflect the lives of the members of the class of 1941, in actuality, it was more of a historical text focusing on World War II and lesser so on the Korean and Vietnam War. Yenne did weave in personal anecdotes gathered from interviews with the classmates. He tried to make it more of historical story but with the amount of material covered, it lacked the gripping story quality of other books I have read. Fifty years is a long period of time to cover with so many participants (424 graduates). It is difficult to develop depth of story while keeping it historically accurate and cover a span of five decades.

Some of the parts of the book that fascinated me included the time that they spent at the military academy. Although they knew the world was at war, hey were busy focusing on the day-to-day routine of the academy. Yenne discussed the preparation of the United States just prior to World War II. Basically, the United States was not prepared to go to war at all. The military academy was still using horses for cavalry training and had not yet fully embraced tank warfare. At that time, we still did not have an adequate air power. The West Point class of 1941 worked feverishly to prepare the US military for war.

Another part of the book that grabbed my attention was the combat duty in the Philippines and what had transpired there. I was also riveted around the West Point classmates who were captured and held in Stalag POW camps. Each group endured extreme hardship. You cannot help but appreciate the sacrifices they made.

Finally, after the success of World War II, it was interesting to read about the contrast with the preparation and execution of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The members of the West Point class of 1941 were extremely confused and frustrated that the United States did not have a clear goal in mind to execute these wars.

I would also like to point out that Yenne also wrote about Jim Fowler who was the fifth black man to graduate from West Point. He wrote about the treat Fowler received while at West Point and the reflection of the class 50 years later. I am frustrated that we still have these same issues in our society.

In total 36 members of the West Point class in 1941 gave their lives in combat. Yet, what they were able to do as a class will be forever remembered.

If you enjoy history, specifically World War 2 history, I think you will appreciate this behind-the-scenes look from a group of individuals who were true brothers in arms. While I think that 50 years is a extremely large span of time to write about with so many participants, I do think that Black ’41 is a book worth reading.