Oak Lawn author ruffles some feathers with
book about African-American pilots
J. Marcellus Burke, a 15 year resident of Oak Lawn, is a World War II veteran and retired Chicago Police Detective, who can now add ‘author’ to his list of accolades.
“The Black Knights,’’ published by Path Press, is a fictionalized account of four fighter pilots of African descent who served in the Luftwaffe German air force during WWII.
While the book is listed as fiction, Burke said it’s based on actual events. It was released two months ago and it’s said to be ruffling feathers among people of color.
“Some of my black critics are upset,’’ Bruke said. “They’re saying that African Americans, specifically the Tuskegee Airmen, were the first military aviators.”
He demonstrated a raised fist being pumped into the air to signify how passionate one of his critics became during their conversation.
Burke said his five years of research revealed that Germany had the first aviators of African descent, claiming they went into combat in 1939, while the United States Tuskegee Airmen didn’t see combat until April of 1943.
Some feel The Black Knights portrayal of history is an insult and is discrediting African American history many worked hard to have acknowledged.
Burke however disputes that claim.
“I wrote this book because of the scarcity of information about the role people of color played during WWII in and beyond the US,’’ Burke said. “My research proved we weren’t adequately credited for our contributions in Germany, Russia or even Great Britain.”
He said many of his first-hand experiences are indicators of accuracy in his findings.
His 70-year old military discharge papers are kept wrapped in a protective covering. A vibrant, 87-year-old, Burke, proudly showed off his proof of service.
But it’s bittersweet.
“These papers say I was a dispatch clerk,’’ he said. “It’s simply not true. I was a cartographer. I studied and made maps. In addition, while stationed in Austria and Germany I became fluent in German and served as an interpreter.”
The year was 1945 when a young, 17-year-old, Burke, voluntarily enlisted into the United States Army.
He was allowed to graduate early from Tilden Tech High School, which some believe was one of the top all boy schools in the city of Chicago during that period. Burke was a guest speaker at a Tilden Tech alumni meeting in Chicago Ridge last Wednesday.
Burke said most of the African Americans within the military were segregated unless they had advanced skills. His was mathematics. He said the Army sent him to Michigan State University to become certified as a combat engineer.
Recently he enthusiastically spread pictures across a table at his home pointing to himself in groups of all white men saying, “There’s yours truly. I’m the only black.”
In spite of being the only black much of the time within his tour of duty he said he was accepted and treated well.
Burke and his wife, Gloria, have been married for 60 years.
They have seven children — one daughter and six sons. Three of his sons followed in his footsteps by serving in the military.
“I had ideas about what I wanted this book to be but God lead me in a different direction.” Burke said. He said initially he was just conducting research about the war to share with his sons. Information is easily accessible as his personal library holds upwards of 3,000 books.
Beyond the pages of books, Burke said he met face to face with General Field Marshall, Adolf Galland, who is documented to have served as the commander of all the fighters in the Luftwaffe in WWII.
Burke said his interview with Galland substantiated that it was feasible for qualified candidates of African descent to have become pilots in the Luftwaffe. It isn’t just people of color finding The Black Knights to be controversial.
“I’ve had some whites tell me it’s impossible for people of African descent to have been pilots during the reign of Hitler,” he said.
Burke said his intentions for The Black Knights is to give knowledge to others.
“I want the truth to be told.” Burke said.