Although it never appeared in print, John Steinbeck's "With Your Wings" was first heard by an audience over 70 years ago. Orson Welles read the story on air as part of a wartime radio broadcast in July 1944; from there, it disappeared—until Andrew F. Gulli, managing editor of the Birmingham, Michigan-based quarterly magazine The Strand, found a transcript of it at the University of Texas Library recently.
"With Your Wings" tells the story of Second Lieutenant William Thatcher, an African American man who is returning home after completing his training for the U.S. Air Force. The opening line reads: "He knew most of all that he wanted to go home—that there was something at home he had to get, and he didn't even know what that was."
From there, the story seems to contend with both personal homecoming and the rife racial politics of the time. “This was a time where African American soldiers were not treated very well,” Gulli told PRI. “They were not allowed to worship in the same chapels where white soldiers worshiped, and they were separated in their eating quarters. Steinbeck, I think, was trying to give a very powerful message ... this might have been a faint cry to say that perhaps the U.S. Army and a lot of states should have passed laws to treat these people better.”
Gulli says that the work is further evidence that Steinbeck was ahead of his time as a writer, but that it doesn't directly broach the subject of segregation in the armed forces. “I think that this was John Steinbeck’s way of trying to show something in a sentimentalized way, with a hope that it would bring some understanding among people who were perhaps bigoted or not as progressive as he was,” he says.
You'll have to pick up a copy of The Strand's current issue to read the whole piece, but the Associated Press has a little more of the story to pique your interest: "He took off his cap with the gold eagle on it and held it in his hand. He saw his tall father lick his lips. And then his father said softly, 'Son, every black man in the world is going to fly with your wings,'" Steinbeck writes.