The Harlem Hellfighters: Fighting Racism In The Trenches Of WWI
From bestselling author Max Brooks, the riveting story of the highly decorated, barrier-breaking, historic black regiment—the Harlem Hellfighters
“Up the wide avenue they swung. Their smiles outshone the golden sunlight. In every line proud chests expanded beneath the medals valor had won. The impassioned cheering of the crowds massed along the way drowned the blaring cadence of their former jazz band. The old 15th was on parade and New York turned out to tender its dark-skinned heroes a New York welcome.”
So began the three-page spread the New York Tribune ran Feb. 18, 1919, a day after 3,000 veterans of the 369th Infantry (formerly the 15th New York (Colored) Regiment) paraded up from Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street to 145th and Lenox. One of the few black combat regiments in World War I, they’d earned the prestigious Croix de Guerre from the French army under which they’d served for six months of “brave and bitter fighting.” Their nickname they’d received from their German foes: “Hellfighters,” the Harlem Hellfighters.
In their ranks was one of the Great War’s greatest heroes, Pvt. Henry Johnson of Albany, N.Y., who, though riding in a car for the wounded, was so moved by the outpouring he stood up waving the bouquet of flowers he’d been handed. It would take another 77 years for Johnson to receive an official Purple Heart from his own government, but on this day, not even the steel plate in his foot could weigh him down.
In 1919, the 369th infantry regiment marched home triumphantly from World War I. They had spent more time in combat than any other American unit, never losing a foot of ground to the enemy, or a man to capture, and winning countless decorations. Though they returned as heroes, this African American unit faced tremendous discrimination, even from their own government. The Harlem Hellfighters, as the Germans called them, fought courageously on—and off—the battlefield to make Europe, and America, safe for democracy.
While in the United States, the 369th Regiment never felt what it really was like to be free, with no racial discrimination towards them at all. In France, the French treated the 369th like their own. They didn’t show hatred toward them and didn’t racially segregate the 369th. The 369th finally felt what it was like to be treated equally. The French accepted the all black, 369th Regiment with open arms and welcomed them to their country.
For over two decades, Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft) researched the Hellfighters’ story. His fact-finding mission paid off in his attention to historical detail, like the nicknames the soldiers gave to each type of German artillery or the specific type of gas used on the battlefield.
Brooks, best known for zombie books like World War Z (the basis for the Brad Pitt film), applies much of the same blood lust and horror to the battlefield in World War I. Harlem Hellfighters reads like a movie, too, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) it was just optioned by Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment for a film to be distributed by Sony. The drama unfolds quickly as the recruits sign up in Harlem, battle racism while training in South Carolina, then jump across the Atlantic to fight the Germans in scene after scene of bombs and bullets. The dialogue throughout is short and snappy. The violence practically jumps off the page and punches the reader in the face.
Some of Brooks’ characters are more three-dimensional as well: Henry Johnson, the first American soldier to win the Croix de Guerre, the French military’s honor for acts of heroism in combat. Brooks portrays Johnson as a man honored for unleashing his anger on the battlefield but struggling to control that same rage away from the frontline. At one point while on leave Johnson snaps and mercilessly beats a group of drunken bigots.
Like the regiment of African American soldiers it depicts, Harlem Hellfighters can’t be stereotyped or pigeon holed. It might not be your typical history book, but it packs one hell of a punch.