The Harlem Hellfighters
Written By: Max Brooks
I was looking for things to review for the G-POP.net 2018 Black History Month page when I came across a graphic novel I had never heard before. It tells a fictionalized account of an African American regiment who fought in World War I. Now, we’ve all heard of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, but I must admit, The Harlem Hellfighters…well, I never heard of them, and I definitely wanted to learn more.
At the beginning of the United States’ entry into World War I, recruitment began for the 15th New York National Guard Regiment in Harlem, New York. The all-black regiment came from all sorts of backgrounds, cultures and classes. There were laborers, educated men, and men from the islands who felt that patriotic bend and wanted to fight for their country. Unfortunately, the recruits would soon learn that wanting to fight for your country just like any other American would not be enough to afford them equal treatment.
At basic training, they are given uniforms later than white recruits and they must perform maneuvers with broomsticks rather than rifles. To complete their training, the regiment is sent to South Carolina, but in Spartansburg, things are even worse. Subject to Jim Crow laws and openly attacked by townsfolk, resentment builds. Fortunately, it isn’t long before the 15th is sent to France and the Western Front. Here, the regiment is reorganized into the 369th Infantry Regiment and find themselves under the jurisdiction of the French Fourth Army. It is here that the members of the regiment find acceptance and colorblindness. For the French, if you are willing to fight, your skin color doesn’t matter.
It is also here that the members of the regiment learn the realities of war. First, one of their own is killed by a sniper on their first day in the trenches. Then come the vermin and lice, the lack of privacy, the constant death and the ever-present smell of that dead. Bombings, air attacks and gas attacks become the norm. And eventually, the United States Army finds a way to land one last indignity – while the French have been treating the black officers as equals, the United States Army has made it clear that they are not, barring them from social interactions with whites. This actually causes one recruit to leave, transferring to a labor unit, but with a major German assault coming, that recruit decides his place is with the men he started this journey with.
The Harlem Hellfighters, so dubbed by the German infantry they faced in the trenches, were an actual United States Army regiment in World War I. That being said, when Max Brooks sought information on the all black regiment who fought in the first World War, he found himself fighting an uphill battle. As I said before, everyone had heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, but very few knew of the 369th Infantry Regiment. After conducting a great deal of research, Brooks decided he would make a movie on the subject, but struggled to get anyone in the movie industry to bite. After working on a graphic novel as a companion to The Zombie Survival Guide, Brooks got the idea to turn his movie into a graphic novel.
None of the characters in The Harlem Hellfighters are actual soldiers in the 369th Infantry Regiment. Brooks actually used compiled stories of the real-life soldiers to create his fictionalized fighters. However, there were some real soldiers who made their way into the pages, including James Europe, Henry Lincoln Johnson, Arthur Little, Henri Gourand and the pilot whose story I was introduced to some time ago, Eugene Jacques Ballard. Happily, the final pages of The Harlem Hellfighters explain this all to the readers and includes photos of members of the actual regiment and bits of facts about the real soldiers depicted in the graphic novel, as well as Brooks’ struggle to bring their story to light.
The Harlem Hellfighters is an important piece of history that every American, no matter their skin color, should know. The fact that I never learned of this regiment in school speaks volumes to me. Their memory should be praised, not left to wither and die. Their story, though fictionalized in the graphic novel, rings true when it discusses the prejudice received from their government and their own Army. This prejudice is made even more insulting when you see how these men were treated by the French. When you have gone through years of segregation and hate, French acceptance of the black soldier (a trait that has been spoken to more than once in books I have read in the past), must have felt incredibly foreign. But to experience that acceptance, fight heroically and then have it all taken away again – what a slap in the face!
The story is well-told and the artwork is decent. My only criticism is that I believe the story would have more impact were it in color. The black and white comic style is understandable as many of the scenes of war are graphic, but I really think it would have gone a long way in explaining both the horrors of war and the lack of respect given black soldiers if you could see all of this in vivid color. That being said, I liked seeing things through the eyes of one of the enlisted men. You could see how important it was to Max Brooks to have this story told and, I tend to agree, that sometimes the graphic novel format is the best way to do this – especially if you want to appeal to the younger generations.
The Harlem Hellfighters is a graphic novel I would definitely recommend to anyone interested in history, whether that be the history of the World Wars, the history of the fight for civil rights for black Americans or just plain history in general. This is something I would want teachers to recommend to their students – definitely a worthwhile teaching tool. Thank you, Max Brooks, for introducing me, a history buff, to a tale I had never heard before.