In the just-released The Harlem Hellfighters, Max Brooks—who made his name with the The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z—dives into the story and heroics of the 369th U.S. Army Infantry Regiment, the all-black unit assembled to fight in World War I.
After facing intense discrimination and racist treatment at the hands of their superiors, the soldiers were sent to join the French Army on the Western Front, where they became one of the most decorated units of the war effort. It was their willingness to take dangerous assignments—and their refusal to concede an inch of ground—that earned them the “Hellfighters” moniker from German soldiers.
Illustrated by Caanan White (who also draws Uber, a World War II comic), the book represents several decades of historical interest from the 41-year-old Brooks, who is the son of Mel Brooks and the late Anne Bancroft. I spoke with him earlier this week about the book, its origins, and the history behind it. This is the full interview, edited for clarity.
What was the genesis of this project?
The idea came from a guy named Michael Furmanovsky who worked for my parents when I was a kid. He was a personal assistant doing odd jobs and errands while putting himself through school to become a history professor. He learned about [the 369th infantry regiment] while researching a Marcus Garvey project for UCLA. And he just told me about them in one sentence, but I never forgot about it.
Over time, I learned more about them and became entranced by their combat record. And I learned obviously about the context of how African Americans were treated in the military. For an African American unit to overcome racism and make a contribution to the war effort would have been heroic enough. But to actually make a difference is truly what they mean when they say “above and beyond.”
Absolutely. It was incredible to read how successful they were in their fighting across the Western Front.
If this had been a white unit, we would be doing God knows how many remakes of the movies about them. And race aside, this was an important unit for the war effort, and that should be celebrated, not just the fact that they encountered racism.
One thing that has always struck me about the First World War is how little Americans know about it. It’s opaque and impenetrable to a lot of people. Racism aside, do you think that this is part of the reason this kind of story hasn’t been told?
I think World War I has been largely overshadowed by World War II. You don’t have to be a warmonger to appreciate the struggles of the Second World War. Fighting Hitler—who’s not going to get behind that? Avenging Pearl Harbor—how is that controversial?
It also was a more visually fascinating war. You can picture fleets of warships and columns of tanks and airplanes so thick they blot out the sun. You know, this war of mobility, this war of mechanization. Whereas World War I was just young men shivering and dying in muddy trenches, and literally not moving an inch for four years. Not only was it a static war, not only was it a brutal war—it was a stupid war. What was it about?
The great powers of Europe kind of just stumbled into it and fell ass-backwards into the apocalypse. I think that’s why World War I is not the stuff of legends, whereas World War II can be Lord of the Rings, but with tanks.
To get back to the story itself, one of the things I liked about your treatment of the racism of the era is that you alluded to the waves of anti-black violence that struck throughout that decade. Most people understand that there was violence against individuals and families, but not this organized violence against entire towns.
I think the closest thing we can come to imagining something like that [violence] is when we watch a zombie outbreak movie, and we see people fleeing for their lives from carnivorous hordes trying to wipe them out. That is literally what happened to black people in the last century, when there were these horrific race riots. And when we think about race riots, we tend to think about Rodney King—unruly black people burning down their own stores. That totally was not the case. These were lynch mobs and violence against civilians.
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