From Zombies to Trench Warfare
‘World War Z’ author Max Brooks talks World War I
One of the most battle-hardened American units of World War I was the New York National Guard’s 369th Infantry Regiment, the only all-black American combat unit of the war.
Despite sub-par equipment, terrible treatment and generally being set up to fail by their white superiors, the black troops never lost a trench. And remarkably, the Germans never captured any of them.
For their tenacity, they became known to both sides as the Harlem Hellfighters.
Max Brooks, bestselling author of zombie epic World War Z, takes on this story in his new graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters, illustrated by Canaan White.
Brooks first learned about the the 396th at age 11 from a UCLA student who worked for his parents, and who was studying Marcus Garvey and the civil rights struggle. The story left a huge impact on the young Brooks.
“It never left me,” Brooks said in a phone interview with War is Boring. “The idea that our country could be so inhumane to the people who fought for it.”
The project started life as a screenplay, but a World War I film, especially one with a mostly black cast, did not scream “box office hit” to studios. Still, many writers, directors and actors encouraged Brooks to pursue the story.
He eventually re-worked it into a graphic novel, still a visual medium. And he no longer had to worry about studio politics and budgets. He could portray battles of epic size for a fraction of the cost of a movie.
Authenticity has always been a hallmark of Brooks’ writing. Even in Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, Brooks grounds everything in reality. That sensibility is especially important in retelling the Harlem Hellfighters’ true story.
“It was terrifying,” Brooks told War is Boring. “If you make something up while you’re writing about zombies, who are you going to offend? Zombies?”
The story mostly focuses on group of fictionalized soldiers. But their personalities, backgrounds and experiences are an amalgamation of real individuals, like the soldiers’ South African-born Zulu sergeant.
Brooks and White have painstakingly researched the battle conditions, uniforms and equipment—right down to the buttons on the soldiers’ jackets. White’s illustrations are brutal and gruesome. The stark black and white evokes It Was the War of the Trenches, but has its own distinct voice.
It was the era of black activists like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. These soldiers were fighting for country and race. Woodrow Wilson had sold the war to America as a crusade for democracy. The Harlem Hellfighters would be damned if they were going to be left out of that.
Carrying a gun, fighting for their country—it was empowering.
This was exactly what many whites feared. The Hellfighters faced terrible discrimination while training in the American South. It was an era of race riots and lynchings. Southerners insulted and assaulted the black soldiers.
French commanders had requested American reinforcements, but U.S. commanders didn’t want to risk white American lives. They sent the 369th. The Hellfighters were under French command and fought with French equipment. The French, happy to be reinforced at all, treated them well and happily fought side-by-side with the black Americans.
Brooks spent 16 years researching this history. The Harlem Hellfighters’ extensive bibliography is evidence of his painstaking work. “Their fight was against more than just racism,” Brooks said of the Hellfighters. “Race aside, they were just an incredible unit.”
Brooks said he was surprised to learn that Henry Johnson was the first American of any race to be awarded France’s Croix de Guerre for courage in combat. “At some points, I had to check myself to make sure I wasn’t making stuff up,” Brooks said.
He said he double-checked some facts that sounded too outrageous to be true, such as the Hellfighters getting brooms instead of rifles in basic training—and the Hellfighters being the only unit between the Germans and Paris during one particularly crucial battle.
But it was all true.
The Harlem Hellfighters were one of the most aggressive allied units of the war. They were the first allied troops to reach the Rhine River. After the war, many became combatants in the battle for civil rights, bringing to the racial struggle the same organization and determination they’d honed on the European battlefield.
“These guys weren’t professional soldiers,” Brooks pointed out. “They all had lives back home they were giving up. Especially some members of the officer class were very successful [before the war].”
James Reese Europe, one of the most successful jazz musicians of the day, volunteered to lead the regimental band—and plays a supporting role in the book. “That would be like Kanye [West] going to serve in Afghanistan,” Brooks said.
The Harlem Hellfighters still exist today, in the form of the New York National Guard’s 369th Sustainment Brigade. While working on the book, Brooks met with the unit’s current commander Col. Reginald Sanders at his armory in New York.
Brooks said Sanders told him that carrying on the World War I legacy is a huge responsibility. For Brooks, adapting this remarkable history was a “passion project,” he said. “It was just something I had wanted to do for years.”
Brooks’ next project is a comic book about zombies and vampires he’s calling The Extinction Parade. Brooks said he’d love to write more historical stories. “There are just so many stories out there that deserve to be told”
But they might have to wait. The Harlem Hellfighters may be headed to the big screen, after all. Will Smith and Sony have optioned the rights, and Brooks is re-adapting it into a screenplay.
The Harlem Hellfighters arrives in stores on April 1.