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Harlem Hellfighters deserve their due

bookI have always been something of a fanatic about graphic novels and my collection includes Maus (which depicts the holocaust — with cats as Nazis and mice as Jews — and the two-volume set of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which is a memoir of the author’s childhood growing up during the Islamic Revolution. I also have a badly-worn copy of Alan Moore’s In Hell which is one of the most remarkable books I have ever encountered. I also have several boxes full of “undergrounds,” which are the true forerunners of the modern graphic novel. Many of them are graphic American “histories” by artists like Jack Jackson (Jaxon) and R. Crumb. Admittedly, I rarely run into people who share my appreciation for these guys.


Now comes The Harlem Hellfighters, which is based on the shameful (true) history of the 369th Battalion, an African-American unit that performed heroically (both at home and in Europe) only to have the news of their victories suppressed by a racist military that refused to give these men credit for their role in winning the war. It is not a pretty story. However, this harsh tale of injustice, brutality and battlefield horror is ideally suited to the graphic novel format.

Max Brooks, who also wrote the graphic novel World War Z, in league with the African-American illustrator Caanan White, has managed to create a tale that is told with bitterness and rage. Much of the factual details have been buried for the past 70 years. Many of the characters — such as James Reece Europe, William Hayward, Captain Hamilton Fish, Corporal Saul Fabius, Horace Pippin and Henry Johnson — are based on actual people. Johnson is the first American (black or white) to receive the French Croix de Guerre. His accomplishments were not acknowledged by the U.S. military until 74 years after his death.

Originally a New York National Guard regiment known as the “Black Rattlers,” the 369th Battalion was organized on the second floor of a dance studio in Harlem. Initially, recruits were told that the battalion had been established to afford the privilege of fighting for the U.S. against Germany to “colored recruits.” Hundreds of volunteers flocked to the recruitment center, some coming from locations as distant as the Dutch West Indies.  

However, the military made it clear that the status of the 369th was inferior to the “regular army.” The recruits were denied uniforms and went through basic training with broomsticks instead of actual rifles. They were also subjected to training that was inhumane. Military leaders were quoted as saying that the Negro was not “evolved” enough to handle challenges involving leadership, hence the African American could only function as a soldier if there were competent white officers present to direct him. When the 369th was deployed to Spartanburg, S.C., the soldiers encountered local resentment. The mayor and the chamber of commerce noted that “the 369th is unwelcome here” and, being from the north, they will probably “expect to be treated as though they were equal to white citizens.”

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Deemed unfit for warfare by the American military and coping with resentment in Spartanburg, the 369th was sent to France where they were welcomed by Gen. Henri Gauraud who was in desperate need of trained soldiers. The 369th was issued French weaponry and uniforms. Gauraud referred to them as “my little orphans” and immediately deployed them to the front lines where they were immediately subjected to sniper fire, poison gas and heavy bombardment. The stubborn fury with which they fought resulted in their new name, “The Harlem Hellfighters.” At this point, the 369th participated in a series of bloody encounters that received national attention and made them national heroes.

However, the fame of the 369th did not change their status in America. Gen. John Perishing issued an order that must mark an all-time low in American hypocrisy: “French military personnel shall not eat with, or shake hands with, or visit or converse with Negro troops except as required by military matters. Negro troops shall not be overly praised, especially in the presence of white Americans, regardless of rank.” In addition, Perishing was displeased by the fact that the 369th Regimental Band, under the direction of James Reece Europe, had acquired international fame, a fact that caused Perishing concern since it suggested that the French are “spoiling” these soldiers with “notions of equality.”

Pershing’s complaints to the French government suggest just how bad things were with African-Americans in 1918. It is hard to believe that the following statement represents American belief: “The vices of the Negro are a constant menace to the American who has repressed them sternly. White Americans become greatly incensed at any public expression of intimacy between white women and black men.”

So we are left with this contradiction. The Harlem Hellfighters became one of the most decorated units, black or white, in the entire American expeditionary forces. Despite the fact that they were forbidden to fight with our own army; despite imported prejudice from the American government; despite the insults, restrictions and attempts to “repress them sternly;” despite the fact that the 369th halted the invasion of Paris and drove the enemy back to the Rhine.

The 369th finally got their parade and a brief moment of recognition on Feb. 17, 1919. A lot of ugly things happened about the time that the “war to end all wars” ceased. There was the “red summer of 1919,” followed by a decade of extreme racial violence. As for all of those surviving members of the Harlem Hellfighters, many came home with a bitterness in their hearts that sometimes burned with anger about how they helped the white men to kill other white men ... something that they have done many times in many countries. Is it not time for a reckoning?

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