Harlem Hellfighters: Max Brooks Pays Tribute to World War I Heroes

Paul Thompson—War Department/National Archives
Members of the famed 369th Infantry, a.k.a. the Harlem Hellfighters, wave from deck of a ship as they arrive home from duty in World War I, during which they became the first American unit to reach the Rhine.

Fans of Max Brooks’ books — World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide, and The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks — might be surprised to learn that, since his boyhood in Southern California, the 41-year-old author and screenwriter has been fascinated by a little-known tale of American courage, and American shame: namely, the story of the Harlem Hellfighters.

The Hellfighters, a highly decorated black infantry regiment in the U.S. Army, were the first Allied troops to reach the Rhine at the end of World War I. Back home, after the war was ended, they faced racism, discrimination and outright violence. Here, Brooks shares his thoughts on a stirring photo of American heroes returning to a land that, in many ways, had no place for them.

The eye of the storm. That’s what comes to mind (and heart) when I see this photo of the Harlem Hellfighters. These men have already endured one maelstrom in the trenches of France, and now they’re heading straight into another — in their own land. They’re going home to face hypocrisy and hatred in a nation built on ideals that America has yet to live up to — and that the Hellfighters have yet to enjoy

They’re going home to a racial environment so virulent it will spark dozens of deadly race riots around the U.S. — lending the infamous “Red Summer of 1919″ its name. (Race riots exploded across America in the Second World War, as well — a bitter commentary on the enduring myth of a country seamlessly united in its battle against Fascism and racial violence abroad.)

And yet it’s worth remembering that the hatred and fear that surrounded the Hellfighters — and countless other African-Americans in 1919 — were in elemental ways direct, visceral reactions to the pride justly displayed on the faces of these returning heroes. To me, the brilliant smiles of the men in this picture seem to say: “We fought to make the world safe for democracy, and we’ll keep fighting until it’s safe for us, and for ours, here in the USA.”

Max Brooks

Max Brooks is the bestselling author of World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide, and The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks.

The Harlem Hellfighters (Broadway Books) — illustrated by Caanan White — is available everywhere. Learn more at MaxBrooks.com.

(Photo: Jacqui Howell)

A page from the 2014 graphic novel, 'Harlem Hellfighters,' written by Max Brooks and illustrated by Canaan White.

Canaan White/Random House

From the 2014 graphic novel, 'The Harlem Hellfighters,' written by Max Brooks and illustrated by Canaan White.

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