Code Switch
7:58 am
Wed April 2, 2014

The Harlem Hellfighters: Fighting Racism In The Trenches Of WWI

Originally published on Tue April 1, 2014 7:58 pm

The 369th Infantry Regiment served 191 days under enemy fire in Europe. They returned home one of the most decorated American units of World War I.

"The French called them the 'Men of Bronze' out of respect, and the Germans called them the 'Harlem Hellfighters' out of fear," explains Max Brooks, author of The Harlem Hellfighters, a new graphic novel about the first African-American infantry unit to fight in World War I.

The syncopated stylings of their regimental band, led by James Reese Europe, introduced French listeners to American jazz. As soldiers, the Harlem Hellfighters left their mark in the trenches of France.

'A Powder Keg'

"We did not give ourselves our name [the 'Harlem Hellfighters']," says Col. Reginald Sanders, a former commander of the 369th Sustainment Brigade, which descended from the original World War I unit. "Our enemies gave us our name, [which] is an honor."

Today's Hellfighters specialize in combat logistics in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Mali. But Sanders hasn't forgotten the unit's early history of fighting on the front lines in France and in the U.S. Their first battle was during training camp in Spartanburg, S.C., in October 1917. Just weeks earlier, the arrival of another African-American regiment sparked a race riot in Houston.

Tense standoffs arose between the Hellfighters and white residents in Spartanburg. "[It was] a powder keg!" Brooks say. "The whole nation was keyed up for another race riot, and you're sending northern black troops to train in South Carolina ... the first state to secede from the Union."

But in the end, the Hellfighters left town without a major incident.

"What separates a soldier from a civilian is discipline — the notion of mental control and the notion of restraint," Brooks adds. "I don't think any soldier, short of a samurai, has shown more restraint than the Hellfighters at Spartanburg."

'The Weight Of The World'

Their training prepared them for combat, but racial segregation in the U.S. Army kept them from marching to the front lines in France. Instead, they, and other African-American soldiers, were put to work unloading ships.

"[The white establishment] did not think that African-Americans had the intelligence to think clearly," Brooks says.

The French army absorbed the Hellfighters to help replenish their own ranks, finally giving them the opportunity to fight that the U.S. Army denied them. Still, Sanders adds that some French officers doubted whether the African-American soldiers had enough courage to go into battle.

But the Hellfighters did not disappoint.

"[The French] were shocked at how willing the Americans were to charge into the face of death," Brooks explains. "Everybody [in this unit] had so much to prove on every level. The soldiers had to prove their courage. The officers had to prove their intelligence and their courage. There really was the weight of the world on all their shoulders."

'Proud To Be Americans, Proud To Be Black'

Melville Miller was 16 when he joined the Harlem Hellfighters, which was first formed as the 15th New York National Guard regiment. Decades after World War I, he could still recall marching through formerly German-occupied territory.

"That day, the sun was shining, and we were marching. And the band was playing," Miller told an interviewer for the 1977 documentary Men of Bronze. "Everybody's head [was] high, and we were all proud to be Americans, proud to be black, and proud to be in the 15th New York Infantry."

Miller and his comrades were awarded French Croix de Guerre medals for their bravery. They were welcomed home with a parade in New York City along Fifth Avenue, an honor denied to them before they left for war because of their race.

But the cheering didn't last for long.

"They came home to some of the worst racial violence in American history, the Red Summer of 1919," Brooks explains. "I don't think there's been that level of race riots that we've seen in American history."

Brooks adds there was a tremendous amount of pushback against African-American soldiers once they returned to civilian life.

As the narrator of his graphic novel says, "It'd be a nice story if I could say that our parade or even our victories changed the world overnight, but truth's got an ugly way of killin' nice stories."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Zombie fiction fans know him best for "World War Z." The latest work from Max Brooks is out today. It's a graphic novel that tells a story from a real World War, the first one. The book focuses on the first African-American infantry unit to fight in World War I.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang tells us about the Harlem Hellfighters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The Harlem Hellfighters arrived in France on New Year's Day in 1918. More than a year later, the African-American regiment returned home one of the most decorated American units of World War I.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Don't start the bombing with those hand grenades. There's a machine gun, holy spades. Alert, gas. Put on your mask.

WANG: This is a post-war recording of the regimental band. Their syncopated stylings introduced French listeners to American jazz. As soldiers, the Harlem Hellfighters left their mark in the trenches of France.

MAX BROOKS: The French called them the Men of Bronze out of respect, and the Germans called them the Harlem Hellfighters out of fear.

WANG: That was Max Brooks.

COL. REGINALD SANDERS: We did not give ourselves our name. Our enemies gave us our name, which - that is a honor.

WANG: And that was Colonel Reginald Sanders. He's the commander of the 369th Sustainment Brigade, the descendant of the original World War I unit.

SANDERS: Max, how are you?

BROOKS: Nice to meet you, sir.

SANDERS: Nice to meet you, too.

WANG: The three of us met recently in New York's Harlem neighborhood at the 369th Regiment Armory, where you can find reminders of the unit's history of fighting on the front lines in France and in the U.S. Their first battle was during training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in October of 1917, weeks after the arrival of another African-American unit sparked a race riot in Houston.

BROOKS: So what, a powder keg. I mean, the whole nation was keyed up for another race riot, and you're sending northern black troops to train in South Carolina.

SANDERS: The heart of it.

BROOKS: The heart of it. The first state to secede from the Union.

WANG: Tense and heated standoffs arose between black soldiers and white residents. But in the end, the Hellfighters left town peacefully.

BROOKS: What separates a soldier from a civilian is discipline, the notion of mental control and the notion of restraint. And I don't think any soldier, short of a samurai, has shown more restraint than the Hellfighters at Spartanburg.

WANG: Their training prepared them for combat but racial segregation in the U.S. Army kept them from marching to the front lines in France. Instead, they, along with other African-American soldiers, were put to work unloading ships.

BROOKS: They did not think African-Americans had the intelligence to think clearly.

SANDERS: Or the courage.

BROOKS: Or the courage.

SANDERS: And that's the important point because what happened is their first battle, the - actually, the French - you know, even though everything was going well for training, they still had doubts.

WANG: The French army absorbed the Hellfighters to help replenish their own ranks, finally giving them the opportunity to fight that the U.S. Army denied them. The French were not disappointed.

BROOKS: They were shocked at how willing the Americans were to charge into the face of death.

WANG: To be men of bronze.

BROOKS: To be men of bronze, yeah. I mean, we're talking about a unit - everybody had so much to prove on every level. The soldiers had to prove their courage. The officers had to prove their intelligence and their courage. There really was the weight of the world on all their shoulders.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MEN OF BRONZE")

MELVILLE MILLER: Every man thought he was in the best squad, in the best platoon, in the best regiment of the whole damn United States Army.

WANG: Melville Miller was 16 when he joined the Harlem Hellfighters. Two years later, the unit - also known as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment - was awarded French Croix de Guerre medals for their bravery. Decades later, Miller could still recall marching through formerly German-occupied territory as he recounted in the 1977 documentary "Men of Bronze."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MEN OF BRONZE")

MILLER: That day, the sun was shining and we were marching, and the band was playing, everybody's head high. And we were all proud to be Americans, proud to be black and proud to be in the 15th New York Infantry. What's your next question?

WANG: So what did happen when they came home successful, with the Croix de Guerre?

BROOKS: Well, they came home to some of the worst racial violence in American history, the Red Summer of 1919.

WANG: The Harlem Hellfighters helped win the war in Europe after serving 191 days under enemy fire. They were welcomed home with a parade along Fifth Avenue. But the cheering didn't last for long. As the narrator of Max Brooks' "The Harlem Hellfighters" says, it'd be a nice story if I could say that our parade or even our victories changed the world overnight. But truth's got an ugly way of killing nice stories. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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