November 11th is Remembrance Day in Canada. It’s the day we pause in a moment of silence for all the soldiers that have served our country to honour the work they have done, to remember the fallen, and to show our gratitude for the freedoms that were hard fought for. So, this week on Whisky & Comics, I’d like to share with you the story of a little known American Infantry Regiment that fought in World War I known as The Harlem Hellfighters, because they certainly need to be remembered.
I first learned of the Harlem Hellfighters at the Max Brooks panel during Calgary Expo. Max Brooks of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z fame. I had never seen him in an interview and I think all I knew of him before attending was from his author write ups at the back of his books. I was so glad I went to his presentation as it was one of the best panels I attended at the Expo because he’s such a great speaker and hilarious. For anyone that has read his books on zombies, it seems like he’s the kind of person to obsess over every detail, and that became very apparent as he started to talk about his work on his latest project, a graphic novel called The Harlem Hellfighters. He told the audience about how their own government neglected these soldiers, how they weren’t allowed to march in the send off parade in New York City, how they weren’t given uniforms for training, how there weren’t even provided with guns for training but broomsticks instead. Shocked? Confused? Well I left out one detail about the Harlem Hellfighters, they were all black. They were told they couldn’t march in that send off parade in their home of NYC with the Rainbow Division of the National Guardsmen because “black is not a color of the rainbow”. The Harlem Hellfighters spent more time in combat than any other unit. Soldier Henry Johnson was the first American to received the Croix de Guerre medal from the French army. They were named the Hellfighters by the Germans for the way they fought and never lost a man to capture. Hellfighter James Reese Europe was a celebrity at the time known as “The King of Jazz” and introduced the French to jazz music. Upon their return home in February 1919 they finally got their parade in the streets of New York. In many ways the Hellfighters were not only fighting for our freedoms but for equality as well.
The graphic novel is a fictionalized account of the Harlem Hellfighters and is illustrated in great detail by Caanan White. Brooks originally wrote this story as a movie script, but no one was interested in producing it so decided to publish the story as a graphic novel instead. The book was very well received so of course now it is finally getting the movie treatment.
At the Expo I got Max Brooks to sign my copy of The Harlem Hellfighters and he wrote: “The past isn’t always pretty, but it’s always important.”