HARLEM, N.Y. - New York Times best-selling author of "World War Z" and "The Zombie Survival Guide," Max Brooks is out to make the African-American soldiers of the New York National Guard’s 369th Infantry Regiment as famous as the zombies he's been writing about.
Brooks' "World War Z" is written in the style of an oral history and relates the story of a worldwide fight against the undead.
His next release will be "The Harlem Hellfighters," a graphic novel telling for story of the highly-decorated black National Guardsmen from New York who faced discrimination from their own government and fought prejudice to be allowed to fight Germans during World War I.
The unit spent more time in combat than any other American unit and never lost ground to the German forces.
It’s a riveting story that’s never been well told, Brooks said during a Feb. 6 visit to the historic Harlem Armory, the home of the New York Army National Guard’s 369th Sustainment Brigade, the descendent of the first World War regiment.
“I wrote this book for the reason I write all my books,” Brooks said. “The story existed but the book didn’t. It is a story I wanted to read.”
Brooks toured the armory with Col. Reginald Sanders, the commander of the 369th Sustainment Regiment - today’s designation for the unit - and National Public Radio (NPR) reporter Hansi Lo Wang for a feature on the radio show "Code Switch."
The 369th Infantry Regiment was originally the 15th New York National Guard, a unit manned by African-American men, mainly from New York City and headquartered in Harlem. When the New York National Guard went to war in 1917 the Army renumbered the 15th New York the 369th Infantry.
But the Army as an institution didn't want black troops in combat and the men were put to work unloading ships.
The French Army, though, needed men and didn't care what color their skin was. The 369th was assigned to French command.
The men were issued French helmets and brown leather belts and pouches, although they continued to wear their U.S. uniforms in combat.
Brooks and Sanders discussed how the 369th men fought under the French, with equipment that was sub-par, not due to prejudice, but simply they were the best the French could offer.
This was ironic because, during the unit's training, the U.S Army quartermaster would not issue proper uniforms and training aides, Brooks said. The soldiers had to use broomsticks as rifles because the American Army delayed issuing the black soldiers weapons, he added.
Brooks and Sanders agreed that the regiment’s commander, Col. William Hayward, a white officer, faced special difficulties as the commander of an all-black unit in a segregated Army.
Hayward’s daily challenge was to be commander - maintaining morale and discipline among his men, a politician - dealing with continuous pushback from the American political establishment, and ultimately a diplomat - commanding a unit fighting as part of the French Army.
Before they faced the Germans, the New York City soldiers faced bigotry and prejudice at home while training in Spartanburg, S.C. In the Jim Crow South of 1917, northern black men with guns were not welcome. And there was tension between the soldiers and locals.
Eventually the men of Hayward’s regiment, soldiers like Pvt. Henry Johnson and Lt. James Reese, proved themselves.
Johnson singlehandedly wounded or killed 24 German soldiers while on guard duty one night. He earned the French Croix de Guerre, the equivalent of the Medal of Honor, and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2003. The American press dubbed the incident “The Battle of Henry Johnson.”
Reese, a famous New York City band leader, quit his civilian job to lead the 369th’s band. He is recognized for introducing jazz music to the French and Europe as whole, and for his skills with a machine gun.
The 369th soldiers – named the “Hell fighters” by their German enemies, spent 191 days in the front line trenches and earned 171 French Legion of Honor medals.
“This unit, the 369th Harlem Hellfighters, have never failed a mission and have never given up. Each soldier understands that he or she is apart of that lineage,” Sanders said.
“There is a legacy that all members of the 369th have to live up to: the ghosts of the soldiers of World War I and World War II,” Brooks agreed.
“Yes, mediocrity is not and will not be accepted from a Hellfighter,” Lt. Col. James Gonyo II, deputy brigade commander said.
Today’s Harlem Hellfighters are combat logistics specialists. In recent years, the Hellfighters have served in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War and in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan.
The unit regularly participates in U.S. Africa Command exercises in Mali and Cameroon, and Kuwait, as well as responding to domestic emergencies at home; like Superstorm Sandy in the fall of 2012, when 369th companies were on state active duty for weeks as part of New York’s response to the storm.