The Hell with War.

HellfighersGreetings! Happy MLK Day to you all. I just finished this book a while back and thought I’d share something resembling a review with you.

The Hellfighters of Harlem: African-American Soldiers Who Fought for the Right to Fight for Their Country by Bill Harris

Why this book? If you wanted to know a little bit about African American Military history you would do well to pick this book up. The first half of the book deals with WWI and specifically the Harlem Hellfighters regiment and their story as well as the regimental band under the leadership of James Europe. It was Jim Europe who helped to lay some of the ground work for the music of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s as well as introduce Jazz to the people of France. While their may be books out there that go into greater depth, this serves as a solid introduction to African-American Military history.

Desperate to prove the nickname was nothing more than ironic racism General Black Jack Pershing forbid the unit from serving. (Okay maybe that’s conjecture.) The unit drilled in a dancehall and on the streets of Harlem before going overseas and being assigned to fight alongside the French. The French re-outfitted the Hellfighters with French weapons and helmets and assisted in the final stages of their training.
“Their distinguished WWI record featured the longest frontline service of any American regiment, and they were the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine River, with not one soldier captured or a foot of ground lost to the enemy.

Their distinguished private, Henry Johnson, was awarded France’s prestigious Croix de Guerre, for single-handedly knocking out a platoon of twenty eight German troops.”

 

The book is in two parts and the second part of the book (Other Times, Other Heroes) gives an overview of African-Americans fighting for America that deals mainly with the 2nd World War and the legacy of the Hellfighters and how that legacy is tied to Tuskegee Airmen as well as men fighting in Korea as the military desegregated. There are also a few anecdotes thrown in about the war of 1812, The Civil War, and the Revolutionary War. Admittedly this is where the structure of the book became muddled but much of the information laid out was old news to a history buff. The real gems in the book are in the 1st part (The Pride of Harlem) which in my opinion could have been much longer and much more thoroughly presented. Still for the first 100 pages this was a hard book to put down. And the heroes that formed the Hellfighters regiment were some of the coolest guys in the war. I mean look at this picture:

Jim Europe and the 369th Regimental Band.

Jim Europe and the 369th “Hellfighters” Band.

The most interesting part of the book for me was reading about Jim Europe. How I, a history geek who was also once labeled a “budding Jazz freak” by Ron Cuzner, managed to live consciously for 30 years without knowing about Jim Europe is beyond me. Bill Harris included a nice bibliography of source material, some of which will be on my reading list this year as The November Criminals prepare for The Great War.