Max Brooks has a secret he wants to share. And it has nothing to do with zombies.
Brooks, the best-selling author of zombie thrillers “World War Z” and “The Zombie Survival Guide,” has taken on a little-known but vital part of American history with his latest project — the story of the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment.
He’ll talk about his new graphic novel “The Harlem Hellfighters” on 7 p.m. Tuesday in San Luis Obispo as part of the nonprofit Foundation for San Luis Obispo County Public Libraries’ Book & Author Series.
The 369th was the first African-American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. The unit was put under the command of the French army, partly because many U.S. soldiers refused to serve in combat with blacks.
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The regiment served more time in the trenches than any other U.S. unit.
The soldiers acquired their nickname, the “Harlem Hellfighters,” from the Germans because of their fierceness and their record in combat – the 369th never had a man captured and never lost ground to the enemy. Still, they are a forgotten part of U.S. history.
“When I was a kid, there was a young guy working for my parents while he was going to school to get his history degree, and he told me about them,” Brooks said, sparking a personal fascination. “When it came time to learn about World War I in high school, there was obviously no mention of that. There was no mention of them in college. They are as far off the radar screen as you can get.”
The individual stories of the men who fought for the 369th are powerful and compelling, Brooks said.
Henry Lincoln Johnson, along with Needham Roberts, fought off an entire German patrol. He suffered 21 wounds in the fight and was the first American soldier to receive the Croix de Guerre from the French government. And influential band leader, arranger and composer Jim Europe gave up his successful life in the United States to lead the regimental band. He later helped bring jazz to Europe.
“It’s a fascinating, fascinating story. I think the biggest challenge for me was how to condense this epic into something that’s digestible, especially for young people,” Brooks said. Making history accessible is part of the reason he chose the graphic novel format to tell the Harlem Hellfighter’s story. He also wanted a visual reminder of the obstacles the soldiers had to overcome just to be allowed to serve their country.
“I didn’t want the reader to ever forget what these guys looked like, because they were never allowed to forget,” said Brooks, whose story is paired with illustrations by Canaan White. “I want them to be reminded on every page these are black guys in a white-dominated world.”
He hopes their story will coax readers into a conversation about race in America, something he plans to talk about on Tuesday.
“The story of the Harlem Hellfighters is really the story of us. It’s the story of a country that’s built on ideals it’s still trying to live up to. And we’re living in times that really do echo the Hellfighters’,” Brooks said. “When I first tried to get this made as a movie in the ’90s, nobody wanted it, because those were happy, dumb, insulated times. And now, those issues of war, of race, of justice, they’re all back. We’re all living it now.”