Bewildering Stories

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Review: The Sable Doughboys

by S. Francis Murphy

“I’m not a nigger. I’m not a boy. So I guess I can talk to a white man like that.” These are the words of Lieutenant Adrian Sharps, an African-American officer in the American Expeditionary Force to World War I in France. The struggles and triumphs of Lt. Sharp and his fellow African-American soldiers can be found in the pages of Tom Willard’s The Sable Doughboys. Sable Doughboys is a term of endearment granted to the U.S. Army’s 372nd Infantry Regiment by the French, who were happy to have the help of America in 1918.

The reader starts at the beginning of Sergeant Major Augustus Sharp’s life in the United States Army. Freed from a white buffalo hunter by a cavalry trooper of the 10th Cavalry Regiment in the late 1860s, he goes on to a successful career in the Army. When his son, Adrian, hears President Wilson’s call for men in 1917, he shakes his hand and wishes him well.

Unfortunately, Adrian and his fellow peers must deal with indifference and outright racism from their white counterparts. Due to his “uppity” nature, Lt. Sharps and his platoon are singled out for excessive guard duty, abusive treatment, and threats to life and limb. When they first arrive in France, rather than going straight to the front, they are used as labour gangs for unloading cargo vessels. Lt. Sharps must confront his upset troops and his white company commander at the same time, trying to find redress for the grievance without giving the Army an excuse to court-martial his angry men.

One indignity was the assignment of U.S. Colored Troops to fight in the French Army. Adrian Sharps realizes that their reassignment is in part political and partly racist. Their white leaders are afraid of the effect that an organized fighting division of African-Americans might have. In the words of one of his troopers, “They are going to hide us.”

It is, perhaps, impossible for anyone who is not a minority to understand the experiences of their status. But in the case of Tom Willard’s series of historical fiction which chronicles the advances of the African-American soldier, it is possible for anyone to get a taste of the bitter stew of our racial past. Mr. Willard has two other books in his Black Sabre Chronicle series, Buffalo Soldiers and Wings of Honor. His text is historically accurate, not taking liberties with the actual events which is one of the pitfalls of most historical fiction. His characters are alive, passionate about their cause and the abuses they suffer.

Copyright © 2003 by S. Francis Murphy