Harlem Hellfighter relative, Lynne Willett (308062)

At a White House signing ceremony President Joe Biden gave the Harlem Hellfighters a long-overdue Congressional Gold Medal, last week Wednesday on August 25, with U.S. Reps Tom Suozzi and Adriano Espaillat in attendance.

The Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal represents only the 179th medal awarded to institutions, people, or events, since the American Revolution. There have been only two other Congressional Gold Medals awarded to Black military groups, the distinguished Tuskegee Airmen in 2007 and the fierce Montfort Point Marines in 2011.

“Whether they served in battles we won or battles we lost, we must be grateful for every soldier who has served throughout our nation’s history,” said Suozzi. “But sadly, that recognition of patriotism was not extended to many of our African American soldiers who served our country with distinction.” 

The Harlem Hellfighters were a Black infantry regiment in World War One (WWI) that spent 191 days in combat, more than any other American regiment. In 1918, the U.S. Army decided to assign the Hellfighters to their French allies for the rest of the war because many white American soldiers refused to fight alongside Black soldiers. The U.S. Army gave them no weapons. They were issued weapons, helmets, belts, and pouches from the French Army instead.

These “Hollenkampfer,” or hellfighters in German, earned 11 French citations. As a group and individually, hundreds of these Black soldiers also earned Croix de Guerres, which are French military decorations for deeds of heroism.

Despite their amazing fight for their country, the Harlem Hellfighters returned home to face violent racism and entrenched segregation.

“The Harlem Hellfighters were patriots. But for too long, their sacrifice was cast aside. It was an honor to see our bill giving them their overdue Congressional Gold Medal be signed last week—to right this decades old injustice, and to honor their service,” said Espaillat, one of the lead co-sponsors of the legislation in the House, via tweet.  

Long Islander Debra Willett is of the Glen Cove Willett family, native to the Oyster Bay area. She worked hard with legislators to posthumously have her grandfather, Harlem Hellfighter Sergeant Leander Willett, awarded a Purple Heart. 

Willet comes from a military family, she said, with descendants traced back to the Civil War. She said that Sgt. Leander Willett was described as a “quiet man” who was “bound to the water” in his love for fishing and clamming. He was also an amateur boxer during his time overseas in WWI. He passed in 1966. 

In November 2019, the Willett family was presented with the award at a ceremony at Glen Cove’s North Shore Historical Museum. “I really have to thank all of the people at North Shore Historical Museum for helping me getting this done,” said Willett.

Unfortunately, because of COVID restrictions, Willett and her family did not get to attend the White House signing of the bill her grandfather helped to inspire. 

“It’s kind of like aw no,” she said about missing the ceremony, “but there’s going to be something at the Smithsonian when the medal is finally made. We’ll attend that, but you know, it’s just the fact that it was done.”

Willett thanked Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Shumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Suozzi, and Espaillat for being there. “I mean, I just can’t thank them enough for all the support they’ve given us,” said Willett.

“This is so crucial to me as an educator. Soldiers of color aren’t given any kind of due; it’s glossed over today that they even served and spoken of in subservient roles,” said Willett. “It’s a sense of pride we have to instill in our younger generations. We’re standing on the soldiers of these brave, brave men.”

The Congressional Gold Medal will be designed and struck by the United States Mint and displayed at the Smithsonian Institution and at events associated with the Harlem Hellfighters sometime next year. 

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here: bit.ly/amnews1