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A new push to give the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’ of World War I a golden honor, a century late

Elected officials and community representatives at the introduction of the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)

More than a century after the conclusion of World War I, the Harlem Hellfighters — the 369th Infantry Regiment — who served in defense of the United States against the forces of tyranny in Europe are a step closer to the recognition they’ve longed deserved, but were denied.

Queens/Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi came to the 369th Regiment Armory in Harlem on April 8 to announce that he’s introducing legislation to honor the Hellfighters with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Suozzi was joined by former Assemblyman Keith Wright, whose grandfather was a Harlem Hellfighter; former Congressman Charlie Rangel; Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer; state Senator Brian Benjamin; Assemblywoman Inez Dickens; Debra Willett, granddaughter of Sergeant Leander Willett, a Harlem Hellfighter; and Jérémie Robert, the Consul General of France in New York.

The U.S. Army didn’t equip the Harlem Hellfighters, who fought on the front lines for 191 straight days, with combat gear when they sent them to Europe in 1918. Once in France, the French Army, who they were assigned to because white American soldiers refused to fight alongside African American soldiers, supplied them with the necessary military combat gear to beat back the invading German Army.

Nicknamed “Men of Bronze” by the French, the Harlem Hellfighters fought alongside their French counterparts against the Germans in the frontline trenches, losing 1,400 men. Though they were hailed as heroes in France because of their courage, sacrifice, and dedication — the French Government honored them with the Croix de Guerre — they faced another enemy when they returned home, racism and segregation.

Photos and memorabilia of the Harlem Hellfighters are on display at the 369th Regiment Armory. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)
Photos and memorabilia of the Harlem Hellfighters are on display at the 369th Regiment Armory. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)

With the legislation, Suozzi wants to give the Harlem Hellfighters the long-overdue recognition for their bravery and outstanding service during World War I.

“We need to keep on bringing this up to try and get as much attention as possible. So I think I made all the points that I wanted to make. The bottom line is, we’ve got to get this done. And we can’t do it without all of your help,” Suozzi urged.

Wright said that then-President Woodrow Wilson was an avowed racist and segregationist. It wasn’t a surprise, Wright said, that he sent African American soldiers into combat without proper gear.

“Our heroes went off to a foreign country to help liberate and protect a foreign country. When they came back home,  it was almost as if they had no home to come back to. They fought for freedom for another country. But they did not find freedom themselves,” the former assemblyman stated.

Rangel pointed out that, hadn’t it been for the immediate former president, the country would have never learned about the amount of racism that still lives on in the United States.

“One would say it unpatriotic to be critical. But when you love something, and you don’t speak out, that’s the hypocrisy,” said Rangel, now 90, a Korean War veteran himself. “And now, as we have to rebuild, not just ourselves, but for the democratic societies that all we have to establish, we can admit that slavery was a painful mistake. And that we can do better.”

Congressman Tom Suozzi with Debra Willett at the accouncement of the introduction of the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act at the 369th Regiment Armory. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)

Sergeant Willett was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart in 2019. Debra Willet said Thursday that the words her grandfather and his fellow soldiers had hoped to hear when they returned from World War I was that they are Americans.

“I’m going to say the words honor, gratitude, but most importantly, American. And these were the words that my grandfather and the other soldiers hoped to hear and deserve to hear when they returned from not only World War One, World War Two, Vietnam. They deserve this,” she emphasized.

Robert expressed his gratitude for the initiative and recalled that the French Army welcomed the Harlem Hellfighters as if they were French soldiers.

“The Harlem Hellfighters are an incredible symbol of bravery, not just in the face of war, but also in the face of oppression and injustice. They risked and lost their lives to fight for liberty, to fight for freedom,” Robert said. “I am honored today to pay tribute to these heroes. They are American heroes, but they are also heroes in France.  We owe them an eternal debt of gratitude. We will never forget.”

The Congressional Gold Medal is an award bestowed by the United States Congress to honor those, individually or as a group, “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field, long after the achievement.”

Elected officials and community representatives at the introduction of the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)

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