PHOTO RELEASE: Suozzi: “It’s Never too Late to do the Right Thing” - Announces Introduction of Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act to Recognize Bravery of Iconic Unit During World War I
Today, Congressman Tom Suozzi (D – Long Island, Queens) announced that he is introducing legislation that would award a Congressional Gold Medal to the 369th Infantry Regiment, commonly known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” The Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act will bestow long-overdue recognition of the bravery and outstanding service of Harlem Hellfighters during World War I. Photos from the event can be found here.
“It is never too late to do the right thing. The Harlem Hellfighters, who served on the front lines for more time than any other American regiment during World War I, were subjected to discrimination by their own army and were never properly recognized for their invaluable contributions to our country,” said Suozzi. “My hometown of Glen Cove was also the home to nearly three dozen Harlem Hellfighter heroes. The bravery, dedication, and sacrifices of the Harlem Hellfighters, who served 191 days under near constant enemy fire, impacted the outcome of the first World War and in turn, American history. My legislation to award The Harlem Hellfighters a Congressional Gold Medal is a small but important first step in righting this decades-old injustice.”
Joining Suozzi at the announcement was former Congressman Charles Rangel, a veteran who was also President of the Manhattan/Richmond Chapter of the 369th Veterans Association, former New York State Assemblyman Keith Wright, whose grandfather was a Harlem Hellfighter, Jérémie Robert, the Consul General of France in New York, whose country holds the Harlem Hellfighters in special regard , and Debra Willett, granddaughter of a Harlem Hellfighter to whom Suozzi recently presented a posthumous Purple Heart.
Also joining Suozzi was Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, New York State Senator Brian Benjamin, and New York State Assemblywoman Inez Dickens.
In 2019, Suozzi was approached by the Glen Cove Willett family (represented today by Debra Willett) for help in obtaining a Purple Heart for Harlem Hellfighter Sgt. Leander Willett. After initially being declined for lack of documentation, Suozzi and his office persevered and were able to secure the necessary documentation through the National Personnel Records Center. In November of 2019, at a ceremony at Glen Cove’s North Shore Historical Museum, Suozzi surprised the Willett family by presenting a posthumous Purple Heart to Harlem Hellfighter Sgt. Leander Willett “for wounds received as a result of hostile actions” in France on October 4, 1918.
Three dozen Harlem Hellfighters came from Suozzi’s hometown of Glen Cove, where he previously served as Mayor.
Attending from Glen Cove was Amy Driscoll, Executive Director North Shore Historical Museum in Glen Cove, and Dr. Richard Harris and Fred Nielsen, who sit on the North Shore Historical Museum’s Harlem Hellfighters Committee. In the fall of 2018, the North Shore Historical Museum debuted an exhibit that tells the story of the Harlem Hellfighters and the 31 men from Glen Cove, hometown heroes all, that were members of the storied unit. The exhibit is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.
The Harlem Hellfighters were an African American infantry regiment in WWI who spent 191 days in combat, more than any other American regiment. In 1918, the U.S. Army decided to assign the Hellfighters to the French Army for the duration of American participation in World War I because many white American soldiers refused to perform combat duty with African Americans. The U.S. Army refused to issue the regiment weapons. They were instead issued French weapons, helmets, belts, and pouches, although they continued to wear their U.S. uniforms.
Nicknamed “Hommes de Bronze” (Men of Bronze ) by the French and “Hollenkampfer” (Hellfighters) by the Germans due to their tenacity, the Hellfighters were the first unit of the French, British or American Armies to reach the Rhine River at the end of the war. The unit earned 11 French citations and a unit Croix de Guerre and 170 soldiers were awarded the French Croix de Guerre.
Despite the courage, sacrifice, and dedication proudly displayed by the Harlem Hellfighters to their country, they returned home to face racism and segregation from their fellow countrymen.
Thursday’s announcement was held in Harlem, NY at the historic 369th Regiment Armory, which was built between 1920 to 1933 for the 369th Regiment (Harlem Hellfighters), the first National Guard unit in New York State composed solely of African Americans. Today it is home to the 369th Sustainment Brigade, a New York Army National Guard unit that is descended from the 369th Infantry Regiment.
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.” The practice of issuing gold medals to honor recipients from the military began during the American Revolution.
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. Bronze versions of the medals are struck for sale by the U.S. Mint, and may be available in both larger and smaller sizes.
There have been only two other Congressional Gold Medals awarded to distinguished African American military groups: the Tuskegee Airmen in 2007 and the Montfort Point Marines in 2011, both from World War II.
Statements from Attendees at Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Announcement
Former Congressman Charles Rangel: "African Americans have fought for this great nation since its very birth and we continue to show that patriotic commitment through every war and every crisis, with even today, black men and women standing up for our flag all over the world. And yet, we must continue to fight for the equality and the hopes and, indeed, the dreams that our Declaration of Independence has created for us. And fight, we will. The 369th Regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters, proved to the world that we’ve got that spirit that will allow us continue to move forward and to continue to fight to make this a ‘more perfect union.’”
Former New York State Assemblyman Keith Wright: “Without a doubt, I applaud Congressman Tom Suozzi for his efforts in terms of trying to recognize heroes from World War One. The Harlem Hellfighters were an integral part of liberating France from Nazi Germany, and have gone unrecognized for so long, but it is about time they receive the recognition they deserve. I am thankful Congressman Suozzi is putting forth this effort.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer: "We owe the Harlem Hellfighters our deepest gratitude for fighting on behalf of a country that actively discriminated against them. The last surviving veterans of the Hellfighters are long gone, but Congressman Tom Suozzi's bill to posthumously award the Harlem Hellfighters a Congressional Gold Medal honors their heroism and self-sacrifice, and the example of their service will forever live on in generations of their family members and a grateful nation."
New York State Assembly Member Inez E. Dickens: “The contributions of African Americans have long helped to shape the image of this nation and exemplify the best aspects of what it means to be American. In the face of great adversity due to the color of their skin, these soldiers persevered with pure determination in defending our nation against the Axis of Evil, while still being segregated from their countryman on the fields of battle. Soldiers of the 369th Armory, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, represented with honor and distinction the principles of a people who fought for equality and acceptance with a ferocity only known to a group it was not given. These incredible soldiers would receive praise from both foreign allies and foes long before they would ever receive it from the American public. Because of their sacrifices, we live with greater freedom than ever before. We must remember their struggle by achieving greatness in our own lives.”
New York State Senator Brian Benjamin: “The Harlem Hellfighters are an incredibly important part of the legacy and history of Harlem. They represented our community and risked their lives in the fight for justice despite facing racism and segregation in their own country. Through Congressman Suozzi’s legislation, these brave soldiers will get the recognition and respect that they deserve for their service in World War I, awarding them with a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest honors in this nation.”