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Suozzi Surprises Glen Cove’s Willett Family with Purple Heart in Honor of their WWI Family Hero; Will Introduce Legislation to Honor the Legacy of the Harlem HellFighters

November 18, 2019
Press Release
Sergeant Leander Willett was finally posthumously awarded the historic medal for wounds sustained in France in 1918

On Saturday, November 16, Congressman Tom Suozzi (D – Long Island, Queens) presented the daughter of World War I Army Sergeant Leander Willett the prestigious and historic Purple Heart. The presentation of the medal to Clara Willett, which was a surprise to Willett family, took place at an event honoring the Harlem Hellfighters, of which Willett was a member, at the North Shore Historical Museum in Glen Cove.


During the ceremony, Congressman Suozzi announced that he will introduce legislation to the United States House of Representatives that will recognize and honor the legacy of the Harlem Hellfighters by creating a Congressional Gold Medal in their honor.


“It is never too late to do the right thing. When the Hellfighters returned home from World War One, instead of being honored for their bravery and sacrifice, they were met with discrimination and racism. What we’re doing today is really one small, small thing in an effort to try to right some historical injustices to recognize African Americans who have done so much on behalf of this nation,” said Suozzi. “One of my top priorities in Congress has always been to ensure that our veterans always get the respect that they deserve. Today, A grateful nation says thank you to Leander Willett and his family”


Created in 1780 by the Continental Congress, the Purple Heart is the oldest military award still presented to American service members. Sgt. Willett was awarded the Purple Heart “for wounds received as a result of hostile actions” in France on October 4, 1918.


Sgt. Willett was a member of the storied 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” The Harlem Hellfighters were an African-American infantry unit in WWI who spent more time in combat than any other American unit. In 1918, the U.S. Army decided to assign the unit 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 men were issued French weapons, helmets, belts, and pouches, although they continued to wear their U.S. uniforms. Despite their courage, sacrifice and dedication to their country, they returned home to face racism and segregation from their fellow countrymen.


Leander Willett, along with his brother Marston, were two of nearly forty Hellfighters who hailed from Glen Cove and the surrounding area.


Based on family history, the Willett family asked Suozzi’s office to request a Purple Heart on behalf of their family patriarch, Leander Willett, who passed away in 1956. After initially being declined for lack of documentation, Suozzi persevered and was able to secure the necessary documentation through the National Personnel Records Center. Notification of the award, along with the medal itself, came last month and Suozzi decided to keep the announcement under wraps so that he could personally present the Purple Heart to the Willett family at the museum event in Glen Cove, their mutual hometown.


“The Willett family has served in the United States military beginning with the Civil War. We are extremely proud and deeply grateful to receive such an honor on behalf of Sgt. Leander Willett and all the Harlem Hellfighters. As we say in our family, ‘long overdue, but just the start,’” said Debra Willett, granddaughter of Sgt. Leander Willett.


In addition to the Purple Heart, Suozzi also presented the granddaughters of Harlem Hellfighters Leander and Marston Willett American flags that flew over the U.S. Capitol. A citation was also presented posthumously to Evelyn Cisco Willett, who was a “Rosie the Riveter” during World War II. In all, four proud generations of Glen Cove’s Willett family were present at Saturday’s ceremony.


The Congressman presented a citation to Anne-Claire Legendre, French Consul General in New York, in appreciation to France for its respect of the Harlem Hellfighters and for welcoming these brave soldiers to fight alongside them in the trenches under the French flag.