Long-delayed honor for WWI heroes Harlem Hellfighters


After more than 100 years, the members of the 369th Infantry Regiment who fought in World War I are finally on track to get the recognition they deserve. Congress passed a bill last week to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Harlem Hellfighters, a Black regiment of the New York National Guard that had more than 40 members from Glen Cove, Sea Cliff, Locust Valley and Oyster Bay.

The regiment spent more time in continuous combat than any other American unit of its size during the war. The Hellfighters spent 191 days in the front-line trenches and suffered 1,400 casualties, more than any other U.S. regiment.

The bill is currently awaiting President Biden’s signature.

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi led the effort for the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act, which passed in the House of Representatives in June and in the Senate last week, where it was sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. “This recognition for the Harlem Hellfighters is long overdue,” Suozzi said.

Bringing attention to the group has been a priority of Suozzi’s for several years, particularly as more has become known about its members’ North Shore ties. In the fall of 2018, the North Shore Historical Museum, in Glen Cove, debuted an exhibit on the Hellfighters, after museum board member Dr. Richard Harris made the connection while doing research. Now the exhibit is part of the museum’s permanent collection, with a room devoted to the regiment.

According to Harris — who last year helped create a video promoting the exhibit, which is posted on the museum’s website — the men trained for combat in the U.S., yet faced considerable racial prejudice and strong resistance when they were deployed overseas in 1918, and were initially assigned manual labor jobs in France by the U.S. Army. Then, Harris said, “The French stepped in and said they would be glad to have them fight with them.”

So the regiment was assigned to the French army, earning the nickname “Men of Bronze” from the French and “Hellfighters” from the Germans due to their “doggedness and strength,” Harris said, and because the Germans “did not want to face them in battle.”

When the regiment returned to the U.S., more than 3,000 members took part in a parade up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to Harlem on Feb. 17, 1919, Harris said, initially receiving much attention and praise. “But then things returned to normal,” Harris said, “and they faced the same racial discrimination that they had received before the war.”

The museum exhibit, he said, was created to “call attention to these men and what they did during the war so that more people will know about their story.”

In Glen Cove, residents are becoming more aware of this chapter of history. At the June 23 Glen Cove City Council meeting, a resolution passed unanimously to declare Feb. 17 Harlem Hellfighters Remembrance Day.

In 2019, the family of Hellfighter Sgt. Leander Willet, of Glen Cove, asked Suozzi to help them obtain a Purple Heart for the fallen regiment member. Suozzi’s office secured the necessary documentation through the National Personnel Records Center, and that November, at a ceremony at the North Shore museum, Suozzi presented a posthumous Purple Heart to Willett “for wounds received as a result of hostile actions” in France on Oct. 4, 1918.

The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions, given to those 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 medal will be designed and struck by the U.S. Mint and displayed at the Smithsonian Institution and at events associated with the Harlem Hellfighters. 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 of which fought in World War II.

“The Harlem Hellfighters served our nation with distinction, spending 191 days in the front-line trenches, all while displaying the American values of courage, dedication and sacrifice,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “The Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act honors these brave men, who, even as they faced segregation and prejudice, risked their lives to defend our freedoms. I look forward to President Biden signing this bill into law.”

Biden is expected to do so as early as Aug. 23.