Harlem Hellfighter Sgt. Leander Willett was in the front-line trenches in France for 191 days during World War I, fighting with the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment. He engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Germans, and was bayoneted and attacked with mustard gas.
Eventually, though, Willett made it home to Oyster Bay, where he raised five children. He lived the rest of his life with debilitating lung ailments, including severe asthma, as a result of his service, and died at age 61, in 1956. Neither he nor the other Hellfighters were ever formally recognized by the federal government for their service.
Leander’s granddaughters Lynne and Debra Willett, formerly of Oyster Bay, contacted U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi in 2018, and asked for his help to rectify the oversight. In November 2019, Suozzi surprised members of the Willett family by presenting them with a Purple Heart. They had gathered at the North Shore Historical Society, in Glen Cove, to preview a Harlem Hellfighter exhibit.
Suozzi went on to sponsor a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the 369th Infantry Regiment. The House of Representatives passed the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act in June, and the Senate did so last week, with a bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Suozzi held a news conference at the 369th Regiment Armory in Harlem on Aug. 13 to announce that President Biden would likely sign the bill the week of Aug. 23.
“I told the Willett family that I would fight to get [Leander] a medal,” Suozzi said days after the news conference. “Only two other African-American groups, the Tuskegee Airman and the Montford [Point] Marines, got the medal. I want to make the Harlem Hellfighters as known as the Tuskegee Airmen.”
For Debra Willett, the moment was bittersweet. “I really, in all honesty, can’t explain the many, many emotions that I felt on that day and continue to feel,” she said, “every time I think or am reminded of the sacrifices he and the Harlem Hellfighters made for our country.”
The Hellfighters’ origins
During World War I, there was no shortage of bigotry and hate against non-white Americans. White soldiers refused to fight alongside Black men, prompting the U.S. Army to assign Willett and other Black soldiers to the French Army in 1918. Roughly 40 of those men were from Oyster Bay, Locust Valley, Sea Cliff and Glen Cove. The 16th Division of the French army welcomed them, offering the Black soldiers helmets and weapons.
“They were treated so poorly by us, as far as their race, but they did everything they could to fight for their country,” Suozzi said. “The 369th was the most active regiment in World War I.”
The Hellfighters never lost any ground, and none were captured by the enemy. But some 1,400 died, more than in any other American regiment. According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C., the “Black Rattlers,” as they were originally called — their uniforms sported a rattlesnake insignia — became known by the Germans as the Hellfighters, for “their courage and ferocity.”
And they did more for France than fight. The musicians in the regiment were credited with introducing jazz to Europe. “France was so happy to have an additional 3,000 soldiers,” Lynne Willett said, “and a jazz band on top of that.”
The Hellfighters were the first combat unit from New York to return home. Although they had not been permitted to march in a parade held for departing soldiers before they left the U.S., a victory parade was organized for them on Feb. 17, 1919. According to the museum, they marched up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, accompanied by music from their jazz bandleader, James Reese Europe.
But then life returned to normal for Willett and the other soldiers, who lived with racism and inequality. “Unfortunately, [I feel both] pride in my grandfather’s accomplishments and sorrow and hurt in the way the African-American soldiers had to fight another battle for equality when they came home,” Debra Willett said.
Amy Driscoll, of Locust Valley, the director of the North Shore Historical Museum, is committed to honoring the Hellfighters, and ensuring that they are remembered. She said she planned to compile a comprehensive list of every member of the 369th Infantry Regiment. “We’re hoping descendants will contact us,” Driscoll said. “Oyster Bay and Locust Valley have had a Black population for over 100 years, so it makes sense that some could have been with the Harlem Hellfighters.”
The Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievement and contributions, is 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 Hellfighters.
Willett was 18 when he was drafted. According to Lynne, the family said her grandfather never spoke about the war. After he returned he worked delivering coal, including to President Theodore Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill.
“And he was an amateur boxer and was once [in] the opening fight at the Golden Gloves at Madison Square Garden,” Lynne said. “He was a quiet man, and his family always came first.”
She said she was touched when the family received the Purple Heart in 2019, and felt the same way last week at the armory in Harlem. “My sister and I looked at each other like, ‘Is this really happening?’” she recalled. “It was a surreal feeling when we got the Purple Heart, and I had the same feeling at the armory. It was a joyous occasion all the way around.”
Suozzi said the bill would have been passed sooner had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic. “I have a great sense of satisfaction that I’m correcting a historical injustice,” he said.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture has pledged to help create an educational program focusing on the Hellfighters, Suozzi added.
“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.”
Lynne Willett said she remained in awe that her grandfather was being recognized at last. “My grandfather was an American success story,” she said. “I am so overwhelmed with this whole thing.”