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The Harlem Hellfighters, a segregated World War I unit, earned a Congressional Gold Medal

"These brave Black men, who, even as they faced segregation and prejudice at home, risked their lives to defend our freedoms overseas,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Image:  369th Infantry Regiment Harlem Hellfighters
Members of New York’s 369th Infantry Regiment return home to Hoboken, N.J., in 1919 after fighting in France during World War I.PhotoQuest / Getty Images

The all-Black Army regiment nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters battled both the German forces and racism during World War I. Now, more than a century after their service, the unit has been honored with a “long overdue” Congressional Gold Medal.

President Joe Biden signed the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act into law last week. Replicas of the prestigious medal will be awarded to families of members of the 369th Infantry Regiment in recognition of the unit’s lengthy service, which included front-line combat and hundreds of lives lost or affected by injuries. 

“The Harlem Hellfighters risked life and limb in defense of an America that discriminated against them,” said a sponsor of the bill, Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. 

“Yet the Hellfighters helped liberate Western Europe and secure victory for the Allied Forces,” she said. “More than 100 years after these brave men fought so valiantly, I am proud to see my congressional colleagues and President Biden honoring them for their exemplary service on behalf of a very grateful nation.”     

The U.S. entered the conflict in 1917, three years into the war. While the U.S. military was segregated and would remain so until after World War II, Black Americans contributed to the war effort. 

Black men served in the war both at home and abroad in four segregated regiments. Black troops were usually relegated to tasks that were vital to the effort yet undervalued, like digging trenches, cooking, loading ships, maintaining equipment or burying fellow soldiers.

Under criticism from civic organizations and civil rights groups, the military formed two Black combat units in 1917. Initially assigned to unloading ships and other logistic tasks, the 369th was assigned to fight with the French and British armies, engaging on the front lines before the American Expeditionary Forces entered their first major battle. The U.S. military refused to issue them weapons. Instead, the Hellfighters used French weapons, helmets, belts and pouches while wearing their U.S. uniforms. 

Dubbed “Hommes de Bronze” (Men of Bronze) by the French, the regiment’s members spent 191 days in combat, reportedly more than any other Americans, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Alongside the French, the regiment also fought in the Second Battle of the Marne, one of the last major efforts by the Germans. Among the Hellfighters, 144 soldiers died and nearly 1,000 were wounded in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

They later collectively earned 11 French citations, and 170 soldiers were awarded the Croix de Guerre, a French military decoration typically bestowed on foreign allies. 

The Hellfighters’ division not only served in combat roles but also earned acclaim for the 369th Regimental Army Band. Under the direction of Lt. James Reese Europe, a bandleader, composer and arranger, the musicians are widely credited with introducing jazz to French audiences. 

More recently, lawmakers honored the late Harlem Hellfighters this month at the 369th Infantry Regiment in Harlem, New York. Most of the members of the regiment, which was originally known as the 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment, a National Guard unit, were from Harlem, but many represented the greater New York area, as well as New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Besides Beatty, several Democratic members of Congress from New York shepherded the bipartisan legislation that led to the Congressional Gold Medal. 

Rep. Tom Suozzi said the award was an opportunity to “right a centuries-old wrong.” In 2019, Suozzi was approached by Debra Willett of New York for help in obtaining a Purple Heart for an ancestor, Harlem Hellfighter Sgt. Leander Willett. After the application was initially declined for lack of documentation, Suozzi’s office secured the necessary paperwork through the National Personnel Records Center. 

Sgt. Leander Willett.Courtesy The Willett Family

Her sister, Lynne Willett, recalled that Suozzi surprised her family by presenting a posthumous Purple Heart to Sgt. Willett later that year at a ceremony at North Shore Historical Museum in Glen Cove. The official language noted that it was “for wounds received as a result of hostile actions” in France on Oct. 4, 1918. 

“We were thrilled,” she said. “Our family has roots on Oyster Bay, Long Island, that date back to the first U.S. census. My grandfather was a laborer on Long Island who drove trucks and delivered coal. He was also an amateur boxer. He, like so many Black men, did not hesitate to serve our country. They are heroes.”

Suozzi said in a statement, “When I first met with the Willett Family and heard their stories, I knew we had to get this done,” adding, “This recognition for the Harlem Hellfighters is long overdue.”

Anthony Green agreed. Green, a native of New Jersey, is a grandson of Cpl. William Ogden Layton, one of the Harlem Hellfighters.  

Cpl. William Ogden Layton.Courtesy Anthony Green

“My grandfather was a bugler for the regiment, playing in the 369th Regiment Band. He was also a hero during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in 1918,” said Green, who spoke by Zoom from his home in Spain. “He received the Croix de Guerre medal for his heroism, and the story of his medal and accolades during the war have been documented,” notably in the books “American Patriots” by Gail Buckley and “African Americans At War” by Jonathan Sutherland. 

Green described his grandfather — who had 12 children and grandchildren — as a “quiet, modest” man who only occasionally discussed the war. “He sustained some injuries from shrapnel and mustard gas. But he loved France, the French people, and said he wished he could have stayed,” Green said. “Yet he was proud of his service. He was active in veterans’ groups for the rest of his life.” 

Despite the courage, sacrifices and dedication of the Harlem Hellfighters, the unit’s members faced what Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said was “despicable” racism when they returned home. Black veterans could not vote, and they faced discrimination, even lynchings, while in uniform. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., praised the soldiers in a statement as “these brave Black men, who, even as they faced segregation and prejudice at home, risked their lives to defend our freedoms overseas.”  

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, whose district includes Harlem, said he could not think of “a more deserving group” to get one of the country’s highest honors. 

“These patriots gave their all to America’s enduring struggle to secure global freedom while simultaneously being cast away from the very nation they swore an oath to protect,” he said through a spokeswoman. “Nevertheless, they persevered, and it is never too late to right a wrong.”

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