WWI’s Harlem Hellfighters To Receive Congressional Gold Medal

Photo Credit: New York National Guard
Photo Credit: New York National Guard

On Monday, Congress signed the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act, which will see the WWI infantry unit awarded with the nation’s highest civilian honor. While all members of the Harlem Hellfighters have since passed away, their descendants have pushed for the medal to be awarded posthumously.

The Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom are the United States’ two highest civilian awards. So far, less than 200 Congressional Gold Medals have been awarded. Originally, the medal was exclusively military-oriented, but today it can be awarded to individuals and even groups, which is happening for the Harlem Hellfighters.

Descendants of the infantry unit have sought for the men to be honored now, as they were not fairly celebrated at the time.

Harlem Hellfighters

U.S. Army African American Soldiers of the Harlem Hellfighters learn from French mentors in trench warfare in an undated photo during WWI.
Harlem Hellfighter receiving instruction in trench warfare from French officer. (Photo Credit: New York National Guard)

Harlem Hellfighters was a nickname given to the 369th Infantry Regiment, a regiment that was comprised mostly of African Americans who fought bravely during WWI. Many white American soldiers refused to fight alongside these men, so the U.S. Army decided to place the unit under the control of the French Army. Here, they wore U.S. uniforms but were issued with French tools and equipment.

At the time, many French soldiers and civilians did not harbor the same disdain for African Americans, and for the most part treated them equally to any other French unit. The regiment would eventually prove their worth in combat, as they would end up spending more time on the frontlines than any other U.S. regiment. As a result, they would also lose more men than any other U.S. regiment.

Nicknamed Hommes de Bronze by the French, meaning “Men of Bronze,” and Höllenkämpfer by the Germans, meaning “Hell-fighters,” the men of the Harlem Hellfighters certainly made a name for themselves during the war. Many of those in the regiment believed their service would relieve the extreme racial discrimination when they returned home, but this was not to be.

Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act

US Rep. Tom Suozzi attends an event to honor the Harlem Hellfighters
2019: Rep. Tom Suozzi holding the Purple Heart he presented to descendants of Leander Willett who was a member of the Harlem Hellfighters. (Photo Credit: J. Conrad Williams, Jr./ Newsday RM via Getty Images)

Representatives Tom Suozzi and Adriano Espaillat, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand sponsored the bill, which passed the House two months ago and then the Senate on Monday.

Previously, two other African American military groups have been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal: the Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the medal in 2007, and the Montford Point Marines received the medal in 2011. Unlike the Harlem Hellfighters, both of these groups served in WWII.

“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,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said.

She added: “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.”

The process was set into motion when the family of Harlem Hellfighter Sgt. Leander Willet contacted Suozzi about a Purple Heart request.

Deb Willett, Sgt. Willet’s granddaughter, recently said that “it is our hope that this legislation will help educate future generations about the sacrifices made on their behalf.”

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After President Joe Biden has signed the bill, the medal will be displayed in the Smithsonian museums.

Suozzi said “it is never too late to do the right thing. When I first met with these families and heard their stories, I knew we had to get this done. Today, we got it done.”

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE