Oyster Bay native Debra Willett, 59, has loved history since she was a student at Oyster Bay High School. Members of her family have always been history buffs, too, she said.
Willett’s roots on the North Shore go back more than two centuries. Among the Willetts who inspired the family’s fascination with the past was the late Sgt. Leander Willett, Debra’s grandfather, an Oyster Bay resident who served in World War I in the U.S. Army’s 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters.
Although Leander’s valor was well known among his descendants, the Hellfighters received little recognition through the years. An all-black division in a segregated Army, they could not fight with the U.S. military, and instead fought with the French army.
Richard Harris, a member of the North Shore Historical Museum’s board of directors, was captivated by the story of the Hellfighters when he learned that 40 men from Glen Cove had served in the regiment. When Harris reached out to Debra Willett in 2017 to learn more about them, they decided to work together to give the men the recognition they were due.
Willett and her family, joined by dozens of local residents, gathered at the North Shore Historical Museum last Saturday to celebrate the memory of Leander Willett and the other North Shore Hellfighters. The event included a surprise announcement from U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, who presented the Willett family with a long-sought posthumous Purple Heart for Leander.
“This means so much,” Debra Willett said. “Thank you for honoring him.”
“What we’re doing today is one small thing to right our past wrongs,” Suozzi said. “The family has waited for this for a long time.”
Fighting no matter what
Records at the North Shore Historical Museum’s Harlem Hellfighters exhibit, which opened in February, indicate that Leander Willett, born in 1895, enlisted in the Army in 1917. Back then, black soldiers were not permitted to fight among their white counterparts and faced rampant discrimination, given manual labor tasks rather than participating in training. This came as a surprise to Willett and his fellow New Yorkers, who, unlike the black soldiers from the South, had already received combat and rifle training.
Fred Nielsen, 73, a member of the Harlem Hellfighters Citizens, Soldiers and Patriots Advisory Board, said that black recruits in Glen Cove were trained in the city by Benjamin Pratt, a white community leader who had served as one of the commanders in an all-black infantry division during the Civil War.
“These men learned how to shoot with Pratt, and eventually joined the training camp in Harlem with other black soldiers,” Nielsen said. “They were ready to fight, but their government wouldn’t let them.”
In April 1917, Col. William Hayward, of Nebraska, sought to include the soldiers in the military’s Rainbow Division, which was made up of soldiers of all races. “But he was told that black was not a color of the rainbow,” Harris said. Nonetheless, the Hellfighters — who had not yet been given that nickname — still managed to make it to the front lines, thanks to the French government, which welcomed them to fight alongside its own troops. Although they came late to the war, the regiment spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other U.S. unit, and lost 1,500 men, the greatest casualty count of any unit. Leander Willett sustained injuries in a mustard gas attack and from an enemy bayonet before he was discharged.
Consul General Anne-Claire Legendre, France’s top diplomat in New York, said that while the U.S. seemed to ignore the Hellfighters, the French have always seen them as heroes, calling them the Men of Bronze for their seemingly endless valor. More than 170 of them were awarded the French Croix de Guerre.
Legendre’s grandfather fought alongside them, and often recounted their heroism in the trenches. The soldiers were so fearsome in battle that none other than opposing German forces dubbed them the Hellfighters, a sobriquet the men wore with honor. They were also the first Allied unit to cross the Rhine River and reach Germany.
As she accepted a citation from Suozzi, thanking the French for their embrace of the Hellfighters, Legendre said that the soldiers are featured in exhibits all over France. “These men didn’t know the country or people they were fighting for, but they still fought and paid the ultimate sacrifice,” she said. “You don’t know how vividly we carry their memory.”
Preserving their legacy
When he learned about the Hellfighters, Dominick Williams, 16, of Glen Cove, said he couldn’t help feeling a sense of both pride and anger. He was amazed at the courage and fortitude of the soldiers, he said, but also disappointed with how the men were treated and how little known was their legacy.
“They risked their lives for a country that is still sick and ailing with racism, and they were men of this beloved city, but some of you are just learning about them,” Williams said. “Don’t you feel cheated?”
In order to spread the word about the Hellfighters, Williams asked Suozzi at last Saturday’s event to apply for a Congressional Gold Medal for the soldiers. Suozzi said he would do better. He plans to present his Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act to Congress in the coming weeks. If it were passed, a medal would go on display at the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington, D.C.
Harris and Amy Driscoll, the director of the North Shore museum, said that the medals were just the beginning of a four-part plan to cement the legacy of the Hellfighters on the North Shore. A monument will be erected in their honor at Glen Cove’s Monument Park, she said, and work is under way to get the state to create an annual day of remembrance for them. There are also plans for an educational program, with local schools including lessons on the soldiers.
“We hope to set up the educational program by February for Black History Month,” Driscoll said. “It is our duty to make sure that they get their rewards for their heroic deeds.”
State Assemblyman Charles Lavine and a representative of State Sen. Jim Gaughran’s office agreed to work together to promote legislation that would create a Harlem Hellfighters Remembrance Day in New York. Nassau County Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton added that she and Glen Cove City Mayor Timothy Tenke have reached an inter-municipal agreement to work to construct the monument, and are currently requesting a grant for $75,000 from the county to build it.
With federal, state and local officials all working together to preserve and promote the soldiers’ legacy, Debra Willett said she could barely find the words to convey her joy. “I’m astonished at everything that got done today,” she said last weekend. “[Leander] did his part for his home of Oyster Bay, for New York and for the whole country.”