Biden signs off on highest honor for Harlem Hellfighters
By Michael Gartland
via the New York Daily News newspaper web site
The tough-as-nails Black infantrymen that gave America’s enemies hell in World War I will be awarded Congress’s highest honor posthumously under a new law President Biden signed off on Wednesday.
The 369th Infantry Regiment, a New York National Guard unit known more commonly as the Harlem Hellfighters, will receive the Congressional Gold Medal under the law — more than 100 years after waging brutal trench warfare in Europe for 191 straight days.
The new law became a reality four months after the Daily News covered efforts to finally honored the warriors who sacrificed so much for the U.S., but who have received relatively little credit over the years.
The Hellfighters served alongside French soldiers when white Americans refused to. And they did so valiantly. The unit suffered more casualties than any other U.S. regiment during the war.
Private Henry Johnson, an Albany porter, earned the nickname “Black Death” after he and Private Needham Roberts, fought 36 Germans by themselves. After a German grenade wounded Roberts, Johnson fought with his rifle butt and a knife, killing four and wounding as many as 30.
The law Biden signed Wednesday originated from a Senate bill backed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and a companion bill in the House from Reps. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan) and Tom Suozzi (D-Queens).
“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. “The long-overdue Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act pays homage to these brave Black men who risked their lives overseas to defend our freedoms, only to come home to segregation and racism.”
Suozzi began to champion the Hellfighters’ cause after meeting one in person, Leander Willett, who sought his help in getting a posthumous Purple Heart awarded to the regiment’s sergeant, who was stabbed with a bayonet during battle.
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