GLEN COVE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) – There was a touching tribute on Long Island to one of the “Harlem Hellfighters.”
The World War I veteran died decades ago, but on Saturday his family received a surprise honor on his behalf.
“I just look at all these names,” Deb Willett said.
Willett’s grandfather is in a photo, taken a century ago, of the famed Harlem Hellfighters.
“It’s right here, the fourth one from the right,” pointing to Leander Willett.
At 17, the Oyster Bay native joined the 369th Infantry Regiment, a unit of African-Americans started in Harlem that served overseas during “The Great War.”
On Saturday, Deb was in the audience at an event in Glen Cove honoring those brave men and there was a surprise for her family.
“I didn’t tell them before but I’m telling them now – we received a Purple Heart on behalf of Leander Willett,” Congressman Tom Suozzi said. “It’s only appropriate that a grateful nation say thank you to Leander Willett and his family.”
“This is what Americans can do together, thank you,” Willett said.
Early petitions for this Purple Heart were rejected due to a lack of documentation.
The family spent months tracking it down to get this honor that great-grandson Leander Willett IV says is long overdue.
“It’s great the Harlem Hellfighters get the recognition they deserve finally,” Willett’s great-grandson said.
Leander’s sister-in-law, Catherine Willett, is the relative who remembers him best.
“It brings tears to my eyes,” she said.
What happened on Long Island is a beginning. There are other ways the Harlem Hellfighters will be remembered and honored.
Congressman Suozzi predicts he will get approval for a rare Congressional Gold Medal for the unit.
It will highlight Hellfighter history; of men who spent more time in combat than any other unit, and suffered 1,500 casualties before returning to a country where they encountered ingratitude and racism.
“They really took pride in what they did and for us to receive this honor on behalf of all the Hellfighters we can’t thank them enough,” Deb Willett added.
Also in the works is a monument to the soldiers and a statewide day of recognition.