761st Tank Battalion (United States)

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761st Tank Battalion
US 761st Tank Battalion insignia.png
Active 1942 – 46 (segregated unit)
1947 – 55 (integrated unit)
Allegiance United States of America
Branch United States Army
Type Separate tank battalion
Nickname Black Panthers
Motto Come Out Fighting
Engagements

World War II

Decorations Presidential Unit Citation
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Lt. Col. Paul L. Bates

The 761st Tank Battalion was an independent tank battalion of the United States Army during World War II. The 761st was made up primarily of African-American soldiers, who by federal law were not permitted to serve alongside white troops; the military did not officially desegregate until after World War II. They were known as the "Black Panthers" after their unit's distinctive insignia; their motto was "Come out fighting". The battalion received a Presidential Unit Citation for its actions. In addition, a large number of individual members also earned awards, including one Medal of Honor and 11 Silver Stars.

Prior to combat[edit]

Before and during World War II, American military leaders had reservations about using African American soldiers in combat.[citation needed] General Lesley J. McNair, the commander of Army Ground Forces, successfully argued that "colored" units should be employed in combat. At McNair's suggestion, the US Army began to experiment with segregated combat units in 1941; the program was supported by, and given national exposure in, Life magazine.[1] The 761st was constituted on 15 March 1942, and activated 1 April 1942, at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. The battalion began training in M5 Stuart light tanks. They learned how to maneuver, mount, dismount, and maintain the vehicle's 37 mm main gun and .30 caliber machine guns. Final training was at Fort Hood, Texas, where they were upgraded to the M4 Sherman medium tank, which had a 75 mm main gun, two .30 caliber machine guns, a .50 caliber machine gun, and a two-inch smoke mortar.

Most of the black tankers had to train in bases located in deep Southern states such as Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas. In the days before the civil rights advances made in the 1960s, black people were still treated harshly in the South and often considered an inferior race.[citation needed] The men of the 761st trained for almost two years, conscious of the fact that white units were being sent overseas after as little as two or three months.

Racial tension[edit]

There were many acts of racism, including murder, against all the black battalions by soldiers from nearby Camp Polk and Camp Livingston who visited Alexandria, Louisiana on weekend leave.[citation needed] In March 1943, several members of the unit were severely beaten and one was killed and found dead on the train tracks in Alexandria.[citation needed] Several members of the 761st vowed to retaliate. They commandeered six tanks and a half-track but were persuaded by Lieutenant Colonel Bates who promised to straighten the situation out.[2]

Jackie Robinson confronts bigotry[edit]

The most famous member of the 761st was First Lieutenant Jack Robinson. During the 761st's training, a white bus driver told Robinson to move to the back of the bus, and Robinson refused. Although his battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Paul L. Bates, refused to consider the court-martial charges put forward by the arresting military policemen, the base commander transferred Robinson to the 758th Tank Battalion, whose commander was willing to sign the insubordination court-martial order.[3] Robinson was eventually acquitted of all charges, though he never saw combat. After the war he was instrumental in desegregating professional baseball.

Deployment[edit]

General Ben Lear, commander of the U.S. Second Army, rated the unit "superior"[citation needed] after a special review and deemed the unit "combat ready". After a brief deployment to England, the 761st landed in France via Omaha Beach on 10 October 1944. The unit arrived (with six white officers, thirty black officers, and 676 black enlisted men) and was assigned to General George Patton's US Third Army at his request, attached to the 26th Infantry Division.

The unit traveled from Northern France in October 1944, to see action in the Rhineland, in the Battle of the Bulge, and in the final months of the war on German soil.

Patton[edit]

As the 761st was about to enter combat, Patton reviewed the battalion and made a speech to the men which offered a guarded vote of confidence in their abilities:

Men, you're the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army. I would never have asked for you if you weren't good. I have nothing but the best in my Army. I don't care what color you are as long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sonsofbitches. Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you. Most of all your race is looking forward to your success. Don't let them down and damn you, don't let me down! They say it is patriotic to die for your country. Well, let’s see how many patriots we can make out of those German sonsofbitches.[4]

However, like most American military officers of the era[citation needed] , Patton expressed his doubts about using black men in combat. On returning to headquarters following the review, he remarked, "They gave a good first impression, but I have no faith in the inherent fighting ability of the race."[citation needed] He only put this sentiment aside and accepted the 761st when he desperately needed all the ground power he could get. Even after the war, Patton was not inclined to reform his perception of black soldiers. In War As I Knew It, he relates the interaction described above, and comments, "Individually they were good soldiers, but I expressed my belief at the time, and have never found the necessity of changing it, that a colored soldier cannot think fast enough to fight in armor."[5]

Patton biographer Carlo D'Este explained that "on the one hand he could and did admire the toughness and courage" of some black soldiers, but his writings can also be frequently read as "disdaining them and their officers because they were not part of his social order."[6] Historian Hugh Cole pointed out that Patton was also the first American military leader to integrate rifle companies "when manpower got tight."[7] Retired NBA Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, author of Brothers In Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes, agreed that although Patton was a bigot like most, the fact remains that he did lend his name to the advancement of blacks in the military at the time, unlike most other military officers (Patton did prevent a black soldier from being lynched while serving as commander of a fort in El Paso before the war). Most of the veterans of the 761st that Abdul-Jabbar interviewed stated they were proud to have served under a general widely considered one of the most brilliant and feared Allied military leaders of World War II.[8]

During the Battle of the Bulge, German soldiers who had raided American warehouses were reported to have disguised themselves as Americans guarding checkpoints in order to ambush American soldiers. Patton solved this problem by ordering black soldiers, including the 761st, to guard the checkpoints, and gave the order to shoot any white soldiers at the checkpoints who acted suspiciously.[9]

Combat record[edit]

The battalion first saw combat on 7 November 1944, fighting through towns such as Moyenvic, Vic-sur-Seille and Morville-lès-Vic, often at the leading edge of the advance.[citation needed] The unit endured 183 days of continuous operational employment.

In November 1944 the unit had suffered 156 casualties; 24 men killed, 88 wounded, and 44 non-battle. The unit also lost 14 tanks and another 20 damaged in combat. In December, the battalion was rushed to the aid of the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne.[citation needed]

After the Battle of the Bulge, the unit opened the way for the U.S. 4th Armored Division into Germany during an action that breached the Siegfried Line. In the final days of the war in Europe, the 761st was one of the first American units to reach the Steyr in Austria, at the Enns River, where they met with Ukrainians of the Soviet Army.[citation needed]

The 761st was deactivated 1 June 1946 in Germany.

Medal of Honor for Ruben Rivers[edit]

For unusual heroism in serving with Company A of the 761st, the Medal of Honor was awarded posthumously to Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers in 1997.

Official Citation:

For extraordinary heroism in action during the 15–19 November 1944, toward Guebling, France. Though severely wounded in the leg, Sergeant Rivers refused medical treatment and evacuation, took command of another tank, and advanced with his company in Guebling the next day. Repeatedly refusing evacuation, Sergeant Rivers continued to direct his tank's fire at enemy positions through the morning of 19 November 1944. At dawn, Company A's tanks began to advance towards Bougaktroff [sic, correct name is Bourgaltroff], but were stopped by enemy fire. Sergeant Rivers, joined by another tank, opened fire on the enemy tanks, covering company A as they withdrew. While doing so, Sergeant River's tank was hit, killing him and wounding the crew. Staff Sergeant Rivers' fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his unit and exemplify the highest traditions of military service.

"Baddest Man in the 761st"[edit]

Tank commander Sergeant Warren G. H. Crecy came to the aid of his men on 10 November 1944, and fought through enemy positions until his tank was destroyed. He eliminated an enemy position that had knocked out his tank by commandeering a vehicle armed with only a .30-caliber machine gun. He then eliminated the German forward observers who were directing artillery fire on the US positions.

After manning a replacement tank, Crecy's new vehicle lost traction in heavy mud and he was forced to exit the tank under fierce machine gun, antitank, and artillery fire to free the tracks. When attacked by German infantry, he had to abandon his salvage efforts to man the .50-caliber machine gun, effectively holding off the advancing enemy, then forcing them to withdraw.

Described as a baby-faced, "quiet, easy-going, meek-looking fellow", Crecy had destroyed an antitank position and a number of German machine gun positions armed only with a machine gun and without regard for his personal safety, under heavy fire. His men reportedly experienced difficulty getting the machine gun away from him after the action.

Crecy was nominated for the Medal of Honor and received a battlefield commission, eventually retiring with the rank of major.[10] His heroic actions earned him the title "Baddest Man in the 761st" from his comrades.

Presidential Unit Citation[edit]

After decades of racial tensions in the United States began to ease, the battalion was belatedly awarded the Presidential Unit Citation by President Jimmy Carter on 24 January 1978, for their World War II service. The 761st Tank Battalion's award became official on 10 April 1978 by the Department of the Army under General Orders Number 5.

After World War II[edit]

Returning soldiers of African-American units (the 761st had been the first of many segregated combat units, including the 92nd Infantry Division and the famous Tuskegee Airmen) often did not receive a warm welcome home as most white units did.[citation needed] Their unequal treatment was a source of much disappointment and discouragement.[citation needed] However, the distinguished service of many black combat units helped convince the government, now under President Harry S. Truman, to finally desegregate the US Armed Forces soon after the war ended.[citation needed]

On 24 November 1947, the 761st was reactivated (as an integrated unit) at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and assigned to the Regular Army, where it served until again inactivated on 15 March 1955.

Permanent monument[edit]

A monument dedicated to the 761st Tank Battalion was unveiled at Fort Hood, Texas during a ceremony attended by surviving veterans on 10 November 2005, as a permanent tribute to soldiers who have served and continue to serve throughout the world for liberty, honor and democracy. The monument features four black granite tablets surrounding a life-size marble sculpture of a 761st Tank Battalion fighter kneeling atop a black granite pedestal engraved with a tank on the front and a panther on the back.

The monument is located on 761st Tank Battalion Drive.

Awards[edit]

Countries: France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Germany, and Austria.

Attachments[edit]

Commanding Officers
(1 April 1942 – 1 June 1946)
Lt Col Edward E. Cruise 1 April 1942 – 21 November 1942
Maj John R. Wright, Jr. 22 November 1942 – 3 July 1943
Lt Col Paul L. Bates 4 July 1943 – 8 November 1944
Lt Col Hollis E. Hunt 9 November 1944 – 23 February 1945
Lt Col Paul L. Bates 24 February 1945 – 1 June 1946

Dramatizations and portrayals[edit]

In 1992, a documentary titled Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II was produced. The documentary depicted the battalion's liberation of concentration camps during 1945, but was criticized for misidentifying the precise units and camps involved.[12] There was speculation[who?] that the movie was intended to reduce tensions between the Jewish and African-American communities.[citation needed]

Most recently, Steven A. White executive produced an independent, feature length, high definition documentary on the 761st Tank Battalion. The film, entitled 761st is written, produced, and directed by Pete Chatmon and produced by 761st Tank Battalion unit historian, Wayne Robinson. It features interviews with eleven combat veterans of the 761st and is narrated by Andre Braugher.[13]

Several of the later episodes of The History Channel series Patton 360 featured 761st veteran William McBurney who related his experiences with the battalion in the Lorraine Campaign, the Battle of the Bulge, and in the ultimate conquest of the German homeland.

A 1993 episode of Law & Order titled "Profile" featured a 72 year-old assault victim played by Joe Seneca who credited his experiences with the 761st for saving his life.

In an episode of The Cosby Show, Cliff Huxtable and some male friends are discussing their military experiences and one of them describes in detail his World War II exploits as a member of the 761st Tank Battalion.

Actor Morgan Freeman and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are co-producing a new movie about the 761st, based on Jabbar’s and co-writer Anthony Walton's 2004 book, Brothers in Arms. On 15 December 2006, Freeman discussed the film and working with Will Smith, and possibly Denzel Washington, on it in the near future.[14]

In the science-fiction novel, The Light of Men (2008) by Andrew Salmon, the 761st liberate the fictional concentration camp of Gutundbose in which the story is set.

In the 1981 police mystery Chiefs, written by Stuart Woods, and the CBS mini-series of the same name, the 761st is mentioned as the unit of the ill-fated black mechanic Marshall Parker, killed after being arrested on false pretenses by Sonny Butts and Charley Ward, beaten and shot. Later, it is revealed as having been the unit of the new black police chief of Delano, GA, Tucker Watts, who was once, much earlier, known as Willie Cole, whose father had murdered Delano's first chief of police, Will Henry Lee.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Negroes at War: All They Want Now is a Fair Chance to Fight". Life Magazine 12 (24). June 15, 1942. 
  2. ^ Brothers In Arms: The Epic Story of the 761St Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton, Broadway Books, 2004, pages 31-2.
  3. ^ Brothers In Arms: The Epic Story of the 761St Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton, Broadway Books, 2004, page 57.
  4. ^ Wilson, Joe W. The 761st "Black Panther" Tank Battalion in World War II. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1999. p53.
  5. ^ Patton, George S. War As I Knew It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947. p160.
  6. ^ Patton: a Genius for War by Carlo D'Este, HarperCollins, 1995, page 172.
  7. ^ Patton: a Genius for War by Carlo D'Este, HarperCollins, 1995, page 656.
  8. ^ Brothers In Arms: The Epic Story of the 761St Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton, Broadway Books, 2004, page 260.
  9. ^ Oral History Archives Project, interview with Floyd Dade
  10. ^ Abdul-Jabbar, Chapter 11.
  11. ^ Brothers In Arms: The Epic Story of the 761St Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton, Broadway Books, 2004, page 260.
  12. ^ Treaster, Joseph B. (12 February 1993). "Film Halted On Blacks Freeing Jews". The New York Times. 
  13. ^ http://www.761st-movie.com.
  14. ^ Studio 360 interview by Kurt Andersen from the the 2006/12/15 episode.

References[edit]

  • Sasser, Charles W. (2004). Patton's Panthers : The African-American 761st Tank Battalion In World War II. New York: Pocket Books. 
  • Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem; Walton, Anthony (2004). Brothers In Arms: The Epic Story of the 761St Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes. New York: Broadway. 
  • Anderson, Trezzvant W. (1945). Come Out Fighting: The Epic Tale of the 761st Tank Battalion. Salzburg, Austria: Salzburger Druckerei. 
  • Wilson, Jr., Joseph E. (1998). Black Panthers Go To Combat in World War II. New York: World War II Magazine. 
  • Lee, Ulysses (1966). The Employment of Negro Troops. Washington D.C.: United States Army Center of Military History.  CMH Pub 11-4.
  • Weigley, Russell (1981). Eisenhower's Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944–1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 

External links[edit]