Monday, June 24, 2019

The 761st Black Panthers, they came out fighting

It's an amazing ride through our history to look back at World War II and see that we fought with segregated units, and these units, black and white, fought with incredulous gallantry and courage, together, side by side, often so intermingled that the word "segregated" during battle had little meaning. Many of our leaders at the time openly argued that black-Americans could not fight in modern warfare. Of course, they were wrong. Many of us are well aware of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, but how many of you know about the 761st "Black Panther" Tank Battalion, part of Patton's vaunted 3rd Army that bolted from Normandy to Germany virtually overnight? There is a great deal of history tied up with the 761st, and a great deal of bravery far beyond the call of duty. The story of the 761st is a story about black-American valor. It is also an American story of service, sacrifice, tenacity and resolve. And, it is a story about an alliance that took down an evil German empire, piece by piece.

Just about everyone knows Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is among the greatest basketball players to ever hit the court, but perhaps fewer know he is also an accomplished author. He is known to have once said:

"I can do something else besides stuff a ball through a hoop. My biggest resource is my mind.” 

His most recent book, published by Broadway Books in May 2004, is Brothers in Arms, co-authored by Anthony Walton. This book is about the 761st Tank Battalion, an all-black military unit that distinguished itself in WWII in Europe as part of General Patton's 3rd Army. The 761st became known as the “Black Panthers.”

There is much to learn about this tank battalion, and all the history in which it was immersed. We've picked out a few things that peaked our interest.

The battalion was constituted on March 15, 1942 and was activated on April 1, 1942 at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana.  Building began in 1940, prior to the WWII for the US. The next photo shows it in 1941.

It was initially a tent camp, located about 17 miles southwest of Alexandria. Over one-half million soldiers were trained here.  


African-Americans, of course, have served in American military forces with distinction since the Revolutionary War.

Nonetheless, there was considerable reluctance to use them in armored (and air) units in WWII. Many senior officers felt African-Americans lacked the needed intelligence and moral qualities. The debate was heated and often racist. Secretary of War Stimson reflects the widely held attitude in this statement of September 27, 1940:

"Leadership is not embedded in the Negro race yet and to try to make commissioned officers to lead the men into battle — colored men — is to work disaster to both. Colored troops do very well under white officers but every time we try to lift them a little bit beyond where they can go, disaster and confusion follows. In the draft, we are preparing to give Negroes a fair shot in every service, however, even in aviation where I doubt if they will not produce disaster there. Nevertheless, they are going to have a try, but I hope to Heaven’s sake they won’t mix the white and the colored troops together in the same units for then we shall certainly have trouble." 

Stimson forgot that African-American officers served in the Union Army during the US Civil War.

However, men such as Major General J. Lesley McNair (later promoted to Lieutenant General), had for some time argued strongly to bring black Americans into army combat units, including tank units. He was realistic, and knew the manpower pool was not inexhaustible, so he concluded that blacks had to be used in combat units.

In addition, black organizations were pressuring the Roosevelt administration to allow black soldiers to serve on the same level as white soldiers. Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have joined this lobbying effort to put pressure on FDR as well.

Finally, in 1940 Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act and on September 16, 1940, FDR signed it. This legislation required there be no discrimination on account of race in the selection and training of soldiers. While this law did go into effect, the segregation of units was maintained.

In 1942, General McNair became responsible for training, equipping and organizing all Army units except the Army Air Corps.

By the time the 761st got to France, in October 1944, Patton's 3rd Army was already on its way across France. General Patton, not originally fond of the idea of black armored units, welcomed the 761st with these remarks:

“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 sons of bitches. Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you. Most of all, your race is looking forward to you. Don't let them down and damn you, don't let me down!"

A decision was made to organize the 5th Tank Group as an all-black organization, though that is a bit of a misnomer, since white officers were assigned to it. Three black tank battalions were created to fill this 5th Tank Group.

The first was the 758th Tank Battalion (Light), which formed in March 1941 at Fort Knox, Kentucky.  This was the first tank battalion in American history organized with black soldiers. In 1949, the 758th Tank Battalion was redesignated the 64th Heavy Tank Battalion.

The 761st was the next to activate, and it was followed by the 784th, activated on April 1, 1943.

The 761st was given an armored patch with nothing embroidered into it. Many of the men went to their local Post Exchange (PX) and had the 761 embroidered into it. The patch shown here is courtesy of the First Sergeant Wilson, Sr. Memorial Album, presented by

Captain Ivan Harrison, with the help of a draftsman, drew up the unit crest and their motto, "Come out fighting."

And "Come out fighting" the 761st did. Of the three black tank battalions, the 761st was the first to go to war, landing on Omaha Beach at Normandy, France on October 10, 1944. The battalion was part of General Patton's 3rd US Army. It entered combat on November 7, 1944, participating in an assault on the French towns of Moyenvic and Vic-sur-Seille, helping the 26th Infantry Division breakout near the fortress city of Metz.

The 761st won its first victory right away, and continued winning. It crossed the German border on December 14, 1944. The 761st Tank Battalion participated in the American counteroffensive during and after the Battle of the Bulge, supporting the 17th Airborne Division. During the period December 31, 1944 and February 2, 1945, the "Black Panthers" were able to split the German lines at three points, thereby preventing the resupply of the enemy forces surrounding American troops at Bastogne. In the spring of 1945, the battalion crossed the Main River in support of the 103rd infantry Division, and then crossed into Austria in May. 

 Moving into Austria, the battalion was part of General Patton's southeastern spearhead, fighting in support of the 71st Infantry Division. This move into Austria is fascinating.

Many think of Patton's 3rd Army race across France and Germany as its, and his, dominant achievement, and that is arguably so. But, as you can see from the map above, Patton's 3rd Army also spearheaded a significant move to the southeast into Austria. The 761st was at the lead of this spearhead.

The red box on the map marks the area of Linz-Enns-Steyr. This is the general area where the 761st ended up. 

There is a great deal of "intrigue" involved in the Allied (mainly Patton's 3rd Army) movement into Austria, which we cannot cover here. American commanders in April 1945, General Patton of the 3rd Army perhaps the most vocal, were ready and in position to go into Berlin, far to the north of Austria. That was most certainly Patton's goal. But General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, said "no." He decided to let the Soviets take Berlin instead, in part because Berlin was in the "Soviet sphere of influence" in Germany, in part because the battle for Berlin was going to be costly, and in part because he wanted to solidify Allied gains to the west, and to the south.

He decided to stop the US advance at the Elbe River, which originated in Czechoslovakia just north of the East-west Danube. The Elbe flowed  northward through Germany to the North Sea. The Americans were all around the Elbe, and the Enns-Danube just to the south, but they were not easy to find.

Each American unit wanted to be the first to find the Soviets. Dozens of American patrols were sent out searching for them. The 761st was among those initial units to meet up with the Soviets in the area of Steyr, Austria, just to the south of Linz.

The Soviets began their attack on Berlin on April 21 and captured the city on May 2.

We have not even touched on the many, many crucial battles in which the 761st fought. In reading the battalion's history, it clearly fought with enormous courage and sacrifice, as well as or better than most others.

 The battalion was deactivated in 1946 in Germany, but was reactivated at Fort Knox, Kentucky in November 1947. It was deactivated for good in March 1955.

The battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation on January 24, 1978, long overdue, many rightly argue, wrongly overdue. Rather than arguing that point, it's better to highlight a few sections of the citation, where the prose is particularly inspiring and reflective of the accomplishments of the soldiers of the 761st Tank Battalion:

“The 761st Tank Battalion distinguished itself by extraordinary gallantry, courage, professionalism and high esprit de corps displayed in the accomplishment of unusually difficult and hazardous operations in the European Theater of Operations from 31 October 1944 to 6 May 1945. During 183 days in combat, elements of the 761st - the first United States Army tank battalion committed to battle comprised of black soldiers - were responsible for inflicting thousands of enemy casualties and for capturing, destroying, or aiding in the liberation of more than 30 major towns, 4 airfields, 3 ammunition supply dumps, 461 wheeled vehicles, 34 tanks, 113 large guns, 1 radio station, and numerous individual and crew-served weapons. This was accomplished while enduring an overall casualty rate approaching 50 percent, the loss of 71 tanks, and in spite of extremely adverse weather conditions, very difficult terrain not suited to armor operations, heavily fortified enemy positions and units, and extreme shortages of replacement personnel and equipment. The accomplishments are outstanding examples of the indomitable spirit and heroism displayed by the tank crews of the 761st … The men of the 761st Tank Battalion, while serving … in 183 continuous days in battle, fought major engagements in six European countries, participated in four major allied campaigns and on 6 May 1945, as the easternmost American soldiers in Austria, ended their combat missions by joining with the First Ukrainian Army (Russian) at the Enns River, Steyr, Austria.” 

In 1997, Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers received the Congressional Medal of Honor (posthumously) for his heroism with Company A during the period November 14-19, 1944 in the area of Guebling, France. He had originally received the silver star and a purple heart (both posthumously) for his actions on those days.

Readers might be interested to know the world-famed baseball star, Jackie Robinson, was an officer in the 716th. He was drafted in 1942. Robinson was once heard to say, “A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Well, as we all know, he had a major impact on baseball, not only as a terrific and talented player, but because he broke the segregation barrier and did it with a flare. He was the first African-American to play in the majors, became Rookie of the Year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and two years later became MVP. He finished with a lifetime batting average of .311 and was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

That all happened after Robinson served in the Army, with the 761st. Robinson did his basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas, with none other than Joe Louis, by then a world reknown boxer. Robinson had a degree from UCLA, but could not get into Officer Candidate School (OCS), until Louis intervened and pulled the right strings. In 1943, he graduated a second lieutenant.

A court martial stopped Robinson from going to Europe with the 761st. While riding a bus from Camp Hood, Texas, he refused the bus-driver's instruction to sit in the back of the bus. Court martial charges were drawn up but his white commanding officer, Major Paul Levern Bates (eventually promoted to colonel), refused to consent to the charges. Superior officers then moved Robinson to the 758th Tank Battalion, where the commander did consent to the charges. The 761st in the mean time departed for Europe during his trial. Actually, the charges had to do with his interaction with the military police following the bus incident. He was acquitted, and honorably discharged in 1944. He took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

And meet Sergeant Warren G.H. Crecy, who later won a battlefield commission to lieutenant. You might not know it looking at this photo of him, but his comrades knew him as "the baddest man in the 761st."

On November 10, 1944, he fought through enemy positions, saw his tank destroyed, grabbed another vehicle with a .30-caliber machine gun, and eliminated the enemy position that destroyed his tank. He then took down enemy foreign observers who were directing artillery against American infantry units. The next day, his tank got stuck in the mud, he dismounted and, under fierce fire, got his tank unstuck and on the move. His tank then became immobilized, he saw German soldiers counterattacking US infantry, and provided cover fire with his .50 caliber until the American foot soldiers could withdraw. He then wiped out several machine-gun nests and an anti-tank position with his machine gun. A correspondent watching all this commented:

“To look at Warren G.H. Crecy, you'd never think that here was a 'killer,' who had slain more of the enemy than any man in the 761st. He extracted a toll of lives from the enemy that would have formed the composition of 3 or 4 companies, with his machine guns alone. And yet, he is such a quiet, easy-going, meek-looking fellow, that you'd think that the fuzz which a youngster tries to cultivate for a mustache would never grow on his baby-skinned chin. And that he'd never use a word stronger than 'damn.' But here was a youth who went so primitively savage on the battle field that his only thought was to 'kill, kill, kill,' and he poured his rain of death pellets into German bodies with so much reckless abandon and joy that he was the nemesis of all the foes of the 761st. And other men craved to ride with Crecy and share the reckless thrill of killing the hated enemy that had killed their comrades. And he is now living on borrowed time. By all human equations Warren G.H. Crecy should have been dead long ago, and should have had the Congressional Medal of Honor, at least!"

We'll let you read the stories of the countless other demonstrations of extraordinary heroism, including that of Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers, who ultimately received the nation's highest military honor.

Joseph E. Wilson, Jr. did an extensive article on the 761st for World War II Magazine in January 1998. Here is Joseph Wilson's summary of this battalion's work in WWII.

"Through six months of battle, without relief, the 761st Tank Battalion served as a separate battalion with the 26th, 71st, 79th, 87th, 95th and 103rd Infantry divisions and the 17th Airborne Division. Assigned at various times to the Third, Seventh and Ninth armies, the Black Panthers fought major engagements in six European countries and participated in four major Allied campaigns. During that time, the unit inflicted 130,000 casualties on the German army and captured, destroyed or aided in the liberation of more than 30 towns, several concentration camps, four airfields, three ammunition supply dumps, 461 wheeled vehicles, 34 tanks, 113 large guns, and thousands of individual and crew-served weapons. This was accomplished in spite of extremely adverse weather conditions, difficult terrain not suited to armor, heavily fortified enemy positions, extreme shortages of replacement personnel and equipment, an overall casualty rate approaching 50 percent and the loss of 71 tanks."

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