World War 2 History: The Black Panthers-- The Segregated 761st Tank Battalion

WW2: Shoulder sleeve patch of the United States 761st Tank Battalion.
WW2: Shoulder sleeve patch of the United States 761st Tank Battalion. | Source

You Can Fight But You Still Have to Sit in the Back of the Bus

During World War II, it was against US law for blacks to serve along-side whites. Therefore, the War Department ordered the creation of three segregated tank battalions comprised mainly of African-Americans despite objections of the Armored Force commanders. Eventually, all three battalions saw service in Europe. One of them, the 761st, saw extensive action in France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and Austria. They spearheaded the breakthrough of the German Siegfried Line and were the first American force to link up with the Russian Army.

Even though they enlisted or were drafted into the Armed Forces, blacks faced severe discrimination both at home and in the field. As a matter of fact, not many whites were aware there were any black combat soldiers as most were relegated to non-combat duties such as loading, transporting and unloading supplies. Even while wearing their uniforms, they still had to ride in the back of the buses. On trains, they had to ride in the front cars where the soot and cinders were the worst. One black recruit, headed from New York to Fort Knox, Kentucky, recalled riding in the front of the train with the other black troops through Kentucky when they were ordered to pull down the window shades. It was for their own safety as there had been incidents of the locals firing on trains carrying black soldiers.

WW2: Cpl. Carlton Chapman is a machine-gunner in an M-4 tank, attached to a Motor Transport unit near Nancy, France. 761st Mt. Bn. November 5, 1944.
WW2: Cpl. Carlton Chapman is a machine-gunner in an M-4 tank, attached to a Motor Transport unit near Nancy, France. 761st Mt. Bn. November 5, 1944. | Source

Black Tank Battalions

The all-black 5th Tank Group basically existed on paper. It was composed of three tank battalions: the 785th Light Tank, the 761st Medium tank and the 784th Medium Tank battalions. Their senior officers were all white with some black junior officers overseeing about 675 black soldiers in each battalion. The 5th Tank Group never served as a unit; the three battalions had to serve separately wherever they were needed.

The 761st, who called themselves the Black Panthers, was activated in 1942 and spent more than two years in training, despite the fact that white tank battalions were sent off to fight after only a few months' training. At first they were trained in light Stuart tanks, but eventually they were given medium Sherman tanks and they made the best of their extended training.

Jackie Robinson, who would later go onto to integrate baseball, served as a First Lieutenant in the 761st until he was court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of a bus. He was acquitted, but was then transferred to the 758th battalion.

Patton: Welcome, Kind Of

Finally, the 761st Tank Battalion, with its six white officers, thirty black officers and 676 black enlisted men, was shipped off to France and landed at Omaha Beach in October 1944. General Patton, Commander of the Third Army needed all the tanks he could get. The 761st's training record, rated as “superior”, convinced him to give them a chance, despite his reservations. Before going into combat, he addressed them:

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 your success. Don't let them down and damn you, don't let me down.”

Less Than Prisoners?

While the black tankers were training, they were segregated from the white soldiers. When German prisoners were later housed in the training camp, the prisoners were allowed to frequent the whites-only shops in the camp-- but the African-Americans were not.

Blooded and In the Forefront

The 761st first saw action on November 7, 1944 and remained in combat for six months, often times spearheading the assaults. Their first mission was to take the French town of Morville-les-vic, which was loaded with Germans. According to some accounts it was a suicide mission, since the Germans were supposed to deplete their ammunition destroying the inexperienced black tankers, after which the white infantry would mop up. The 761st blooded themselves but performed admirably, the Germans were defeated and the town taken. The Black Panthers would go on to take many other towns and villages, liberating 30 in all, before the war ended.

When the Germans counterattacked in late December 1944 in what would be called the Battle of the Bulge, Patton's Third Army swung north to relieve the 101st Airborne surrounded at Bastogne. The 761st took the Belgian village of Tillet six miles west of Bastogne after other units had failed. After that they moved north and cut off the main road between Liege and Bastogne, closing off one of the main German supply routes to the besieged town. Other engagements followed until the Germans were in full retreat.

Awards

During its six months of combat, the 761st Tank Battalion earned four campaign streamers for actions in Northern France, the Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace and Central Europe. Its members earned 11 Silver Stars and 69 Bronze Stars.

Into Germany and Meeting the Russians

After the Battle of the Bulge, the 761st was rerouted to the main American attack into Germany where they were the first unit to breach the Siegfried Line, the German's border defense of bunkers, forts and tank traps.

As the end of the war neared, the 761st entered Austria and became the first American unit to link up with Ukrainian troops in the Red Army at the conjunction of the Steyr and Enns Rivers. Some accounts state that the Army specifically cut off the battalion's fuel supply so black soldiers wouldn't be the first to greet the Red Army and that, with the connivance of black soldiers at a fuel dump, members of the 761st stole the 30,000 gallons of fuel needed to greet the Soviets.

The 761st Tank Battalion was deactivated in June 1946, but was reactivated in November 1947 as an integrated unit in the Regular Army. The battalion served in North Korea until it was again deactivated in March 1955.

Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers (1921 - November 19, 1944), WWII Medal of Honor recipient
Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers (1921 - November 19, 1944), WWII Medal of Honor recipient | Source

(Very) Belated Recognition and Heroes

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter belatedly awarded the 761st Tank Battalion the Presidential Unit Citation.

In 1997, Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism during November 15-19, 1944. Sergeant Rivers despite being severely wounded, had refused evacuation and continued to direct his tank to fire on the enemy positions for several days and, while covering another tank company's withdrawal, died when his tank was finally destroyed.

Also nominated for the Medal of Honor for actions during the fighting of November 10-11, 1944, was Sergeant Warren G. H. Crecy (the G. H. stood for Gamaliel Harding, as in President Warren Gamaliel Harding). He had fought through enemy positions until his tank was destroyed and then climbed in the back of a jeep. Using the jeep's .30-caliber machine-gun while under intense enemy fire, he wiped out those who had attacked his tank. He then silenced the forward observers who had been directing artillery fire onto the unit. The next day, in yet another tank, he got stuck in the mud while under attack from artillery, anti-tank and machine-gun fire. Seeing that the Germans were readying a counterattack against his accompanying infantry, he climbed onto the rear of his tank and held off the enemy with the tank's .50-caliber machine-gun while the infantry withdrew. He later destroyed several machine-gun nests and an anti-tank position, all the while drawing heavy enemy fire. After the battle, it was said that his hands had to be prised from the machine-gun. He didn't get the Medal of Honor, but did receive a battlefield commission and eventually retired as a major.

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Comments 30 comments

gmarquardt profile image

gmarquardt 4 years ago from Hill Country, Texas

Awesome! Very well done.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi gmarquardt, I thank you for your awesome comment :)


JKenny profile image

JKenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

Awesome hub Harald, I'd heard of the Tuskegee airmen, but I had no idea that there was a segregated tank battalion as well. Thank you very much for enlightening me. Voted up etc.


Photoshark317 profile image

Photoshark317 4 years ago from Lafayette Orgon

Very good Hub Harold. This is the sort of thing that gets overlooked way too much. It took some thirty years to get the story of the Tuskegee Airmen told in movie form. Good job again! Best to you


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

JKenny and Photoshark317, thanks both for your comments. I, too, knew of the Tuskegee airmen and didn't know anything about the black tankers. I'm glad to help spread the word.


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

Hi. This is related much to American history and I did not know about such story. Actually I did not supposed that discrimination was so strong that time. Interesting!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi Pavlo, it's always great to hear from you. I'm afraid it was pretty bad back then-- especially in the south. I mean, as I mentioned, it was US federal LAW that stated blacks could not serve with whites. We have to remember these things-- that's why history is so important.


annerivendell profile image

annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

Such a sad and informative hub, and so well written. Voted up.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thank you for commenting, anne. It does say a lot about the mindsets back then. I must say that not all whites felt that way. The commanding officer in charge of the 761st training was very fair, as were others, but it was still ugly. At least things have changed-- though there will always be bigots.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

There was a black American combat pilot, Eugene Bullard, before the Tuskegee airmen - sort of. That is, his service in WW1 was very real; who he was officially fighting on behalf of is complicated, and so I have heard the Tuskegee airmen aren't inclined to count him (there is discrimination based on other things than race!) as being the first.

Bullard was the first black American combat pilot, the Tuskegee airmen were the first black pilots to be in combat for America. See?

I hope to get an article written about him eventually.


joanveronica profile image

joanveronica 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

Hi, congratulations on an awesome Hub! Voted up, awesome and beautiful. Well researched and so poignant, really! I had heard of the black tankers, but had never read details. This is a just tribute to their courage!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks for your informative comment, aethelthryth. I look forward to your article.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi joan. Thanks very much for your effusive comment. I'll have you know I've never used the word "effusive" before :)


AlexK2009 profile image

AlexK2009 4 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

It seems that black people were treated then the way LGBT people were treated as recently as the 1980s. I have argued before that this is because White people, having been oppressed by Christianity and the Protestant Work Ethic for centuries, secretly envied Blacks and so tried to drag them down.

There is of course more to it than that.


old albion profile image

old albion 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Hi UH. Your usual first class standard. It is so difficult to believe today that such harsh segregation existed. Cutting the fuel supply to stop the arrival of the tanks meeting the Russians seems incredible. Sgt. Crecy not being given the Medal of Honor seems to me to be outrageous. Well done.

Voted up and all.

Graham.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

AlexK2009, thanks for your interesting comment. I guess I can't speak to that, but the despicable KKK certainly thought they represented Christian Whites.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, Graham-- always good to hear from you. I can't say I would be surprised if the Army pulled such a stunt-- the war was winding down and politics-- and discrimination-- were everywhere. I didn't know the first Americans to meet the Russians were black and I think it's a big deal.

PS I'm a little behind, but will shortly get to your new hub!


Historicus profile image

Historicus 4 years ago from Cashtown, PA

Terrific Hub. It is about time the 761st was given credit for their good service. It was indeed unfortunate that it took the American people almost ninety years to realize blacks could fight as well as whites. They have been fighting side by side since the Revolution. Good job.


Photoshark317 profile image

Photoshark317 4 years ago from Lafayette Orgon

They already new we could fight as well as anybody else. Remember the Buffalo Soldiers? 1/10 CAV 4th ID?


Historicus profile image

Historicus 4 years ago from Cashtown, PA

Yes indeed. And don't forget the United States Colored Troops in the Union Army during the Civil War!

People should remember WE all bleed the same color blood!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Historicus and Photoshark, thanks for both commenting. Yes, history should have already shown the powers-that-be that blacks could fight. One way or another, they fought in every war.


Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

Gypsy Rose Lee 4 years ago from Riga, Latvia

Another interesting and fascinating hub. Had never heard of them but they certainly deserve as much recognition as everyone else. Passing this on.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks for commenting Gypsy-- and sharing.


lions44 profile image

lions44 3 years ago from Auburn, WA

Great job. Just recently I was able to educate some folks on the 333rd and other black artillery units in WWII. They helped the 101st at Bastogne but have been completely forgotten. Keep up the good work.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks much, lions44. That's what I like about the Internet-- the ability to shed some light where it's needed.


DynamicS profile image

DynamicS 19 months ago from Toronto, Canada

Thank you for sharing a little known or recognized part of Black's contribution to WWII. Many black men and women gave their lives fighting for the cause during WWII and those stories are often neglected.

Great job!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 19 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, DynamicS. Sometime I hope to also write about black US regiments that demanded to fight in WW1 instead of being used as labor battalions off-loading ships. Some fought under French command and were therefore in the fight longer than other US divisions.


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 19 months ago from Northeast Ohio

David, this was another one of fascinating and interesting hubs on World War II. Very informative and well detailed with research. Voted up!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 19 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thank you for reading and commenting, Kristen. It's a sad commentary on US history that men who served and died were subject to such discrimination-- and they had it better than their forefathers in WW1 and the Civil War.


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 19 months ago from Northeast Ohio

You're welcome David. I agree with you that it's sad, too, when it have now changed history.

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