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