The 761st Tank Battalion was an American tank battalion, raised during World War II, which was made up almost exclusively of African-American soldiers. It was one of three tank battalions of its kind and one of only a handful of units which allowed black men to serve in an active combat role.
Known as ‘The Black Panthers’ this unit eventually saw active service in Europe, despite the misgivings of politicians and military leaders alike. Several of the men who served with the 761st received citations for bravery and men of the battalion earned 1 Medal of Honor and 11 Silver Stars.
The battalion got its nickname of the ‘Black Panthers’ because of their insignia and their motto of ‘come out fighting’ was lived up to in the engagements they became involved in.
Two other ‘black only’ tank battalions were the 758th which saw service in Italy and the 784th which also served in France.
The US Army of 1940
The US Army leading up to the Second World War was one which still practiced discrimination of black soldiers. Black men were not allowed to serve in combat roles and most were assigned to the most menial of tasks, such as stewards, clerks and other lowly positions.
This changed as the war progressed, pushed by African-American run newspapers which pushed for black men to be allowed to serve equally and eventually the military and politicians gave way to the pressure and allowed a token number of units to be formed.
But this did not mean that they were suddenly accepted. There was still a lot of suspicion surrounding their capabilities, however, and training was often much longer than it would have been for units comprising of white soldiers doing similar tasks.
It wasn’t until after the Second World War that black soldiers could serve alongside their white counterparts
Before and during World War II, American military leaders had reservations about using African-American soldiers in combat. Racism was rife in the armed forces, with most senior officers convinced that ‘Negros’ were poor soldiers and could not be relied upon.
It wasn’t until General Lesley J. McNair argued that ‘colored’ units should be employed in combat that the US Army began to experiment with segregated combat units in 1941.
This program was given national exposure in Life Magazine and the 761st was constituted on 15 March 1942 and activated 1 April 1942, at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. The battalion began training in M5 Stuart tanks and learned how to maneuver, mount, dismount, and maintain the vehicle’s main gun and .30 caliber machine guns. Final training was at Fort Hood, Texas, where they were upgraded to the M4 Sherman.
Training the 761st
Most of the black tankers had to train in installations 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. 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
The 761st saw action in the Rhineland and on German soil as well. But arguably its finest hour came when they were sent to bolster the American lines during the Battle of the Bulge.
Following a short time in England, the 761st arrived in France via Omaha Beach on 10th October 1944, just four months after the unimaginable slaughter which had almost seen American troops withdrawn from that part of the invasion.
The full complement comprised of six white officers, thirty black officers, and 676 black enlisted men.
They were allocated to General George Patton’s US Third Army, attached to the 26th Infantry Division, apparently on his own demand.
It made its way to the French/German border, where it had its first taste of action in several small towns in the area, often in the thick of the fighting and suffering 156 casualties in just one month.
It was said that George Patton had made the request that the 791st be under his command in France. This would have been typical of man who was never far from the limelight and he would likely have viewed this as a good opportunity to advance his own persona.
When he reviewed the battalion, shortly before they went into action for the first time, Patton made one of his trademark speeches which was no doubt intended to be motivational, but which fell somewhat short of the mark:
‘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.’
When Patton returned to his headquarters later that day, his mood had changed and he told one of his subordinates:
‘They gave a good first impression, but I have no faith in the inherent fighting ability of the race.’
Although Patton was forced into a rethink during the Battle of the Bulge, when he needed every available man he could lay his hands on, he still had reservations about the 791st. After the war was over, and Patton had taken the time to reflect on the period in his memoir, War as I Knew It, he admitted that he had made the comment but steadfastly refused to accept that he had been wrong:
‘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.’
Despite all the above, the consensus of many veterans of the 761st was that they had been proud to serve under Patton.
The Battle of the Bulge
In mid-December 1944, Hitler made one last throw of the dice as he tried to regain the initiative in the west. Using the last of his dwindling reserves he launched a surprise attack against the weakest part of the Allied lines, using 7 armored divisions and twice that number of infantry divisions against the initially weaker Americans.
Hitler’s ultimate objective during this campaign was to reach Antwerp and cut the perilously fragile supply lines that the Allies relied upon, reasoning that he could starve them of ammunition and food and so force a negotiated settlement which would leave him to concentrate his armies against the Soviets.
This flawed logic took no account of the other crucial difficulties that the Germans faced in 1944 and relied heavily on luck rather than military might to succeed.
Nevertheless, Hitler’s Generals took on their orders with their usual devotion to duty and the attack was launched during atrocious weather, on December 16th.
Initially, the Germans, with surprise on their side, managed to push deep into the American lines. German commandos, led by the ruthless Otto Skorzeny and disguised in American uniforms, caused chaos behind enemy lines by carrying out acts of sabotage and ambush and it was Patton’s idea to use the men of the 761st to put an end to this.
They were ordered to man checkpoints and other vital installations which may have been a target and were told to shoot any white soldiers acting suspiciously.
This may seem like a callous order, but the American lines were dangerously close to being completely overwhelmed in the early part of the battle and Patton had to act fast.
As the assault wore on and became more of a battle of attrition, Patton suddenly realized that he was desperately short of trained men. He used every man who could carry a rifle to defend the strategic points of the line and eventually, much against his better judgment, he ordered the 761st to Bastogne, to support the 101st Airborne Division, who had been defending the town since the 20th December, and to break the siege.
On 27th December Patton’s forces smashed their way through the German ring around Bastogne, allowing resupply and the evacuation of wounded.
Following the Battle of the Bulge, the 761st attacked and breached the Siegfried Line and opened the way for the US 4th Armored Division to smash their way into Germany proper.
As the war slowly and inexorably headed towards its final, bloody conclusion the 761st was one of the first American units to reach the town of Steyr in Austria, where they linked up with Soviet forces of the 1st Ukrainian Front.
Deactivation and Home
The 761st was deactivated in Germany on 1st June 1946, more than a year after the cessation of hostilities, but the men of the 761st were to be disappointed if they thought they would be welcomed home with open arms.
White soldiers were often greeted with cheering crowds and euphoria, while the men of the 761st were continued to be treated with disdain and in some cases, outright hostility.
It was not to last, however. The service record of black only combat units had shown that the men serving in them had won the right to be treated in the same way as their white counterparts.
On July 26th, 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which abolished racial discrimination in the US armed forces and eventually ended segregation. The soldiers of the 761st, along with other men who served in the black only units of World War Two, had been instrumental in that change.
Several men of the 761st received medals for individual acts of heroism during their time in France.
Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers was awarded the Medal of Honor for his part in an action in the town of Guebling, France. Despite being severely wounded in the leg, and having lost his tank, Rivers refused to be evacuated, took command of another tank and continued to direct fire at enemy positions. He then covered the retreat of A Company’s tanks as they withdrew. It was during this part of the action that Rivers’ tank was hit and he was killed. The medal was awarded posthumously, but not until 1997.
Tank commander Sergeant Warren G. H. Crecy came to the assistance of his stranded men on 10th November 1944 and fought until his tank was destroyed. Alighting from his crippled vehicle, he then destroyed an enemy position armed with only a .30-caliber machine gun. He then went on to kill the German forward observers who were directing fire on the US troops.
After commandeering a replacement tank, Crecy lost this one too and was attacked by German infantry. He held off this attack with a machine gun and forced them to into a retreat, despite being heavily outnumbered. Crecy’s men later reported that it had been difficult to relieve him of the machine gun after the action.
Crecy was nominated for the Medal of Honor and received a battlefield commission. His heroism earned him the nickname of the ‘Baddest Man in the 761st.’ he retired from the army as a Major.
Other Famous ‘Black Panthers’
There were several men who served within the ranks of the 761st who gained national recognition in one way or another. Lieutenant Jackie Robinson, for instance, became famous before and after the war.
In July 1944, while taking a bus from his training base at Fort Hood, Robinson was told by the driver to sit at the rear. He refused and was subsequently arrested.
The ensuing court-martial saw him acquitted of the ‘crime’ and he was released, only to find that the 761st had already departed for France. Robinson was reassigned to the 758th instead and saw out his war service with them.
But Robinson wasn’t finished with setting new standards. In 1947, once he had seen out his time in the army, he became the first black player to play in Major League Baseball, turning out for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
A monument dedicated to the 761st Tank Battalion was unveiled on 10th November 2005, as a permanent tribute to the men who served in the unit. Surviving members attended the ceremony of the unveiling of the tribute, which is located on 761st Tank Battalion Drive.
It is made up of four black granite tablets surrounding a life-size marble sculpture of a 761st Tank Battalion member, kneeling on top of a black granite pedestal. It is engraved with a tank on the front and a panther on the back.
The US Army Now
The US armed forces are now completely integrated with men and women of all people serving alongside one another. Without the actions of the men who served in the 761st and other such units, it may have taken many more years for this integration to have been completed.