Sunday, February 17, 2008

Pages From History: The Original "Black Panthers", 761st Tank Division Fought for United States Army During World War II in France and Belgium

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
761st Tank Battalion

Active: 1942-04-01 – 1946-06-01
(segregated unit)
1947-11-24 – 1955-03-15
(integrated unit)
Country: USA
Allegiance Federal
Branch: National Army
Type: Separate Battalion
Nickname: Black Panthers
Motto: Come Out Fighting

The 761st Tank Battalion, was a United States Army tank battalion during World War II. The unit was made up of black soldiers, who by Federal law were not permitted to serve alongside white troops. (The US Army did not officially desegregate until after World War II). They were known as the “Black Panthers” after their unit's shoulder sleeve insignia. Their motto was “Come out fighting”.

Prior to combat

Before and during World War II, American military leaders had reservations about using African American soldiers in combat. General Lesley J. McNair, the commander of Army Ground Forces, successfully argued that "colored" units should be employed in combat (the historical record is not clear as to his personal opinion on the potential worth of black soldiers, or if his decisions were guided by logistical necessity.) 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.

The 761st was constituted on 15 March 1942, and activated 1 April 1942, at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. Final training was at Fort Hood, Texas.

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. 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.

Jackie Robinson confronts bigotry

The most famous member of the 761st was Lieutenant Jack Robinson. During the 761st's training, a white bus driver told Robinson—a commissioned officer—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 MPs, the base commander transferred Robinson to the 758th Tank Battalion, whose commander was willing to sign the insubordination court-martial consent. Robinson would eventually be acquitted of all charges, though he never saw combat. He became famous a few months later when he was instrumental in the desegregation of professional baseball.


General Ben Lear, Commander of the U.S. Second Army, rated the unit "superior" 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 were assigned to General George Patton's US Third Army at his reluctant request, attached to the 26th Infantry Division.

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


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 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!"[1]

However, like many military officers of the era, 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." 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." [2]

Patton biographer Carlo D'Este explains 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." Historian Hugh Cole points out that Patton was also the first American military leader to integrate the rifle companies "when manpower got tight."

Kareem Abdul Jabar, author of Brothers In Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes, agrees that although Patton was a bigot the fact remains that he did lend his name to the advancement of blacks in the military at the time. Most of the veterans of the 761st that Jabar 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.

During the Battle of the Bulge, German soldiers who had raided American warehouses were reported to have disguised themselves as Americans guarding the checkpoints in order to ambush American soldiers. Patton solved this problem by ordering black soldiers to guard the checkpoints, and gave the order to shoot any white soldiers at the checkpoints.[3]

Combat record

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

Casualties in November 1944 were: 24 men killed, 88 wounded, and 44 non-battle, with 14 tanks lost and 20 damaged. In December, the battalion was rushed to the aid of the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne.

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.

The 761st was deactivated 1 June 1946 in Germany.

Medal of Honor for Ruben Rivers

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, 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"

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. His heroic actions earned him the title "Baddest Man in the 761st" from his comrades.

Presidential Unit Citation

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 January 24, 1978, for their WWII service. The 761st Tank Battalion's award became official on April 10, 1978 by the Department of the Army under General Orders Number 5.

After World War II

Returning soldiers of African-American units (the 761st had been the first of many desegregated 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. Their unequal treatment was a source of much disappointment and discouragement. However, the distinguished service of many black combat units helped convince the government to finally desegregate the US Armed Forces soon after the war ended.

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 deactivated on 15 March 1955.

Permanent Monument

A monument dedicated to the 761st Tank Battalion was unveiled at Fort Hood, Texas during a ceremony attended by surviving veterans on November 10, 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.


CAMPAIGN STREAMERS: Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, Central Europe.
Silver Star: 11
Bronze Star: 69
Countries: France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Germany, and Austria.


Third Army:

26th, 1st, 87th and 71st Infantry Divisions
17th Airborne Division
17th Armored Group
Ninth Army:
95th and 79th Infantry Divisions
XVI Corps
Seventh Army:
103d and 1st Infantry Divisions


(1942-04-01 – 1946-06-01)
Lt Col Edward E. Cruise 1942-04-01 – 1942-11-21
Maj John R. Wright, Jr. 1942-11-22 – 1943-07-03
Lt Col Paul L. Bates 1943-07-04 – 1944-11-08
Lt Col Hollis E. Hunt 1944-11-09 – 1945-02-23
Lt Col Paul L. Bates 1945-02-24 – 1946-06-01


No Hollywood feature film has yet featured the contributions of World War II African American combat troops, though a made for television movie did feature the Tuskegee Airmen.

Force 10 from Navarone has African American medic who accompanies white soldiers on a mission in Nazi occupied Yugoslavia.

An African American soldier with a non-speaking role appears briefly in Battleground where he attends Christmas chapel services with members of the 101st Airborne. Chronologically, however, this is before the arrival of Patton's Third Army to which the 761st was attached, so the soldier was likely intended to represent a black trucker of the Red Ball Express.

There is a scene in the 1978 TV movie, Ike: The War Years, in which white soldiers are relieved by a members of black tank unit during the Battle of the Bulge. In this scene, which involves General Patton, the tank pulls up and out pop African American soldiers; the white soldiers cheer in delight. This is likely to be a brief portrayal of the 761st Tank Battalion.

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 December 15, 2006, Freeman discussed the film and working with Will Smith, and possibly Denzel Washington, on it in the near future.[4]

The Red Ball Express starring Sidney Poitier and Jeffrey Chandler is a fictional account of the exploits of the predominately Black units of U S Army Truck drivers who ferried needed supplies to combat troops in Europe during World War II.

758th Tank Battalion
784th Tank Battalion


1. Wilson, Joe W. The 761st "Black Panther" Tank Battalion in World War II. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1999. p53.
2. Patton, George S. War As I Knew It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947. p160.
3. Oral History Archives Project, interview with Floyd Dade
4. Studio 360 interview by Kurt Andersen from the the 2006/12/15 episode.


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

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