Friday, August 24, 2007
The Original Black Panthers
When people of my generation hear the words 'Black Panthers', images of Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and Angela Davis come to mind along with brothers and sisters wearing Afros, black leather jackets and black berets.
But there was another group of Black Panthers back in the day that wore army fatigues. They were the men of the 761st Tank Battalion, one of the three all Black tank units (the 758th, and the 784th were the others) formed at Camp Claiborne, LA on April 1, 1942. Many generals, including Third Army commander George S. Patton were opposed to the idea of having African-American troops in tank units.
In addition to battling the racism of the Army, the men of the 761st had to confront Jim Crow segregation since many of the posts they trained at were in the Deep South. One young second ilieutenant ended up facing a court martial because of an incident that began over his refusal of a white bus driver's demand that he sit in the back of a bus.
It escalated into an ugly interaction with military police that led to a trial. Second Lt. Jackie Robinson was acquitted of the charges and honorably discharged in 1944. Just three years later he would integrate major league baseball.
It was a struggle just to get the 761st into battle. But after ferocious pressure was applied on the Army by First Lady (and AKA) Eleanor Roosevelt, prominent Black leaders, the Black press and increasing losses in frontline tank units the 761st was deployed to the European theater.
After doing nearly a year of final intensive training at Fort Hood, TX and being rated superior by Second Army commander Lt. Gen Ben Lear, they landed on Omaha Beach in France on October 10, 1944 in high spirits.
Ironically the reason they were in Europe was because Patton, who was initially opposed to having Black troops in tank units requested that the best available separate tank unit be sent to him. In a pre-battle speech to the 761st on November 2, 1944 at St. Nicholas, France he said,
“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.... 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!”
And they didn't. From the moment they were committed to combat on November 7, 1944, the Black Panthers would prove they had formidable claws. They joined Patton's army rapidly racing across France and repeatedly tore up the veteran German and Waffen SS troops they faced in the 13th SS Panzer Division and other elite German units..
Over the next 183 days they valiantly fought in France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Germany, and Austria. They played key roles in the Battle of the Bulge, blew a hole though the Siegfried Line that led to the breakout and rapid advance of Patton's 4th Armored Division across Germany, liberated the Buchenwald and Dachau death camps, and met up with a Soviet unit made up of Ukranian troops in Austria at the River Steyr.
In addition to receiving high praise from the War Department a total of almost 400 battle awards were bestowed upon the men of the 761st. Their excellence, along with the Tuskegee Airmen and the heroic exploits of other African-American soldiers led to President Truman desegregating the armed forces in 1947.
Unfortunately racism once again reared its ugly head It took decades for the soldiers of the 761st Tank Battalion to receive the decorations they earned. A recommendation for a Presidential Unit Citation was submitted in 1945 but wasn't awarded until President Jimmy Carter did so in 1978. 761st Platoon Sergeant Ruben Rivers was one of 7 African-American soldiers (6 posthumously) who were awarded Medals of Honor by President Bill Clinton in 1997 after examining their war records.
Much respect and a deep debt of gratitude is owed to the original Black Panthers. They lived up to their motto 'Come Out Fighting'.