WASHINGTON — "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 you. Don't let them down and damn you, don't let me down!"
Those gruff yet encouraging words from Third Army Commander Lt. Gen. George Patton in October of 1944 to an all-black tank battalion helped spur them toward their role in the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
Nicknamed "the Black Panthers," the Soldiers of the 761st Tank Battalion fought racial stereotypes of the time, but still went on earn the nation's respect and an honored place in military and American history.
"The 761st Tank Battalion was one of the most effective tank units to participate in hostilities during WWII," said author and former NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "Their entry into the European theatre was marked by one crucial success after another."
Abdul-Jabbar, who authored the book "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes," sheds light on the unit's history, personal stories and accomplishments.
"Certainly, they were General Patton's most effective unit," he said. "Because they were a replacement unit, they were shifted around to different areas quite often. In every instance, their presence meant that competent tank support had arrived. The commander of the 17th Airborne, Gen. John Miley, felt that he was able to send many more of his Soldiers home alive as a direct result of the effective support of the 761st."
Abdul-Jabbar was inspired to learn about the 761st after watching a documentary in 1992 about a WWII black tank unit. He also became interested in the struggle of black veterans "to gain the recognition they deserved." His own father, F.L. "Al" Alcindor was trained as an artilleryman at Fort Bragg, N.C., but served his country stateside. The general belief at the time was that African Americans would not be effective in combat arms units and held mostly support roles. However, Maj. Gen. J. Lesley McNair, chief of the Army's ground forces, felt that black fighting men would be just as valuable as white fighting men in defeating the Axis Powers and pushed to have them serve in combat units.
The 761st was formed March 15, 1942, and activated April 1, 1942, at Camp Claiborne, La. By Oct. 10, 1944, it landed on Omaha Beach in France, the first of the black armored units committed to combat.
According to Army historical records, the unit had six white and 30 black officers and 676 enlisted men. The Army documented that "the battalion entered France with greater confidence than most Negro units could muster upon entry into a theater of operations. It had gained assurance during the training period at Camp Hood, Texas, where it had been told by higher commanders, including the 2nd Army's Lt. Gen. Ben Lear, that it had a superior record and that much was expected of it. The 761st firmly believed that it owed its existence and survival and, therefore, a top performance, to Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair."
Confident in its abilities and having a feeling of acceptance, the 761st joined the 26th Division of XII Corps of the 3rd Army. Division Commander Maj. Gen. Willard S. Paul welcomed the battalion Oct. 31: "I am damned glad to have you with us. We have been expecting you for a long time, and I am sure you are going to give a good account of yourselves. I've got a big hill up there that I want you to take, and I believe that you are going to do a great job of it."
After another successful battle, word spread about the 761st, and just two days later Patton visited the battalion and further challenged the 761st Soldiers with his short speech.
The 761st's work with the 26th Division in November of 1944 received special commendation from Maj. Gen. Paul, in addition to the commendation that went to all units of the 26th Division and XII Corps:
"I consider the 761st Tank Battalion to have entered combat with such conspicuous courage and success as to warrant special commendation. The speed with which they adapted themselves to the front line under most adverse weather conditions, the gallantry with which they faced some of Germany's finest troops, and the confident spirit with which they emerged from their recent engagements in the vicinity of Dieuze, Morville les Vic, and Guebling entitle them surely to consider themselves of the veteran 761st. It is with extreme gratification that the corps commander's commendation is forwarded to you. Your battalion has supported this division with great bravery under the most adverse weather and terrain conditions. You have my sincere wish that success may continue to follow your endeavors."
The 761st would continue its onslaught of German units through the end of the war. The tank battalion's mark in history slowly began to fade until its actions were summed up in a Presidential Unit Citation awarded in 1978:
"Throughout this period of combat, the courageous and professional actions of the members of the "Black Panther" battalion, coupled with their indomitable fighting spirit and devotion to duty, reflect great credit on the 761st Tank Battalion, the United States Army, and this nation."
For more information about the 761st Tank Battalion visit the U.S. Army Center for Military History.
(Hank Heusinkveld is a public affairs specialist with the Wilmington District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Wilmington, N.C.)