(Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

"Black Panthers:" the first black armored unit to see Army combat

Kaylah Jackson
February 13, 2018 - 11:05 am
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"Come out fighting."

That was the motto of the 761st Tank Battalion, a notabale all-black tank unit that fought during WWII.

The 761st was activated On April 1, 1942 at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana and throughout their service, fought honorably in the Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe campaigns.

Reflective of the times, the common attitude was that black people couldn't serve effeciently in many most roles, stereotpyes conveyed that they didn't have the brains or braun to perform. As a result, they were often relegated to support unit jobs.

But, the 761st Tank Battalion, like many all-black units at the time, proved those sterotypes wrong by fighting valiantly on the frontlines, specifically as an integral unit during the Second World War. 

Once they arrived in France in 1944, they were attached to 12th Corps' 26th Infantry Division. There, they were under command of the notorious Lt. Gen. George Patton who is credited at giving them this "pep talk:"

"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 b*tches. 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!" 

Since the US Armed Forces were segregated at the time, that prevented many black people from rising in the ranks. So, while many all-black units had junior enlisted service memebers of the same ethnicity, they were often led by white officers. The 761st was one of the few units with black officers, one of them, a familiar name--Jackie Robinson.

Lt. Robinson at the time, orginally assigned to a unit at Camp Hood, had an unfortunate encounter on the back of the bus where he was court-martialed (and later aquitted) for refusing to move to the back of the bus after he was intructed to do so by a bus driver. He was then transferred to the 758th Tank Battalion and informally attached the 761st. 

Photo courtesy of Army Heraldry

 

The troops of the 761st Tank Battalion were instrumental in Task Force Rhine, a notable conquest in Germany. They crossed the river in March destroying ample enemy ammunition trucks and guns in their path. On November 8, 1944, the Black Panthers became the first black armored unit to enter combat, entering the towns of Moyenvic and Vic-sur-Seille.

The Black Panthers fought in France, Belgium, and Germany, fighting continuosly for 183 days, inflicting more than 130,000 enemy casualties. But, the 761st weren't the only all-black tankers, the 758th and 784th Tank Battalions also made significant contributions during World War II.

In spite of fighting wars overseas and a war of racism at home, the men of the 761st were awarded 11 Silver Stars, 69 Bronze Stars and about 300 Purple Hearts. 30-some years later, In 1978, President Jimmy Carter awarded the Army Presidential Unit Citation to the unit for their service between October 1944 through May 1945.