In recognition of Black History Month, we remember the members of the 761st Tank Battalion, who hold a special place in American military history as the first black soldiers to go to war as part of an American armored unit.
Known as the “Black Panthers,” the 761st saw action in World War II as part of Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army. At that time in our history, black soldiers were not integrated into the U.S. armed services and were considered by and large to be inferior soldiers. In fact, prior to having a black armored battalion assigned to his command, Patton himself had a low opinion of the abilities of black soldiers. The 761st helped change that perception.
Lt. General Leslie J. McNair, the chief of the U.S. Army ground forces, saw America’s black citizens as an important source of manpower that the nation could not afford to ignore. Gen. McNair pushed for putting black soldiers into combat and was the primary proponent of allowing blacks to serve in armored units despite resistance from many top level American politicians and military officers.
As a result of McNair’s efforts, the 761st Tank Battalion was activated in March, 1942. Among the few black officers in the 761st was Lt. Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League baseball player. Because he was court-martialed – but later acquitted – for refusing to move to the back of a bus, Robinson never saw combat.
The “Black Panthers” were assigned to the 3rd Army under the command of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton. In his welcoming speech, Patton 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 as long as you go up there and kill those Kraut (expletive deleted.) 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!”
Patton need not have worried. The 761st soon lived up to the battalion’s motto “Come Out Fighting.” Just over 70 years ago, on November 8, 1944, the 761st became the first black armored unit to enter combat and from that point on the Black Panthers spearheaded a number of Patton’s moves toward Germany, including being the first American unit to break through the Siegfried Line. They were one of the first, if not the first, American unit to link up with the Russian Army at the Enns River at Steyr, Austria.
The 761st endured 183 days of combat without being pulled from the line and over that time they inflicted 130,000 casualties on the Germans while enduring a casualty rate of almost 50 percent with the loss of 71 tanks.
Despite their distinguished combat record, doubts and/or prejudice still persisted throughout the U.S. military hierarchy that resulted in black soldiers and black units not receiving the recognition that was due them. Consequently, the accomplishments of the 761st were largely unrecognized until 1978 when, over three decades after the war, the battalion finally received a Presidential Unit Citation.
The citation read, “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.”
Gary Palmer represents Alabama’s 6th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.