The 761st ‘Black Panther’ Tank Battalion was the first African-American armored unit to see combat.
By Joseph E. Wilson, Jr.
Before and during mobilization for World War II, officials in Washington, D.C., debated whether or not African-American soldiers should be used in armored units. Many military men and politicians believed that blacks did not have the brains, quickness or moral stamina to fight in a war.
Referring to his World War I experiences, Colonel James A. Moss, commander of the 367th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division, stated, “As fighting troops, the Negro must be rated as second-class material, this primarily to his inferior intelligence and lack of mental and moral qualities.” Colonel Perry L. Miles, commander of the 371st Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, voiced a similar opinion: “In a future war, the main use of the Negro should be in labor organizations.” General George S. Patton, Jr., in a letter to his wife, wrote that “a colored soldier cannot think fast enough to fight in armor.”
The armed forces embraced these beliefs even though African Americans had fought with courage and distinction in the Revolutionary War and every other war and conflict ever waged by the United States. They overlooked the fact that four regiments of the 93rd Division had served with the French during World War I and that the French government had awarded the coveted Croix de Guerre to three of the four regiments and to a company of the fourth, as well as to the 1st Battalion, 367th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division.
Lieutenant General Leslie J. McNair, chief of the U.S. Army ground forces, was the main proponent of allowing African Americans to serve in armored units. He believed his nation could ill afford to exclude such a potentially important source of manpower. The black press, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Congress of Racial Equality also placed increasing pressure on the War Department and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to allow black soldiers to serve on an equal footing with white soldiers.
In the summer of 1940, Congress passed into law the Selective Training and Service Act, which said, “In the selection and training of men under this act, there shall be no discrimination against any person on account of race and color.” In October, however, the White House issued a statement saying that, while “the services of Negroes would be utilized on a fair and equitable basis,” the policy of segregation in the armed forces would continue.
In March 1941, 98 black enlisted men reported to Fort Knox, Ky., from Fort Custer, Mich., for armored warfare training with the 758th Tank Battalion (light). The pioneer black tankers trained in light tank operations, mechanics and related phases of mechanized warfare, as enlisted men from other Army units joined their ranks.
The 758th trained on the M-5 light tank, which carried a crew of four. Powered by twin Cadillac engines, it could reach a maximum speed of 40 mph and had an open-road cruising range of 172 miles. It was armed with a .30 caliber machine gun mounted to fire along the same axis as the tank’s main armament, a 37mm cannon. When the tracer bullets from the .30 caliber registered on a target, the cannon would be fired, hopefully scoring a direct hit. The M-5 was also armed with two more .30-caliber machine guns, one on the turret and one in the bow. The light tank was employed to provide fire support, mobility and crew protection in screening and reconnaissance missions.
The 5th Tank Group, commanded by Colonel LeRoy Nichols, was to be made up of black enlisted personnel and white officers. With the 758th Tank Battalion in place, two more tank battalions were needed to complete the 5th Tank Group.
On March 15, 1942, the War Department ordered the activation of the 761st Tank Battalion (light) at Camp Claiborne, La., with an authorized strength of 36 officers and 593 enlisted men. (The final battalion–the 784th–would be activated on April 1, 1943.) On September 15, 1943, the 761st Battalion moved to Camp Hood, Texas, for advanced training; there they changed from light to medium tanks.
On July 6, 1944, one of the 761st’s few black officers, Lieutenant Jackie Robinson, was riding a civilian bus from Camp Hood to the nearby town of Belton. He refused to move to the back of the bus when told to do so by the driver. Court-martial charges ensued but could not proceed because the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Paul L. Bates, would not consent to the charges. The top brass at Camp Hood then transferred Robinson to the 758th Tank Battalion, whose commander immediately signed the court-martial consent.
The lieutenant’s trial opened on August 2 and lasted for 17 days, during which time the 761st departed Camp Hood. Robinson was charged with violating the 63rd and 64th Articles of War. The first charge specified, “Lieutenant Robinson behaved with disrespect toward Captain Gerald M. Bear, Corps Military Police, by contemptuously bowing to him and giving several sloppy salutes while repeating, O’kay Sir, O’kay Sir, in an insolent, impertinent and rude manner.” The second charge stipulated, “Lieutenant Robinson having received a lawful command by Captain Bear to remain in a receiving room at the MP station disobeyed such order.” Robinson was eventually acquitted, and he was not charged for his actions on the bus. Three years later, Robinson was riding buses in the major leagues after breaking baseball’s color barrier.
In October 1944, after two years of intense armored training, the 761st Tank Battalion, known as the “Black Panthers,” landed in France. The tankers received a welcome from the Third Army commander, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., who had observed the 761st conducting training maneuvers in the States: “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!”
On November 8, 1944, the Black Panthers became the first African-American armored unit to enter combat, smashing into the towns of Moyenvic and Vic-sur-Seille. During the attack, Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers, in Able Company’s lead tank, encountered a roadblock that held up the advance. With utter disregard for his personal safety, he courageously climbed out of his tank under direct enemy fire, attached a cable to the roadblock and removed it. His prompt action prevented a serious delay in the offensive and was instrumental in the success of the attack.
On November 9, Charlie Company ran into an anti-tank ditch near Morville. The crack German 11th Panzer Division began to knock out tanks one by one down the line. The tankers crawled through the freezing muddy waters of the ditch under pelting rain and snow while hot shell fragments fell all around them. When German artillery began to walk a line toward the ditch, the tankers’ situation looked hopeless.
After exiting his burning tank, 1st Sgt. Samuel Turley organized a dismounted combat team. When the team found itself pinned down by a counterattack and unable to return fire, Turley ordered his men to retreat, climbed from the ditch and provided covering fire that allowed them to escape.
Correspondent Trezzvant Anderson described Turley’s devotion to duty: “Standing behind the ditch, straight up, with a machine gun and an ammo belt around his neck, Turley was spraying the enemy with machine-gun shots as fast as they could come out of the muzzle of the red-hot barrel. He stood there covering for his men, and then fell, cut through the middle by German machine-gun bullets that ripped through his body as he stood there firing the M.G. to the last. That’s how Turley went down and his body crumpled to the earth, his fingers still gripped that trigger….But we made it!”
On November 10, Sergeant Warren G.H. Crecy fought through enemy positions to aid his men until his tank was destroyed. He immediately took command of another vehicle, armed with only a .30-caliber machine gun, and liquidated the enemy position that had destroyed his tank. Still under heavy fire, he helped eliminate the enemy forward observers who were directing the artillery fire that had been pinning down the American infantry.
The next day, Crecy’s tank became bogged down in the mud. He dismounted and fearlessly faced anti-tank, artillery and machine-gun fire as he extricated his tank. While freeing his tank, he saw that the accompanying infantry was pinned down and that the enemy had begun a counterattack. Crecy climbed up on the rear of his immobilized tank and held off the Germans with his .50-caliber machine gun while the foot soldiers withdrew. Later that day, he again exposed himself to enemy fire as he wiped out several machine-gun nests and an anti-tank position with only his machine gun. The more fire he drew, the harder he fought. After the battle, Crecy had to be pried away from his machine gun.
Trezzvant Anderson said of Sergeant Crecy: “To look at Warren G.H. Crecy (the G.H. stands for Gamaliel Harding) you’d never think that here was a ‘killer,’ who had slain more of the enemy than any man in the 761st. He extracted a toll of lives from the enemy that would have formed the composition of 3 or 4 companies, with his machine guns alone. And yet, he is such a quiet, easy-going, meek-looking fellow, that you’d think that the fuzz which a youngster tries to cultivate for a mustache would never grow on his baby-skinned chin. And that he’d never use a word stronger than ‘damn.’ But here was a youth who went so primitively savage on the battle field that his only thought was to ‘kill, kill, kill,’ and he poured his rain of death pellets into German bodies with so much reckless abandon and joy that he was the nemesis of all the foes of the 761st. And other men craved to ride with Crecy and share the reckless thrill of killing the hated enemy that had killed their comrades. And he is now living on borrowed time. By all human equations Warren G.H. Crecy should have been dead long ago, and should have had the Congressional Medal of Honor, at least!”
The Black Panthers pushed on. It was rough going through the rain, mud, cold and driving sleet, fighting an enemy who bitterly contested every inch of ground. The 761st smashed through the French towns of Obreck, Dedeline and Ch?teau Voue with Rivers leading the way for Able Company.
Rivers, a tank platoon sergeant, became adept at liquidating the enemy with his .50-caliber machine gun. The dashing young fighter from Oklahoma was soon a legend in the battalion. One lieutenant recalled telling Rivers, via radio, “Don’t go into that town, Sergeant, it’s too hot in there.” Rivers respectfully replied, “I’m sorry, sir, I’m already through that town!”
On the way to Guebling, France, on November 16, 1944, Rivers’ tank ran over a Teller anti-tank mine. The explosion blew off the right track, the volute springs and the undercarriage, hurling the tank sideways. When the medical team arrived, they found Rivers behind his tank holding one leg, which was ripped to the bone. There was a hole in his leg where part of his knee had been, and bone protruded through his trousers. The medics cleansed and dressed the wound and attempted to inject Rivers with morphine, but he refused. He wanted to remain alert. The medics informed River’s commanding officer, Captain David J. Williams II, that Rivers should be evacuated immediately. Rivers refused. Pulling himself to his feet, he pushed past the captain and took over a second tank. At that moment a hail of enemy fire came in. The captain gave orders to disperse and take cover.
The 761st was to cross a river into Guebling, after combat engineers constructed a Bailey bridge. The Germans tried desperately to stop the construction, but the Black Panthers held them off. The bridge was completed on the afternoon of November 17. Rivers led the way across, and the Black Panthers took up positions in and around Guebling. On the way into town, Rivers, despite his wounds, engaged two German tanks and disabled them both. Still in great pain, he took on two more tanks and forced them to withdraw. The Black Panthers spent that evening in continuous combat.
Before dawn on November 18, the captain and the medical team visited each tank. When they reached Rivers, it was obvious that he was in extreme pain. Rivers’ leg was re-examined and found to be infected. The medical team said that if he was not evacuated immediately, the leg would have to be amputated. Rivers still insisted that he would not abandon his men. Throughout the day, both sides held and defended their positions.
At dawn on November 19, the 761st began an assault on the village of Bougaltroff. When the Black Panthers emerged from cover, the morning air outside Guebling lit up with tracers from enemy guns. Rivers spotted the anti-tank guns and directed a concentrated barrage on them, allowing his trapped comrades to escape with their lives.
Rivers continued to fire until several tracers were seen going into his turret. “From a comparatively close range of 200 yards, the Germans threw in two H.E. [high explosive] shots that scored,” Anderson wrote. “The first shot hit near the front of the tank, and penetrated with ricocheting fragments confined inside its steel walls. The second scored inside the tank. The first shot had blown Rivers’ brains out against the back of the tank, and the second went into his head, emerging from the rear, and the intrepid leader, the fearless, daring fighter was no more.”
Ruben Rivers did not have to die on that cold, dreary November morning in France. Three days earlier, he had received what GIs called a “million-dollar wound.” He could have been evacuated to the rear and gone home a war hero with his Silver Star and Purple Heart, knowing that the Black Panthers loved and respected him as an outstanding soldier and comrade. But he stayed–and he died.
The Black Panthers pushed on. From December 31, 1944, to February 2, 1945, the 761st took part in the American counteroffensive following the Battle of the Bulge. In a major battle at Tillet, Belgium, the 761st operated for two continuous days against German panzer and infantry units, who withdrew in the face of the Black Panthers’ attack. The operations of the 761st in the Bulge split the enemy lines at three points–the Houffalize?Bastogne road, the St. Vith?Bastogne highway, and the St. Vith?Trier road–preventing the resupply of German forces encircling American troops at Bastogne.
Later, as the armored spearhead for the 103rd Infantry Division, the 761st took part in assaults that resulted in the breech of the Siegfried Line. From March 20 to 23, 1945, operating far in advance of friendly artillery and in the face of vicious German resistance, elements of the 761st attacked and destroyed many defensive positons along the Siegfried Line. The 761st captured seven German towns, more than 400 vehicles, 80 heavy weapons, 200 horses and thousands of small arms. During that three-day period, the battalion inflicted more than 4,000 casualties on the German army. It was later determined that the 761st had fought against elements of 14 German divisions.
The Black Panthers were also among the first American units to link up with Soviet forces. On May 5, 1945, the 761st reached Steyr, Austria, on the Enns River, where they joined the Russians.
Through six months of battle, without relief, the 761st Tank Battalion served as a separate battalion with the 26th, 71st, 79th, 87th, 95th and 103rd Infantry divisions and the 17th Airborne Division. Assigned at various times to the Third, Seventh and Ninth armies, the Black Panthers fought major engagements in six European countries and participated in four major Allied campaigns. During that time, the unit inflicted 130,000 casualties on the German army and captured, destroyed or aided in the liberation of more than 30 towns, several concentration camps, four airfields, three ammunition supply dumps, 461 wheeled vehicles, 34 tanks, 113 large guns, and thousands of individual and crew-served weapons. This was accomplished in spite of extremely adverse weather conditions, difficult terrain not suited to armor, heavily fortified enemy positions, extreme shortages of replacement personnel and equipment, an overall casualty rate approaching 50 percent and the loss of 71 tanks.
In 1978–33 years after the end of World War II–the 761st Tank Battalion received a Presidential Unit Citation. In 1997, 53 years after giving his life on the battlefield, Sergeant Ruben Rivers was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The motto of the 761st Tank Battalion has always been “Come Out Fighting.” In World War II, that is exactly what the Black Panthers did.
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