As part of Black History Month the movie Red Tails tells the remarkable story of the Tuskegee Airmen. See Renata's blog today. Very few presently alive, although they complain of discrimination, have the slightest concept of racial circumstances that still existed in this country long after the great depression.
The “Airmen” were not the only although the most glamorous segregated African-American combat unit ‘
Long forgotten by history is one of the greatest combat units I thankfully saw in action when attached to my battalion in the Bulge. That was a crazy bunch of tankers who were a life saving blessing to a combat unit in the army that had no armor or heavy artillery of its own. That was the 761 Independent Tank Battalion. I have lifted its story from Wikipedia.
The 761st Tank Battalion was an independent tank battalion of the United States Army during World War II. The 761st was made up primarily of African-American soldiers, who by federal law were not permitted to serve alongside white troops; the Army did not officially desegregate until after World War II. They were known as the “Black Panthers” after their unit's distinctive insignia; their motto was “Come out fighting”.
Most of the black tankers had to train in bases located in deep Southern states such as Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas. In the days before the civil rights advances made in the 1960s, black people were still treated harshly in the south and often considered an inferior race. The men of the 761st trained for almost two years, conscious of the fact that white units were being sent overseas after as little as two or three months.
There were many acts of racism against all the black battalions, including deaths of black soldiers from nearby Camp Polk and Camp Livingston who would visit Alexandria, Louisiana on weekend leave. A notable event was in March 1943, when several members of the unit were severely beaten, and another one found dead on the train tracks in Alexandria. After word spread, several members of the 761st commandeered six tanks and a half-track in an attempt to end the intimidation by the town's citizens. Lieutenant Colonel Bates however persuaded them to cease their retaliation, and he would attempt to straighten the situation out.
The most famous member of the 761st was First Lieutenant Jack Robinson. During the 761st's training, a white bus driver told Robinson to move to the back of the bus, and Robinson refused. Although his battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Paul L. Bates, refused to consider the court-martial charges put forward by the arresting Military Policemen, the base commander transferred Robinson to the 758th Tank Battalion, whose commander was willing to sign the insubordination court-martial consent. Robinson would eventually be acquitted of all charges, though he never saw combat. He became famous a few years later when he was instrumental in the desegregation of professional baseball.
General Ben Lear, Commander of the U.S. Second Army rated the unit "superior" after a special review and deemed the unit "combat ready". After a brief deployment to England, the 761st landed in France via Omaha Beach on 10 October 1944. The unit arrived (with six white officers, thirty black officers, and 676 black enlisted men) and was assigned to General George Patton's US Third Army at his request, attached to the 26th Infantry Division.
During the Battle of the Bulge, German soldiers who had raided American warehouses were reported to have disguised themselves as Americans guarding the checkpoints in order to ambush American soldiers. Patton solved this problem by ordering black soldiers, including the 761st, to guard the checkpoints, and gave the order to shoot any white soldiers at the checkpoints who acted suspiciously.
The battalion first saw combat on 7 November 1944, fighting through towns such as Moyenvic, Vic-sur-Seille and Morville, often at the leading edge of the advance. The unit endured 183 days of continuous operational employment.
In November 1944 the unit had suffered 156 casualties; 24 men killed, 88 wounded, and 44 non-battle. The unit also lost 14 tanks and another 20 damaged in combat. In December, the battalion was rushed to the aid of the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne.
After the Battle of the Bulge, the unit opened the way for the U.S. 4th Armored Division into Germany during an action that breached the Siegfried Line. In the final days of the war in Europe, the 761st was one of the first American units to reach the Steyr in Austria, at the Enns River, where they met with Ukrainians of the Soviet Army.
The 761st was deactivated 1 June 1946 in Germany.