I’m grateful to Mr. Gerald D. Swick, Digital Editor of the World History Group; and Joseph E. Wilson Jr., who wrote this column. It was originally published in World War II Magazine in January 1998. My only regret was not asking permission to post the column in its entirety; however, the link enables it to be viewed intact.
We cannot, must not, allow those who sacrificed so much, and at great cost, to be forgotten, nor allow revisionists to diminish or otherwise alter their story. All black servicemen endured the prejudice, and demeaning attitudes prevalent to the times. It was adding insult to injury, to return home to the same disregard for their sacrifice and accomplishments, and continue to suffer as second class citizens.
World War II: 761st Tank Battalion
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.
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.
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.
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 Chteau 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.
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 HouffalizeBastogne road, the St. VithBastogne highway, and the St. VithTrier road–preventing the resupply of German forces encircling American troops at Bastogne.
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.
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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These videos are useful; nevertheless, at times, some events are dramatized, or abridged; the written account(s) of these brave men are our best record.
I say this because of video I needed to “settle for” when making previous posts, in particular, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. [See notes in FW-190 “Butcher Bird” and Showdown: Air Combat P-51D Mustang vs Me-109]
Video courtesy of the History channel; obtained via YouTube S. Harris’s channel. I own no rights.
“It is said history is written by the victor. But it can be also said the victor doesn’t always tell the whole story. Because of racism the roles of African Americans during World War 2 was downplayed and often not recognized. This is the story of The 761st Tank Battalion. Known as the Black Panthers. This division distinguished themselves and was often the spearhead of General Patton’s 3rd Army. Their motto was Come Out Fighting. This video is dedicated to their valor and bravery. May they rest in peace.”
Deeds Not Words: The Buffalo Soldiers in World War II
Obtained from James Rada’s channel on YouTube.
There are facts revealed herein that ticked me off. I find it sad that the 92nd veterans in this film, at the WWII memorial, who commented specifically on the types prejudice they endured, are likely no longer with us. The youngest veteran would have to be about 88 years old; they are an object lesson to any damned white supremacist that happens to visit this site. X
This documentary profiles the Buffalo Soldiers of the Army’s 92nd Infantry Division during their time in World War II. The program follows the unit from basic training, through their time in combat in the Italian Theatre from 1944-1945 and then takes a look at their experiences after the war.