Soldiers of Freedom: How Patton’s 761st “Black Panther” Tank Battalion changed WWII History—and then had to fight for recognition
By Samuel Marquis
In Soldiers of Freedom: The WWII Story of Patton's Panthers and the Edelweiss Pirates, Book 5 of his WWII Series, historical fiction author Samuel Marquis tells the real-life story of Sergeant William McBurney and the 761st Tank Battalion, the first African-American armored unit in U.S. historyFighting under legendary General George S Patton, Jr. in the grueling Lorraine campaign in France, the Battle of the Bulge, the Rhineland, and in the final conquest of Nazi Germany, Sherman tank gunner McBurney and his fellow Black Panthers had to fight two wars at once: one against the German Army, the other against the racism of their fellow white soldiers. In their fight on behalf of freedom, they changed the makeup of the modern U.S. Army and paved the way for the civil rights movement. But they had to fight a second war against white America to gain the recognition they deserved.
In late 1945 and early 1946, the 761st Tank Battalion, the first African-American armored unit in U.S. history, returned home to America from WWII along with 1.2 million other black veterans. General George Patton’s “Black Panthers” should have returned to ticker-tape parades and great fanfare, but instead were practically invisible despite their great service to their country. Thankfully today, we know better, for following the war the 761st fought tirelessly to gain the recognition they deserved, and they eventually succeeded in their quest as attested to by the belated military honors bestowed upon the crack outfit.
How crack were they? No other tank battalion under “Old Blood and Guts” Patton, the master of blitzkrieg American-style, was better—how about that? From the time that the battalion was committed to combat on November 7, 1944, it had spent 183 days in action, its only pauses accounted for by the time needed to move from one mission to another. During the 761st’s combat actions through May 6, 1945 in which they rarely fielded over 1,000 men including support personnel, the tankers destroyed or captured 331 enemy machine-gun nests, 58 pillboxes, and 461 wheeled vehicles; killed 6,246 enemy combatants; and captured more than 15,818 enemy soldiers (the number is considered low by battalion historians since it does not fully reflect those achieved in combined operations with infantry). In other words, the Black Panthers were a lethal fighting machine that stood toe-to-toe against Hitler’s finest panzer units and acquitted themselves quite well. Their battlefield heroics, though, came at a heavy price: total casualties pressed towards 50 percent, a disproportionately high number for a battalion-sized outfit. As their commander Patton would say, that’s what happens when you are the spearhead of the Allied advance for 183 days with scarcely any relief.
And yet, when they returned home after kicking Nazi ass, having undergone a transformation from boys into men, they were promptly told to go to the back of the bus. Not surprisingly, they were shocked. Having served their country with rare distinction during the largest and most violent conflagration in human history, they couldn’t believe they were returning to second-class status. They found it impossible to believe that, after their sacrifice of blood, limbs, and sweat, their quite-reasonable expectations for equality were deemed unacceptable to the majority of their white compatriots, especially in the racist and intransigent Deep South.
It was then, in front lines of post-war America, that their second war against Fascism would begin —and not one among them had any inclination that it would last for more than thirty years.
Though the Army recognized the tankers for their sacrifice, it did not give the battalion the full recognition it deserved based on actual battlefield performance, especially when its combat records are compared to white armored units it clearly outfought. The 761st unit was credited for its 183 days of combat in four campaigns—Northern France, Ardennes-Alsace, Rhineland, and Central Europe—but only eight enlisted soldiers were elevated to the officer ranks with battlefield commissions. The Army also awarded 11 Silver Star and 70 Bronze Star medals (3 with clusters) to the battalion along with 296 Purple Hearts for combat wounds (8 with clusters). Though the medals acknowledged the contributions of the unit as a whole, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Bates, the commander of the crack outfit, and the battalion’s other officers knew it fell far short of what the 761st deserved. After the unit’s statistics were compiled, it was readily apparent that a Distinguished Unit Citation for the battalion was in order along with Medals of Honor for the unit’s three bravest and most-deserving tankers: Ruben Rivers, Samuel Turley, and Warren Crecy, the “Baddest Man in the 761st.”
The quest for the battalion’s recognition began on July 25, 1945, when decorated black officer Captain Ivan Harrison submitted to General Eisenhower’s Headquarters in Europe, a recommendation that the 761st be awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation. Also known as the Presidential Unit Citation, the award was created during the war to recognize units for a collective display of extraordinary heroism and is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a military unit. The 761st’s request was denied by the Army on August 18, 1945, with a statement reading, in part: “l. Not favorably considered. 2. After a careful study of the 761st Tank Battalion described in basic communication, it is considered that the action, while commendable, was not sufficiently outstanding to meet the requirements for a unit citation.” Ike formally denied the request on February 12, 1946. Following the rejection of their submission, the tankers remained undeterred, submitting repeated requests over the years for the original decision to be reviewed, but the denials continued.
In the end, though, the Black Panthers’ persistence paid off.
After thirty-three years of pressing and with racial tensions in the U.S. subsiding, the battalion was belatedly awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for “Extraordinary Heroism” by President Jimmy Carter on January 24, 1978. Charles “Pop” Gates—a crusty old Buffalo Soldier, then a retired lieutenant colonel—spoke on behalf of the unit. The award became official on April 10, 1978 by the Department of the Army under General Orders Number 5. The final award stood as a single citation for all the 761st’s actions from October 31, 1944, to May 6, 1945. Most importantly, the government finally acknowledged that “racial discrimination and inadvertent neglect on the part of those in authority” had played a role in the previous disapprovals and that “the climate created by the Army commanders could only have made it difficult to provide proper recognition for a ‘Negro’ unit during the period 1944-1947.”
In 1978, white Captain David Williams, who had fought bravely with the outfit and was greatly encouraged by the awarding of the Presidential Unit Citation, resurrected his original effort for Sergeant Ruben Rivers to be considered for the Medal of Honor. On November 23, 1944, four days after the fierce fighting in the Lorraine region of northeast France, Williams had handed paperwork to the battalion’s white acting commander recommending Rivers for a posthumous Medal of Honor. But the commander failed to act on the request and the paperwork was lost or destroyed. Four hundred and thirty-three Medals of Honor had been awarded to soldiers in World War II—but shockingly and embarrassingly, none of the 1.2 million African-Americans who served had received the honor. Through Williams’s tireless efforts, in 1997 the army upgraded Rivers’s second Silver Star to the Medal of Honor—posthumous recognition of the tanker’s personal valor and a nod to the men with whom he fought.
All the members of the 761st had ever wanted was simple human dignity, to be recognized for their abilities as soldiers without being judged by the color of their skin. The Presidential Unit Citation and Rivers’s Medal of Honor went a long way towards healing the old wounds of racial prejudice inflicted upon them by their white counterparts in the U.S. armed forces and the white civilians at Camps Claiborne and Hood, where they had been subjected to severe racism during their stateside training.
After the war ended, the distinguished service of the 761st Tank Battalion, Tuskegee Airmen, and other African-American combat units helped convince President Harry S. Truman and other high-ranking government officials to desegregate the U.S. Armed Forces. But the best tribute to the 761st came with the words in the Presidential Unit Citation: “The 761st Tank Battalion Distinguished itself by extraordinary gallantry, courage, professionalism and high esprit de corps displayed in the accomplishment of unusually difficult and hazardous operations in the European Theater of Operations from 31 October 1944 to 6 May 1945…. 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, and the United States Army, and this Nation.” Though the citation should have come thirty-three years earlier, it was ultimately the struggles of the 761st—at home and abroad, within the army and outside it—that led to the construction of a stronger U.S. Army and a greater nation.
The ninth great-grandson of legendary privateer Captain William Kidd, Samuel Marquis is the bestselling, award-winning author of American historical fiction, including a WWWII Series. His novels have been #1 Denver Post bestsellers, received multiple national book awards (Kirkus Reviews and Foreword Reviews Book of the Year, American Book Fest and USA Best Book, IPPY, Readers’ Favorite, Beverly Hills, Next Generation Indie, and Colorado Book Awards), and garnered glowing reviews from #1 bestseller James Patterson, Kirkus, and Foreword Reviews (5 Stars). Book reviewers have compared Marquis’s WWII thrillers to the epic historical novels of Tom Clancy, John le Carré, Ken Follett, Herman Wouk, Daniel Silva, and Alan Furst. His website is samuelmarquisbooks.com and for publicity inquiries, please contact Books Forward at firstname.lastname@example.org.