761st Tank Battalion: The Segregated Unit of the United States Army During World War II

The 761st Tank Battalion, also known as the “Black Panthers,” was a unit of the United States Army during World War II. This unit was comprised primarily of African American soldiers and was one of the first all-black armored units to see combat. Despite facing segregation and discrimination within the military, the 761st proved to be a highly effective and well-respected unit, earning a reputation as one of the most successful tank battalions of the war.

761st Tank Battalion

The 761st was activated in 1942 and trained at Camp Claiborne in Louisiana. Despite facing discrimination and segregation both on and off base during their training, the soldiers of the 761st remained dedicated and focused, continuing to work hard and perfect their skills.

As the 761st Tank Battalion prepared for combat, the commander of US Third Army, General George S. Patton, conducted a review of the unit and made a speech to the men, which offered a guarded vote of confidence in their abilities.

However, like most American military officers of the era, Patton privately held reservations about the use of African American soldiers in combat. On returning to headquarters following the review, he remarked, “They gave a good first impression, but I have no faith in the inherent fighting ability of the race.”

Despite his initial doubts, Patton eventually accepted the 761st into his forces when he desperately needed additional ground power.

Capt. Ivan Harrison, Capt. Irvin McHenry, and 2nd Lt. James Lightfoot of the 761st Tank Battalion. Courtesy US Army.

The 761st saw combat for the first time in the fall of 1944, as part of General George Patton’s Third Army. The battalion was involved in the liberation of several French cities and the battles of the Lorraine Campaign. They were particularly instrumental in the liberation of Morville-lès-Vic and in breaking the German Siegfried Line, which opened the way for the U.S. 4th Armored Division into Germany.

A soldier of the 761st tank battalion
A 761st Tank Battalion tanker. Courtesy US Army.

In the final days of the war in Europe, the 761st was one of the first American units to reach Steyr, Austria, at the Enns River, where they met with the 1st Ukrainian Front of the Soviet Red Army. On May 4, 1945, the 761st, along with the 71st Infantry Division, liberated the Gunskirchen concentration camp; the German guards had fled not long before.

761st Tank Battalion: The Segregated Unit of the United States Army During World War II

The 761st’s most significant battle came in the spring of 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge. The battalion was called upon to provide support for the beleaguered American forces in the area and they did not disappoint. The 761st’s bravery and skill helped turn the tide of the battle and they played a major role in pushing the Germans back.

761st Tank Battalion: The Segregated Unit of the United States Army During World War II

One of the most notable members of the 761st was Reuben Rivers, a sergeant in the unit who alongside Six other soldiers became the first and only African American soldiers to receive the Medal of Honor for their actions during World War II.

After the war, the 761st was deactivated on 1 June 1946 in Germany. The unit returned to the United States where they faced further discrimination and segregation as they tried to reintegrate into civilian life.

The 761st Tank Battalion was considered one of the most effective units in World War II, but its soldiers went unrecognized for their achievements for many years. It was not until 1978, decades later, that the unit received the Presidential Unit Citation, one of the highest honors a military unit can receive. This recognition was a long-overdue tribute to the bravery and heroism of the soldiers of the 761st, who served their country with distinction despite facing great adversity.

Monument honoring the 761st Tank Battalion

In 2005, a monument honoring the 761st Tank Battalion was unveiled at Fort Hood, Texas, in a ceremony attended by surviving veterans. The monument features a life-size marble sculpture of a 761st fighter surrounded by black granite tablets and is a permanent tribute to the soldiers who served for liberty, honor, and democracy. The monument serves as a reminder of the battalion’s bravery and contributions to the war effort and their place in history.

Next, read this fascinating article about how Europeans lured African chiefs into slave trade. Then, find out more about La Mulâtresse Solitude: the Pregnant Heroine Who Fought Against the Reintroduction of Slavery in Guadeloupe in 1802.

Mr Madu
Mr Madu
Mr Madu is a freelance writer, a lover of Africa and a frequent hiker who loves long, vigorous walks, usually on hills or mountains.

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