In October of 1944, the 761st tank battalion became the first African American tank squad to see combat in World War II. And, by the end of the war, the Black Panthers had fought their way further east than nearly every other unit from the United States, receiving 391 decorations for heroism. They fought in France and Belgium, and were one of the first American battalions to meet the Russian Army in Austria. They also broke through Nazi Germany’s Siegfried line, allowing General George S. Patton‘s troops to enter Germany.
During the war, the 761st participated in four major Allied campaigns including the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German World War II campaign on the Western Front. Germany’s defeat in this battle is widely credited with turning the tide of the war towards an Allied victory.
Although the U.S. military would remain heavily segregated until 1948, men of all races around the country volunteered for service when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. Black enlistees were generally diverted to segregated units and divisions, mostly in combat support roles. However, there were units of African American soldiers—like World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen and the 761st Tank Battalion—that played significant roles in military operations.
The 761st commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Paul L. Bates, was well aware of the prevalent racist attitudes towards Black soldiers, and so he pushed the battalion to achieve excellence. The 761st Tank Battalion was formed in the spring of 1942 and according to Army historical records, had 30 Black officers, six white officers, and 676 enlisted men. One of those 36 officers was baseball star Jackie Robinson, who never saw the European theater due to his refusal to give up his seat on a military bus and subsequent court battle.
This majority-Black military unit was known by the nickname “Black Panthers” in reference to the the panther patches they wore on their uniforms. Whether the name or the patch—which sported the slogan “Come Out Fighting”—came first is anyone’s guess. (Some have speculated they received the moniker because they were using German Panzer-kampf-wagens, aka Panther tanks. However records indicate that the 761st used Sherman and Stuart tanks).
In 1944, the 761st was assigned to General George S. Patton’s Third Army in France. Patton was well known for his colorful personality and upon meeting the troops, exclaimed:
“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… Don’t let them down and damn you, don’t let me down!”
By all accounts, they didn’t. Starting on November 7, 1944, the 761st Battalion served for over 183 consecutive days under General Patton. By comparison, most analogous units at the front line only served one or two weeks. During the Battle of the Bulge, the 761st was up against the troops of the 13th SS Panzer Division, but by January 1945, the German forces had retreated and abandoned the road, which had been a supply corridor for the Nazi army. By the end of the Battle of The Bulge, three officers and 31 enlisted men of the 761st had been killed in action.
In May 1945, the Black Panthers were part of the Allied forces who liberated Gunskirchen, a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp. One woman liberated by the unit, 17-year old Sonia Schreiber Weitz, described the soldier who saved her in the poem, “The Black Messiah”:
A Black GI stood by the door
(I never saw a Black before)
He’ll set me free before I die,
I thought, he must be the Messiah
After the war the Army awarded the unit with four campaign ribbons. In addition, the men of the 761st received a total of 11 Silver Stars, 69 Bronze Stars and about 300 Purple Hearts. Back at home, though, the surviving members of the 761st returned from Europe to a still-segregated nation. Texas native Staff Sgt. Floyd Dade Jr. described the contradictions for Black soldiers coming back to the United States in an oral history, saying “we didn’t have equal rights…democracy was against us. I was just fighting for my country.”
READ MORE: Black Americans Who Served in WWII Faced Segregation Abroad and at Home
When Staff Sgt. Johnnie Stevens attempted to catch a bus home to New Jersey from Georgia’s Fort Benning, the bus driver refused to let him board. Jackie Robinson, whose charges for refusing to give up his seat on the military bus were eventually dropped, later noted that men of the 761st had died fighting for a country where they didn’t have equal rights.
As the years passed, the achievements of the Black Panthers began to receive more recognition. In 1978, the 761st received a Presidential Unit Citation, which recognizes units that “display such gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing [their] mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions as to set [them] apart from and above other units in the same campaign.”
In 1997, President Bill Clinton posthumously presented the Medal of Honor to seven men who had served in the battalion. “No African American who deserved the Medal of Honor for his service in World War II received it,” Clinton noted.
“Today we fill the gap in that picture and give a group of heroes, who also love peace but adapted themselves to war, the tribute that has always been their due,” Clinton continued. “Now and forever, the truth will be known about these African Americans who gave so much that the rest of us might be free.”
READ MORE: Did World War II Launch the Civil Rights Movement?