Tuesday, November 26, 2019

V for Victory. Seventy-five years ago, at the height of World War II, Americans knew the gesture well. Hold up two fingers, in the style of pugnacious British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Send it by Morse code—dot-dot-dot-dash—which just happens to match the stirring first notes of Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony. Chalk a big bold V on a wall, as resistance fighters did in German-occupied France. Stark Vs graced wartime posters, movie newsreels and patriotic advertisements. That V meant one thing to Americans: total victory over Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.

Those regimes defined evil. They killed prisoners, slaughtered civilians and, in the case of the Nazis, ran horrific industrial-scale death camps. Seldom in history have the bad guys been so demonstrably bad.

In World War II, Americans clearly constituted the good guys. We rightly remember American unity, sacrifice and success. Yet for black Americans, a robust eighth of our country’s citizens and a similar proportion of our uniformed forces, the final triumphs of 1945 only went so far. We saluted Victory in Europe (V-E Day). We celebrated Victory Over Japan (V-J Day). But what about the “Double V,” victory at home, the end of segregation and Jim Crow racial discrimination? Not yet. After all the service, bravery and blood, that proved a bitter outcome.

For African American troops, World War II meant fighting on two fronts. Black Americans have served in every war starting with the Revolution, and when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, black men and women stepped forward to wear the nation’s cloth. Their forebears included the bold U.S. Colored Troops of the American Civil War. There were the hardy Buffalo Soldiers who campaigned on the Great Plains during U.S. western expansion and formed the 10th Cavalry that fought atop San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, and the Harlem Hellfighters of the New York National Guard’s 369th Infantry Regiment who fought in World War I. When the country went to war, black Americans rallied around the flag. That was certainly true in those grim days of December 1941.

Yet the institutional U.S. Army of that era didn’t much want black troops. Innately conservative in a cultural sense, with many hailing from legally segregated Southern states, most generals of the time saw no combat role for black troops. Asked how to employ the thousands of willing, able black volunteers and draftees, the official response suggested duty as “chauffeurs, janitors, firemen, cooks, basics [manual laborers], and bandsmen.” Maybe they could drive trucks, stack supplies or mow the grass, all under the supervision of white officers. But fight as riflemen? Fire artillery? Crew tanks? Serve as officers? Forget it.

One American senior leader thought otherwise. Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, who commanded the massive effort to raise and train units in the U.S., strongly favored raising black combat units. McNair didn’t argue on moral or political grounds, but from what he called “the purely military viewpoint.” Black Americans wanted to serve. They were qualified. And in a world war, McNair rightly judged that the U.S. needed every fighting soldier available.

Chopping through red tape, brushing aside foot-dragging and pushing past bigotry, McNair insisted on forming black combat outfits, to include two infantry divisions, a separate infantry regiment, and multiple field artillery, tank destroyer and tank battalions. Regardless of McNair’s efforts, the U.S. Army sent most black soldiers into service support roles. Segregation and white senior officers remained the rule. Yet thanks to McNair and the demonstrated capability of African Americans under fire, some black units made it to the front line.

One of these was the 761st Tank Battalion. Formed at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, and activated on April 1, 1942, the 761st placed the black panther on its coat of arms and for its motto chose the well-known exhortation of the boxing referee: “Come Out Fighting.” The battalion did. But its first battles were in America.

Many senior U.S. Army officers had no interest in using a tank battalion of black soldiers in combat. So the solution became an endless cycle of stateside training. World War II against the Germans featured a lot of armored engagements, starting right away in North Africa in 1942. The U.S. Army surely required tank outfits. But not the 761st. Prejudice trumped practicality.

For 2½ long years, as many other U.S. armored units deployed, the 761st Tank Battalion’s soldiers trained as ordered. Their performance on gunnery ranges and in exercises earned plaudits. Offduty time, however, reminded the 761st tankers of everything they hated about segregated America. Separate clubs, isolated restaurants, distinct movie theaters, “colored” water fountains and the back of the bus—the black soldiers hated all of it.

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Cpl. Carlton Chapman peers from a Sherman tank's hatch in France in November 1944.
U.S. Army

Lt. Jackie Robinson, future baseball Hall of Famer, objected forcefully when a white driver tried to order him to the back of a bus at Camp Hood, Texas. Robinson’s white battalion commander backed his lieutenant. But a more senior officer intervened, transferred Robinson, and thus deprived the 761st of a smart, capable armor officer. For his part, Robinson faced a court-martial, but the charges were later dropped. So it went in the Jim Crow Army. Compared to these affronts, deploying to fight the Nazi Germans seemed much preferable.

That chance came in the summer of 1944. The great invasion of Normandy, France, pitted the Americans against the main force of the German army, including its vaunted panzer divisions. American generals in Europe demanded every tank battalion that could be had. The 761st was ready. On Oct. 10, 1944, the “Black Panther” Battalion landed at Omaha Beach.

The battalion went right to the front. Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. was America’s premier armor commander. He’d heard of the 761st Tank Battalion and wanted it. Patton had served with Buffalo Soldiers over the years, and his enlisted aide, Master Sgt. William George Meeks, was a black cavalry trooper. When the 761st showed up in the Third Army area, the flamboyant general addressed the new arrivals in his typical style.

“I would never have asked for you if you weren’t good,” Patton said. “I have nothing but the best in my Army. Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you.” Patton ended with a personal exhortation: “Don’t let me down!” Within days, the 761st went into action.

To crew their 53 M4 Sherman medium tanks and 17 M5 Stuart light tanks, the battalion was composed of six white officers, 30 black officers and 676 black enlisted men. Attached to the 26th Infantry Division, the “Black Panther” Battalion immediately made an impact in bitter autumn actions along the German border.

Starting Nov. 7, the 761st fought one engagement after another. The outfit lost 24 men killed and 81 wounded, with 14 tanks destroyed and about 20 damaged, running through the battalion’s inventory a few times over. Like most American armored units in that grim season, the 761st lost a lot of tanks. Enemy 88 mm cannons, mines and artillery proved deadly. Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers earned a posthumous Medal of Honor in the vicious clashes of Nov. 15–19. The members of the 761st were now veterans. They had yet to face German panzers.

That opportunity came in the Battle of the Bulge. Overriding his cautious generals, Adolf Hitler personally ordered a massive counterattack in the Ardennes Forest. The hostile onslaught fell on the American First Army. Patton’s Third Army, including the 761st, had to break off action and head north on icy roads. Patton took every tank he could to strengthen the counteroffensive.

The 761st was attached to the 87th Infantry Division. As they moved out, battalion officers and sergeants looked at their maps to see their destination. They aimed at a Belgian town called Tillet, just about 9 miles west of the major road junction at Bastogne. The German 15th Panzergrenadier Division had held that key spot against all comers. Staff Sgt. Eddy Donald recalled that “every group that had been assigned to [take] it had taken a severe beating. Of all the tankers with Patton it was the 761st that was given Tillet.” It was a gift that kept on giving.

Six days after Christmas 1944, the 761st went into action. Sherman tanks pushed slowly through the snow. The crews scanned the dark woods, hunting Germans. They found them. The tankers crunched through the German outpost line, rolling over machine-gun teams and taking 70 prisoners. Then the battalion banged into the enemy’s main defenses. The Germans held as the black 761st tankers and their white 87th Infantry Division teammates battled through the network of enemy trenches, bunkers and fortified farmhouses. Desperate to hang on, the Germans threw in Mark IV medium tanks and even some Tiger heavy tanks. The Sherman crews had to maneuver for flank and rear shots against those behemoths.

At the height of the tank battle, a single leading Sherman of Company C took a big German armor piercing round right through the front. The hit killed the driver and bow gunner. With German infantrymen closing in, Staff Sgt. William H. McBurney, Sgt. Theodore Windsor and Pfc. Leonard Smith clambered out of the burning tank. Under heavy fire, they alternately crawled and dashed almost 3 miles to link up with another American platoon. With a new tank, they were soon back in action again. That kind of determination proved unbeatable. By Jan. 9, 1945, the 761st Tank Battalion took Tillet.

The 761st’s war went on after Tillet, all the way into Austria by May 1945. The battalion served 183 days in combat and earned a Presidential Unit Citation. The campaign had been costly. Only about half the original “Black Panther” Battalion contingent was still in the ranks by V-E Day. There could be no doubt that this was a tough, veteran tank battalion. It had proved Patton right and then some.

It would have been fit and proper that the 761st’s brilliant record served to win that Double V back home, to end the cruelties and falseness of Jim Crow America. That would take two more decades of civil rights striving, and the work continues. But ever since that time, when American soldiers march to war, we go together. Like the brave soldiers of the 761st taught us, we come out fighting.