I recently read and reviewed Samuel Marquis’ most recent book in his WWII Historical Fiction series. I’ve read them all, and this one has more battle details than I’ve seen in any of the others. Which I think is warranted and deserving of the titular subjects of the book. You can check out the book review by clicking HERE. – Ronovan
Soldiers of Freedom: Why Patton’s 761st “Black Panther” Tank Battalion and Other African-American Units Fought Despite Racism in WWII
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 story of Sergeant William McBurney and the 761st Tank Battalion, the first African-American armored unit in U.S. history. Fighting 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.
After the battle for Tillet—one of the many small Belgian towns U.S. forces had to liberate to eventually win the legendary Battle of the Bulge—a German prisoner took one look at the troopers from the all-black 761st Tank Battalion that had just vanquished him and was stunned to see colored men in uniform. “What are you doing here?” he asked one of the tankers in English. “This is a white man’s war.”
Grinning and offering the German soldier a cigarette, the Negro tanker replied, “You ain’t got no black or white when you’re over here and the nation is in trouble. You only got Americans.”
In a nutshell, the exchange explains why African-American soldiers were willing to risk their lives to fight in WWII, despite suffering from pervasive discrimination from their own white troops and American civilians during their training. They simply wanted to do the right thing in the name of freedom and democracy and make a difference in the world—the same as their white counterparts. But in the process, they also hoped to advance their own freedom. They longed to move themselves forward onto an equal footing, or at least a more equal footing, with whites they would soon learn from the hard experience of war were certainly no better than them.
In late 1945 and early 1946, the 761st Tank Battalion—the first African-American armored unit in U.S. history to see combat—returned home from WWII along with 1.2 million other black veterans. They had been handpicked by General George S. Patton, Jr. himself, fought in his vaunted U.S. Third Army until the German capitulation, and were damn proud of that fact. Patton’s veteran Black Panthers, whose motto was “Come Out Fighting” in tribute to boxing legend Joe Louis, should have returned as conquering heroes. Instead, while their white brethren in the armed forces enjoyed great fanfare, ticker-tape parades, and a plethora of newspaper ink, the Black Panthers, Tuskegee Airmen, and other black outfits that had put Nazism down like a rabid dog were largely ignored. They had no choice but to quietly resume their daily lives in a country that cared little about their contributions and sacrifices overseas.
They had gone to Europe and the Pacific to perform their duty on behalf of their country, hoping that by fighting on behalf of freedom they would become free themselves. But upon their return, the painful truth was they had not changed a nation. In fact, they found themselves in many ways more at the beginning of a civil-rights struggle than at the end as returning African-American soldiers. Having served their country with distinction during the largest and most violent conflagration in human history, they returned to second-class status and with expectations that were deemed unacceptable to those of many of their white compatriots. Most of them still could not vote, use public facilities, sit beside whites in buses or at lunch counters, or find work at anything but the most menial of jobs.
For the returning members of the 761st and other black units in the U.S. Army and Air Corps, it was apparent that America had never really cared for them and now had mostly forgotten them. Most people did not even know of African-American service on the battlefields of Europe. In the roar of postwar America, the battalion’s service might as well not have happened, so few people knew or even cared. What the 1.2 million black servicemen had done on behalf of their country was not acknowledged or even believed. But even more upsetting to the returning colored soldiers was that white America expected life in the U.S.—with its racial castes and customs—to go on as if the war had never happened. The majority of whites were still unwilling to look at them in the new light that black leaders had originally sought by insisting that colored men receive the right to fight. They experienced lynchings, beatings, and employment discrimination despite their veteran status, and they couldn’t help but feel excluded from the postwar economic prosperity they could see all around them.
The returning black troopers found all this perplexing, especially considering how well they had been treated by not only the French, Belgians, and Dutch they liberated, but by the German civilians who only days and weeks before had been their enemies. Sergeant William McBurney, Sherman tank main gunner and the protagonist of my book Soldiers of Freedom, had fond memories of Holland from his stay there in February 1945, recuperating and refitting after the brutal Battle of the Bulge. So did the other members of the 761st Tank Battalion. To them, the best thing about Holland was the people. The Dutch citizens spoke English fluently and treated them with genuine respect and warmth. They welcomed them not as black men but as Americans, honoring them as liberators from the German occupation forces. McBurney found the simple and sincere kindness of the Dutch people a welcome and pleasant surprise after the treatment he had experienced at the hands of many of the American soldiers, particularly those from the 87th Infantry, a Southern unit the 761st had fought alongside.
The French, Belgian, and Dutch people were right to treat the members of the 761st as heroes and liberators: Patton’s Panthers had truly earned their reputation as a crack fighting unit. From the time that the battalion was committed to combat on November 7, 1944 through May 6, 1945, it had spent 183 days in action, its only pauses accounted for by the time needed to move from one mission to another. During its combat actions, the battalion 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. Not bad for an outfit that rarely numbered over a thousand men, including maintenance and supply. McBurney and his buddies also liberated the Gunskirchen concentration camp in Austria in the final days of the war. Since the war, battalion members have visited Jewish organizations and school groups throughout the country to share these memories and to testify to the horrors they witnessed during the camp’s liberation.
The Black Panthers paid a heavy price in the name of freedom. The unit suffered thirty-six men killed in action, including three officers. Thirty-nine officers and 221 enlisted men fell wounded in action. Nonbattle casualties stood at nine officers and 192 men, mostly trench foot cases. Total casualties pressed towards 50 percent, a disproportionately high number for a comparatively small outfit that fought alongside manpower and equipment behemoths like the 26th Infantry Division and the 4th Armored Division. The battalion lost a whopping 71 tanks in battle, more than one and a half times its original allotment.
The men themselves never thought of themselves as particularly heroic. 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. By taking up arms in the struggle against Tojo and Hitler, they had hoped to heal the old wounds of racial prejudice inflicted upon them by their white counterparts in the U.S. armed forces and by the bigoted white civilians at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, and Camp Hood, Texas, where they had undergone their training. But as fate would have it, the men of the 761st and other segregated African-American combat units like the 92nd Infantry Division and the famous Tuskegee Airmen received a less than warm welcome upon their return home. The continued discrimination towards the black soldiers after willingly giving their lives on the killing grounds of Europe and the Pacific was a source of significant disappointment and discouragement for the returning men, as well as their embittered families.
As Platoon Sergeant Johnnie Stevens of the 761st said: “We were treated better by the civilian German population than we were treated in America. See, in our own country, we could not buy a hot dog when we were in uniform, had to ride in the back of the bus when we were in uniform…. But over there, you were treated like a king. We ate together, slept together. After the war was over and the Germans had dances again, we were invited. That’s why a lot of black GIs took their discharges in Europe. They said, ‘Look, ain’t nothing in America for me. I can’t get a decent job when I go back, I know that. I’m not gonna have any privileges. I can’t even vote. So what the hell do I want to go back there for?”
Though the 761st’s vets were disappointed to return home to the same old prejudices, they soon began to put their lives together, start careers, marry, raise children, and lead in countless quiet but nonetheless significant ways. Though some struggled, the bloody battlefields of Europe had trained them to be disciplined, responsible American citizens who understood the true cost of freedom. But they would have an even greater impact in the future.
The brave actions of the 761st on the battlefields of Europe would eventually garner the men the recognition they deserved, pave the way for an integrated U.S. Army, and lay the foundation for the post-war civil rights movement. At the end of WWII, 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 in 1948. And then, after thirty-three years of intense lobbying by the unit’s veterans, the battalion was belatedly awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for “Extraordinary Heroism” by President Jimmy Carter on January 24, 1978. 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.”
Though the citation should have come thirty-three years earlier, it was ultimately the struggles of Patton’s Black Panthers—at home and abroad, within the armed forces and outside it—that led to the construction of a stronger U.S. Army and a greater nation. Since the new millennium, African-Americans make up around 20% of the U.S. armed forces (and no longer are they merely cooks, stevedores, and drivers), and black officers in the services stand at 5%-7% in the Navy, Air Force and Marines and 10%-15% in the Army.
That is the ultimate legacy of Patton’s Panthers.
The ninth great-grandson of legendary privateer Captain William Kidd, Samuel Marquis is the bestselling, award-winning author of a World War Two Series, the Nick Lassiter-Skyler International Espionage Series, and American historical fiction. 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.
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© 2020 Ronovan Hester Copyright reserved. The author asserts his moral and legal rights over this work.