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Photo of a member of the 761st Tank Battalion

Black Panthers: The legendary 761st Tank Battalion from WWII

Image: 761st Battalion: The Original Black Panthers

Despite being marginalised by their own side, the troops of the 761st Tank Battalion – known as the Black Panthers – became a devastating force during World War II and cut a swathe through Nazi-occupied Europe. This is their remarkable story.

The birth of the battalion

Even though World War II saw African-Americans serve in every branch of the US Armed Forces, segregation was still firmly in place. As historian Matthew Delmont has put it, ‘The experience was very dispiriting for a lot of black soldiers… They were called racial epithets quite regularly and just not afforded respect either as soldiers or human beings.’

One of the segregated units was the 761st Tank Battalion, formed in 1942 at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. The training was arduous and made harder by the casual racism from some white troops stationed there. One member of the tank battalion who bore the brunt of bigotry was Jackie Robinson, who later achieved icon status when he became the first black man to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era.

In July 1944, Robinson boarded an army bus and was ordered by the driver to take his place in the ‘black section’ at the back. He said no and was arrested by military police. When the white commander of the 761st Tank Battalion refused to court-martial Robinson, the defiant soldier was transferred to another battalion whose commander agreed to the court-martial.

While Robinson was later acquitted, the incident meant he didn’t see action in Europe. The same could not be said of the 761st Tank Battalion, who soon lived up to their unit motto, ‘Come Out Fighting’.

The Panthers under Patton

Dubbed the Black Panthers because of their panther’s head insignia, the tank battalion arrived in France in October 1944. The troops were assigned to the US Third Army, which was under the command of the flamboyant General George S. Patton, one of the greatest-ever practitioners of tank warfare.

Patton, who was famed for his blood-and-thunder speeches, delivered a pep talk telling them he didn’t care what colour they were as long as they were ready to kill Germans. ‘Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you,’ Patton said. ‘Most of all your race is looking forward to your success. Don’t let them down and damn you, don’t let me down! They say it is patriotic to die for your country. Well, let’s see how many patriots we can make out of those German sonsofb*tches.’

Despite these rousing words, Patton did harbour the prejudices of many of his peers, privately admitting he had ‘no faith in the inherent fighting ability of the race’. He remained entrenched in this view even after the war.

The Panthers attack

The Black Panthers plunged into combat in early November 1944, attacking German defences in a string of French towns, facing anti-tank weapons and panzer divisions. In the weeks and months that followed, the battalion played a vital role in key campaigns like the brutal Battle of the Bulge, which was Hitler’s last-ditch offensive on the Western Front.

As well as sustaining dozens of deaths, the unit was also subjected to insidious propaganda by the Nazis. During a tough operation to capture the Belgian municipality of Tillet in January 1945, their radio transmissions were jammed by an American-born woman, Mildred Gillars, who was known as ‘Axis Sally’ for her pro-Hitler propaganda broadcasts. Greeting them as the ‘N**** soldiers of the 761st,’ she reminded them of the racial divisions within American society, encouraging them to rebel against their white commander who ‘is white and not one of you’.

Undaunted, the battalion went on to take Tillet, much to the surprise of some Germans fighting there. When one of them asked Black Panther Johnny Holmes why he was fighting ‘a white man’s war’, Holmes nonchalantly offered him a cigarette and said, ‘You ain’t got no black or white when you’re over here and the nation is in trouble. You only got Americans.’

The greatest hero of the 761st

The 761st Tank Battalion spearheaded the Allied push into Germany, racking up hundreds of military honours, including a plethora of Purple Hearts. One member of the unit, Ruben Rivers, was awarded the Medal of Honour, the highest military decoration of the US Armed Forces.

Rivers distinguished himself soon after the battalion commenced combat duties in France in November 1944, when his tank encountered a German roadblock which was threatening to make sitting ducks of the Allied troops. Showing total disregard for his own wellbeing, Rivers leapt out of his tank, walked in the direction of enemy fire and attached a cable to the roadblock so that it could be dragged out of the way.

Awarded a Silver Star for this ‘brilliant display of initiative, courage and devotion to duty’, Rivers demonstrated incredible bravery again several days later, when he was badly injured by a mine. Ordered to be evacuated from the warzone by his concerned commanding officer, Rivers point-blank refused, saying, ‘This is the one order, the only order I’ll ever disobey.’

Despite developing painful gangrene, Rivers carried on fighting in his tank for days to come, destroying enemy tanks and taking out anti-tank units. Sadly, his own tank was eventually destroyed, killing him instantly. Although Rivers was recommended for the Medal of Honour soon after his death, no black service members were awarded the accolade during or immediately after the war. It was not until 1997, following an examination of systemic racism in the US Armed Forces, that the supreme heroism of Ruben Rivers was officially recognised.