1st Black tank unit to fight in combat during WWII honored in upcoming documentary
Stars and Stripes August 2, 2023
WASHINGTON — The Army’s 761st Tank Battalion, known as the Black Panthers, was the first Black tank unit to fight in combat in World War II and will be the subject of a documentary to air later this month.
“The history of Blacks in the military, war, it’s always been heroic,” said actor Morgan Freeman, who narrates the History Channel documentary and is also one of its producers. “The big difference is who knows about it. … The lack of recognition does nothing to deny the history.”
Freeman, along with other producers and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, took part Wednesday in a panel discussion at the Pentagon about the documentary called “761st Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers.”
The tank battalion was activated at Louisiana’s Camp Claiborne in 1942. The unit consisted mostly of Black soldiers at a time when the military was still segregated. It wasn’t until 1948 that former President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces and Black troops were allowed to be in units with white troops.
After training in Texas, the 761st was deployed to Europe, where the unit fought in the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and early 1945. Jackie Robinson, who would become the first Black man to play Major League Baseball, was a first lieutenant in the Black Panthers.
“These men took their wartime experiences with them into the Civil Rights Movement,” said Charles Bowery, executive director of the U.S. Army Center of Military History. “[Robinson] was formed by that experience.”
After the Battle of the Bulge, the tank battalion was sent to Germany and fought through the Siegfried Line as well as several towns and cities. It was one of the first American units to meet the Soviet army in Austria. In May 1945, the battalion helped to liberate the Gunskirchen concentration camp there. The war ended a few months later and the 761st was deactivated in 1946 after 183 days of combat.
The 761st Tank Battalion was a highly decorated unit — having earned more than 300 Purple Hearts, nearly a dozen Silver Stars and one Medal of Honor. The battalion also later received the Presidential Unit Citation, which is given for extraordinary heroism. The name Black Panthers arose from the battalion’s patch, which depicted a fierce panther with its mouth open and a slogan beneath that read, “Come Out Fighting.”
The two-hour documentary on the tank battalion, which will air Aug. 20, will “explore in-depth the major battles they faced both overseas while in combat and back home in the United States,” the History Channel states on its website, noting it also includes an interview with Austin, the first Black defense secretary.
Freeman said he tried for years to get the documentary made, and in doing so he learned of his deep family connection to the U.S. military.
“My biological father, my stepfather and two uncles all served in the Army,” he said, noting he served in the Air Force for “three years, eight months and 10 days” between 1955 and 1959. “I never expressed any pride of being in uniform because I didn’t do anything. But I did wear it.”