The Black Panther Tank Battalion
Essay title: The Black Panther Tank Battalion
The Black Panther Tank Battalion
The 761st Black Panther Tank Battalion was the first African-American armored unit to see combat.
Before and during mobilization for World War II, officials in Washington, D.C., debated whether or not African-American soldiers should be used in armored units. Many military men and politicians believed that blacks did not have the brains, quickness or moral stamina to fight in a war.
Referring to his World War I experiences, Colonel James A. Moss, commander of the 367th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division, stated, “As fighting troops, the Negro must be rated as second-class material, this primarily to his inferior intelligence and lack of mental and moral qualities.” Colonel Perry L. Miles, commander of the 371st Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, voiced a similar opinion: “In a future war, the main use of the Negro should be in labor organizations.” General George S. Patton, Jr., in a letter to his wife, wrote that “a colored soldier cannot think fast enough to fight in armor.”
The armed forces embraced these beliefs even though African Americans had fought with courage and distinction in the Revolutionary War and every other war and conflict ever waged by the United States. They overlooked the fact that four regiments of the 93rd Division had served with the French during World War I and that the French government had awarded the coveted Croix de Guerre to three of the four regiments and to a company of the fourth, as well as to the 1st Battalion, 367th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division.
Lieutenant General Leslie J. McNair, chief of the U.S. Army ground forces, was the main proponent of allowing African Americans to serve in armored units. He believed his nation could ill afford to exclude such a potentially important source of manpower. The black press, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Congress of Racial Equality also placed increasing pressure on the War Department and President Franklin D. Roosevelts administration to allow black soldiers to serve on an equal footing with white soldiers.
In the summer of 1940, Congress passed into law the Selective Training and Service Act, which said, “In the selection and training of men under this act, there shall be no discrimination against any person on account of race and color.” In October, however, the White House issued a statement saying that, while “the services of Negroes would be utilized on a fair and equitable basis,” the policy of segregation in the armed forces would continue.
In March 1941, 98 black enlisted men reported to Fort Knox, Ky., from Fort Custer, Mich., for armored warfare training with the 758th Tank Battalion (light). The pioneer black tankers trained in light tank operations, mechanics and related phases of mechanized warfare, as enlisted men from other Army units joined their ranks.
The 758th trained on the M-5 light tank, which carried a crew of four. Powered by twin Cadillac engines, it could reach a maximum speed of 40 mph and had an open-road cruising range of 172 miles. It was armed with a .30 caliber machine gun mounted to fire along the same axis as the tanks main armament, a 37mm cannon. When the tracer bullets from the .30 caliber registered on a target, the cannon would be fired, hopefully scoring a direct hit. The M-5 was also armed with two more .30-caliber machine guns, one on the turret and one in the bow. The light tank was employed to provide fire support, mobility and crew protection in screening and reconnaissance missions.
The 5th Tank Group, commanded by Colonel LeRoy Nichols, was to be made up of black enlisted personnel and white officers. With the 758th Tank Battalion in place, two more tank battalions were needed to complete the 5th Tank Group.
On March 15, 1942, the War Department ordered the activation of the 761st Tank Battalion (light) at Camp Claiborne, La., with an authorized strength of 36 officers and 593 enlisted men. (The final battalion–the 784th–would be activated on April 1, 1943.) On September 15, 1943, the 761st Battalion moved to Camp Hood, Texas, for advanced training; there they changed from light to medium tanks.
On July 6, 1944, one of the 761sts few black officers, Lieutenant Jackie Robinson, was riding a civilian bus from Camp Hood to the nearby town of Belton. He refused to move to the back of the bus when told to do so by the driver. Court-martial charges ensued but could not proceed because the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Paul L. Bates, would not consent to the charges. The top brass at Camp Hood then transferred Robinson to the 758th Tank Battalion, whose commander immediately signed the court-martial consent.