Lieutenant General Leslie J. McNair, Chief of the Army Ground Forces during the early 1940's, had been a proponent of blacks in the Armored Forces of the United States Army Ground Forces long before the beginning of World War II. His insistence that such move would pay dividends finally won out over the opposition on most of his peers. Unfortunately, General McNair was killed in July of 1944. Although he did get the chance to see the unit that he had been so instrumental in creating, he did not live to see the fruits of his venture as black armor made its mark in Italy in late 1944 and in Europe from late 1944 throughout the end of World War II in Europe.
It was in March of 1941, some nine months before the Pearl Harbor attack, that 98 black enlisted men created a mild shock when they appeared at the Armored Forces School at Fort Knox, Kentucky. This was the first time that blacks had been in the armored section of the United States Army in the history of this nation.
These black pioneers saw their numbers continually increase to the point that in June of that year, the 758th Tank Battalion (light) came into existence. They left Fort Knox and went to Camp Claiborne, Louisiana for further training and organization. It was at this facility that on April 1, 1942, the 761st Tank Battalion (light) was activated.
While this was a positive gesture, it was also the time that the War Department stopped giving any consideration to the formation of a black armored division. Instead, the Army decided to activate five armored groups, four of whom were white. The black unit, commanded by Colonel LeRoy Nichols, was known as the "5th Group."
Instead of the standard complement of 36 officers and 593 enlisted men, the original 761st was composed of 27 officers and 313 enlisted men. Eight months after America's entry into World War II, the 761st was increased to 34 officers and 545 enlisted men. It was commanded by (then) Major Edward F. Cruise of Poughkeepsie, New York. However, it had been only three days after the Pearl Harbor attack that Second Lieutenants Charles H. Barbor, Samuel Brown and Ivan H. Harrison had become the first black officers assigned to the unit.
The unit made satisfactory progress in becoming what its few supporters had hoped that it would become. On October 27, 1943, the War Department designated the unit the 761st Tank Battalion. It was no longer the light tank battalion that it had always been.
It was at that point that more black officers became members of the unit. It also received black company commanders. Lieutenant Jackie Robinson, later of baseball fame, was assigned to the unit at Fort Riley, Kansas in March of 1944.
On June 9, 1944, three days after the D-Day invasion of Europe, the 761st was alerted for overseas duty. It had barely avoided the plans to change the unit into an amphibian tank unit.
The 761st was sent to Europe. It left England and arrived at Normandy on October 10, 1944. The 761st was assigned to the 26th Infantry Division of the XII Corps, in General Patton's 3rd Army. General Patton had made such request.
On October 31, General Paul, the commander of the 26th Division told the assembled group of men: "I am damned glad to have you with us. We have been expecting you for a long time, and I am sure that you are going to give a good account of yourselves. I've got a big hill up there and I want you to take it, and I believe you are going to do a great job at it." (Trezzvant W. Anderson -Battalion Historian- Come Out Fighting The Epic Tale of the 761st Tank Battalion 1942-1945, Printed by Salzburger, Druckerel and Verlang, p. 21.)
Two days later, the assembled group received a special visit from none other than General George S. Patton himself. He told them in the George S. Patton directness:
"Men, you're the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army. I would never have asked for you if you weren't good. I have nothing but the best in my Army. I don't care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill the Kraut sonofabitches. Everyone has their eyes on you, and is expecting great things from you. Most of all, your race is looking forward to you. Don't let them down, and, damn you, don't let me down." (Ibid.)
At 0600 hours on the morning of November 8, 1944, the 761st went into battle at Athaniville, France. This was the beginning of their ordeal of 183 continuous days of combat in which they and their Sherman Tanks took on the armor and infantry of crack German units and their vaunted 88's.
Before their ordeal was to come to an end, they would face the enemy in six European countries. During this period of time, they spearheaded many of Patton's drives, defeated a strong, skillful enemy, liberated Jews from concentration camps, burst through enemy lines on the refortified Maginot line, and captured more than 30 towns.
Among other things, not counting their exploits in Task Force Rhine, they destroyed 58 pill-boxes; 381 machine gun nests; 64 (88mm) anti-tank guns; 23 (75mm) anti-tank guns; 34 tanks; 24 bazooka teams; 465 wheeled vehicles; and 3 army dumps. They killed 6,266 enemy soldiers and captured an additional 15, 818 of the enemy.
As it was spearheading another of Patton's drive, the 761st received its most memorable order: "You will advance to the Enns River (in Austria), and you will wait there for the Russians."
General Patton addressed the men with unbridled pride as he spoke to one assembled company at the war's end. The men of the 761st received 11 Silver Stars, 69 Bronze Stars, three certificates of merit and 296 purple hearts.