Washington, D.C. March 15, 1942

On this date in 1942 the U.S. War Depart­ment estab­lished the second of three tank bat­tal­ions in what became the Fifth Armored Group, a pre­dom­i­nately African Amer­i­can armored for­ma­tion that served with dis­tinc­tion in World War II. The three black tank bat­tal­ions were the 758th, acti­vated in Janu­ary 1941; the 761st, acti­vated over a year later on the first of April 1942; and the 784th acti­vated the same year. Of the three black bat­ta­lions serving in the Euro­pean Thea­ter, with­out ques­tion the 761st, known as the Black Pan­thers after the unit’s dis­tinc­tive insig­nia, is the most famous owing to its con­nec­tion with Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third U.S. Army.

Immediately before and during World War II, U.S. mili­tary leaders had reser­va­tions about assigning African Amer­i­can sol­diers, sailors, and Marines to com­bat duty. Bigotry against black people fac­tored into almost all aspects of life in the U.S. That included the armed forces, despite the 1940 Selec­tive Training and Ser­vice Act pro­hib­iting dis­crim­i­na­tion “against any per­son on account of race and color.” “As fighting troops, the Negro must be rated as second-class mate­rial,” declared a colonel in the 92nd Infan­try Divi­sion, “this pri­mar­ily [due] to his infe­rior intel­li­gence and lack of mental and moral qual­i­ties.” For most of the war the 1.2 mil­lion black men and women in uni­form were rele­gated to non­combat roles such as cooks and mess­men, steve­dores, truck drivers, mechanics, and medical and office orderlies.

Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, Army Ground Forces com­mander, suc­cess­fully argued that “colored” (the term in use at the time) units should be em­ployed in com­bat. At McNair’s sug­ges­tion, the U.S. Army began exper­i­menting with segre­gated com­bat units in 1941. The next year, on April 1, 1942, a half month after the 761st was con­sti­tuted, the U.S. Army’s second African Amer­ic­an tank unit was activated at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana.

The 761st Tank Battalion trained for over 2 years at Camp Clai­borne and Camp Hood in Texas before it received orders for over­seas duty. (A unit his­to­rian theo­rized the drawn-out training was due to the Army not knowing what to do with black forces.) The tankers shipped out to Eng­land in early Septem­ber 1944 and landed on the Euro­pean con­ti­nent at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. The bat­tal­ion was eventually assigned to Patton’s Third Army the next month. According to a widely cir­cu­lated story, Patton, who com­manded the 2nd Armored Divi­sion when the U.S. entered World War II, per­son­ally asked for the Black Pan­ther Bat­tal­ion, whose motto was “Come Out Fighting.” Patton reportedly con­tacted the War Depar­tment in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., requesting more tanks—the best avail­able. The only tank unit left, he heard back, was made up of “colored” troops. “Who the [pro­fanity deleted] asked for color?” the 3-star gen­eral exploded. “I asked for tankers.” So the 760 black men and white offi­cers of the 761st, equipped with 54 medium M4 Sher­man tanks in three com­panies and a light com­pany of 15 smaller M5 Stuart tanks, proudly embraced their summons to battlefield greatness.

Beginning in November 1944, the 761st Tank Bat­tal­ion engaged the enemy for 6 months straight, spear­heading many of Patton’s offen­sives. The tankers slowed German resupply and took pres­sure off other units under siege at the Battle of the Bulge (Decem­ber 16, 1944, to Janu­ary 25, 1945). The 761st saw fighting in a half-dozen Euro­pean coun­tries, including France, Germany, and Austria. No other unit fought for so long and so hard with­out respite. The 761st is credited with inflicting 130,000 casual­ties, cap­turing 30 towns, lib­er­ating tens of thou­sands of in­mates from con­cen­tra­tion camps—and making his­tory as the first African Amer­i­can armored unit in com­bat. The bat­tal­ion received a Presi­den­tial Unit Cita­tion for its actions. In addi­tion, a large num­ber of indi­vid­uals received medals, including one Con­gres­sional Medal of Honor (post­humously), 7 Silver Stars, and 246 Purple Hearts. Eight enlisted men received battlefield commissions.

761st Tank Battalion aka “Patton’s Panthers” During World War II

761st Tank Battalion training on M5 Stuart761st Tank Battalion Dog Company equipment check, England 1944

Left: Two African American tankers in an M5 Stuart Light Tank during training exer­cises, c. 1943. The 761st was formed in early 1942 in Lou­i­si­ana, even­tu­ally moving to Camp Hood, Texas, where the men trained for over 2 years, first with M5 Stuart light tanks and later with M4 Sher­man medium tanks. Training extended beyond the typical length, pos­si­bly because Army com­manders hesi­tated to give black tankers the chance to prove their worth in com­bat. Iron­i­cally, the extra training proved inval­u­able when the 761st engaged German armor in com­bat. Once on the battle­fields of Europe, black tankers proved they were just as good, if not better, than white tankers.

Right: Soldiers from the 761st Tank Battalion’s Dog Com­pany check equip­ment before leaving England for com­bat in France in the fall of 1944. As com­ponent bat­tal­ions in the Fifth Armored Group, the 758th, 761st, and 784th bat­tal­ions were sep­a­rated and re­as­signed to dif­fer­ent divi­sions to meet man­power demands. Origi­n­ally assigned to Lt. Gen. Wil­liam Simp­son’s Ninth U.S. Army, the 761st was re­as­signed to Patton’s Third Army on Octo­ber 2. Ini­ti­ally Patton was a skep­tic of African Amer­i­can tankers in com­bat, writing to his wife that “colored soldier[s] cannot think fast enough to fight in armor.” Yet the pistol-packing general extended a wel­coming hand to the men of his all-black tanker bat­tal­ion. In a rousing speech on Octo­ber 28, 1944, just before sending the 761st into com­bat against the German enemy, Patton jumped onto the hood of an armored car and, in his curi­ously high-pitched voice, said: “Men, you are the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the Amer­i­can army. 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. Every­one has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you. 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 SOBs.”

761st Tank Battalion near Bastogne, 1944761st Tank Battalion, Coburg, Germany, April 25, 1945

Left: A tank crew of four from the 761st halt their M24 Chaffee light tank in a snowy field near Bastogne during Patton’s his­toric efforts to relieve sol­diers of the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion and as well as ele­ments of his own Ninth and Tenth Armored Divi­sions besieged there. It was during this 5‑week encounter, famously known as the Battle of the Bulge, that M24 Chaffees first saw action. Patton employed M24s for the Third Army’s advance into South­ern Germany, Austria, and Czecho­slo­va­kia in April 1945. Chaffee light tanks with their distinctive “>” front hull replaced older M5 Stuart light tanks.

Right: M5 Stuart tanks from the 761st Tank Battalion await orders to clear out Nazi machine gun nests in the North­ern Bava­rian city of Coburg, April 25, 1945. Because of their feeble arma­ment and armor, M5s were perfectly matched for this assign­ment. Coburg may be best known as one of the capi­tals of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg, whence hailed Prince Albert, who married Queen Victoria in 1840.

The Story of the 761st “Black Panther” Tank Battalion