This is a guest post from author Samuel Marquis. Thanks Samuel!
In Soldiers of Freedom: The WWII Story of Patton’s Panthers and the Edelweiss Pirates, Book 5 of his WWII Series, historical fiction author Samuel Marquis tells the real-life story of Sergeant William McBurney and General George S. Patton, Jr. in the final brutal year of the war. As a Sherman tank gunner in the 761st Tank Battalion, the first African-American armored unit in U.S. history, McBurney fought under the legendary Patton in the gruelling Lorraine campaign in France, the Battle of the Bulge, the Rhineland, and in the final conquest of Nazi Germany. But in signing up for their country, McBurney and his fellow Black Panthers had to fight two wars at once: one against the German Army, the other against the racism of their fellow white soldiers. In their fight on behalf of freedom, they transformed race relations in America by changing the makeup of the modern U.S. Army and paving the way for the civil rights movement.
On December 9, 1944, mere days before the opening salvo of the Battle of the Bulge would be fired, the commanding general of Patton’s Third Army XII Corps, Major General Manton S. Eddy, wrote a letter of commendation for the 761st Tank Battalion, the first African-American armored unit in U.S. history. It was the first official recognition for bravery on the battlefield for Patton’s Black Panthers, who had tasted their first combat only a month earlier:
1. I consider the 761st Tank Battalion to have entered combat with such conspicuous courage and success as to warrant special commendation.
2. The speed with which they adapted themselves to the front line under most adverse weather conditions, the gallantry which with they faced some of Germany’s finest troops, and the confident spirit with which they emerged from their recent engagements in the vicinity of Dieuze, Morville-les-Vic, and Guebling entitle them surely to consider themselves the Veteran 761st.
The 761st would go on to fight 183 days of virtually uninterrupted combat in four campaigns between November 1944 and May 1945: Northern France, Ardennes-Alsace, Rhineland, and Central Europe. Their battlefield stats are staggering. During their combat actions through May 6, 1945 in which they rarely fielded over 1,000 men including support personnel, the outfit destroyed or captured 331 enemy machine-gun nests, 58 pillboxes, and 461 wheeled vehicles; killed 6,246 enemy combatants; and captured nearly 16,000 enemy soldiers. Their battlefield heroics, though, came at a steep price: total casualties pressed towards 50 percent, a disproportionately high number for a battalion-sized outfit.
Though the 761st were a severe thorn to Hitler and his Thousand-Year Reich, it would take the unit thirty-three years after the war to receive official recognition from the U.S. government for its stellar service during the war—in the form of a Presidential Unit Citation. The award was created during the Second World War to recognize units for a collective display of extraordinary heroism and is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a military unit. During the 33-year period the Panthers had to wait to receive the award everyone who had fought alongside them knew they deserved, they had to content themselves with helping to change racial attitudes in the military.
After the war ended, the distinguished service of the 761st Tank Battalion, Tuskegee Airmen, and other African-American combat units helped convince President Harry S. Truman and other high-ranking government officials to desegregate the U.S. Armed Forces. Black troopers have been a critical component of U.S. forces ever since, thanks to the Panthers and other Negro outfits. During the past twenty years, African-Americans have comprised around 20% of the U.S. armed forces (and no longer are they merely cooks, stevedores, and drivers), and black officers in the services stand at 5%-7% in the Navy, Air Force and Marines and 10%-15% in the Army. The change happened because the president and military brass came to understand that scrappy outfits like Patton’s Panthers and the Tuskegee Airmen had performed every bit as well, and in many cases better, than their white-counterpart units of similar size.
In the end, the 761st has made a legitimate difference in the world. While they did more than their fair share on the front lines to help defeat Nazi Germany, they also achieved something even more important: they proved that they were just as good as white men. They demonstrated that they belonged with all the other units in Uncle Sam’s Army because they did what was expected of them, simply by carrying out orders, driving their tanks, fighting, living, celebrating, crying, and being one of the guys. In the minds of Sergeant William McBurney and many of the other tankers, that stood as the 761st’s biggest triumph. That a large number of the white infantry soldiers they had fought alongside with had learned to treat them as they would any other combat soldier superseded what in retrospect stood as the inexorable defeat of Nazi Germany. Through their deeds on the battlefield, they changed the opinion of at least some of their white countrymen, and they were deeply proud of that fact.
But despite the 761st’s battlefield heroics and the plaudits of the white doughboys they fought alongside, it took until January 24, 1978 to win the Presidential Unit Citation for “Extraordinary Heroism” the unit had long coveted and struggled to obtain. The award was finally given to the battalion by President Jimmy Carter. Charles “Pop” Gates—a crusty old Buffalo Soldier, then a retired lieutenant colonel—spoke on behalf of the unit. The award became official on April 10, 1978 by the Department of the Army under General Orders Number 5. The final award stood as a single citation for all the 761st’s actions from October 31, 1944, to May 6, 1945. Most importantly, the government finally acknowledged that “racial discrimination and inadvertent neglect on the part of those in authority” had played a role in the previous disapprovals and that “the climate created by the Army commanders could only have made it difficult to provide proper recognition for a ‘Negro’ unit during the period 1944-1947.”
The Presidential Unit Citation of 1978 reads: “The 761st Tank Battalion Distinguished itself by extraordinary gallantry, courage, professionalism and high esprit de corps displayed in the accomplishment of unusually difficult and hazardous operations in the European Theater of Operations from 31 October 1944 to 6 May 1945… Throughout this period of combat, the courageous and professional actions of the members of the ‘Black Panther’ battalion, coupled with their indomitable fighting spirit and devotion to duty, reflect great credit on the 761st Tank Battalion, and the United States Army, and this Nation.”
Though the citation should have come thirty-three years earlier, it was ultimately the struggles of the 761st—at home and abroad, within the army and outside it—that led to the construction of a stronger U.S. Army and a greater nation. The integration of the U.S. armed forces, in turn, paved the way for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Today, the legacy of the 761st is secure, and the black tankers earned that legacy by being damn good at their job of exterminating the hated Nazis. As the white commander of the 17th Airborne Division that fought with the battalion during the Battle of the Bulge said, “I would rather have five tanks from the 761st Tank Battalion than any larger number from another armored unit.”
That’s why they called them Patton’s Panthers—and today, we owe them a debt of gratitude. For they were true Soldiers of Freedom.
Images from History.com, mediadrumworld.com, jefferymyersunleashed.io
The ninth great-grandson of legendary privateer Captain William Kidd, Samuel Marquis is the bestselling, award-winning author of American historical fiction, including a WWII Series. His novels have been #1 Denver Post bestsellers, received multiple national book awards (Kirkus Reviews and Foreword Reviews Book of the Year, American Book Fest and USA Best Book, IPPY, Readers’ Favorite, Beverly Hills, Next Generation Indie, and Colorado Book Awards), and garnered glowing reviews from #1 bestseller James Patterson, Kirkus, and Foreword Reviews (5 Stars). Book reviewers have compared Marquis’s WWII thrillers to the epic historical novels of Tom Clancy, John le Carré, Ken Follett, Herman Wouk, Daniel Silva, and Alan Furst.