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761st Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers
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The 761st Tank Battalion, nicknamed the "Black Panthers", was the first African American tank unit to see combat in World War II. Despite facing discrimination and segregation, the 761st proved to be one of the most effective tank battalions of the war, fighting for 183 continuous days across Europe.

Formation and Early Training

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The 761st Tank Battalion was formed on April 1, 1942 at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana as the first African American tank unit in the U.S. Army.1 The battalion initially trained under the command of a white officer, Lt. Colonel Paul L. Bates, who strictly pushed the unit to excel despite facing scrutiny and criticism from other white officers skeptical of the abilities of black soldiers as tankers.4 The 761st, referred to as the "Black Panthers", consisted of 760 enlisted black men led by white officers.4 The unit primarily operated the M4 Sherman tank.4 Jackie Robinson, who later broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, was part of the 761st, serving as a lieutenant and morale officer before being court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus in 1944.4 The battalion trained for over two years at Camp Claiborne and Camp Hood, Texas amid the restrictions and racism of the Jim Crow South.2 In early 1942, they began training in the M5 Stuart light tank, learning to maneuver, mount, dismount, and maintain the vehicles.3 The unit developed an esprit de corps, with the tankers holding their heads high despite enduring suspicion and poor treatment from white soldiers and officers who doubted their capabilities.2 On June 9, 1944, after over two years of training, the 761st finally received orders for overseas deployment, only three days after D-Day.2 They would ship out that August and arrive in France in October 1944 to join the Allied advance against Nazi Germany.1
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Combat Operations in France

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The 761st Tank Battalion first saw combat in France in November 1944, supporting General Patton's Third Army as it advanced towards the German border. The battalion was initially attached to the 26th Infantry Division and tasked with spearheading the Allied drive through Lorraine. In their first major engagement near Morville-lès-Vic, the 761st broke through the German defenses, clearing the way for the infantry. They went on to fight in the Saar-Moselle Triangle, facing determined German resistance in the rugged, heavily forested terrain. Throughout the harsh winter of 1944-1945, the 761st remained on the front lines, providing armored support for numerous infantry divisions. In the Allied push to capture the French city of Metz, the battalion played a key role, engaging in house-to-house fighting against entrenched German troops. The tankers of the 761st repeatedly demonstrated their skill and courage, knocking out German tanks at long range and rescuing wounded infantry under heavy fire. After helping to liberate Metz, the 761st was redeployed to the Alsace region along the German border. There they faced some of the fiercest fighting of the war against battle-hardened German panzer units. In the teeth of the bitter cold and deep snow, the 761st attacked heavily defended enemy positions, breaking through the Siegfried Line fortifications. Their actions in Alsace, at the cost of high casualties, were vital to the Allies' hard-fought victory in the Colmar Pocket, which eliminated the last German foothold in France.
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Heroic Assault on Guebling

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In November 1944, one of the 761st Tank Battalion's first major combat actions was the assault on the German-held town of Guebling, France. On November 16, the Black Panthers were tasked with supporting the 26th Infantry Division in attacking Guebling, which was heavily defended by entrenched German troops. The battle proved to be a brutal baptism of fire for the untested African American tankers. As they advanced towards the town, the 761st came under heavy fire from German artillery, anti-tank guns, and panzerfausts. Platoon Sergeant Ruben Rivers, in one of the lead tanks, was severely wounded in the leg but refused evacuation and took command of another tank. Rivers continued to lead the attack, personally knocking out two German tank destroyers and several other enemy positions. Despite Rivers' heroism and the courage of the other tankers, the 761st suffered heavy casualties at Guebling. But they pushed forward, engaging in fierce fighting against the determined German defenders. The Black Panthers' Shermans provided critical fire support for the infantry, blasting apart enemy strongpoints that had the riflemen pinned down. After three days of brutal combat, the 761st and the 26th Infantry Division finally secured Guebling. The town was reduced to rubble, but the Americans had cracked the German lines. However, the victory came at a high cost - the 761st lost 24 tanks and suffered dozens of casualties, including Sergeant Rivers, who was killed in action and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The Battle of Guebling demonstrated the mettle of the 761st Tank Battalion. Despite being a green unit facing a baptism of fire against a skilled and determined enemy, the Black Panthers overcame fear, prejudice, and heavy resistance to secure a crucial objective. The tankers' bravery and resilience at Guebling set the tone for the rest of their exceptional combat record on the European frontlines.
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Liberation of France

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The liberation of France in World War II was achieved through a combination of the Allied military campaign, the efforts of the French Resistance, and an uprising by the citizens of Paris. Following the successful Allied landings in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, American, British, and Canadian forces began pushing inland to liberate French towns and cities from German occupation. As the Allies advanced, the French Resistance played a vital role by sabotaging German infrastructure, providing intelligence, and directly engaging the occupiers. By August 1944, Resistance forces had grown significantly in strength and launched an insurrection against the Germans in Paris on August 19. This uprising, along with the approach of the Allied armies, forced the German commander of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, to surrender the city on August 25 despite Hitler's orders to destroy it. The same day, French and American troops, including the 2nd French Armored Division under General Philippe Leclerc and the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, entered Paris to the cheers of the French populace. The following day, August 26, a triumphant Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, led a massive parade down the Champs-Élysées. De Gaulle would go on to head the Provisional Government of the French Republic. However, the Germans still occupied areas of northern and eastern France. Intense fighting continued in Alsace and Lorraine, with the Allies breaking through the Siegfried Line fortifications and eliminating the Colmar Pocket, the last major German foothold. Additionally, German forces cut off in ports like Dunkirk, Lorient, and Saint-Nazaire held out until the end of the war in May 1945. But by the early fall of 1944, the liberation of the French homeland was largely complete, a momentous achievement won by the bravery and sacrifice of the Allied armies and the French Resistance.
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Rescuing the Besieged Bastogne

In December 1944, the 761st Tank Battalion played a vital role in the Allied effort to break the German siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. As part of the 87th Infantry Division, the 761st was rushed to the aid of the surrounded 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne.1 On January 3, 1945, the 761st, with just 11 operational tanks remaining, attacked the German-held town of Tillet near Bastogne.1 The tankers faced heavy resistance from the entrenched 113th Panzer Brigade, but after two days of fierce fighting, they captured the town, losing 9 tanks in the process.1 The 761st's bold assault helped relieve pressure on the beleaguered defenders of Bastogne. The Black Panthers continued to fight in the area around Bastogne for the next several weeks, enduring heavy casualties and the biting cold of the Ardennes winter.2 On January 9, Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers, the battalion's only African American tanker to be nominated for the Medal of Honor during the war, was killed while leading his men in an attack on German positions near Tillet.4 Despite the losses, the 761st never wavered, demonstrating skill and courage that earned them the respect of their fellow tankers and infantrymen.2 Their actions in helping to break the German stranglehold on Bastogne were instrumental in turning the tide of the Battle of the Bulge. After the 101st Airborne and elements of Patton's Third Army linked up and drove the Germans back, the Wehrmacht's last desperate offensive was doomed.5 The 761st Tank Battalion's role in the relief of Bastogne exemplified the Black Panthers' fighting spirit and combat effectiveness. At a critical moment during the largest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army, the African American tankers stepped up and made a vital contribution to one of the most hard-fought American victories of World War II.15
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Black Panthers Capture Tillet

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In January 1945, the 761st Tank Battalion, known as the "Black Panthers", played a vital role in the Battle of the Bulge by helping to capture the strategically important town of Tillet, Belgium. By this point in the war, the battle-hardened African American tankers were highly experienced, having already proven their mettle in heavy combat since entering the European theater in November 1944. Tillet was a key objective for the Allies, located just 12 miles west of the crucial crossroads town of Bastogne. The Germans had surrounded Bastogne, defended by the 101st Airborne Division, and capturing Tillet would help relieve pressure on the besieged Americans. But taking the town would not be easy. It was defended by the elite Führer Begleit Brigade, with dug-in tanks, anti-tank guns, and infantry. On January 9, 1945, Captain Charles Gates led a task force of 761st tanks in a bold assault on the German positions near Tillet. In the ensuing action, the Black Panthers faced withering fire from the entrenched Germans. One of the lead tanks, commanded by Sergeant Theodore Windsor, was hit and disabled, but Windsor and his crew managed to escape and join another tank under Sergeant William McBurney. McBurney's tank then achieved a breakthrough, penetrating deep behind enemy lines and wreaking havoc before being knocked out. The three crewmen, including Windsor, had to make a harrowing three mile trek back to American lines through the snow. Other tankers like Sergeant Frank Cochran fought on despite taking multiple hits, radioing in, "They've hit me three times, but I'm still giving them hell!" Captain Gates courageously continued to lead the attack on foot after his own tank was disabled, coordinating his forces and relaying orders. The fighting was brutal and the 761st suffered heavy losses, but through grit and valor, they captured Tillet by evening. In the process, the Black Panthers destroyed numerous German tanks, anti-tank guns, and inflicted heavy casualties. The 761st Tank Battalion's capture of Tillet was a crucial victory during the Battle of the Bulge. It relieved pressure on the 101st Airborne holding Bastogne and contributed to the ultimate failure of the German offensive. The bravery and skill demonstrated by the African American tankers in overcoming elite enemy forces and punching through to take a vital objective was emblematic of their distinguished combat record. At Tillet and throughout their 183 days of continuous combat, the Black Panthers defied racist stereotypes and proved themselves to be one of the most effective tank battalions in the U.S. Army.
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Breaching the Siegfried Line

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After helping liberate France, the 761st Tank Battalion played a key role in the Allied drive into Germany in early 1945. As part of General Patton's Third Army, the 761st was tasked with breaching the Siegfried Line, a formidable series of German defensive fortifications along the border.1 In late February, the 761st attacked the Siegfried Line near Orsholz, Germany.4 Despite heavy resistance from entrenched German troops and tanks, the Black Panthers relentlessly assaulted the concrete bunkers and dragon's teeth tank obstacles.2 The fighting was fierce, with the 761st losing 14 tanks on the first day alone.4 But through courage and determination, they opened a crucial breach in the German lines. The tankers then exploited the breakthrough, pushing into the German heartland and engaging enemy forces in the rugged, densely wooded terrain of the Saarland.1 In March 1945, the 761st helped capture the key city of Trier on the Moselle River, overcoming fanatical resistance from Hitler Youth troops.2 The battalion's bold armored thrusts were essential to puncturing the Siegfried Line and allowing the Allies to pour into central Germany. The 761st's role in rupturing the Siegfried Line was one of its greatest achievements. The unit suffered heavy casualties in the brutal fighting against some of Germany's most hardened defenders.4 But the Black Panthers prevailed through skill, grit, and valor. Their actions cracked open Hitler's vaunted West Wall and enabled the Allies to drive into the heart of Nazi Germany.1
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Crossing the Rhine River

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In late March 1945, the 761st Tank Battalion was assigned to Task Force Rhine, a combat command tasked with crossing the Rhine River and driving into the heart of Germany.1 This was a critical operation, as the Rhine represented the last major geographical barrier to the Allied advance. On March 23, the 761st moved out as the spearhead of Task Force Rhine.3 Crossing the Rhine at Oppenheim, the Black Panthers immediately engaged German forces on the far bank, overcoming fierce resistance from machine gun nests and anti-tank positions.1 The fighting was intense, but the tankers pushed forward, enabling the infantry to secure a bridgehead. Over the next several days, the 761st, as part of Task Force Rhine, led the drive into the German heartland. They faced determined opposition from German troops fighting desperately to defend their homeland.5 In one notable engagement on March 29, Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers, a tank platoon sergeant, was severely wounded but refused evacuation. Despite his injuries, Rivers took command of another tank and continued to lead his men in attacking enemy positions until he was killed by a direct hit from a German Panzerfaust.1 For his extraordinary heroism and sacrifice, Rivers was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1997. By early April, Task Force Rhine had advanced over 100 miles into central Germany, overrunning the historic cities of Frankfurt and Darmstadt.2 The 761st was at the forefront of this drive, demonstrating the skill and tenacity that had become the hallmarks of the Black Panthers. Their role in Task Force Rhine's Rhine crossing and subsequent advance was instrumental in collapsing the Nazi regime's final defenses and hastening the end of the war in Europe.1
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Earning Patton's Praise

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The 761st Tank Battalion fought with exceptional skill and courage throughout their 183 days of continuous combat in Europe, earning widespread praise and recognition, even from those initially skeptical of their abilities.1 Prior to the unit entering combat, General George S. Patton, despite his own racial prejudices, told the men of the 761st: "I would never have asked for you if you weren't good. I have nothing but the best in my Army."2 Patton demanded the best from the 761st and they delivered. After their first month in combat, the 761st's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Bates, received a commendation from Major General Willard Paul of the 26th Infantry Division, to which the battalion was attached. General Paul wrote: "Your battalion has supported this division with great bravery under the most adverse weather and terrain conditions. You have my sincere wish that success may continue to follow your endeavors."2 As the 761st continued to prove themselves in battle, they gained a reputation as an elite unit. In March 1945, Patton wrote in his diary: "The 761st Tank Battalion has done very well, and I am proud to have them in this Army."4 Coming from a man known for his prejudiced views, this was high praise indeed. By the end of the war, the 761st had fought in four major campaigns across six countries, inflicting over 130,000 casualties on the enemy.5 Through their skill and valor, they defied the low expectations placed on black soldiers and showed they were the equal of any tank unit in the U.S. Army. The 761st received a Presidential Unit Citation in 1978 with the following tribute: "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, the United States Army, and this nation."3 The exemplary combat record of the 761st Tank Battalion stood as a powerful repudiation of the racist stereotypes and segregationist policies of the era. Through their blood and sacrifice, the tankers of the 761st demonstrated that black soldiers, when given the opportunity, could fight as well as anyone and were a vital part of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.15
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Legacy of the 761st

The 761st Tank Battalion, the first African American armored unit to see combat in World War II, proved to be one of the most effective tank battalions in the U.S. Army, fighting with great distinction across Europe for 183 continuous days.1 Despite facing racial discrimination and segregation, the 761st demonstrated exceptional skill, courage and tenacity, spearheading numerous Allied offensives and helping to breach the vaunted Siegfried Line fortifications.1 The Black Panthers played a vital role in the liberation of France and the Allied drive into the heart of Germany.4 In the face of heavy casualties and fierce German resistance, they prevailed through grit and valor. Tankers like Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers embodied the unit's indomitable fighting spirit, overcoming severe wounds to lead his men until he was killed in action.1 By the end of the war, the 761st had fought in four major campaigns, inflicting over 130,000 casualties on the enemy.5 Through their exemplary combat record, the men of the 761st shattered racist stereotypes and earned widespread praise, even from General Patton, who had initially doubted their capabilities.2 In 1978, the battalion was awarded a much-belated Presidential Unit Citation.1 The 761st Tank Battalion stands as a shining example of patriotism, courage and sacrifice. The Black Panthers overcame prejudice and adversity to make an indelible contribution to the Allied victory in World War II. Their heroic actions and indomitable spirit continue to inspire and resonate to this day, a powerful testament to the bravery and resilience of the African American soldiers who helped defeat Nazi tyranny and defend the cause of freedom.15
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Decorated for Extraordinary Heroism

The 761st Tank Battalion received numerous commendations and awards for their exceptional combat performance in World War II. In 1978, over 30 years after the war's end, the battalion was finally awarded a much-deserved Presidential Unit Citation for their extraordinary heroism and gallantry in action.1 The citation praised the 761st for their "indomitable fighting spirit and devotion to duty" in the face of "the most adverse weather and terrain conditions."2 It recognized the Black Panthers' crucial role in four major Allied campaigns across six countries, acknowledging their "courageous and professional actions" that "reflect great credit on the 761st Tank Battalion, the United States Army, and this nation." In addition to the unit citation, individual members of the 761st earned an impressive array of awards for valor. Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration, for his extraordinary heroism and sacrifice in leading his men despite being severely wounded.1 Rivers was the only African American tanker to be nominated for the Medal of Honor during World War II.4 The men of the 761st also earned 11 Silver Stars, 69 Bronze Stars, and about 300 Purple Hearts.1 These numerous individual decorations are a testament to the Black Panthers' skill, courage, and selfless service in the face of determined enemy resistance and heavy casualties. Despite their exemplary combat record, many of these awards were delayed for years or decades due to racial discrimination.2 It was not until 1997 that Staff Sergeant Rivers was finally awarded the Medal of Honor, 52 years after his death in action.4 The 761st's belated recognition reflects the prejudice and adversity that African American soldiers faced, even as they fought and died for their country. The Presidential Unit Citation and the many individual awards earned by the soldiers of the 761st Tank Battalion are a powerful tribute to their bravery, sacrifice, and indomitable spirit. They stand as enduring proof of the Black Panthers' vital contribution to the Allied victory in World War II and their rightful place among the most distinguished and decorated units in U.S. military history.15
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