BROTHERS IN ARMS
The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion,
WWII's Forgotten Heroes
By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton
Broadway. 302 pp. $24.95
For African Americans, World War II was a fight on two fronts. It was a struggle to prevail over the nation's external enemies and a battle against a familiar home-grown foe: bigotry. This "Double V" campaign, so named by the black press, urged victory on both fronts. Few experienced the two conflicts more intensely than the members of the first black tank unit to see combat.
In Brothers in Arms, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton rescue the remarkable story of the 761st from undeserved obscurity. Abdul-Jabbar, a former NBA superstar, has written several popular books, including Giant Steps and Black Profiles in Courage. Here he offers a carefully researched and engrossing account that paints the individual dramas of the tank men against the backdrop of the war. The narrative follows three young men who become friends while serving in the 761st Tank Battalion. One, Leonard Smith, was a friend of Abdul-Jabbar's father when the author was growing up in New York. Drawing on interviews with Smith and other unit members, Abdul-Jabbar gives the story a sense of immediacy.
An all-black unit (except for white officers), the 761st experienced 183 harrowing days of continuous front-line duty in Europe, most of it with Gen. George Patton's Third Army. The "Black Panthers," as the tankers dubbed their unit, fought their way through 2,000 miles of fierce action in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, Germany and Austria, and the worst winter in more than three decades. They were in the thick of combat in the Battle of the Bulge and the campaigns that finally crushed the German resistance. Despite heavy casualties, the 761st never faltered, liberating 30 towns and villages and breaking down the gates of a Nazi concentration camp. The battalion became one of the most highly decorated units of the war.
More than one million African Americans served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II; most were excluded from combat and restricted to segregated service units. The 761st was created by the War Department on April 1, 1942, as a "showcase" unit, the authors write, to boost Democratic Party support in the black community. No doubt the opportunism of national Democrats seeking to "placate black voters and the Negro Press" was a factor in the establishment of the 761st. But the importance of African-American initiatives should not be overlooked. Without labor leader A. Philip Randolph's call for a March on Washington in 1941 to protest racial discrimination in the military and in defense plants, Executive Order 8802, which ended defense industry discrimination, might not have been issued. The subsequent "Double V" campaign also built pressure for change.
Among those who served in the 761st was a young lieutenant named John Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson, later the first black baseball player to integrate the major leagues. Robinson's brief stint with the unit was not happy. Though segregation on buses on Army bases had been recently prohibited, at Camp Hood, Tex., a white bus driver insisted that Robinson move to the back of the bus. He refused. Arrested and court-martialed for "disrespectful" conduct and disobeying orders, he was acquitted, but the incident prevented him from going overseas with the 761st.
The 761st may never have seen combat had it not been for the Army's urgent manpower needs in Europe as the fighting intensified. Like many other white officers, Gen. Patton doubted the combat ability of black troops, but he had a war to win, and he needed all the soldiers he could get. Patton greeted the arrival of the 761st in France with characteristic bluntness: "I don't care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those kraut sonsabitches. 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!" Many white GIs and officers were openly hostile. For the black tank crews, each new assignment to support white infantry units meant being subjected to more racial taunts and threats. Refusing to be baited, they proved their mettle in some of the fiercest fighting in the war and gained the grudging respect of white troops and officers -- at least until the next assignment.
Respect and recognition came at a high price, and sometimes were greatly belated. Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers, for example, was seriously wounded in the leg when his tank hit a mine in combat near Guebling, France. Refusing to be evacuated, he took charge of another tank and continued fighting for two more days. Sighting several concealed German tanks and tank destroyers, Rivers advanced toward the Germans and opened fire. "I see them. We'll fight them," he radioed his commander. While he was providing covering fire for retreating infantry and other tanks in the field, Rivers's tank was hit, and he was killed. He was recommended for a posthumous Medal of Honor by his commander, but the paperwork was mysteriously "lost" and he was not awarded the medal until 1997. He and six other black World War II soldiers, all but one deceased, were given the medal after an investigation revealed a pattern of missing paperwork encouraged by a hostile racial climate in the Army that precluded awarding of the medal to any African American during the war.
After the war, Leonard Smith and his two friends returned to the States and a problematic search for jobs. Smith eventually became a transit policeman in New York, where he met Abdul-Jabbar's father. Brothers in Arms is a fine tribute to these unsung heroes and a valuable addition to the literature on African-American service in World War II. *
Robert L. Allen, whose books include "The Port Chicago Mutiny" and "Honoring Sergeant Carter," is an editor of The Black Scholar and professor of African American Studies at the University of Caifornia at Berkeley.