The First Black Tank Battalion Part 1
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
It’s amazing, we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.
- Doc Rivers
Though the 761st “Black Panthers” would become the U.S. Army’s best-known segregated African-American tank battalion, it was not the first. After studying a Black armored division, Gen. Lesley J. McNair, chief of the Army Ground Forces, decided that new segregated divisions couldn’t be properly staffed with Black officers and he substituted the 5th Armored Group of three segregated tank battalions.
Adna R. Chaffee, the chief of the new Armored Force, was an ardent segregationist who had already clashed with John Herr of the Cavalry Branch over the inclusion of black troops in 2nd Cavalry Division. He fought McNair also, arguing that since the Armored Force was not, legally speaking, a separate branch then the War Department’s orders to employ Blacks in proportion to their share of the population did not apply, even though Chaffee maintained that he answered only to Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall and none of the other branches. Chaffee noted that he was willing to accept Black janitors and cooks at Armored Force headquarters, and especially musicians, but he did not want any Blacks in his precious tanks. McNair prevailed in the bureaucratic fight, one of his few wins over Chaffee, and the Black battalions were approved.
The first of those would be the 78th Tank Battalion, soon re-named the 758th Tank Battalion (Light). Officially established in January 1941 at Fort Knox, Kentucky, it received its first Black recruits that spring, men fresh from basic training at Fort Custer, Michigan. The initial cadre of officers and NCO’s were all White, but some Black junior leaders would be transferred from the segregated 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments.
These were not the U.S. Army’s first Black tankers. Private Robert H. Brooks of the 192nd Tank Battalion apparently didn’t try to pass as White, but didn’t draw attention to his mixed-race birth, either. He was the first member of the Armored Force killed in World War II, on 8 December 1941 during the initial Japanese air raids on the Philippines. The Armored Force immediately re-named its Fort Knox parade ground Brooks Field in his honor, and some officers objected to the move when they discovered Brooks’ race. Chaffee’s replacement, Jacob Devers, made himself clear. “In death there is no grade or rank,” he wrote. “And in this, the greatest democracy the world has known, neither riches nor poverty, neither creed nor race draws a line of demarcation in this hour of national crisis.” (emphasis in the original) But Devers was in a distinct minority.
An M5 Stuart of the 758th Tank Battalion, mud-bound at Ft. Knox, Kentucky.
The 758th Battalion moved from Fort Knox to Camp Claiborne, Louisiana in September 1941 and received M5 Stuart light tanks. In January 1942 many of its solders were involved in a massive brawl in Alexandria, Louisiana between Black soldiers objecting to the police beating of one of their number and White military police, civilian city police, Louisiana State Police and mobs of armed White vigilantes. Tensions with the White civilian population continued, as armed White men in their racist hysteria “patrolled” outside Camp Claiborne’s boundaries. In June 1942 the battalion participated in large-scale maneuvers in Tennessee, and after a short period at Camp Hood, Texas they moved on to Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
By that point the battalion had been “cadred” twice, providing a core of trained officers and men to establish new Black tank battalions, the 761st and 784th. Fort Huachuca had housed “Buffalo Soldiers” of the segregated 10th Cavalry and 25th Infantry Regiments before the war, and now over 30,000 Black troops of the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions concentrated there. This was no coincidence; the post lay 42 miles from the thriving metropolis of Bisbee and 100 miles from Tucson. About 100 prostitutes worked in a ramshackle camp right outside the gates; hundreds more arrived by train each payday.
In the Arizona desert the 758th worked with the 92nd “Buffalo Soldiers” Infantry Division, training in infantry-armor cooperation. By most separate tank battalions had adopted an organization of three companies of M4 Sherman medium tanks and one of M5 Stuart light tanks, but the 758th remained a light tank battalion with just three companies, all of them operating Stuarts.
Another segregated unit, the 92nd Infantry Division had the added burden of the racist Edward Almond as its commander. “I being from Virginia,” Almond said at the time, “had an understanding of Southern customs and Negro capabilities.”
Almond’s scorn for black soldiers extended to the 758th, but when his division embarked for the Italian theater in September 1944, the 758th followed a month later to serve as his division’s attached separate tank battalion. At their port of embarkation, Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, the battalion engaged in frequent brawls with white soldiers of the 13th Airborne Division. The 758th had taken over the barracks occupied by the 92nd Infantry Division, whose troops had hidden away rifles and automatic weapons and ammunition for them. When the paratroopers broke into an armory, a small firefight broke out leaving one White soldier dead and one Black soldier wounded.
The battalion left Newport News in late October, arriving in Livorno a month later and then camping outside Pisa for another month while waiting for their tanks and other heavy equipment to catch up with them. They finally entered the front lines on 23 December, joining the 92nd Infantry Division in the Tuscan hills north of Pisa. Two of the light tank companies were attached to the 760th Medium Tank Battalion already operating with the division, the third to the divisional recon troop and the assault gun and mortar platoons to one of the infantry regiments.
Elements of the 92nd Infantry Division had been in action since late August, with the bulk of the division entering the lines in October. The Buffalo Soldiers had already earned a reputation for poor battlefield performance, as Almond passed the blame for his own rank incompetence onto his troops. Morale had dropped precipitously, leading to continued problems in combat and continuing the downward cycle of failure.
Three days after the 758th arrived at the front, the Axis launched their offensive known as Winter Storm. The offensive, carried out mostly by Italian Fascist troops of the die-hard Republic of Salo, targeted the Buffalo Soldiers - Axis recon had revealed that Almond had left gaps in his line and stationed his reserves, including his tank battalions, too far to the rear to intervene effectively. The first Black tank battalion would see only limited fighting in its first combat experience.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.
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