The Black Panther Battalion, Part 2
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
None of our men went psycho that I know of. The only one that went psycho was a white officer, my executive officer.
– Lt. Col. Paul Bates, 761st Tank Battalion
On 8 November 1944, the 761st Tank Battalion was thrown directly into heavy combat as the 26th Infantry Division jumped off as part of a large-scale offensive aimed at taking the fortress city of Metz. Things started off badly as Lt. Col. Paul Bates, the battalion commander, was seriously wounded in an apparent ambush. His second-in-command, Maj. Charles Wingo, reacted to the pressure by leaping out of his tank and into a jeep. Screaming into his radio for the battalion to maintain radio silence, Wingo raced for the rear while a Black radio operator – who apparently was never identified – replied “Yo Mama.” Wingo was hospitalized for “combat fatigue,” and relieved of his post.
“Combat fatigue?” asked 1st Lt. Johnny Long, a Black platoon commander in Baker Company. “Hell, that cracker hadn’t even seen combat.”
While Bates was popular with his troops, who jokingly called him “The Great White Father,” the men hated the outspokenly racist Wingo and did not seem to mind his sudden departure. The sudden loss of the battalion’s two senior officers had less effect than it would have on another type of battalion, since the four tank companies and the assault gun and mortar platoons had already been doled out to the 26th Infantry Division’s subordinate units and were under control of their own commanders during the battle.
SSgt. Harvey Woodard, his crew and their M4A3 Sherman, 4 November 1944. Four days later all of these men died of apparent carbon monoxide poisoning.
The 26th Infantry Division attacked with all three of its infantry regiments in the line. Each regiment had the assistance of one medium tank company from the 761st, plus M18 “Hellcat” tank destroyers from the division’s attached 602nd Tank Destroyer Battalion acting in the direct-support role. The 761st’s assault gun and mortar platoons remained with the division reserve. The attack struck at the boundary between the German 361st and 559th People’s Grenadier Divisions, neither of them very good units but they were now fighting on what many Germans saw as home territory, though the French disagreed on this point.
The division placed its main effort on the left, where Able Company (less one platoon) and the 101st Infantry Regiment made good progress against the panzer grenadiers, many of them replacements recently added to the veteran division. Sgt. Ruben Rivers, commanding the lead tank, leapt out of the Sherman to attach a cable to a German roadblock, a tangle of felled trees festooned with mines, all while under small-arms and mortar fire. His tank dragged the obstacle away and the tanks moved on. By day’s end they had cleared the road to Vic-sur-Seille, their immediate objective, at the cost of three tanks lost to mines.
Assistant driver Nathaniel Simmons also perished in Woodard's doomed Sherman.
The Black Panthers’ first taste of actual combat, of having to take the lives of other human beings, didn’t always come easily. Ordered to fire on a haystack in which at least one German sniper had hidden himself, tank driver Cpl. Coleman Simmons balked. Holmes replied by placing the muzzle of his .45 Colt pistol against Simmons’ temple.
“I’ll blow your goddamned brains out,” Holmes told his driver. “When I tell you to kill somebody, you kill him. Turn this goddamned tank around and keep the main gun on that haystack.”
Simmons drove the tank right at the haystack as ordered. Holmes took over the machine gun himself, firing on the haystack until two shaken Germans emerged and surrendered.
“What do we do with this prisoner, Sergeant Holmes?” Simmons asked.
“We’ll kill the son of a bitch, that’s what we’re gonna do,” Holmes recalled telling Simmons, in a 2006 interview. “We’re going to blow his fucking brains out, that’s all.”
“Don’t do that, Sergeant Holmes. That’s murder.
“You gotta be kidding,” Holmes told Simmons.
In the center, the 104th Infantry Regiment had the aid of Baker Company and that one platoon of Able Company as well as the tank destroyers. This group would seize crossings over the Seille River and then Hill 310 on the opposite side, described by 26th Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Willard Paul as “That big hill up there” and known to the locals as the Cȏte St. Jean. The regiment quickly seized the bridges, taking the Germans by surprise, but it was a different story on the hillside.
SSgt. Harvey Woodward, killed in action, 8 November 1944.
There, the Americans met a storm of automatic weapons and mortar fire. The tanks had never operated with their accompanying infantry, and all coordination broke down. In the aftermath, the infantry’s officers would accuse the tankers of not responding to their requests for support, while the tankers claimed they had received none. Whatever the cause of their lack of direction, the tankers shot off most of their ammunition at random targets, usually Germans but not always the most important or useful positions. The attack failed and the Americans fell back with heavy casualties.
On the right, the 328th Infantry Regiment had the assistance of the 761st Tank Battalion’s Charlie Company. The regiment’s attack would be a diversion, with limited objectives, but the People’s Grenadiers manning the German line here put up an unexpectedly tough fight. Charlie Company lost three of the 12 tanks deployed, including Staff Sergeant Harvey Woodard’s entire Sherman crew. All five men died at their posts, their bodies unmarked, the apparent victims of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The fighting resumed the next day, as snow and freezing rain began to fall. The 104th and 101st Infantry Regiments renewed the assault on the towns at the foot of Hill 310, now assisted by the 761st Tank Battalion’s Dog Company (with M5 Stuart light tanks) as well as the remaining Shermans of all three medium tank companies.
Supporting the 104th Infantry at Morville-les-Vic on the north-west edge of the division sector, Charlie Company ran into a hidden anti-tank ditch where seven of its nine remaining Shermans became mired within 50 yards of German pillboxes. One by one, German anti-tank guns and panzerfausts knocked them out. Platoon commander, 2nd Lt. Kenneth Coleman, picked up his submachine gun while Platoon Sergeant Samuel Turley removed the bow machinegun from his disabled tank. They fought back-to-back to cover the escape of their crews. Even so, 14 of the tankers died in the ditch and the muddy field behind it as the battalion’s assault gun and mortar platoons rushed to their aid.
Turley (right) apparently became utterly berserk after Coleman was killed. War correspondent Trezzvant Anderson of the Baltimore American, a wide-circulation Black newspaper, had been in one of the disabled tanks and saw what happened next:
“Standing behind the ditch, straight up, with a machine gun, and with an ammo belt around his neck, Turley was spraying the enemy . . . he stood there covering for his men, and then he fell, cut through the middle by German machine gun bullets that ripped through his body, as he stood there, firing the MG to the last. Not with a tripod, not mounted, but in his hands. . . . an 88 HE shell hit the spot where Turley was, and the last we saw was pieces of the machine gun and Turley flying in every direction.”
Most of Turley’s men escaped, and the sergeant was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. Bates recommended him for the Medal of Honor, which was denied. A review of the case in the 1990’s found insufficient documentation; as the Army put it, Anderson’s stories did not always match operational reports (a kind way of saying that Anderson sometimes made stuff up), and other contemporary accounts had been lost and witnesses had died over the intervening 50 years.
The battalion received a new commander on the 9th, Lt. Col. Hollis Hunt, who’d been on the XII Corps staff as an armor specialist. He immediately fired Capt. J.R. Lawson for his poor performance leading Baker Company, and replaced the white officer with Johnny Long, a Black man. While a number of white officers faltered in the battalion’s first combat experience, Bates would note later that his Black troops held a deep hatred for the Germans. German prisoners of war had received all the privileges of white Americans in segregated Louisiana to the point that Black American soldiers had even had to step off the sidewalk for them. Unable to strike back against white Americans, they now could unleash their rage against white Germans. The problems in the battalion’s first experience of combat almost uniformly stemmed from an over-eagerness to close with and kill Germans. A knocked-out tank became an inconvenience; the crew grabbed their personal weapons and continued to attack on foot.
While Bates blamed segregation, that attitude was not confined to Black soldiers. E.G. McConnell, the under-aged gunner who’d received Patton’s hysterical instructions to kill anything that moved and many things that did not, attempted to offer first aid to a badly wounded German. When he and Anderson retreated to his tank to escape a mortar barrage, an American halftrack from another unit swerved off the road to squash helpless man. “His body,” Anderson wrote, “burst like a melon.”
After two days of bitter fighting, the 26th Infantry Division had made little progress. The weather prevented air support and even kept artillery spotter planes grounded, and both infantry and tankers had already suffered serious casualties. On the American side, XII Corps committed the crack 4th Armored Division, commanded by “Tiger Jack” Wood. On the German side, the veteran 11th Panzer Division was released from reserve to shore up the German position. Things were about to get even more intense.
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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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