The Black Panther Battalion, Part 3
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I see them. We’ll fight them.
– SSgt. Ruben Rivers, 761st Tank Battalion
On the ground, the first two days of the 26th Infantry Division’s offensive against Metz frustrated both division and regimental staffs. They believed their attack had been blunted at the cost of heavy casualties, but higher headquarters saw an opportunity. The Yankee Division had pushed a wedge in between two German People’s Grenadier divisions, opening an opportunity to outflank the tough German positions on Hill 310/Cȏte St. Jean. But even with the commitment of 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command A on the 26th Infantry Division’s left flank, tough fighting remained.
The 761st Tank Battalion remained in the front lines with the infantry, but combat losses steadily eroded its strength. On the 10th, Able Company fought again for Hill 310, as the 101st Infantry continued its drive in the face of fierce resistance. The division shifted again, putting its emphasis (and the relatively undamaged Baker Company) behind the 328th Infantry Regiment, which had taken fewer losses than its sister regiments so far. With the 4th Armored Division pressing the Germans on their left, the 26th Infantry Division now made better progress, pushing past Hill 310 onto the ridge behind it and thereby forcing the Germans to give up their positions there, but not without a well-conducted fighting retreat.
The Sherman platoon shaved off Able Company to support 101st Infantry Regiment ran into heavy anti-tank fire in a zone the infantry scouts had reported included no heavy weapons. The platoon lost several tanks and its commander, Lt. Charles Barbour, suffered an emotional breakdown after seeing his lead tank explode. The platoon withdrew under fire along with its supporting infantry.
The two makeshift People’s Grenadier divisions had fought surprisingly well, but at the cost of most of their experienced cadre – they would never recover from their brief exposure to combat. The 26th Infantry Division had also taken nearly 500 casualties in just a few days’ fighting. On the 14th the 761st Tank Battalion was allowed two days for maintenance, repairs and receipt of replacement tanks (many of them repaired vehicles knocked out over the previous few days, including seven of the nine Charlie Company tanks lost in the fata anti-tank ditch), though no replacement crewmen could be provided. Company commanders shuffled their personnel to send their tanks into action with four or even three men rather than the standard five, but even so every company was short of tanks as well as men.
Hill 310, That Big Hill Up There.
The battalion’s new commander, Lt. Col. Hollis Hunt, met many of his officers for the first time, including Capt. D.J. Williams of Able Company. Hunt wished to court-martial Barbour, and Williams, a white officer and Yale graduate, had his own breakdown in front of the immaculately-uniformed colonel as he argued for his subordinate, pointing out that Wingo, a white officer, had gotten off scot-free for much worse.
“What the fuck can you do to me?” Williams screamed at his superior. “Send me to the rear? Go ahead!” Hunt instead transferred Barbour to Headquarters Company, and took no action against Williams.
Returning to combat on 16 November, the Black Panthers had to drive past the hulks of burned-out Shermans from 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command B, lost in heavy fighting with the 11th Panzer Division. The lead tank of Able Company, commanded by Sgt. Ruben Rivers, ran over a double teller mine (two mines buried together) that blew off out of its tracks and smashed its undercarriage, sending the 33-ton tank skittering across the road like a child’s toy and ruining his right leg. Despite a massive gash over his knee that left visible bone, Rivers hobbled over to the next tank, commanded by Sgt. Henry Conway, ordered Conway out of the tank and took over. Conway took his submachine gun with him, and with the crew of Rivers’ old tank joined a squad of the 104th Infantry Regiment marching alongside the road.
For the next two days, engineers built a bridge over the Ruisseau de Bourgaltrouff, a stream barring the path of advance, and on the 19th the 26th Infantry Division kicked off its renewed assault against the 11th Panzer Division over the same ground where the crack 4th Armored Division had been turned back. For the first time, they faced enemy tanks; American doctrine held that tanks should attack enemy infantry, and tank destroyers should deal with enemy tanks. The Germans did not understand this, and sent their own tanks against the Black Panthers. While American reports usually called all German tanks “Tigers” or sometimes “Panthers,” the 761st Tank Battalion’s after-action report referred to them as “Mark IVs” but photographs of the battlefield show knocked-out Panther tanks (which may have been left from the clash with 4th Armored Division, but it seems likely the Black Panthers fought German Panthers here rather than the smaller Mark IV).
Ruben Rivers still commanded Able Company’s lead tank; company commander Capt. D.J. Williams could not convince him to cash in his million-dollar wound, even after a medic confirmed on the 18th that it had developed gangrene. Rivers defied repeated direct orders to leave his post, and Williams allowed him to remain – it’s unclear how much of Williams’ story is crafted to cover for either his keeping a badly-wounded man in the front lines or his inability to command obedience from his topkick.
Most of Able Company drove straight at Bourgaltrouff, with 2nd Lt. Robert C. Hammond’s platoon providing overwatch protection. When German Panther tanks took the main column under fire, Rivers refused orders to withdraw. “I see them,” Rivers told Williams. “We’ll fight them.” The Panthers turned on Hammonds’ platoon, carving it up quickly as the Americans tried to back away. Rivers stood his ground. “Pull up, driver,” came his last words over the still-open radio link – having seized the tank from another commander, Rivers may not have been sure of his driver’s name. “Pull back, driver. Oh, Lord.”
Trezzvant Anderson of the Baltimore American wrote a lurid account that had Hammond cut down while firing the .50 caliber machine gun mounted atop his tank’s turret, to cover the retreat of the disabled tanks’ crewmen. He described Rivers improbably being hit in the head not once but twice by German tank shells. It appears that Hammond was actually killed by an extremely unlucky shot: a German 75mm armor-piercing shell struck his tank’s gunsight as he was looking through it. Williams recommended Rivers for the Medal of Honor, but Hunt, the battalion commander, did not wish to ask for anything more than the Silver Star. Rivers’ race (he was of mixed race, with both Cherokee and Black heritage) and the 761st’s status as an attached rather than integral unit (it left the 26th Infantry Division in mid-December) led to the paperwork never moving on. Anderson’s purple prose surely did not help Rivers’ case, either. Ruben Rivers would finally be awarded the Medal of Honor for this action in 1997.
Meanwhile, the rest of the battalion had gathered to support the 26th Infantry Division’s attack on Dieuze, a vital crossroads town whose defenders had defied 4th Armored Division for several days. German defenses here included artillery batteries from not only the 361st People’s Grenadier Division, but the German First Army as well. That heavy concentration had turned back a combat command of 4th Armored Division, and now it did the same to the Black Panthers. The assault failed, though not before the Black Panthers had knocked out several anti-tank guns, helping the 4th Armored Division finally take Dieuze when it resumed the attack two days later.
Panther tanks knocked out by 761st and 4th Armored Shermans outside Guebling.
By that point, the German First Army had decided to pull back and Dieuze was held by a rear-guard. For close to a week the 26th Infantry Division pursued the Germans, encountering only roadblocks and rear-guards, and at time losing contact with the enemy entirely. The 761st Tank battalion again underwent a maintenance period, taking apart and cleaning all of the tanks’ engines and receiving replacements for damaged or destroyed vehicles, many of them repaired tanks that had been knocked out in earlier engagements. Most of the new tanks received carried the 76mm gun rather than the 75mm which armed the Shermans initially issued to the Black Panthers. The tank parks of all three medium companies now held a mix of 75mm- and 76mm-armed Shermans, which was true of all the “bastard battalions” after only a short period at the front.
The infantry continued its advance while the mechanics worked on the tanks, and on the 25th a company from the 101st Infantry tried to overrun a German self-propelled artillery battery in a bayonet charge, only to be balked by a German infantry company’s bayonet counter-charge.
Tank commander Warren Crecy, “the baddest man in the 761st,” took the lack of direct contact as an opportunity to wage his own personal war with the Germans. Armed with a battlefield pickup M1 Garand, Crecy would set out after dark to “reconnoiter” on his own; he never spoke of these excursions but his crew assumed he sought out and killed sleeping Germans. As noted by Paul Bates, the battalion’s commander until its first day of combat, many of the Black Panthers took German racial ideology in very personal terms and displayed a reckless enthusiasm for killing Germans. Crecy took Patton’s exhortation to kill Germans as his life’s work, and was thought directly responsible for the deaths of several hundred enemy soldiers.
“Here was a youth,” Trezzvant Anderson wrote, “who went so primitively savage on the battlefield that his only thought was to ‘kill, kill and kill,” and he poured his rain of death pellets into German bodies with so much abandon and joy that he was the nemesis of all the foes of the 761st.”
Combat returned on the 26th, when Charlie Company and the assault gun platoon helped the 328th Infantry assault Honskirch, a well-fortified village. Thick mud forced the tanks to remain on the road approaching the village, where German anti-tank guns shot them to pieces. Two assaults failed before the attack was called off, with both infantry and takers suffering heavy casualties.
One of those was gunner E.G. McConnell, hit in the head by shrapnel. Evacuated to the 100th General Hospital, he lay in a bed alongside a white soldier named Holt from the 328th Infantry – with so few Black troops at the front, medical facilities were not segregated - when a general McConnell did not know toured the room, gently greeting and encouraging each man until he reached the ward’s only Black patient.
“What’s wrong with you, boy?” the general shouted at McConnell. “Got the clap?”
“If he got it,” Holt answered, “he got it from your mother. Send me back to the front, you asshole!”
“He was in a cast from both legs up his entire body,” McConnell explained after the war. “He was in an awful lot of pain and just didn’t give a damn.”
You can order Black Panthers right here.
Sign up for our newsletter right here. Your info will never be sold or transferred; we'll just use it to update you on new games and new offers.
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.
Want to keep Daily Content free of third-party ads? You can send us some love (and cash) through this link right here.