The Black Panther Battalion, Part 4
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
By early December, the 761st Tank Battalion and the 26th Infantry Division approached the ruins of the Maginot Line and behind it, the pre-war German border. Advancing slowly from Honskirch, the 328th Infantry took the town of Sarre-Union on 2 December. Late them next morning, tanks and panzer grenadiers from 11th Panzer Division took back part of the town, and Baker Company was ordered to support a counter-attack by the infantry.
Still enraged by the events at Honskirch, a number of tank crewmen expressed reluctance to follow any orders from the incompetent Jacobs. Lt. Johnny Long, the company commander, took over a tank and headed off for Sarre-Union alone, his borrowed crew blazing away with cannon and machine guns as he pushed the Sherman to its top speed. The rest of his embarrassed company soon followed, breaking a path through the wire and knocking out German machine-gun positions to allow the infantry entry into the town. After two hours of house-to-house fighting with tank support, the 328th Infantry had ejected the panzer grenadiers.
From there, the 26th Infantry Division pressed forward into the former positions of the Maginot Line. While still formidable, most of them faced in the opposite direction and the Americans were able to force their way through with the aid of considerable air and artillery support. By 9 December the division had made its way through and now faced the even more formidable concrete and steel of the German Siegfried Line, but two days later word came that the 26th Infantry Division would be relieved and a fresh outfit would take its place.
Salvaging a 761st Tank Battalion Sherman knocked out near Tillet. January 1945.
The tankers expected to receive a rest as well, but those hopes – which seem to have reflected more rumor than reality – would be quickly dashed. The green 87th “Golden Acorn” Infantry Division took over for the Yankee Division, and the Black Panthers remained at the front as their attached armor support. Where the 26th Infantry Division had largely welcomed their attached armor, the 761st crews immediately heard grumbling about “n****r tankers” from their new comrades.
While White soldiers could eventually expect to visit one of the Red Cross mobile showers and receive fresh uniforms and blessed socks and underwear, these were segregated facilities, with Black soldiers not welcome. And so the 761st Tank Battalion’s crews washed their underwear in gasoline while their uniforms rotted on their backs.
Despite the repeated indignities, the Black Panthers continued to fight. Sgt. James Nelson of Able Company took his tank across the German border on 14 December, but two days later the Germans opened their offensive in the Ardennes region, well to the north of 87th Infantry Division’s sector. At Third Army headquarters, Patton immediately shifted his staff from planning an invasion of Germany to switching north to shore up the American flank and counter-attack the Germans.
Three divisions initially left the Third Army front to relieve pressure in the Ardennes – the 4th Armored Division and 26th and 80th Infantry Divisions. The 87th Infantry Division remained in place, its offensive cancelled as the division spread out to cover the front formerly held by 4th Armored Division as well as its own. Relief came on 23 December, when Seventh Army’s 44th Infantry Division, marching hard from the Vosges in Alsace, took over their positions.
The Golden Acorn Division turned sharply left and headed northward along icy roads. The 761st Tank Battalion sent a handful of tanks ahead by rail, but most of them had to navigate the treacherous road network. They arrived in the Ardennes on 30 December, to find that Patton had sent the 87th Infantry Division and neighboring 11th Armored Division directly into action just west of Bastogne, without waiting for all of their elements to arrive. Both green divisions had suffered terribly; neither outfit had even issued snowsuits or whitewashed their tanks.
On the next day, Charlie Company joined the 345th Infantry Regiment for an attack on the village of Remagne, held by the German 15th Panzer Grenadier Division. The Americans took Remagne after heavy fighting, with the infantry suffering terrible losses. After two days of fighting, the 345th Infantry had been wrecked as a combat formation and the 347th Infantry came forward to replace it, bringing with them Baker and Dog Companies from the 761st Tank Battalion. The 347th Infantry opened a two-pronged attack on New Year’s Day to seize the highways west of Bastogne, an area held by the well-prepared Panzer Lehr Division. Two battalions went forward, each led by a company of Shermans.
Sherman driver Claude Mann of Chicago.
The Germans offered only light resistance through the day, depending on their artillery and the deep snow to slow the American advance. When dusk fell, and the fighter-bombers returned to their bases, the Panzer Lehr struck back with armor-supported attacks against both prongs of the American attack. That halted the American advance, as the Germans used the piles of logs at the sawmill in Pionpré as a makeshift fortress, where six tanks and 30 infantrymen held up an American infantry battalion backed by a tank company.
Through the days that followed, the 87th Infantry Division and 761st Tank Battalion ground steadily forward through dense wooded terrain, with rocks cropping up wherever thick secondary growth didn’t cover the ground. Here the Germans offered steady resistance, formations with imposing names like the “Supreme Leader’s Escort Brigade” but greatly depleted rosters. On the right flank of the 87th Infantry Division, the equally-green 11th Armored Division had been so badly mauled that it was withdrawn from the front after just four days of combat, to be replaced by another raw, new formation, the 17th Airborne Division.
The troops suffered in bitter cold; the steel hulls of the tanks only amplified the freezing temperatures, and icy roads made it difficult to bring food, fuel and ammunition to the front lines – the 761st’s supply officers resorted to using the M5 light tanks of Dog Company to make the runs where trucks could not go. At night the Sherman crews could at least build small fires under their tanks, with the Sherman hull blocking any view of the flames, but a staff officer from the 87th Infantry Division’s headquarters told them to stop, since the woods were royal property.
“I’m going to speak for my whole company,” Capt. David Williams of Able Company told him. “Fuck the king of Belgium.”
The American tanks and infantry fought fiercely with Hitler’s personal guard for possession of Tillet, a village astride one of the few hard-surfaced roads in the Ardennes. The Escort Brigade’s commander, the fanatic Nazi Col. Otto Remer, called the Black tankers excellent fighters but complained that they “frequently came behind our lines where they stabbed many of our guards with their knives” – likely a reference to Sgt. Warren Crecy’s nighttime adventures in killing Germans.
The Americans finally wrested it from the enemy’s hands on 7 January after a tough house-to-house fight. On the 9th the Supreme Leader’s escort service began a fighting withdrawal from its positions around Bastogne.
During the street fighting, a German grenadier holding a panzerfaust leapt out of a building to fire the anti-tank rocket at point-blank range into the side of Charlie Company’s lead Sherman. He then unslung a machine pistol and sprayed the wounded American infantrymen who’d tumbled off the tank after the explosion. His magazine empty, he dropped the weapon, turned to the second tank in the column and shouted “Kameraden!”
“Kameraden, my ass!” the tank commander, Sgt. Warren Crecy, shouted back. Crecy turned his tank’s .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun on the German soldier, whose body simply disintegrated under the stream of heavy-caliber bullets. “Screw that bastard. He had it coming.”
Salvaging another lost Sherman.
After a maintenance period, with some replacement tanks received but once again no showers or fresh clothing, the 761st Tank Battalion was attached to the 17th Airborne Division while the battered 87th Infantry Division took over a quiet sector of the front in Luxembourg formerly held by 4th Infantry Division. The paratroopers, new to combat, had a completely different attitude toward the Black battalion than the Golden Acorns, and division commander William M. Miley won over the tankers’ loyalty when he and two of his regimental commanders interrupted a conference to take up wrenches and help Sgt. Jack Gilbert repair his M5 light tank. Miley, in turn, appreciated the Black Panthers’ uncanny ability to shoot accurately on the move, an artifact of their extended training period,
Very quickly, the new airborne division became more proficient in combat, and with their attached tank support drove north and east. Patton’s offensive plan drove the Germans out of the Ardennes, but failed to trap them there – while the Germans lost most of their vehicles and a large amount of their artillery, many of their personnel would fight again.
On 26 January, the 761st Tank Battalion switched back from the 17th Airborne Division to the 87th Infantry Division, which had returned to the active front. Two days later, the Germans had been pushed back across their 16 December starting line, the beginning of their Ardennes offensive, and the Battle of the Bulge came to its official end. On 3 February the battalion detached from the Golden Acorn Division and headed northward to the town of Jabeek in the Netherlands, just over the Belgian border. Officially attached to the 95th Infantry Division, part of the U.S. Ninth Army rather than Patton’s command, they would receive replacements, new tanks – by this point, only 20 vehicles remained operable – and finally, showers and new clothes. Soon there would also come a new combat assignment.
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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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