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When the Black Panthers Prowled

Army Magazine, January 1992

By Lt. Col. Philip W. Latimer U.S. Army Reserve retired

 

He stood in the back of a half-track as he spoke to us. He was an imposing figure, and his voice rang out loud and clear: Men, you're the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army. I would never have asked for you if you weren't good. I have nothing but the best in my army. I don't care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those kraut SOBs. Everyone has his eyes on you and is expecting great things from you. Most of all, your race is looking forward to you. Don't let them down and, damn you, don't let me down. The speaker, of course, was Gen. George S. Patton Jr., who commanded the Third Army in France. His audience was the 761st "Black Panther" Tank Battalion, and we had just arrived in the combat zone. I seem to remember that his speech was a lot saltier than it has been officially recorded. The trail to Nancy, France, had been a long and tedious one for the men of the 761st. It had taken a lot of work by Eleanor Roosevelt and prominent black leaders before any blacks were even considered for tank battalions in the completely segregated U.S. Army. Eventually, three battalions were formed: The 761st had trained at Camp Claiborne, La., and Camp Hood, Tex., before going to England and then to France. I was a white high school teacher of mathematics from rural east Texas when I was drafted into the Army in June 1941. I served as a private in the 3rd Armored Division and a sergeant in the 7th Armored Division before enrolling in Armor Officer Candidate School and becoming a second lieutenant in October 1942. 1 became a mortar platoon leader in the 12th Armored Division. In January 1943, all second lieutenants in the 12th were asked if they would be willing to serve with black tankers. I had grown up in an area where there had been many blacks and with parents who were not prejudiced. I was also a very patriotic person, and so I said yes because I felt that perhaps I was extremely well qualified to do this. It was July 1943 before I was finally transferred to the 761st, and by then I was a first lieutenant. It was not long before the 761st was transferred to Camp Hood, Tex., which was the home of the Tank Destroyer Center. We had been designated as the "enemy" for the center. Lt. Col. Paul L. Bates, our commanding officer, took great delight in showing tank destroyers that the Black Panthers were indeed a formidable opponent. Time after time, the tank destroyers were outmaneuvered and easily defeated. By this time, I was a captain and the battalion supply officer. I began to realize what a big job it was to supply ammunition, gasoline and rations to a battalion of more than 700 men with 54 medium tanks and 17 light tanks. My job was made much easier because my warrant officer and my enlisted men were as fine a group as any that ever put on an Army uniform. WO Mark Henderson, Sgt. Herman Waterford, Sgt. James Williams, Cpl. Milton Dorsey and Cpl. Billy Thompson were very loyal to me, and they also had a burning desire to see the battalion succeed. I also received outstanding support from the transportation platoon of Service Company, which was commanded by Lt. Horace Jones, whose battlefield commission had come about as a result of his outstanding performance. One of the sad parts of our training experience was the treatment received by our black tankers when they left the post area. These men were in the uniform of their country and were later to fight and some to die for their country. Even so, they were constantly mistreated and verbally abused by some elements of the civilian population. It is remarkable that they could continue to train diligently. The thing that kept them going was their determination to show the world that they could fight in tanks and win. The 761st received its baptism of fire shortly after the welcoming address by Gen. Patton. As green troops, we made a lot of mistakes in our early battles in Lorraine, but we learned from our mistakes and soon became seasoned veteran troops. The Germans gave ground slowly as they were gradually being driven out of Lorraine, and many deeds of heroism were recorded in the annals of the 761st. Outstanding in the early days were the stories of Sgt. Ruben Rivers and 1st Sgt. Samuel Turley. Sgt. Rivers left his tank under heavy enemy fire and was able to remove a roadblock, which was holding up our advance. He then led in the capture of the German position, which was defending the roadblock. When a platoon of our tanks was trapped by an antitank ditch, Sgt. Turley covered the escape of his men by firing a .30-caliber machine gun from his hip. His men escaped, but he paid with his life. Later, it was to be Sgt. Warren Crecy who became noted for his fearless fighting. He received a battlefield commission and lived to be a hero of the Korean War. It was at Honskirch that Capt. Charles A. Gates had a third tank shot out from under him when he had told the infantry commander that he was doing everything wrong insofar as the tanks were concerned. His Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart attest to his heroism and courage. The 761st became a part of the Third Army that rushed to Belgium in the Battle of the Bulge. At the little village of Tillet, we became involved in a tank battle that lasted for several days before the 12th SS Panzer Division retreated. Road conditions were so bad that our light tanks had to be used to bring up supplies. We were particularly impressed by the performance of the 17th Airborne Division to whom we were attached. In 1981, Gen. William M. Miley, commanding general of the 17th, wrote: My most vivid recollection of the 761st Tank Battalion was an action in support of the 194th Glider Infantry Regiment. The regiment had been stopped in its attack on a well-fortified hill. When they regrouped to renew the attack, the attack was led by one of the companies of the 761st. They led the way up the hill with so much accurate fire that the hill was seized without the loss of a single airborne soldier. He also wrote: "During the Ardennes operation we had very little armored unit support, but of that we did have the 761st Tank Battalion was by far the most effective and helpful." In March 1945, the 761st led a successful task force, which cracked the Siegfried Line at Klingenmunster and forced the Germans to withdraw across the upper Rhine. The entire 14th Armored Division was then passed through to exploit a breakthrough that had been accomplished by this one tank battalion and a battalion of infantry from the 103rd Infantry Division. It was as an aftermath of this battle that my driver, Cpl. Dorsey, and I claimed the capture of a village in the Rhine plain. After Klingenmunster was secured, Col. Bates told me to go ahead to this village and choose a spot for our temporary headquarters. As we came into town, there was not a soul to be seen; however, we had not gone far before a German soldier stepped out and waved a white flag. It turned out that he was recovering from a wound and was incapable of putting up any fight. We realized that we were the first Americans to arrive here, and we looked apprehensively at a bunker at the far end of one street. It contained a large caliber weapon, which pointed menacingly in our direction. It took all our courage to advance even though we were fairly certain that the bunker was empty. We both breathed sighs of relief when we found this to be the case. The 761st never had any more battles as hectic as these in all of our march through the heartland of Germany and into Austria. V-E Day found us at the Enns River in Steyr, Austria, and it was here that we met the Russians. It turned out that we were the easternmost unit of all the Western Allied forces in Europe. The 761st Tank Battalion was recommended for a Presidential Unit Citation shortly after the end of the war. It was 33 years later before President Jimmy Carter made our dream a reality. The closing two sentences of this document say a great deal: The men of the 761st Tank Battalion, while serving as a separate battalion with the 26th, 71st, 79th, 87th, 95th, and 103rd Infantry Divisions, the 17th Airborne Division and Third, Seventh and Ninth Armies in 183 continuous days in battle, fought major engagements in six European countries, participated in four major Allied campaigns, and on 6 May 1945, as the easternmost American soldiers in Austria, ended their combat missions by joining with the First Ukranian (Front) (Russian) at the Enns River, Steyr, Austria. Throughout this period of combat, the courageous and professional actions of the members of the "Black Panther" battalion, coupled with their indomitable fighting spirit and devotion to duty, reflect great credit on the 761st Tank Battalion, the United States Army, and this Nation. In 1982, a group of 761st members returned to the battlefields of Lorraine and the Ardennes. Those of us who made the trip will never forget the reception we received. In the small villages that we had liberated, they did not even know that we were coming, but the news spread like wildfire. Unscheduled, enthusiastic celebrations followed one after another. We could not recognize landmarks since the destroyed villages had been rebuilt, but they certainly recognized us. It was a heartwarming experience and an emotional high that one seldom has the opportunity to experience. The 761st continues to have a reunion every year, and each reunion seems to be better than the one before. Our friendships have passed the test of time, and I thank God that I have the privilege of being one of those amazing Black Panthers.

Lt.Col. Latimer

Lt. Col. Philip W. Latimer, USAR retired, served during World War II as a Captain and Battalion Supply Officer with the 761st Tank Battalion. Photo, left, taken June 30, 1995, at the dedication of Rivers Processing Center, Fort Hood, Texas.