COLOR BARRIER BROKEN
African-American tank battalions proved themselves in WWII
Background information and quotes from E.G. McConnell were taken from Joe W. Wilson Jr.’s The 761st “Black Panther” Tank Battalion in World War II.
By JOHN NEVILLE/Turret Staff Writer
Sixteen-year-old E. G. McConnell took a train from New York to Fort Knox in 1941. Several of the rail cars were full of troops. Blacks rode in the front, whites in the back. The seating arrangement was by design as the soot and ashes from the engines favored the front.
McConnell was one of many young African American men who, after completing basic training, were eventually attached to the 761st Tank Battalion (light). The 761st was activated in April of 1942.
McConnell remembers when the train made its way through the hills of Kentucky.
“…They came through our cars and ordered us to pull our shades down,” McConnell said. “I couldn’t understand this. My curiosity got the best of me, so I went between the cars to see exactly what was happening, why we had to pull our shades down.
“I saw a bunch of hillbillies out there, this was real hillbilly, redneck country. And they were waiting alongside the tracks with rifles. I later found out that several troop trains were fired on. So they were ordering us to pull the shades down for our own safety. Yeah, and we were going to fight for the whole United States, not just Harlem.”
But racism was the way of life for a lot of young men, especially those from the South. Seeing it at Knox and other Army training areas wasn’t anything new.
“I never really thought about it at the time,” said Simmons Washington (in an interview with the Turret), who was drafted out of Meridian Mississippi. “Now, when after it (WWII) was all over and they bring up all this stuff, then you think about it. But at that time, I never really thought about it. We said we got a job to do, and we just got to it. We said we want to get it over with because we got the greatest country in the world.”
Washington never actually made it to Knox. He did his basic training at Camp Claiborne, La., which was located just outside the city of Alexandria and about 45 miles east of what is now Fort Polk.
Washington was assigned to the 784th Tank Battalion, which was activated in April of 1943. The 784th was formed and attached to the 5th Tank Group (light), along with the 761st.
The 758th Tank Battalion was also part of the 5th Tank Group. It was made up of 98 African American men who were sent from Fort Custer, Michigan to Fort Knox’s 78th Tank Battalion for armor warfare training.
The Army, under order from what was then the War Department, moved some Soldiers from the 758th and Knox’s Armored Force Replacement Training Center to Claiborne.
After some additional tank training at Fort Hood, 5th Tank Group’s battalion headed for Europe. Washington and the 784th headed to Liverpool, England, and then onto France.
“We were a little shaky,” Washington said. “We were leaving England and we started crossing the (English) channel, and you started seeing half sunken ships and it seemed kinda bad. Then you get into the harbor (France) and you see the houses all blown apart, and that kinda shakes you up. Then you start seeing the dead animals and things like that.”
The 761st got into the fight Nov. 8, 1944, steering their attack toward Moyenvic and Vic-sur-Seille, France.
McConnell described his first day of combat with the 761st
“…It was now getting late in the afternoon and the sun was shining. While we were waiting there I was talking to Tressvant Anderson, the man who wrote Come Out Fighting. He was a war correspondent. I saw this injured German across the road. Having been a Boy Scout, I knew first aid. I went over to see him. He would raise up on his arms, he was on his belly. How pitiful he looked. His whole damned jaw was hanging. I got the first aid kit out of the tank and Trezzvant Anderson went along with me over to him. We crawled over to where he was, near a ditch. We got up close and really looked at him. I saw how messed up his face was with no mouth, just top teeth and blood pouring everywhere…”
McConnell gave the German some basic first aid, but then the fog of war set in.
“...All of a sudden they (Germans) started shelling us,” he said. We retreated back to our tank and got in and we left that poor soul out there. There was nothing we could do for him. We couldn’t even give him an aspirin because he had no way of swallowing. Then I happened to see a scout car, a half-track from some other unit. This half-track diverted from its driving on the road and deliberately went off the road and ran over this guy we were trying to help. I couldn’t believe this. This was war…”
While there were white officers in the 761st and the 784th, most white Soldiers never came across black combat Soldiers during the war, according to Fort Knox Historic Preservation Specialist Matthew Rector.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize that there were black soldiers in combat in WWII, and if they do, it’s only really now coming to light,” Rector said. “But for a long time it was overshadowed. If you talk to a lot of white WWII vets and ask them if they saw any black Soldiers over there, ‘The say, well I saw them driving trucks or doing maintenance.’ You don’t find too many that saw black combat soldiers.”
Naming of Brooks Field
Brooks field was named for a tanker who also happened to be the first armor Soldier killed in combat. The Armor force wasn’t established until 1932. Brooks was assigned to the 192nd Tank Battalion which was actually a white tank battalion. The unit’s superiors didn’t know he was black.
Fort Knox decided to name the field in Brooks’ honor and invited his parents to post for the ceremony. Post officials were taken aback when they saw that Brooks’ parents were black. Officials approached Post Commander Maj. Gen. Jacob Devers to see if he wanted to proceed with the dedication.
“It doesn’t matter. Go on.” Rectors said of Devers’ response
Patton pre-war speech to 761st
Patton quote: “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.... Everyone has their 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!”
Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.
St. Nicholas, France, Nov. 2, 1944
Crecy Hall named after 761st Soldier
Fort Knox’s 2nd Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment, 1st Armor Training Brigade memorialized tanker Maj. Warren G.H. Crecy by naming a building after him in 1998. The program for the ceremony reprinted the words written by World War II correspondent Tressvant Anderson: To look at Warren G.H. Crecy you’d never think that here was a killer who had slain more of the enemy than any man in the 761st. He extracted a toll of lives from the enemy that would have formed the composition of three or four companies with his machine guns alone. And yet, he is such a quiet, easy going, meek-looking fellow…he’d never use a word stronger than “damn.”
But here is a youth who went so primitively savage on the battlefield that his only thought was to “kill, kill, kill,” and he poured his rain of death pellets into German bodies with so much reckless abandon and joy that he was the nemesis of all foes of the 761st. Other men craved to ride with Crecy and share the reckless thrill of killing the hated enemy that had killed their comrades.
Copyright © 2007 The Turret
an authorized publication for members of the U.S. Army
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