The 761st Tank Battalion
In acknowledgement of the 65th anniversary of D-Day, I thought I’d share a fascinating story from World War 2 which I came across several years ago. WW2 is an immensely important time, not just from the perspective of military or political history, but as an era of social change. Gender equality made big strides, as the need for labour meant that manufacturers could no longer afford to exclude women from the workforce. Advances were also made in racial equality, though not without much resistance.
During World War 2 the US Army was still segregated; black soldiers were not permitted to serve alongside whites by Federal law. This led to the creation of several all-black regiments, one of the most remarkable of which was the 761st Tank Battalion – a volunteer battalion which trained out of Ft. Hood, Texas. I learned about the battalion from fascinating book – “Brothers in Arms“, which chronicles their lengthy training process and the struggle they faced to be permitted to fight for their country.
The unit trained for almost 2 years before they were permitted to enter combat – in contrast the average battalion would train for only 2 or 3 months. Paradoxically, these black American soldiers were permitted fewer rights than the German POWs interred at the same camp. The unit was eventually permitted to enter combat, and distinguished itself in 183 days of continuous operation in the Battle of the Bulge. Despite this distinguished service, the battalion received no recognition of it’s service after the war, until in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter belatedly awarded the unit a Presidential Unit Citation.
I found something incredibly stirring about the struggle of these individuals to be allowed to fight for the protection of a country in which they were second-class citizens.
(As in interesting addendum – the units most famous member was Jackie Robinson, who – after being turfed from the unit and denied the opportunity to fight for his country following his refusal to give up his seat on a bus – went on to challenge and overturn segregation in baseball)