I was in the middle of writing a Hatch article about the M4(76) procurement program, when a notification came up over my Facebook feed about the death of an individual named William Max Hughes in Indiana . Formerly Sergeant Hughes of the 784th Tank Battalion.
I never met him, nor even heard of him before. He probably wasn’t anyone particularly special except to his friends and family, another of the many millions of men who put on a US Army uniform to go fight in WWII, one of the many hundreds of thousands who fought on the front lines, one of tens of thousands of M4 tankers, and one of those lucky enough to come out of it relatively unscathed.
So why was this one veteran so noteworthy as to have the news of his passing find his way across the InterWebs to land on my desk? Sgt Hughes, WWII armor crewman, was black.
The story of the segregated US military is reasonably well known, and if you’re the sort of person who reads the Hatch, you probably are already well familiar with it so I won’t go into the details. Probably the biggest reason that the public masses are aware of the strides made by African-American personnel into breaking through the discrimination of the 1940s is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Everyone has heard of them. They are in the news, there are multiple movies… of varying quality.
If I were to go out on the streets, and ask a random passer-by what was unusual about the Tuskegee Airmen, I’d give fairly good odds that I’d get the right answer. If I were to go out on the streets and ask a random passer-by what was unusual about the Buffalo Soldiers in the Indian Wars, I’ll give even odds. But if I were to go out on the streets and ask passers by ‘who were Patton’s Black Panthers?’, I’ll put no money at all on a correct answer. Honestly, I doubt I’d get many correct answers amongst World of Tanks players. Why?
Maybe it’s just that pilots are beneficiaries of good PR. Pilots are ‘cool.’ But I can’t help but think that the members of other branches are getting a little short shrift. They would have had greater visual impact to begin with: Allied pilots would just see fighters with bright red tails, but allied infantry would be easily see the faces of the tankers supporting them in the line of battle as they stick their heads out the turrets.
So, I’m going to redress a little of the publicity with this article. Not to ignore the sailors on USS Mason, the Montford Point Marines, or the infantrymen in the 92nd ID, but this is World of Tanks, so we’ll look at the tanks and TDs. The push for combat units of black soldiers in the Army came from General McNair.
The tank battalions were nominally all part of the 5th Tank Group, headquartered in Camp Claiborne, LA, but in actuality it never fought as a unit, the battalions being distributed across Europe. It consisted of one light tank battalion, the 758th, and two medium, 761st and 784th. The 758th came first, authorized as the 78th Tank Battalion in January 1941, and formed in March, being re-designated later that year as the 758th.
The unit was attached to the aforementioned 92nd ID, equipped with M5 Lights, and saw service in the Italian campaign as part of 5th Army, which also contained the Nisei unit of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. The unit’s entire combat record was in Italy from late 1944 until the war’s end.
The second unit was the 761st, the Black Panthers. Also initially raised as a light tank battalion in Camp Claiborne, they converted to M4 mediums in Camp Hood before, after two years of training, being sent to Europe via the UK and then Normandy in October 1944, thus claiming to be the first African-American tank unit in combat.
Attached to the 26th Infantry under Patton’s Third Army, they are proud of the fact that they were in continuous combat for 183 days, whereas most tank units generally were pulled from the line for a while after only two or three weeks. Patton himself wasn’t really expecting much from the unit, generally holding privately the official and dominant Army view of the effectiveness of black soldiers, but he did understand the value of a unit which had been training for as long as they had, the efficiency reports that they received, and was willing enough to give them a chance that he specifically requested them. In his typical Pattonesque style, he said:
“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 as long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sons of bitches. Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you. Most of all your race is looking forward to your success. Don't let them down and damn you, don't let me down.”
Seeing service across France, the Battle of the Bulge and taking the town of Tillet, and through Germany, they finished up the war in Austria, linking up with the Red Army at the Steyr river, ending up with about a 50% overall casualty rate and a Presidential Unit Citation, the latter being awarded in 1978. The monument to the 761st stands in Fort Hood.
The third of the three battalions, also equipped nominally with M4 Mediums, was the 784th, though it in practice was one of the composite battalions with a company of light tanks.
This unit was one of the later arrivals to the fight, landing in Europe the last week of 1944. And attached to the 104th Infantry Division. They fought along the Roer river for about a month after they caught up to the front lines, transferring then to the 35th ID where they saw out the rest of the war.
The other part of the relevant force were the Tank Destroyer units. 614th TD Battalion was raised in mid 1942 in Camp Carson, Colorado. Starting out with M3 guns, the unit, eventually known as “The Gamecocks”, was one of the numerous victims of the Tank Destroyer branch equipping for the last fight, and traded in their self-propelled mounts for towed 3” guns, with which they saw service through the rest of the war.
They crossed the Atlantic aboard SS Esperance Bay, the same troopship which carried the Black Panthers, and landed in Normandy in October 1944. They were assigned for their first combat action to General Patton for his assault on the Siegfried Line with the 95th Infantry Division. I’m not Patton’s number 1 fan, but one has to give him some credit for being willing to give the lads a shot. After a very short time, they were re-attached to the 3rd Cavalry Group, a relatively unusual concept of assigning a towed TD unit to a mobile group such as a cavalry unit. December saw them attached again to another unit, this time to General Patch’s 7th Army, and 104th Infantry Division.
The Gamecocks’ time with 7th Army was varied due to the unit being parceled out in company and platoon sized elements, much more so that I have space to go into here, but they partook in the Nordwind defence, and finished their war in Bavaria. For actions at Climbach, a French town by the German border, C co, 614th TDB members were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, the only African-American ground unit to receive such an award during the war.
Not all African-American units served with the same levels of distinction, however. The 827th Tank Destroyer Battalion is a counterpoint.
Also raised in 1942, this time in Camp Forrest, TN. Also starting off in M3s, they stayed self-propelled long enough to be given some M10s before succumbing to the same switch of SP to Towed that beset the 614th in mid 1943. Significant discipline and training problems saw the unit missing its initial ship date to the Pacific Theatre (failing five successive battalion tests), before they finally started to sort themselves out enough to be sent to Europe, landing in the South of France in December 1944 and being assigned to 12th Armored Division in 7th Army’s sector. They never did complete their indirect fire training, and actively avoided any assignment which would require such skills.
Their combat efficiency varied from ‘creditable’ to ‘poor’, despite being partially re-equipped with M18s, and their discipline was problematic. In the end, 12th AD kicked the unit out of its command with the consent of General Patch, and the battalion was assigned to security duties in the rear, where it caused so much trouble that Sixth Army Group basically disbanded the unit and converted the personnel to service support roles. The unit officially remained on the rolls due to the political liabilities inherent in disbanding one of the few coloured combat units, but as tank destroyers, they were finished.
The 827th was not the only African-American TD unit to be disbanded for performance issues, (of the seven raised, I can off-hand only find combat records for these two) but the black troopers of 2nd Cavalry Division saw their unit disbanded due to reasons out of their control. Frankly, the US Army felt they erred by creating the 2nd Cavalry, and they were already slated for conversion to support roles or to be used as replacement troops for other units by the time they shipped out to Northern France.
Anyway, the bottom line is if you didn’t know it, they were out there. In less glamourous roles, but arguably ones requiring at least as much courage and skill as those of the pilots everybody knows about. If you’re a student and have to do a project on black history month, I suggest that instead of doing what everyone else does and writing about the Tuskegee Airmen, go pick up one of the many books or watch a proper documentary on the ground troops, like this one.