Although I’ve been waiting on the anniversary for almost a year, it almost passed by me without enough time to write about it; Sunday was the seventieth anniversary of the forming of the 761st Tank Battalion of the US Army.
As divided as racial politics in America are today, they were of course much worse in 1942, at the very nadir of the Depression-era Jim Crow south. The US military was intensely segregated – there were those who didn’t even want to go that far, believing that blacks didn’t have the intelligence to train or the courage to fight (notwithstanding the long combat record of black troops in the Revolution, the Civil War, and the Indian Wars).
Almost worse? As a “compromise”, the chief of Army personnel matters, General Robert E. Lee (no, I’m not making that up) decided that black units should be formed, mostly for labor and support duties – and those units should be led by white officers from the deep south, since they had the most experience dealing with African-Americans.
Not everyone agreed, of course; reformers believed that blacks should have the same right to fight for this country as any other citizen. One of their supporters was General Leslie McNair – an officer who had many sweeping impacts on the US Army during the war, most not nearly as positive (we looked at the first of them last year). McNair and his reformers had a powerful supporter – First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. And the First Lady exerted her considerable political force on the Army, which grudgingly agreed to start forming combat units.
Including the 761st Tank Battalion.
The unit was formed at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana.
We’ll come back to them in a bit.