By Elizabeth M. Collins

The explosion was massive, far larger than the men of the 761st Tank Battalion were expecting when they responded to a German attack in the Rhineland town of Silz, Germany.

The rounds from their M4 Sherman tanks had struck an ammunition dump in the town, and the tankers watched with a combination of sympathy and satisfaction as one by one, houses, which had also been used to store munitions, exploded until the town became a raging inferno. Leaving Silz in ashes, like so many other towns along the Siegfried Line, they continued to push toward the Rhine River in March 1945.

A tank from Company A, 761st Tank Battalion, crosses the Seille River in France on November 9, 1944, the unit’s second of 183 days in combat. | Photo credit Army photo

Army leaders hadn’t chosen just any tank battalion when they assigned the 761st Tank Battalion to lead Task Force Rhine with elements of the 103rd Infantry Division. The 761st was the first African-American tank unit to go into combat. By 1945, the tankers were steely and battle-hardened, but even before they landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on October 10, 1944, they were some of the best-trained tankers in the Army.

“They trained for almost two years at a time when armor crewmen were getting as little as three months of training because of the pressures of the war. Because they were African-Americans, the Army didn’t quite know what to do with them,” said former Sergeant Wayne D. Robinson, the historian for the 761st Tank Battalion Association, and a former armor crewman in the Massachusetts National Guard. He explained that the tankers experienced a lot of racism in their rural training grounds at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, and Camp Hood, Texas. In fact, 2nd Lieutenant Jackie Robinson’s famous bus incident and subsequent court-martial took place while he was attached to the 761st.

When the unit finally got to France, the tankers encountered a few individuals who may have had trouble with color of their skin, but for the most part, soldiers were worried about their missions and about staying alive. Many infantry soldiers didn’t even know that the tankers running with them were black, said Robinson.

“They are not obsessed with race,” said Gina DiNicolo, a former Marine officer and author of “The Black Panthers: A Story of Race, War, and Courage.” “They’re running into some problems, some challenges. But for the most part, they’re with their unit and it clicks. … What is the thing foremost on their minds? They want to kill Hitler. … It got to the point in combat where the units were interacting like everyone was the same. These guys became one of the guys.”

Then-Lieutenant General George Patton awards a Silver Star to Army Private Ernest A. Jenkins. | Photo credit National Archives photo

Army leaders were certainly happy to see the men. General George Patton addressed the tankers himself, famously saying, “I would never have asked for you if you weren’t good. … 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.”

With those words ringing in their ears, “you had to respect the man,” said 761st veteran Staff Sergeant Floyd Dade Jr. The tankers rolled into battle, coming under heavy fire in Vic-sur-Seille, France, on November 8, 1944. The men fought hard, but it was still a terrifying, disorienting experience, especially when rain turned the roads to muddy rivers that made it nearly impossible to maneuver.

“The inside of a tank is a helluva place to be, when red-hot, white-hot steel fragments are ricocheting around, and just can’t go anywhere else but the inside of that tank,” described Private First Class Trezzvant W. Anderson in his book, “Come Out Fighting: The Epic Tale of the 761st Tank Battalion.”

Dade remembered laughing with some infantry soldiers, not realizing how serious the situation was until the rounds started coming in. “The tank would rock when something hit it and we didn’t know what happened,” he said. “We just battled like hell. … We looked and noticed that our .50-caliber gun was gone. And where [the armor-piercing shell] hit it, they cut it off like you had a … welding torch. They were just that powerful.”

The men also faced a German roadblock that would have meant almost certain death. Without waiting for orders, Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers climbed out of his lead tank carrying a large cable. Dodging bullets, he fastened the cable to the tree in the road and returned to his tank to clear the road, allowing the soldiers to proceed. “Then we got into town and we chased them out and they went to the next one,” said Dade.

Barely a week later, Rivers, who had already been nominated for one Silver Star, was left with a deep, bloody leg wound from his knee to his hip when his tank hit a land mine during the unit’s assault on Guebling, France, according to Dade. Rivers reluctantly let his fellow soldiers bandage his leg before climbing into another tank, refusing further medical aid throughout the night. The next morning, he radioed his commander that he could see the enemy.

“I was about 25 yards from him in my tank,” remembered Dade. “As we were battling, Sergeant Rivers got hit. When the Germans opened up on us, we were fighting each other like hell. [The company commander] told Rivers, ‘We are outnumbered. There are five tanks out there. Back out.’” Instead, Rivers engaged the enemy to provide cover for the Americans’ exit.

Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1997. | Photo credit Army photo

Passing within 200 yards of the Germans, Rivers opened fire, helping cover Company A’s withdrawal. “So the next shot came in on this turret, just took his head off,” killing Rivers and another tanker, according to Dade. Rivers received another Silver Star, and then in 1997, after a long campaign by his company commander, Rivers posthumously received the Medal of Honor.

Another trap awaited the 761st the second day of combat, November 9. The men of Company C ran into a massive tank ditch near Morville, France. The trench, wrote Anderson, extended “from the woods at the edge of the high ground, down to a road leading through the area, in open country.” It was heavily mined and within range of a column of German pillboxes. Company C lost seven tanks almost immediately, and as men tried to crawl to safety, German soldiers easily picked them off.

“It was cold, it was raining and alternately snowing,” wrote Anderson. “Fragmentation shells were exploding everywhere, so that wicked little pieces would fly about, and cut into your flesh, searing, burning, tearing into your very innards. … It was hell that day at Morville.”

Second Lieutenant Kenneth W. Coleman, the platoon leader, lined the men up and trailed them as he laid fire to help cover their escape. First Sergeant Samuel Turley stayed behind, rushing toward the enemy and standing in the open as he took out enemy machine gun nests until he was nearly cut in two, according to DiNicolo. Coleman was also killed, as were 12 other tankers. Despite the losses, American forces took the town the next day.

Coleman and Turley both received posthumous Silver Stars, although DiNicolo has documentation showing that Turley was actually nominated for a Medal of Honor. She believes that when the case was re-examined in the 1990s, there were no longer enough documents or witnesses to support awarding the nation’s highest award for valor.

The crew of an M3 light tank takes a break after capturing Coburg, Germany, April 25,1945. | Photo credit National Archives photo

“His action to me is clearly a Medal of Honor action,” she said. “I can’t imagine that he [believed] he would survive that doing what he did.”

Unbeknownst to most of the men, their beloved battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Bates, was wounded that night—possibly by friendly fire—and evacuated to a hospital. He wouldn’t return until February. At a time when many white officers saw a black unit as a career death knell, Bates had seen the 761st as just the opposite, and had worked hard to gain command of the tankers. He treated them fairly, and stood up for them in the face of discrimination and racism. Bates trained them and trained them and trained them some more, so when the untested men first faced the Germans, they were ready.

Army Gunner Cpl. Carlton Chapman poses in his M4 Sherman tank near Nancy, France, on Nov. 5, 1944. Chapman served in the 761st Tank Battalion, the first African-American tank unit to go into combat. | Photo credit National Archives photo

During 183 days of continuous combat, the 761st fought all over northern and central Europe, from the Battle of the Bulge at Tillet, France, to the Battle of the Rhine, eventually making it all the way to Austria. The Army awarded the unit with four campaign ribbons: Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace and Central Europe.

In addition, the men received 11 Silver Stars, 69 Bronze Stars and about 300 Purple Hearts. In 1978, the 761st received a coveted Presidential Unit Citation. The cost was high, however, with 36 men killed in action—22 in November alone. They died defending a segregated country, Robinson said, noting that the Army began desegregating shortly after the war.

“We didn’t have equal rights,” said Dade, explaining that he went home to Texas to face the same prejudice as before the war. “I was just fighting for my country.”

—Elizabeth M. Collins writes for Soldiers, the official Army magazine. This story appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.