Fort Polk ceremony highlights Black history by honoring 761st Tank Battalion

Published 10:37 am Monday, February 20, 2023

By Angie Thorne

FORT POLK — The Kisatchie National Forest hosted a commemoration ceremony honoring the 761st Tank Battalion at the Southern Forest Heritage Museum, Planner Mill, Feb. 2. On this gray, cold and wet Louisiana day, the event shined a light on the heroics and integrity of these Army soldiers. The battalion, founded in 1942, was a separate tank battalion of the United States Army during World War II.

They were separate because the 761st was made up primarily of Black soldiers, who by War Department policy were not permitted to serve alongside white troops. The U.S. Army didn’t desegregate until after World War II.

Nicknamed the Black Panthers, the 761st were part of the first Black armored unit to enter combat during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. The men of the 761st proved their courage and tenacity during the 183 days of continual fighting.

Lt. Col. Jon Chavous, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk Operations Group, was one of the guest speakers at the commemoration. Chavous said it was a privilege to be part of the commemoration in recognition of the 761st Tank Battalion.

Chavous delved into the Black Panthers’ history.

The Army began to experiment with segregated combat units like the 761st, who trained among the racial tensions and restrictions of the Jim Crow era.

“They began training at Camp Claiborne in April of 1942, very near where we stand today. They were eventually moved to Camp Hood, Texas, where they continued to train,” Chavous said. “This extended training was the result of Army commanders’ unwillingness to allow African American troops the chance to prove their worth in combat.”

Nevertheless, the two years of extra training proved invaluable once they were deployed to the European theater of war in 1944 and began to engage the German army. They were assigned to Gen. George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army.

The unit landed on Omaha beach Oct. 10 with 10 white officers, 30 Black officers and 676 Black enlisted soldiers.

“Once there, they set out to prove they were just as good, if not better than their white comrades,” Chavous said.

Patton reviewed the unit and made a speech to inspire the men.

During Patton’s speech he told them he would never have asked for them if they 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 your success. Don’t let them down and don’t let me down,” said Patton.

The Black Panthers performed remarkably well and lived up to their motto, “Come out fighting.”

Over the next few months they engaged in brutal fighting in Belgium, Germany and Austria. In the month of November 1944 alone, the battalion suffered 156 casualties — four men killed, 81 wounded and 44 non-battle losses.

During Battle of the Bulge, they helped rescue the 101st Airborne Division from German encirclement in Bastogne, Belgium, in December 1944.

“The battalion became well known for its fighting spirit and bravery in combat and gained the trust and respect of the white units they fought with,” Chavous said. “For their actions, the battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and the men within the battalion earned 11 Silver Stars, 70 Bronze Stars and 250 Purple Hearts. Additionally, Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1997 for extraordinary heroism Nov. 16-19, 1944.”

The 761s Tank Battalion not only fought Natzi rule in Europe, but simultaneously fought racism in the United States.

“Their heroic actions changed how many people thought about Black Americans and was a milestone in desegregation in the American military, as well a precursor to the civil rights movement of the 1960s,” Chavous said.

The men of the 761st Tank Battalion are true heroes.

“The drive and determination, bravery in combat and resiliency of these men is truly awe inspiring,” Chavous said. “This recognition is long overdue and well deserved.”

Donald Lee, a Vietnam veteran, attended the event.

Lee said he’s glad he didn’t have to go through the same discrimination and segregation the Soldiers of the 761st went through.

“If it was me, I don’t know if I would have made it. I’m so proud of these men and what they accomplished,” Lee said. “It makes me happy to see how far we have come today when it come to discrimination based on race.”

As part of the commemoration event, a monument to the 761st was unveiled to help celebrate their many accomplishments and acts of bravery.

Lee was excited to be at the commemoration event.

“I’m thrilled this monument came about. There was so much sacrifice by so many that paid the ultimate price,” Lee said. “It brought tears to my eyes to celebrate these men, their honorable past and the bright future we have because of them.”

Lisa Lewis, Kisatchie National Forest, forest supervisor, said the history of this battalion, trained at Camp Claiborne, is remarkable.

“There is a tremendous amount of military history found in this area. We were excited to be part of the recognition of that history when it came to the 761st Tank Battalion,” Lewis said. “We are proud and happy to commemorate their achievements with this monument. We hope no one will ever forget the huge sacrifices these men made,” Lewis said.

The 761st Tank Battalion monument will soon be placed at its permanent home, Camp Claiborne’s main entrance.