The Mighty B Company “Black Panthers”of World War II

Some of the fiercest fighters in the US Army’s 761st Tank Battalion “Black Panthers” were in the B Company.

The first all-black segregated tank company earned the respect of their peers even though prior to the war, the Army brass felt that African-Americans weren’t qualified to participate in mechanized warfare.

After completing their training, Life magazine ran a headline in 1942 that stated simply, “All They Want Now Is a Fair Chance to Fight.” They would receive that chance and many more. And what they did with those chances is what made the company known as the “Black Panthers” legendary.

Shoulder sleeve patch of the United States 761st Tank Battalion.
Shoulder sleeve patch of the United States 761st Tank Battalion.

On the morning of November 9, 1944, the company was approaching the French town, Morville-lès-vic. They were not expecting the firefight they were about to run into.

The Panthers found themselves not only facing the German SS 11th and 13th Panzer Divisions, but a nearby German Artillery Officer Candidate School turned their guns and began to drop shells on the approaching American tanks.

Company Commander Captain John D. Long later said that he fully expected to die that day. Still, he was determined that no one would say that either he or his men “chickened out” that day.

A Sherman tank of the 761st Tank Battalion.
A Sherman tank of the 761st Tank Battalion.

To make matters worse, it began to snow which made the silhouettes of the American tanks stick out against the fresh white snow. It also obscured the positions of the German Panzerfausts.

After taking a direct hit from a Panzerfaust, one tank caught fire. The tank commander was shot dead as he ran from the burning tank. But two of his crew members stayed at their post for three hours. Private John McNeil used a submachine gun to provide cover as technician James T. Whitby returned to the burning tank and began using the 30 caliber mounted machine gun. The two men took out one German machine gun post and cleared German positions in second-story windows.

By the end of the day, the Germans had been cleared out of the town. One of the German soldiers taken prisoner claimed he hadn’t witnessed bravery like the Panthers showed since he had fought on the Eastern Front.

One American officer and nine soldiers were killed in the fighting but the B Company had successfully taken the town.

Long said that after that battle, every white outfit was happy to have them fight along with them.

Tankers from Company D awaiting the next mission in Coburg, Germany, April, 1945
Tankers from Company D awaiting the next mission in Coburg, Germany, April, 1945

During the years of 1944 and 1945, the B Company was engaged in continual combat for 183 straight days. On January 9, 1945, they pushed the 13th Panzer Division back and in March they pushed their way past the Siegfried Line.

When the war ended, the Black Panthers were further east than any other US unit. They had been key to the victory at the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine. Along the way, they liberated Gunskirchen – a sub-camp of the Mauthausen concentration camp system.

General George S. Patton pinning the Silver Star on Private Ernest A. Jenkins of the 761st Tank Battalion for his conspicuous gallantry in the liberation of Chateaudun, France, 1944. Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives
General George S. Patton pinning the Silver Star on Private Ernest A. Jenkins of the 761st Tank Battalion for his conspicuous gallantry in the liberation of Chateaudun, France, 1944. Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives

In all, members of the 761st were awarded 391 individual decorations for heroism.

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In 1948, President Harry Truman used the precedent set by the Black Panthers to push through desegregation of the military. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter presented the 761st with an official Presidential Unit Citation and recognized the significant role of the Black Panthers in the war in Europe.