From September 1, 1939, to September 2, 1945, the world was embroiled in a bloody and often desperate battle for freedom against the unleashed forces of tyrannical German Nazism and Japanese Imperialism. There were very few places in the entire world that were unaffected by the rapacious military aggression of the Germans and the Japanese. Wherever they imposed their power, freedom was crushed and denied.
The United States finally entered WWII, joining the Allies in Europe and Asia, to help in the long and bloody struggle against these forces of tyranny, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
The threat had come to our own territory that day. We finally understood that, like our European and Asian allies, we were being threatened with the loss of our most beloved American values: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, values that the Declaration of Independence recognized as belonging to all human beings. We entered the fight with all of our economic, industrial, and military might. But we had our own unseen ironies too.
The reality was that our nation was still depriving millions of our own citizens of the same rights and liberties we were worried to lose. The blatant, in-your-face injustice of Jim Crow Segregation in the South and its more subtle variations everywhere else in the country was a matter of daily life for millions of Black Americans.
Still, as in all of our previous wars, from the Revolutionary War to WWII, millions of Black American men and women stepped forward to serve in the military services of our nation. Their love of freedom and their hope for the fulfillment of the American Dream for themselves was alive and well, despite the legal and social restrictions that they labored under every day here in this country.
This story is about some of those men who offered their lives in service of freedom during WWII.
In March of 1941, 98 African American Army enlisted men were brought together to train to fight in tanks. Many more followed and in March of 1942, the 761st Tank Battalion was officially formed. As was common in the military during WWII, the 761st Tank Battalion was a segregated unit. Their motto was, “Come Out Fighting!”
On November 8, 1944, the 761st was in NE France, not far from the German border. They were a part of George Patton’s 3rd Army. The Germans were counterattacking, and the 761st was called upon to go into the fight. As a result, they would become the first segregated tank unit to see combat in WWII.
And they saw it all. They were at Bastogne, going up against some of Germany’s best Panzer battalions. They won distinction in every encounter and would earn the nickname the Black Panthers.
One of the members of the Battalion, Sgt. Ruben Rivers, would be awarded a Silver Star for his actions on November 8, 1944. You will hear the description of what he did that day in this video. You will also hear how, later, at the Battle of the Bulge, other members of the 761st Tank Battalion conducted themselves with uncommon valor.
But Rivers was not done. His actions in that battle would be instrumental in saving lives and turning the momentum in their favor, at the cost of his own life.
It is clear that the men of the 761st Tank Battalion conducted themselves with the highest ideal of American military service. They were truly men of valor who understood their role in the never-ending battle for freedom from the myriad of threats that rise up against it.
When they returned to the United States, they returned to the same realities they had known all of their lives: segregation, discrimination, and racism. It would take many years before the nation was ready to recognize the service and sacrifices they had given on behalf of all Americans.
It would not be until 1997, 53 years after he died in battle, that Sgt. Ruben Rivers’s actions at the Battle of the Bulge would be recognized with the nation’s highest medal for valor on the battlefield, the Medal of Honor. Rivers heroically and unselfishly gave his life on behalf of the nation and the struggle to free Europe from Nazi tyranny, and this posthumous award was a long time coming. The 761st Tank Battalion would finally be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation in 1978, 33 years after the war.
The men of the 761st Tank Battalion were truly men of valor. They were men, just like all the other American men who sacrificed and served for the good of this nation. They did so even though this nation was openly—legally in some places and unconsciously in others—depriving them of the very rights and privileges of citizenship that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution insured for “all men.”
The Veterans Site honors the memory of all who served in WWII. We honor especially here the men of the 761st Tank Battalion for their valor demonstrated so powerfully at Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge. We thank them for their willing service in the cause of freedom that encompassed the entire world during World War II. You honored your motto, “Come Out Fighting!” with dignity, skill, and courage.