Long after World War II, black battalion gets its due

When Floyd Dade’s daughter was preparing a high school report on World War II, she read that black soldiers didn’t serve in combat but were relegated to supply and support units. “I almost fell out of my chair when I heard that,” said Dade, who served in a Sherman tank during the heaviest fighting in Western Europe in World War II. “I’m living proof that whatever she read was wrong.” The anecdote shows the plight of World War II veterans, particularly those who served in African American combat units such as the 761st Tank Battalion.

Unlike their more celebrated white counterparts, the exploits of the black soldiers of WWII are less known — sometimes even within their own families. “A lot of people forgot us or never knew we existed,” said Dade, a retired chief custodian at the San Francisco Unified School District. “There aren’t many of us left to tell our stories.” Dade, who celebrated his 80th birthday Saturday in Vallejo with some World War II comrades who visited for the Memorial Day weekend, hopes to get a few more chances to tell the story of the 761st, the first black armored unit.

They waited six decades, but the heroes of the tank battalion are finally getting their 15 minutes of fame, largely because basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently co-authored a book about the unit’s exploits. Nicknamed “The Black Panthers,” they helped Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army liberate France, then broke through German lines in Belgium, turned back a counterattack in Belgium, pushed through Bavaria and liberated two concentration camps in Austria. “We were just a bunch of kids with nothing to lose except our lives,” said L.Z. Anderson, 84, of Pacifica who drove a bus for the San Francisco Municipal Railway for 30 years after operating a tank in the Battle of the Bulge. “We fought like hell, because everyone expected us to fail. Our own generals thought we were disposable troops, but we never believed that ourselves.”

Dade and Anderson are among about 40 surviving 761st members nationwide; just a decade ago, there were more than 100. The battalion produced a recipient of the Medal of Honor — Ruben Rivers — as well as many other decorated soldiers. Working in five-man crews in 32-ton Sherman M4 medium tanks equipped with a 76mm cannon and three mounted machine guns, the battalion fought for 183 days continuously until the war ended — a record for American units in WWII. More than 250 of its 712 members were killed or wounded.

But like the better-known Tuskegee Airmen, the 761st was not supposed to be a combat unit. “The 761st was never intended to see battle,” wrote Abdul-Jabbar, who became fascinated with the unit after learning that a childhood role model, family friend Leonard “Smitty” Smith, was a member. “As with many African American units at the time, they trained mainly as a public relations gesture to sustain the support of the black community during the war. However, the Allies were so desperate for trained tank personnel in the summer of 1944 that even though Gen. Patton initially opposed their deployment, they were called upon to fight.”

Most African American units in the Army, which was segregated, were restricted to support tasks such as cooking, loading trucks, building bridges and burying the dead. That began to change in 1942, when blacks were trained to fly planes and drive tanks..The 761st assembled men from 30 states and Washington, D.C., first at Camp Claiborne, La., then at Fort Hood, Texas, where they trained for two years before being deployed.

The discrimination encountered within the Army was overshadowed by the outright hostility the young black soldiers faced off the base. “They hated us,” said Anderson, a native of Idabel, Okla. “We weren’t very welcome anywhere in town. The last thing they wanted to see was a bunch of young black men. If we didn’t travel in a big group, the local guys would always pick a fight with us.” “I’m glad we saved all our anger for the Germans,” said Dade, who grew up in Texarkana before he was drafted. “We had a lot of it.”

At Fort Hood, a young lieutenant fresh out of UCLA in the 761st was nearly court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a bus. His commander refused to approve the court-martial, but the lieutenant was transferred to another unit and never saw combat. He missed his chance to be a war hero. But the man — Jackie Robinson — became a household name a few years later as the first black player in Major League Baseball.

Because of a combination of lobbying by the NAACP and the Army’s heavy casualties among tank units, the 761st finally was deployed to France in the fall of 1944. “We were a bastard battalion” that was attached at various times to different units in Patton’s 3rd Army, Dade said. “But we were never permanently attached anywhere. Everyone needed us, but no one wanted us.”

Patton set the tone when he greeted the 761st on Nov. 1, 1944, in a muddy field outside Nancy, France. “Men, you’re the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army. I would never have asked for you if you weren’t good. I have nothing but the best in my Army. I don’t care what color you are as long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sonsabitches. 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!” said Patton, according to “Come Out Fighting,” a 1945 official military history of the battalion by Trezzvant Anderson.

Patton put the Black Panthers directly into combat near Morville, France, and did not let them have a day off until they linked up with Russian allies coming from the east near Steyr, Austria, on May 5, 1945. “It seemed to me that we were put in suicide missions,” Dade said. “We weren’t supposed to come back alive. Patton didn’t expect us to last more than a couple days. Well, we kept fighting on the front line for six months.” Anderson added: “We only got a break because the Germans surrendered.”

Dade and Anderson were interviewed separately but inevitably described some of the same incidents: a six-hour firefight with Panzers in the snow at the Belgian village of Tillet; American bodies piled along a road outside Bastogne; the waist-deep mud in the Saar region. Then there were the concentration camps. Dade participated in the liberation of Gunskirchen, a sub-camp of the larger Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. “At first, we thought it was a German military camp” that had just been abandoned, Dade said. “Then we saw all these people in stripes. They were nothing but skin and bones. Some of them died, because we gave them food and their stomachs started to hemorrhage because their stomachs were so tender.” Anderson holds no grudges against the Germans. In fact, his daughter married a German citizen. But he remains angry about the racism he experienced. And he wishes he could drive a tank just one more time. “After dodging German artillery, even the worst Muni route was a piece of cake,” Anderson said with a laugh.

Recognition came slowly. In 1978, the 761st Tank Battalion received a Presidential Unit Citation. In 1997, 53 years after giving his life on the battlefield, Staff Sgt. Rivers, whose family settled in the East Bay, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Dade proved his daughter’s teacher wrong in 1984, when she showed her class a yellowing copy of the Stars & Stripes newspaper from Nov. 27, 1944. A front-page photograph showedDade sitting in his Sherman tank after the 761st captured Guebling, a town near the French-German border. The paper’s banner headline: “Negro Tankers Cut Path for Third Army.” The incident also spurred Dade to participate in many events in the late 1980s and early 1990s that commemorated the war and the Holocaust. He has spoken to many Jewish groups about the horrors he witnessed at the concentration camps. But Dade, who has six children and 12 grandchildren, said he accepts that younger generations may not be interested in history. “It’s one thing to ignore us,” Dade said. “But don’t ever deny us. We did what we did. We made a difference in the world’s biggest war. That’ll still be a fact even after we’re all gone.”