Friday, February 25, 2011

Book Review In Honor of Black History Month

Book Review: Brothers in Arms, The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes

In the flush of outrage and patriotism in the days and months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans by the hundreds of thousands volunteered to serve in our nation's armed forces. It was no different for black Americans, who were ready to fight for their country, even one that still treated them as decidedly second-class citizens.  Eager to maintain the support of black citizens for the war effort, the government attempted to placate them by accepting blacks into the still racially segregated armed services in support roles such as cooks, mechanics, quartermasters (supply troops) and the like, while never actually intending to let them fight.  This is well-known, but to this day, a myth persists that no blacks fought in combat during World War Two, except perhaps in isolated instances such as the famed Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group.  But in fact, driven by the urgent need for combat replacements in the last year of the war, tens of thousands of black soldiers fought and were killed and wounded in front line combat, mostly in all-black units.  The 761st Tank Battalion was just such a unit.

With Brothers in Arms, The Epic Story of the 761stTank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes, NBA Hall of Famer and historian Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Author of On the Shoulder of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, and co-author Anthony Walton, finally do justice to the remarkable but almost completely unknown story of the 761st Tank Battalion, whose motto was "Come Out Fighting!"

Highly trained, but manning poorly-designed Sherman tanks that were in many ways mobile death traps and were in all ways under-armored and outgunned by the vaunted German Panzers, the 761st fought their way over 2,000 combat miles from the hedgerows of Normandy to the concentration camps of Mauthausen.  You could say they had to fight a two-front war - not only against the best Nazi Germany could throw at them, but also the worst to which some of their own countrymen could subject them. Both in stateside training and European combat, they fought to overcome indifference, stereotypes, outright racism and even violence.  They struggled against mistrust, disrespect, disdain, ignorance, doubting leaders, poor leadership and tactics, neglect and exhaustion.  They dealt with the ambiguous and contradictory feelings toward them personified in their erstwhile commander General George S. Patton, who had made it plain in past writings that he thought blacks couldn't think quickly enough for armored warfare, yet was willing enough to have their support in critical battles.  They fought for weeks and months without more than a day's break from combat, adequate winter clothing or even a change of uniform. To drag a wounded comrade to safety under fire or to scout ahead or attack German positions on foot was nearly an everyday occurence.  Rather than being part of a self-contained armored division staffed with infantry trained to support tank operations, the 761st Battalion was a detached unit (known to themselves and the rest of the Army as a "bastard" battalion) that was shuffled around different armored or infantry units according to need or the whim of commanders.  They would be placed alongside an all-white unit whose reactions to them ranged from caution to outright contempt, and win most of them over with their courage, skill, dedication and humanity, demolishing stereotypes that blacks weren't brave or intelligent enough fight or lead.  Then they would be abruptly bounced to another unfamiliar unit and have to start again from scratch, suffering the crushing indignity of going from heroes and life-savers one day to "n----r tankers" the next.

Through it all, they fought with unheralded but unexcelled valor and determination, and often with conspicuous gallantry.  And when they returned home, sure that their bravery and sacrifices in blood and lives would open America's eyes to their worth as men and finally gain them full participation in American life, they found a country mostly eager and determined to go on as if they had never even set foot overseas.  Their status as an unattached unit hampered record keeping, as did "lost" commendations and paperwork and old stereotypes, to the extent that even other black Americans refused to believe that they had fought at all, let alone from inside the iconic Sherman tank. Their skill in maneuvering thirty-two ton tanks through difficult terrain and demolishing German fortifications and machine gun teams with 75mm armor-piercing shells did little to prepare them for the postwar workforce and the reluctance of white managers to hire them, even after some obtained college degrees.

It would have been little wonder had they given up and retreated into bitterness and disillusionment.  But instead, we see in almost all of them a determination to start families and make new lives for themselves.  (We also see that men whose courage had been forged in bitter fighting against elite German armored units and SS troops were not easily intimidated by jeering crowds and phalanxes of police with nightsticks, dogs and fire hoses).  What is surprising is that so many people had to work so long and hard for them to receive the recognition that should have been theirs from the beginning.

While not without minor flaws, such as the need for more maps, the thoroughly researched and well-written "Brothers in Arms" illuminates an important part of black history and American history (including the history-shaping involvement of one John Roosevelt Robinson with the unit).  The experience of the black serviceman in World War II is an important prelude to the Civil Rights struggles of the '50s and '60s.  It's hard to read this account knowing that what they went through was part of a fight that would stretch on for another two decades. It's hard, knowing they thought they had won peace for their children, but their children would have to continue the struggle.

"Brothers in Arms" also retells an important part of military history.  The flawed and bloody campaign for the Saar, a low point in Patton's career, has been almost completely overshadowed by the Battle of the Bulge and the final drive through Germany (in both of which the 761st also fought) and receives deserved attention here.

But I recommend "Brothers in Arms" simply because the men of the 761st Tank Battalion, as well as all black WWII veterans, deserve for their story to be told.

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