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Members of country's first African-American armored unit reunite to keep WWII memories alive

TAMPA

No one expected them to make it home.

As the first African-American armored unit to enter combat in World War II, the men of the 761st Tank Battalion were considered experimental, even expendable.

Faced with discrimination in a segregated military, they were forced to prove themselves.

And they did. Over and over again.

They played a major role in the Battle of the Bulge, faced the enemy in four major campaigns and fought on the front lines for 183 consecutive days. They were a favorite of Gen. George S. Patton.

On Saturday, members of the 761st Tank Battalion and Allied Forces Association gathered in Tampa for the group's 63rd reunion. In attendance were two members of the 761st and a member of the 758th Tank Battalion, which was the first all-black tank battalion formed and the second to be put into action.

"People never thought we'd be able to accomplish what we accomplished," said 88-year-old Eddie Walker, a sergeant in the 761st battalion who lives in St. Petersburg.

"They didn't think we could do the job," he said. "We had to prove we could do it."

Putting African-Americans into combat was frowned upon at the time, said Ivan Harrison Jr., the secretary of the association and son of Ivan Harrison, a 761st captain who is now dead.

"People were so strongly against it," he said.

Racism was rampant in the South, where training often took place. Violence between black and white soldiers was not uncommon, Harrison said.

At what is now Fort Hood, black soldiers were often treated worse than German prisoners of war, he said.

It was degrading, Walker said.

"To feel like you stood out like an opponent didn't make you feel accepted," he said. "We were giving up our lives all the same. We were all American soldiers."

The 761st was intended to be used only as a training unit, but the military had no choice but to deploy it as the war grew worse, Harrison said.

With about 700 soldiers, it arrived in France in October 1944, assigned to Gen. Patton's Third Army.

The battalion was forced to fight on the front lines for 183 consecutive days without rest while white troops were often relieved.

They trained replacements during combat and repaired tanks on the field, said Mark Vaz, an author working on a book about World War II black soldiers who has attended many of the group's reunions.

"We were doing a better job than the white tankers," said Roosevelt "Bud" Harris, 89, a private first class in the 761st who lives in St. Louis. "If we hadn't of been doing a better job, we wouldn't have been there."

In a wartime speech to the men, Gen. Patton said as much: "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 (Nazis)."

During combat, issues of race were often set aside.

"If you had a foxhole dug in a combat zone, the same person that treated you bad before would jump right in there," Walker said.

While the soldiers didn't come in contact with many of their white comrades, the people they met along the way were usually happy to see them, said John Weston, 93, a staff sergeant in the 758th, who lives in Chicago and is president of the association.

"Coming home, now that's a sad story," he said.

Despite their contributions to the war, members of the 761st weren't officially recognized for 33 years. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter awarded them the Presidential Unit Citation.

Nearly two decades later, in 1997, Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroic actions during the war.

Now, with fewer than 20 of the original 700 soldiers still alive, the families of the 761st veterans are working to make sure their stories are heard.

"The military is a lot different today," Harrison said, "and it's because of what they did."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or srossetter@sptimes.com.

Members of country's first African-American armored unit reunite to keep WWII memories alive 08/20/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 20, 2011 11:23pm]
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