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Courtesy Leonard Smith
Leonard 'Smitty' Smith, a family friend, inspired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to pursue the story of the 761st Tank Battalion.
Courtesy Leonard Smith
Avie Schneider, NPR
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, co-author of Brothers in Arms
Avie Schneider, NPR
In a new book, former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tells the story of a little-known black tank battalion in World War II. He was inspired to write Brothers in Arms after learning a family friend had been a member of the unit.
Abdul-Jabbar first learned of the 761st Tank Battalion when he attending the showing of a film documentary 12 years ago. At the screening, he ran into family friend Leonard "Smitty" Smith, a New York transit policeman. It turns out Smith had been a gunner in the 761st and had won the Bronze Star for valor in battle.
Though they were trained for battle, most black units sent to Europe during World War II ended up working as stevedores, or driving trucks or ambulances. Because of racism, "they weren't allowed to fight in combat units," Abdul-Jabbar says.
The 761st Tank Battalion was deployed as a public relations effort to maintain support from the black community for the war effort. But faced with heavy casualties in the summer of 1944, Gen. George Patton was desperate for more tankers and the unit was pressed into battle. The 761st had been used to help train other tank units for two years prior to its deployment. Consequently, the black unit was better trained than most of its white counterparts, Abdul-Jabbar says.
The 761st fought in the Battle of the Bulge, saw combat in five countries and helped liberate dozens of villages and towns and several concentration camps. But racist attitudes in the military culture prevented the 761st from receiving medals and other honors accorded white soldiers.
"This was Patton's best tank unit and they didn't get any recognition because whites did not look upon blacks as having any competence as fighting men," Abdul-Jabbar says.
After repeated rejections starting in 1945, President Jimmy Carter presented the 761st with a presidential citation for extraordinary heroism in 1978.
Below is an excerpt from Brothers in Arms.
The German Mark IV Panzer tanks, concealed by dense pine woods, waited until the Sherman was halfway across the snow-covered field, fully exposed. They opened fire with a barrage of machine guns and artillery. The stillness of the morning was shattered by the explosion of shells and whistling bullets.
On the ragged, disorganized battlefield, the American tank and its supporting infantry had somehow found themselves behind enemy lines. Several infantrymen fell at the opening onslaught; the rest fled in disarray. The Sherman tank's commander, Teddy Windsor, yelled for the gunner, William McBurney, to return fire with armor-piercing and high-explosive shells, while frantically directing his driver to turn. Leonard Smith, the loader, rammed one shell after another into the breech as the Sherman fired back into the trees. Suddenly, the tank was rocked by an explosion as it struck a German land mine. It shuddered to a stop.
A rain of high-velocity 75- and 88-millimeter artillery began falling all around it. Smith, McBurney, and Windsor fled the paralyzed vehicle, diving out the turret hatch. Their driver, however, hesitated. He stood up in his seat but didn't move. The others called his name, begging him to jump. A moment later, he was virtually decapitated by a direct artillery hit; the explosion also ignited the ammunition stowed on board. Smith wept openly as he watched flames lift from the turret. His friend McBurney grabbed him and pulled him back.
"I don't belong here," twenty-year-old Leonard Smith thought to himself. He was supposed to be back in bivouac, repairing "Cool Stud," the tank in which he had landed on the debris-strewn aftermath of Omaha Beach two months earlier and driven across France. But after sixty straight days on the front lines, "Cool Stud," like more than half the tanks of Charlie Company, one of the five companies of the 761st Tank Battalion of George Patton's Third U.S. Army, had broken down.
The unit itself had been dangerously thinned during Patton's fall Saar Campaign, with casualties approaching 40 percent. Patton's attack had been halted by a surprise German counteroffensive, the Battle of the Bulge. On Christmas Day, the 761st had rushed north across the icy roads to Belgium to help stop the Germans.
They had been fighting for over a week in the Ardennes Forest during the coldest winter in Europe in thirty-five years, a cold beyond imagining. They had no winter gear, garbed in regular combat fatigues and boots without lining. After another brutally cold night, the crew of "Cool Stud" had been more than happy for a short break from the action, huddled around the fires the GIs made from twigs, boards, fences, anything that would burn. Smith, who in the folly of youth had continued to view the war as an extended game of Cowboys and Indians, had eagerly volunteered that morning to round out the depleted crew of his friend's tank.
Smith, McBurney, and Windsor crawled slowly across the open field, past the bodies of infantrymen fallen moments before, as well as bodies frozen solid in grotesque poses from the previous day's fighting. The bitter cold had turned the skin of the dead the purplish red color of wine. Smith found himself face-to-face with a dead German soldier whose eyes were a vivid clear blue. Windsor and McBurney, dragging their .45-caliber submachine guns with them, returned fire at intervals on the German tanks and white-clad infantry as they struggled to make their way. Mortar fire burst behind and in front of them. Machine guns spat at their feet. In their green regulation uniforms, they were easy targets against the freshly fallen snow.
Windsor led, followed by McBurney, with Smith at the rear. They had gone about three hundred yards when McBurney stopped. It was so cold it hurt to breathe. His fingers were now too numb to pull the trigger of his submachine gun. The edge of the woods they were painfully making their way toward was still a mile away—impossibly far. Smith came up beside him. "Come on, man, come on—think about the Savoy. We got to get back there and do some more dancing." The Savoy was a legendary ballroom in Harlem, known for its Big Band roster and polished oak floors.
"You go on," McBurney told him.
Smith persisted. "We got to get the hell out of here so we can get back and party."
McBurney wasn't thinking about the Savoy; he certainly wasn't thinking about dancing; he was thinking they were going to die here, in this hell on earth, thousands of miles from home. He was thinking Smith must be out of his mind. But Smith refused to leave him. Exhausted past the point of caring, McBurney simply wanted to lie there, close his eyes, and go to sleep. But at Smith's insistence, he started moving again.
Three green targets in the open white field, three miles from any aid or shelter, the bullets continued falling all around them, sending up mists and vapors in the waist-deep snow.
From Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes, Copyright 2004 by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton, published by Broadway Books.