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The 758th Tank Battalion in WWII by Joe Wilson, Jr.

Discussion in 'ETO, MTO and the Eastern Front' started by WILD DUKW, Feb 7, 2019.


    WILD DUKW Active Member

    Dec 6, 2018
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    The 758th Tank Battalion in World War II: The U.S. Army’s First All African American Tank Unit. By Joe Wilson, Jr. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, ISBN 978-1-4766-6999-1. Photographs. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Pp. viii, 206.

    The African American military experience during World War II remains underrepresented in both academic and popular histories. Joe Wilson, Jr.’s recent history of the 758th Tank Battalion (Light) is his third work on this subject. His previous books told the stories of the 761st and 784th Tank Battalions.

    The author begins with an overview of events leading up to America’s entry into the war. Following a brief discussion of the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, the chapter ends with the arrival in Italy of the African American 92nd Infantry Division followed by that of the 758th.

    The book’s central theme is both familiar and important – the two front battle fought by African American soldiers – one against the nation’s enemies, the other against the institutionalized racism which permeated American society and its segregated military. The narrative is structured around eyewitness accounts, many by men who served in the 758th. Eyewitness accounts, especially after the passage of decades, can be problematic, and those used in the book are no exception. Still, they provide invaluable insights into race relations, both military and civilian, during WWII.

    The 758th was the first African American tank unit in the U.S. Army. It was activated on 1 June 1941 at Fort Knox, KY. The following fall the battalion was transferred to Camp Claiborne, LA to begin field training. There the men of the 758th, many from Northern states, encountered a white population that vehemently enforced their “Jim Crow” laws of strict segregation, even against uniformed soldiers serving their country. The author’s eyewitnesses describe riots that took place in nearby Alexandria during which large numbers of angry African American soldiers lashed out against the innumerable injustices they suffered at the hands of whites, both civilian and military. It was a scenario often repeated wherever racism and “Jim Crow” laws trumped patriotism and national unity during time of war. The men of the 758th encountered it often – Camp Hood, TX and Fort Huachuca, AZ were just two of the places where discrimination and racial unrest debilitated their morale and discipline. According to the author’s eyewitnesses, even Camp Patrick Henry, VA, the battalion’s last stop before leaving for combat, was the scene of racially motivated violence.

    The 758th arrived in Italy on 17 November 1944, and was issued badly worn tanks that required much time and effort to render combat ready. The author cites an eyewitness who claims this was the result of the Army’s institutionalized racial prejudice. Research indicates the “new tanks” were most likely allocated to units already in combat or part of the theater reserve, and not withheld due to racial prejudice.

    Only five chapters are devoted to the battalion’s time in combat. A considerable amount of the allotted space is devoted to the racism and poor leadership of Major General Edward M. Almond, commander of the 92nd Infantry Division, as well as the division’s operational failures, and to some extent, irrelevant and inaccurate digressions. For example, the author accuses the 473rd and 442nd Infantry Regiments of not wearing the division patch because they “did not want to be associated with the stigma” of the division’s poor combat performance. Apparently he is unaware that as separate regiments they were not authorized to wear the division patch.

    Two subsequent chapters recapitulate the histories of the 761st and 784th Tank Battalions. This seems an unnecessary use of space since the author has previously published books devoted to these units.

    The “Afterword” was written by the author’s father, Joe Wilson, Sr., who served in the 686th Field Artillery Battalion (non-divisional) during hostilities. In it he shares some of his personal experiences during the war as well as various thoughts and observations about the African American experience.

    The author presents the reader with an uneven history of the 758th. While his numerous eyewitness accounts of military and civilian life in the U.S. and overseas provide important insights, his relatively thin coverage of the battalion’s time in combat, coupled with a tendency to find prejudice where none existed, diminishes the work’s historical value. Additional information based on official sources would have proven helpful in describing the battalion’s time in combat, and would have added balance to the overall negative tone of the narrative. Despite the previously stated concerns, the book is a useful contribution to the body of information about the African American military experience during WWII. Hopefully, a more complete combat history of the 758th will someday find its way into print.
    Takao likes this.

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