Members of the 761st Tank Battalion had a lot of things stacked against them in World War II.
They were the first black unit to face combat. They were thrust into some of the fiercest fighting of the battle for Europe in some of the worst weather and conditions. The 761st, known as the Black Panthers, also was segregated and had to fight the Army and white soldiers for respect.
"We weren't too worried about showing them what we could do," said Roosevelt Harris, of St. Louis, the last 761st veteran from the area. "We knew we could do it all along. And they would find out sooner or later."
Harris, 85, worked in a bullet factory in St. Louis until he was drafted and sent to Belgium in 1944 to join the 761st as a tank maintenance man. There he became fast friends with East St. Louis residents Charlie Bailey and Albert Word.
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"We all became very close," Harris said. "I didn't know them before the war, even though we had lived so near each other. But we would go to jazz clubs and dances after the war. We all stayed in touch until they passed a few years ago."
The 761st fought under Gen. George S. Patton Jr., famous for his aggression in battle. And the Black Panthers quickly became one of his favorite units, living up to its motto: "Come out fighting." It often spearheaded his attacks including leading the attack to turn the tide in favor of the Allies during the Battle of the Bulge and knocking a hole in the Siegfried Line to allow Patton's 4th Armored Division to move into Germany.
They fought in France, Belgium, and Germany, and were among the first American forces to link up with the Soviet Army at the River Steyr in Austria.
Harris said his job during the war was to deliver fuel and ammunition to tanks at the front. Members of his service unit also repaired tanks, doing things such as putting tracks that had been blown off back on the wheels so the tank could move.
"If the tracks came off, it was usually pretty bad," Harris said. "Once a tank sits still, it's a sitting duck and they just start pounding it. If they hit it and ignite the ammo or the gas, there was no fixing it. That tank was gone."
When tank crews were killed, it was the job of Harris and the service crews to retrieve the frozen or burned bodies so the dead could be given a proper burial. Then they had to salvage the tank so another crew could take it over and press on with the war effort.
"Maybe it was two or three in that tank. We had to go up and get them out. Sometimes their limbs were off and stuff like that. But we still had to get them out, you know, and take them out so they could be buried," Harris said. "And that was the worst part."
Richard Ford, a World War II historian from Collinsville, said it was horrific for service crews to have to clean human remains out of tanks that had exploded.
"It was one of the worst jobs of the war," Ford said. "There was no way to get the smell of death out of those tanks. It was nearly as awful for the crews that had to take them over."
While he wasn't in the direct line of fire during tank battles, Harris said the job he, Bailey and Word did had its own dangers.
One night when his unit found a place to stay they heard a Jeep approaching.
"It was running in second gear, so we knew it was someone who didn't know how to drive it," Harris said. "They yelled for them to halt and they wouldn't stop, so they opened fire and killed them. Later, they discovered that they were Germans dressed as Americans. I don't know what they were up to. But that really sent a chill through my blood."
With turf rapidly changing hands from the Allies to the Axis and back again, Harris said his biggest fear was falling into enemy hands.
"You really had to study the maps because you didn't want to get lost," Harris said.
Harris said he also saw two concentration camps.
"There were bodies stacked up in piles, lying on top of each other and scattered all over the place," he said. "There was a big hole dug in the ground that looked like they were about to do a mass burial."
In addition to his European Theater Campaign Medal, Harris received a purple heart following his encounter with Bed Check Charlie.
"He was a German pilot who would fly at night and, if he saw anything move on the ground, would drop a bomb," Harris said, explaining that one of those bombs caused a chunk of concrete wall to fall on him and pin him down. "They told me I was going to get a purple heart, but I told them I didn't want it because every time someone got one, not much longer after that, they got killed."
Harris, Bailey and Word were sent home in August 1945. After that, they all looked forward to the annual unit reunions until Bailey and Word died.
"It's getting pretty lonely around here," Harris said. "But I'm planning to go to the reunion again this year. I'm really looking forward to it."
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2626.