Pvt. Narbanial Simmons poses with his M4 Sherman tank somewhere in France, 1944. Composite by Coffee or Die.
At 6 feet, 2 inches tall, Ruben Rivers was big for a soldier in the US Army’s tank corps. But even with his knees practically tucked into his chest, Rivers felt at home crammed inside the steel hull of an M4 Sherman tank. On Nov. 19, 1944, as Rivers led his column of tanks toward the Nazi-occupied French town of Bougaltroff, he proved why he was born to be a tanker.
Rivers was commanding the lead tank of the all-Black 761st Tank Battalion when the column came under heavy enemy fire. Rivers — who was still bleeding from a massive thigh wound he received three days earlier — recognized what needed to be done in order to save the rest of the unit. With zero regard for his own safety, Rivers ordered the column to withdraw from the killzone and attacked with the support of just one other American tank. While the two American tanks fired on the Germans as fast as they could, the rest of the 761st escaped the ambush. As the Americans withdrew, Rivers’ tank took two direct hits, killing him instantly.
Black Panthers of the 761st Tank Battalion move inland near Normandy, France. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
It took more than 50 years for Rivers to be properly recognized. In 1997, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The delay was indicative of how the nation has honored the memory of the entire 761st Tank Battalion. As one of the few all-Black combat units in the United States Army, its heroic contributions to the war effort have been largely ignored. But a new documentary aims to right that wrong and tell the incredible true story of the 761st “Black Panthers.”
The new film, titled 761st Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers, is produced and hosted by Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman. Freeman, who turned down a college scholarship to enlist in the Air Force, is passionate about sharing the stories of Black veterans.
“It doesn’t make any sense at all that American history doesn’t include Black people to the extent that it should,” Freeman says in the film. “I’ve been chasing this story about the 761st forever.”
Pvt. L.C. Byrd of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, gunner on an M4 Sherman, poses with his .50-caliber machine gun near Nancy, France, Nov. 5, 1944. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The film begins with Freeman explaining the unbelievable service record of the Black Panthers — the first all-Black tank unit in the US military. Activated in April 1942 at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, the 761st went on to fight across six European countries.
After landing on Omaha Beach in October 1944, the Black Panthers were in sustained combat for 183 consecutive days. During their violent drive toward Berlin, the 761st freed 30 cities from Nazi control, secured four airfields, and liberated the Mauthausen concentration camp.
In December 1944, when soldiers of the 101st Airborne found themselves surrounded during the Siege of Bastogne, it was the 761st that Gen. George S. Patton called upon to break through the German lines and rescue the paratroopers. By the end of the war, more than 300 Purple Hearts, 11 Silver Stars, and 69 Bronze Stars were awarded to the Black Panthers.
Freeman’s own story adds an emotional depth to what is otherwise a straightforward retelling of the 761st’s journey in World War II. Freeman describes his lifelong search for details surrounding two of his uncles who served in the Army during World War II.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III hosts Morgan Freeman for a private screening and conversation about Freeman’s documentary film on the 761st Tank Battalion at the Pentagon, Washington, Aug. 2, 2023. US Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Alexander Kubitza.
“History has overlooked the 761st because of the color of their skin. It makes me wonder if that prejudice is the reason I’ve had so much trouble trying to track down my relatives from World War II,” Freeman says. “I’ve talked to Colin Powell about it, I’ve talked to William Cohen about it. There’s nothing.”
The film’s director then surprises Freeman. He reveals that the film’s research team discovered the fate of his uncles. One served in the Army in the Philippines and survived the war. The other served in France, where he was murdered. His service record says he was shot to death but includes no other details. The reveal is bittersweet. On one hand, Freeman is grateful to learn the fate of his uncles. On the other hand, an unsolved murder leaves him with more questions.
Freeman’s personal connection to African American service in World War II isn’t the only thing that elevates the film beyond the myriad other documentaries about the war. It also includes rare interviews with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
Austin attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, served 41 years in the Army, and rose to the rank of general before becoming the first African American to be appointed secretary of defense.
“I like to think it’s not just those of us who put the uniform on that remember the sacrifice of our servicemen and women, but the citizens of the country we sought to protect remember us, too. And in equal measure,” Freeman tells Austin.
Soldiers of the 761st await orders to clear out scattered Nazi machine gun positions in Coburg, Germany, April, 25, 1945. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The pair also sat down with Robert Curtis Andry, one of the last surviving members of the 761st. At 98 years old, Andry still has pieces of shrapnel working their way out of his body. Freeman promises the aging veteran that the film will ensure the legacy of the 761st is not lost to history.
“We have so much history that people don’t know about,” he says. “It’s a story I’m here to tell.”
Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers, premieres Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023, on the History Channel.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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