At a time when the U.S Army was still racially segregated, the all-Black 761st Tank Battalion was created at Camp Claiborne in Louisiana. The unit nicknamed the “Black Panthers” went on to earn combat honors on the battlefield with General Patton’s Third Army in Europe.
US Forest Service Ranger Jonny Fryar leads me through the tall longleaf pine woods of the Kisatchie National Forest. The ground is charred from a prescribed burn that cleared out the underbrush. And that exposes the concrete foundations of what was once Camp Claiborne, a World War Two era facility where a half-million soldiers trained for battle overseas.
exploring the remains of camp claiborne
We see the concrete pilings that once supported the troop barracks. Concrete steps that led to the entrance of the camp’s movie theater. We walk to the concrete foundation of a service area used by the 761st Tank Battalion. Fryar stands on a concrete slab poured more than 80 years ago and explains, “This is where they worked on the equipment, the tanks and their big trucks”. He adds that Camp Claiborne had an enormous amount of infrastructure. All of the buildings were removed at the end of World War Two.
The 761st Tank Battalion was all-Black unit created a Camp Claiborne. Its nickname was the Black Panthers.
the black panthers featured on tv
The entrance to old Camp Claiborne now has a historical marker to the 761st Tank Battalion. There is also an exhibit at the nearby Southern Forest Heritage Museum in Long Leaf, LA. And at Camp Beauregard in Pineville, you can learn even more about the Louisiana Maneuvers and the 761st at the facility’s military museum.
761st tank battalion gets historical markers
Richard Moran works at the Camp Beauregard Museum. He takes me to a vintage Sherman tank parked in a display area outside the museum. Moran says, “The crew itself was a five-man crew. You had the driver, you had the machine gunner and radio operator. You had the commander, gunner and loader in the turret”.
Moran is a retired army captain who served in the armored division and spent time in tanks. Moran explains what it’s like serving in a tank unit. “I always like to tell people that an individual soldier can make his own decision to jump behind that log,” Moran said. But in a tank crew Moran says, “You have to make a decision for everybody.” He added, “So if one person screws up in that decision, the tank can be destroyed”.
the 761st goes to war in europe
In Europe, the Black Panthers, who’s motto was “Come Out Fighting” became part of General George Patton’s Third Army. On the eve of their first battle, General Patton addressed the men of the 761st Tank Battalioon, telling them, “Men, you’re the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American army. Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you. Most of all your race is looking forward to your success. Don’t let them down and damn you, don’t let me down!”
battlefield success for the 761st tank battalion
The all-Black tank battalion served 183 straight days of combat and participated in four major campaigns. The unit earned battlefield honors. And in their fight against the German enemy, the men of the 761st received seven silver stars, 246 purple hearts and 1 congressional medal of honor.
Moran explained the success of the 761st saying, “Once they got put into combat, they never got taken out. So by the end of World War Two, they literally were one of the best tank battalions in the United States Army”. Three years after the end of the war in 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order that brought an end to segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces.
The entrance to Old Camp Claiborne is located at the intersection of US Highway 165 and LA-112 north of Forest Hill, Louisiana.
The Southern Forest Heritage Museum is located south of Forest Hill, LA at 77 Long Leaf Rd, Longleaf, Louisiana. Phone (318) 748-8404.
The Louisiana Maneuvers Museum is located on the grounds of the National Guard facility at Camp Beauregard, Pineville, Louisiana.