Morgan Freeman’s work is already in the Library of Congress, as part of the National Film Registry of movie classics. And now, he’s here in person, visiting one of the great public spaces in America – the Library’s main reading room.
“Nothing says history like this room,” said Martin.
They are here because the Library of Congress was the only place we could find a copy of this book: “Come Out Fighting: The Epic Tale of the 761st Tank Battalion 1942-1945.” It tells the story of the first Black tank battalion to fight in World War II, a time when the armed forces were still segregated and Blacks were limited almost entirely to support duties behind the front lines.
The book was written by Trezzvant Anderson, a young Black reporter who accompanied the 761st as it fought its way across Europe. Freeman said he had not heard of him.
“He deserves to be better known,” Martin said.
“All of this deserves to be better known, all of this,” he replied.
Freeman has set out to make that happen, with a documentary, “761st Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers,” which will air on the History Channel, complete with a cameo appearance by Lloyd Austin, the nation’s first Black secretary of defense.
Freeman said what struck him most about their story was “the fact that all of this is true, and nobody knows about it. Why don’t we know all of American history?”
The story of the 761st has been told before – in a 1992 documentary narrated by Denzel Washington (“The Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II”), and in a 2004 book written by Kareem Abdul Jabbar (“Brothers in Arms”), but it has never registered in American culture like “Band of Brothers,” the HBO series about a company of white soldiers fighting their way across Europe.
“I want to do a ‘Band of Brothers,'” Freeman said. “I want it to be before the public in all of its depth and wonder, bravery and guts.”
Very few people will ever read Trezzvant Anderson’s account; the Library has two copies, one of which is in storage because it’s in such bad condition. But Morgan Freeman read it for us:
“This story belongs to the 14 million Negroes of America as a tribute to the military prowess, courage and bravery of their sons, brothers and fathers against great odds on the field of battle. What the 761st tank battalion did and how it did it are the utmost importance to all the people of America.”
The numbers may be out-of-date, but the words still ring true.
In the fall of 1944, Gen. George Patton was leading the American charge toward Germany, but he was running short of tanks. So, Patton, who never hid his racist views, sent for the 761st. He’s quoted in the book as saying:
“Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you. Most of all your race is looking forward to you. Don’t let them down, and damn you, don’t let me down.”
They saw their first combat on November 7, 1944, in a small French village held by the Germans.
“Everybody was scared. Only a liar would deny it, but then the job just had to be done.”
Martin said, “The Germans kicked the hell out of Company C, so it’s not like the 761st is going from glorious victory to glorious victory. They’re taking some serious losses.”
“They didn’t back down,” Freeman said. “They didn’t turn and run.”
They were thrown into the epic Battle of the Bulge (Hitler’s last desperate attempt to reverse the tide of war), broke through the heavily fortified Siegfried line, crossed the Rhine, and rolled into the Third Reich – one-hundred-and-eighty-three straight days on the front lines.
The ultimate compliment to the 761st came from a captured German officer: “Such bravery I’ve never before seen.”
Johnnie Stevens was one of six members of the 761st whose oral histories were recorded by the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project. “They said we weren’t qualified to do this, and we set out to prove different,” Stevens said. “And we did. We proved it. But we didn’t get any recognition for it.”
They came home to a country as deeply segregated as the one they left.
“How were they treated by the government, by the country?” Freeman said. “To the back of the bus where you belong.”
The 761st was nominated for a presidential unit citation in 1945, but did not receive it until Jimmy Carter was president – 33 years later.
Reuben Rivers did not receive the posthumous Medal of Honor he had earned in battle until Bill Clinton was president.
As Trezzvant Anderson wrote:
“By the sweat of the brows of dusky Negro soldiers who fought for their country and gave their blood and their lives on the field of battle, asking nothing, but hoping that their sacrifices would not go unheeded and unnoticed by history.”
Martin asked Freeman, “Have they gone unheeded and unnoticed?”
“Until now,” he replied. “We’re gonna make them noticed. Time has come. That’s all. As simple as that. Time’s come.”
To watch a trailer for “761st Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers” click on the video player below:
For more info:
- “761st Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers” premieres on The History Channel August 20
- “Come Out Fighting: The Epic Tale of the 761st Tank Battalion 1942 to 1945” by Trezzvant Anderson
- Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project
Story produced by Mary Walsh. Editor: Mike Levine.