Saturday, August 19, 2023

761st Tank Battalion, on History Channel

It is doubly tragic that Gen. George S. Patton succumbed to injuries from an untimely accident in 1945. Had he lived longer, he might have helped the men of the761st Tank Battalion get some of the recognition they deserved, but were long denied because of the color of their skin. Initially, Patton’s opinions on the fitness of black soldiers reflected those of his class and his fellow officers. However, Patton had praise for the 761th and signed-off on Presidential Unit Citation request that was nixed by top brass until 1978. Fittingly, Morgan Freeman, the star of Glory and the voice of God, helps tell their neglected story as host and executive producer of director Phil Bertelsen’s feature-length History Channel special, 761st Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers, which premieres tomorrow.

Initially, the military did not want black soldiers in combat, reserving them for servile support duties instead. When the men of what would become the 761
st started armored training, their officers assumed they would fail, but they exceled instead, so they continued to train and train waiting to be sent into combat. As a result, they really knew their stuff, better than many of their white comrades, when they were finally shipped off to Europe to reinforce Patton’s army. He was skeptical, but he needed bodies desperately.

Bertelsen and his on-camera historians do a nice job explaining the 761th’s engagements under Patton’s command. Unfortunately, as a so-called “bastard brigade,” the 761th was not permanently attached to a brigade. Instead, they were dispatched wherever they were needed, sort of like a combat equivalent of substitute teachers. As a result, they were combat-deployed for a punishing 183 days straight. On the other hand, they had the advantage of being an armored unit, which camouflaged their skin color during battle conditions.

During the course of filming, Bertelsen and his researchers also made some newsworthy discoveries regarding Freeman’s uncles, who disappeared during or after their WWII service. Despite making cabinet level inquiries, Freeman never learned what happened to them. Technically, this falls a little outside the scope of the 761th’s history, but it is consistent with the themes of the docu-special. Regardless, when you have a chance to make some news with Morgan Freeman, you jump at it. It does indeed provide some significant moments.

Freeman also talks at length with current Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (who deserves credit for being one of the few realists in the current administration regarding the dangers posed by Xi’s CCP regime), which adds further newsiness. Frankly, this is better than dozens of the disposable docs that get dumped into theaters each week. Regardless, it is part of a small wave of attention for the 761th Tank Battalion, following the release of the highly flawed but entertaining
Come Out Fighting, starring Michael Jai White. Freeman and company do a good job telling their story and explaining the relevant context. Highly recommended, 761st Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers airs this Sunday (8/20) on History Channel.