The 758th Tank Battalion in World War II
The U.S. Army’s First All African American Tank Unit
Joe Wilson Jr.
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2018, 214 pages
Book Review published on: June 17, 2022
During periods of war and conflict, U.S. Army units have experienced numerous issues, such as equipment and personnel shortages, battle damaged equipment, and casualties. However, most units have not experienced one of the most dangerous and detrimental issues to morale and readiness—racism. The 758th Tank Battalion in World War II: The U.S. Army’s First All African American Tank Unit is the last of three books that Joe Wilson wrote to honor and highlight the service of one of the only three African American tank battalions that deployed and fought during World War II. The author does an excellent job of blending personal accounts of the soldiers who served in the 758th Tank Battalion, family member input, and other sources to paint a vivid picture of the insurmountable odds (segregation, stereotypes, politics, and racism) the soldiers of the first African American tank battalion had to overcome to fight for their country. This book also highlights the heroic actions and success of this unit in helping to liberate Italy during the war. As Wilson denotes, as liberators the Italian people cheered the 758th soldiers; however, after the war the men returned to a nation where segregation was the norm and where they were treated as second class citizens instead of heroes.
This book is not a chronology of the deployment, battles, and activities of the 758th during World War II. However, Wilson does an excellent job of blending eyewitness accounts of the unit’s activation, training, combat experience, heroism, and deactivation after the war ended. The author also does an excellent job of describing how segregation and racism created stumbling blocks for the unit. One of the points the author makes upfront is that the formation of the 758th was a struggle. As the book underscores, the United States was a segregated society before, during, and after World War II and segregation extended to the military. This segregation was deeply rooted in the Jim Crow era south, where most of the Army bases the 758th received tank training was located. The sentiments of Jim Crow permeated the military and had a cascading effect on the morale and readiness of the unit. As the author notes, the enlisted soldiers were African American, but the initial officers who led the unit were white and deemed the soldiers as non-patriotic cowards who lacked the mental agility and other attributes needed to serve in armored units. This same sentiment was prevalent through the highest ranks of the Army. One of the testimonies included in the book highlights the excitement of some of 758th soldiers as they were on one army base and saw new tanks on the installation. They were quickly disappointed when they discovered the new tanks were for the white units; their battalion ended up receiving old tanks that were used during World War I.
The author also does a superb job of highlighting why the African American soldiers joined the Army and fought for their country. Some soldiers viewed the army as a way to escape the harsh conditions of poverty, segregation, and racism, while others joined to prove that African Americans were patriotic, and to disprove unwarranted stereotypes in order to gain equal rights and change the policies and laws that created barriers for African Americans. Moreover, this book tells the story of what happened to the 758th and the other two African American Tank Battalions (761st and the 784th) after the war ended. Last, because of the stench of racism and segregation, it also highlights the inequality the soldiers of the 758th Tank Battalion faced with respect to receiving recognition and military awards for heroism during the war, such as the Medal of Honor. As an example, the author notes that after World War II President Harry Truman had one of the largest awards ceremony in American history, yet African Americans were excluded from the ceremony. It took many decades later (1997) for President William J. Clinton to award the Medal of Honor to several African Americans who served during World War II.
The 758th Tank Battalion in World War II: The U.S. Army’s First All African American Tank Unit is an excellent selection for those who want to know the contributions of African American soldiers during World War II in roles other than support and logistics. Although the book captures some of the unit’s exploits during World War II, it does not provide a detailed chronology of the 758th Tank Battalion during the war. However, it is an interesting book, especially for those who are looking for a holistic picture of the challenges that African American soldiers faced before, during, and after World War II.
Book Review written by: Fredrick Sanders, Fort Belvoir, Virginia