Patton and his Black Tankers

I’ve never felt that we as a society have done a good job at tackling the issue of racism. We always seem to fall into one of two extremes, a call for segregation, or a level of enforced integration that’s outright obsessive or weird. Personally, I find skin color to be a rather secondary characteristic when I evaluate my fellow man. But this article isn’t about me.

 

My thesis is simple. Through the interactions of a General George S Patton, Jr, and the 761st Tank Battalion, I believe there is an important lesson in dealing with racial issues that we all too often overlook in our rush for an absolute 100 percent instant solution.

 

Patton was open and unapologetic in his prejudices. One might even say he was honest about it. In a letter to his wife, written from the North African front of World War II, he stated that “The black man does not belong on the modern battlefield.”

 

Ironically enough, when he put out a call for the best available reinforcement tankers to bolster his forces, he received the Black Panthers, the 761st tank battalion. The army was still segregated, and this battalion consisted almost exclusively of black tankers. Patton responded with a wire to Allied Command, stating “I asked for men, you sent me blacks.”

 

However, as the 761st started active combat, a most interesting thing happened. Patton lightened up with his prejudice. In a speech he gave directly to the 761st:

“Men, you’re the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army. I would never have asked for you if you weren’t good. I don’t care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those Germans.”

Perhaps he was just making the best of something he considered annoying. But perhaps one of the most stubborn human beings who ever lived actually managed to change his mind. Also of interest is that bits of the speech quoted above were worked into the speech at the start of George C Scott’s Patton.

 

Most retired members of the 761st seemed to remember Patton as being somewhat distant. He never talked down to them, and treated them with the same casual abuse he did anyone else. I have a theory as to a possible lesson here. And that’s that no matter who the subject is, the most effective cure for racism has nothing to do with enforcing equality or segregation. The solution is casual association. I think that after watching the 761st’s (stellar, objectively speaking) combat performance, Patton shelved his prejudices and regarded them as any other people under his command.

In addition, there was at least one occasion where Patton discovered an intrinsic tactical advantage in the black soldiers under his command. I’ll warn you now, this idea is going to look ludicrous by modern standards.

 

According to an account from Floyd Dade Jr of the 761st:

During the Battle of the Bulge, Patton settled on a rather ingenious, if a bit offensive, way to counter German saboteurs.

“Back to Patton again—skipping over a lot—going back down to the Bulge, when the Germans had kept a lot of our soldiers and equipment, they dressed the German soldiers up in American uniforms. They would get on these checkpoints directing the traffic, telling you which way to go, this highway and that way. Where the fighting is this way, and this way they're all done. But they would send the guys down that way, and they would ambush them when they come down. They told Patton about that. "George, man, they got us tricked. They are sending the troops the wrong way." Patton said, "That's no problem. Put a black on there. And if the son of a bitch 'aint black, shoot him." So he solved that problem real quick. They started getting those trucking companies and sending up some black MPs. They put them on the check points. But they did it for a couple of days, and it worked. Going the wrong way. A lot of you heard about that gasoline dump, when the Germans ran out of gasoline. They were trying to get to our depot.”

 

“So they got troops dressed up as Americans on all of these checkpoints.” Patton said, "Put one of them niggers up there, that's one thing they don't have. If he's not black, shoot the son of a bitch."

 

Well, that’s a very Patton solution, and a very Patton way of putting it. But it also worked. My point is that race was only an issue for Patton until he started getting results and actually interacting with the battalion. Well, it was also brought up when he wanted to counter Axis saboteurs. Let’s be honest, though, if the thousands of years our species spent developing into ethnic subgroups tossed a literally flawless plan in your lap, you’d have to at least consider the option.

 

Patton would later defend some of the more racist things he’d said over the years in his biography. Personally, I don’t think that means much. When given an opportunity to actually interact with Black People, the prejudice he expressed was far weaker than the professionalism he acted out.

 

Maybe the secret to equality isn’t to force people to be equal, or even to make them change their minds. Instead of considering those different from us as brothers, let’s make the first step of considering them as real, living people we can work with. We forgot to make that step before trying all the other stuff. I figure if it worked on Patton, it can work on anyone.