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Preparing for Europe
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What other camps did you go to before you went to Europe?
We left Camp Hood, we had to leave and go to Europe. Glad you asked that. It's a long story—interesting story too. We were going to Camp Shanks in New York. On our way to Camp Shanks, what happened—when we were kids, we used to get up by the railroad and we would watch the troop trains that would come through. They would come to Texarkana because that was a point for the railroads that you could go all in any direction from there. They call that a center, and all the trains would come in there.
I noticed that we were coming through Texarkana, we came in on a cotton bed railroad. The kids not far from our house, they're always watching the trains and when they come in, "Hey, there go a black troop train!" What happened was I got a magazine and I put my name on it and threw it off.
One of the kids picked it up, took it to the house. When we got down to the railroad yard, my mother was running across the tracks to come to see me. She knew I was going to be there someplace. The kids, the soldiers all started —I never did live that down—said this big fat lady came running across the tracks hollering, "My son, my son! He's on the car!" They let me get off. They weren't supposed to do that, but I got off and I hugged her. She brought one of my high school classmates with her who lived across the street. I hugged and kissed both of them, glad to see each other. All the troops started whistling, and going on.
Then after we pulled out of Texarkana, we would go into Louisiana and the other states. We had to pull the shades down so that they couldn't see if there were black troops on the trains because what they would do, they would fire on the trains, take pop shots at it. A couple of soldiers had gotten hit that way, you know, got killed.
I looked out the window and pulled the shades back and there was a hillbilly—I guess he went rabbit hunting, he had a rabbit in his arms and his old rifle on his shoulder—waving at the train. He didn't know who we were because the shades were down. I could see the reason why they wanted you to pull the shades down. Some people never did get it.
Then we went onto Camp Shanks. We haven't got there yet, have we? We went to Camp Shanks. That was the port of debarkation. I loved Camp Shanks, the biggest mess hall I even seen. You could go in and eat anytime. Apple pies, peach pies, potato—anything you wanted. Looked like, you know, before they electrocute you, just get anything you want, just eat your last meal. What did I eat my for my last meal—I just kept eating.
We left out of Camp Shanks about three days later after we got processed and they got the convoy together, about fifty ships. That's where we went from there to England.
Tell us about being in the 761st Battalion?
We were chosen as an experiment to fight. What the blacks have done, they have fought in all wars. In the Revolution, Crispus Attacus, he was the first man to get killed. In World War I, the Buffalo Soldiers, they fought for 192 days straight in France. They had to fight under the French flag, not the American flag because they said that if they fight under the American flag, they will come back home, since they fought for the country, and demand or want equal rights.
The 761st Tank Battalion—I was just reminding you of that—there wasn't no reason for us to be an experiment because they knew already that the Americans could fight. One of the other reasons, they wanted the blacks to go into the army, they said, "You can't leave them all here with our women," because when you come back, they'll be in love with them and some of them may get married to them. So draft them and make them be in the Army also.
What we did, we were the experiment, the 761st was by Jim McNair. Eleanor Roosevelt, she finally convinced President Roosevelt, with the Negro papers we had—the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier and the other papers—and the black congressmen that we had. General Patton, he said that the blacks are not coordinated enough to handle and drive those mechanized vehicles. They said the same thing about the Tuskegee Airmen.
We went over with the record that we did with this experiment. We did more than anyone else, any tank group. We fought 183 days straight. The life of a tanker, a tank battalion, was from ten to fifteen days—I’m stretching that a little—but we lasted 183. It was too bad that General McNair wasn't here to see how his experiment came out.
General Patton, he'd know what happened in all the rest of the regions in the rest of the world. It's just now coming out so you kids can know what's going on, about what had happened back in that time from the history. People wanted to know what happened to the 761st Tank Battalion. What did they do? Everything you tried to get was classified, you couldn't get it. Some things now in the archive, they say, still is classified. We got some of it out and they made a film out of it.
When you realized that you were going into war and not being supported by your country, like when you had to pull the shades down on the train, how did that make you feel?
That's just a pitiful fear. We ourselves were raised in the south, and I know how some people are. You don't have to do anything for people not to like you. Some of the people down there don't like themselves. The VA gave guys a VA loan, the whites also, black and white, and they would build themselves a nice home. Some of the whites, they built themselves a nice home after they got the GI loan. The other whites that were jealous, the hillbillies, the rednecks, whatever they call themselves—they would burn them down and saying, “You think you're better than we are.
The way people think, you don't worry about that. I just didn't worry about other people, what they were doing. Well just say, where you stayed in your place—well I did. I knew if I go over here what's going to happen. I put my nose in there and get it chopped off.
What was the general morale of the battalion?
Yes, they were high spirit because we knew, like General Patton told us when we got there, that the world was watching you. Everybody. What we did, they expected us to fail. We had one white officer in the battalion—Wingo, that was his name, I'll tell you the turkey's name—he said... And another white officer, he calls me every day now, he'd forget that he told me what Wingo said. He said, "Floyd, do you know what Wingo said?" I said, "What did he say?" He said, "When you get them niggers in combat, when they hear the first shot, they going to run." He said, "You know what happened?" I said, "What?" He said, "That son of a bitch was the first one to take off and run." And he did. When he ran he took all of our maps.
The office that worked, I forget what it was now, but he was in charge of that—I was talking to his driver the other day. He said the last time he saw him, that trench coat was flying in the air and he had those maps in his hand, taking off. And he did. We didn't see him again. He's buried in Arlington, too. They want to know why was he buried in Arlington Cemetery. He didn't do anything but take off with our maps. The maps that he took off with got Company B messed up because the Germans had a two-mile tank trap with those pill boxes behind them were camouflaged real good. It was on the map, but by him having the map, they didn't know they were there. We lost a company of tanks and about twenty-eight soldiers that had got killed.
Journey to Europe
What was the trip like from America to Europe?
We left Camp Shanks, as I told you before, at night. There were fifty ships. We were on an old English freighter that had been converted into a troop carrier. It had hammocks and cots in there that was converted so you have somewhere to sleep, about three high. The hammocks in the aisles, they were just swinging right to left. It was exciting, until you got seasick.
At night, the ships would—like a mother, like a chicken, a mother hen like she would have little chicks around, she'd just bring them all in at night close to her—we would all come in close to protect each other. During the day, they would spread out about a mile and a half or a mile apart, just in case a submarine or somebody come in and start destroying a ship, that they wouldn't hurt but the one that they hit.
It took us thirteen days to get over to Pool, England, that's where we landed. When we got there, the ship went in and we saw those workers out there unloading the ships and so forth. Some guy stuck his head in a porthole and said,"Hey, anybody in there from Texas?" Everybody called me "Tex" because I was from Texarkana, the twin city of Texas and Arkansas. I says, "Yeah!" I looked up and it was Old Snag. Snag, he was a football player that played football for the Texas side. I think he just went to school to play football. He was about three years older than I was. I was playing him in high school. He had been in the Army for a while. He was with the Port Battalion, what they call them. We had a nice talk and everything, wanted to know if we'd seen anybody else there that we saw.
Then we went to England. We picked up our new tanks, they were the 76 millimeter tanks—I'm sorry, the Sherman M4 with the 76 millimeter cannon, that was converted with the flash hider on it, the way the German 88 had. That was Patton's secret weapon that we're supposed to be bringing with us on the front line. I don't know if we were the secret weapons or if those cannons were the secret weapon. But anyway, we both arrived at the same time.
That’s what we did, each driver—not driver but—we put two men in the tank so we could take some of the ordinances over there so the other tank battalions could have some tanks.
How many people were in you battalion?
It was comprised of 700 blacks and we had three—sorry—seven white officers.
How did your officers treat you?
We had 22 black officers and I was the only battalion that had a white officer on the line, and he thought he was black. And he still did until the day he died. D.J. Williams. Eleanor's Niggers, I showed you the book—he wrote that and also Hit Hard. Think I should show it? This is one that he wrote, it's out of print right now and if you can find it somewhere if you can get, it would cost you about seventy five dollars. Can I show you the other one now? This one, the second one that he wrote is what they call Hit Hard.
Mr. Latterman, that was the guy’s name I was telling you about, Wingo, he used to come to our reunions and everything but he is still living. He's eighty-nine and his wife can't travel now-a-days so he said he won't be able to come, and he wrote a book of poems about the 761st.
Are the poems published?
No, I have a bunch of them downstairs. One of them was when we were fighting in the Battle of the Bulge down there in a little place called Tillet. We were with the 17th Airborne Division, and they would send black tankers and white paratroopers, and he had a long poem which was touching. Then he wrote another one, "Where Have All My Buddies Gone," and they’re really sad.
Do you remember any of the words of them?
Yes, "Where Have All My Buddies Gone..." no. He just kept repeating "the black tankers and white paratroopers, oh what a sight to be seen." You know the black tankers and the white paratroopers that we were doing our duty and fighting together. He was just expressing that in his poems. That nobody had any remorse for each other or anything, we were just glad to see each other and shaking hands. When you up there being with that stuff coming at you, you glad to see anybody. Any help you can get, and we did a hell of a good job.
How many black or African American officers were there?
What was their responsibility?
Platoon leaders and company commanders, and we had one at headquarters for supply, and Captain Gates, he was the assault gun leader.
Where were most people from in your battalion?
Where are they from? All over the USA. A lot of them from New York. I think a lot of them lied because they were ashamed to be from Mississippi or down south, and they just said they were from New York because I noticed when the trains came—when we came back—they wanted to know the trains going down south. I saw a lot of guys getting on those trains instead of the ones going to New York.
Why would they be ashamed?
I don't know, some people are just that way. I was bragging about I was from the south.
What was your first battle experience?
The first battle experience. When General Patton came to talk to us, we were in Nancy, France. What General Patton had done, he wanted to take his Fourth Army Division because during the invasion at Normandy, General Patton, he took off chasing the Germans all over across France until he got to Nancy, France. He had lost quite a few tanks, I don't know how many battalions out of his division, Fourth Army Division.
So what he wanted to do, he wanted to regroup because he loved power, he loved to hit them hard. The Germans, they were getting stronger resistance. They were digging in and standing for a big fight. And so Patton realized he had to regroup. And what he did—that’s why he sent for us—he said "Men, I have nothing in my Army but the best." He said, "If you wasn't the best you wouldn't be here." And he said, "The world is watching you, your people are watching you, all Americans are watching you. So don't you let them down and, damn it, don't you let me down." He said, "We are all expecting great things out of you, and I want you to go there and kill all of those"—he called them "Krauts" at that time, "SOBs." He said, "When you go and strike them, hit them hard. We are going to be back here to stop them when they run over you." So that put a red light in front of me there, that we must not be ready to come back, it must be a suicidal mission, which it was I think.
They told us what they wanted us to do, they wanted a couple of towns and villages there around St. Nickels and Nancy, France where we struck out from. There was a hill called 309, I believe it was, and they had the 26th Infantry Division, I think the 103rd Regiment, pinned down in that area. So their man, their division commander came over and said, "Men, I am damn glad that you are here, we have been waiting for you for three days and we are damn glad to see you." So the next day we moved out to get in position. Captain Gates, the assault gun, we moved the tanks out one at a time. What we did to keep the Germans from detecting how many tanks that we had—he would let off a few rounds from the houses, oh about fifty yards from the tanks, we had to stay buttoned down to drown the sound of the engines out so they wouldn't hear the roars of the engines, and they'd count how many tanks were coming up. So he kept doing that to interfere with it.
When we got into position—the way we are sitting here now—that was the 26th Infantry Platoon going to follow our tank, and I got out BS-ing with the guys, still didn't know what the seriousness of it was. They were all nervous and I was just cheering them up, you know, saying a lot of crap and they were laughing. Then they're sweating, going on, you know. And it said, came on the radio, "Turn them over," so I said, "See you Searge," and I jumped in the tank and then we buttoned it down. And that’s when we started going. And the German stuff started going in and ours started going out. You could tell ours were going out like "whissssh" a big rush of wind. And you always remember that sound that’s going out. Then the Germans were coming in, yeowww, yeowww, that’s incoming—that had a long high scream and go, yohhhhh, like that. As long as the scream is, it's over you, but if it gets short, look out, find a hole to get in.
What does the short sound like?
Psssss.That’s it. Boom-psssss-boom. The third one—they're lining up on you, you better go right or left then they hit right where you left from. They were good. My tank, evidently, there must have been a little drop because when the tank went down the Germans must of had a bead in my back where my position in the tank and turret. Over top of my head was a 50 caliber gun mount, about thick as my arm, you know, holding it up. The tank would rock like that when something hit it and we didn't know what happened at that particular time. We just battled like hell. Then we got into town and we chased them out and they went to the next one, so we stopped to regroup and things had slowed down a little bit.
It was getting dark so we had to get more ammunition and gasoline, and grease the tank. You had to keep the greased, lubricated because if you don't they keep wearing and going, and they'll burn out and so then you'd have a disabled tank. So we looked and noticed that our 50 caliber gun was gone. And where it hit it, the shell—the amour piercing—they cut it off like you had a torch, you know, a welding torch, they were just that powerful. If it had hit the tank it would have came through it, and it would have got about out three or four of us. Sometimes it don't, but the short belt 75, they have, it will have just enough power to get into the tank and then it will go around inside of it like that. But that 88, it's so powerful that it will go straight through. It will get three guys this way and two this way, and on the bow gunner side it will get two that way, either way it come in. Then we looked on the side of the tank there and there were a couple of other gouges where it had hit in and ricochet, you know, it looked like it was burned and the steel was about that thick, where it started in and bounced off. So we were lucky that was all that happened.
Then I was looking for my friends I said "where's so and so?" They said "No man, they got it a long time ago, they didn't get too far." The infantry, they keep feeding guys up, another one in, that’s why they kept changing, they didn't do like we did, stay up there all the time. They just put another division up there with us, another group of soldiers, but we just had to keep rolling all the time. And what the 26th Infantry Division said, "Well, we're pulling back," I said, "Yay good! We're pulling back," you know, we thought we were going with them, but they said, "Oh, no. You guys are staying here. The 87th is relieving us," the 87th Division, So we stayed with them until we went down into Ardennes for the Battle of the Bulge.
What did you do in the tank?
My first assignment I was the loader.
What did that involve?
The tank commander would shout out the ammunition that he wants. I will explain that to you—it all depends upon the vehicle you see or if it's troops or what the situation is. If it's troops, you will say, "gunner, H.E." Then I have to look in there and get an H.E. out, High Explosive. Then he would tell me on the nose of it, how does he want it set, super quick or delay. If you do it super quick, the time that it hits it will explode. If you put it on delay, if you firing at the troops, it will hit the ground and ricochet up and then it would be more effective, then it would explode. If there is a building we want to put one in here, we put it on delay also and it will come inside the building then it will explode. But super quick, whatever it hit on the outside, it will just go ahead and explode. Then if it's a tank, he would want A.P., that's amour piercing and that’s what you put in there. If you want smoke, phosphorus. You would have to know the difference between all those rounds. Each man had to know how to operate each position in the tank. You got to know how to drive it — that’s what we training in Fort Knox—you had to know how to drive it, be an assistant driver, know how to be gunner, know how to be a tank commander, know how to be loader.
Can you remember your first day in combat?
Yeah that was it.