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Brothers In Arms

Cover of Brothers In Arms

Brothers In Arms

The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes
A powerful wartime saga in the bestselling tradition of Flags of Our Fathers, BROTHERS IN ARMS recounts the extraordinary story of the 761st "Black Panthers," the first all-black armored unit to see combat in World War II.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar first learned about the battalion from family friend Leonard "Smitty" Smith, a veteran of the battalion. Working with acclaimed writer Anthony Walton, Abdul-Jabbar interviewed the surviving members of the battalion and their descendants to weave together a page-turning narrative based on their memories and stories, from basic training through the horrors on the battlefield to their postwar experiences in a racially divided America.

Trained essentially as a public relations gesture to maintain the support of the black community for the war, the battalion was never intended to see battle. In fact, General Patton originally opposed their deployment, claiming African Americans couldn't think quickly enough to operate tanks in combat conditions. But the Allies were so desperate for trained tank personnel in the summer of 1944, following heavy casualties in the fields of France, that the battalion was called up.

While most combat troops fought on the front for a week or two before being rotated back, the men of the 761st served for more than six months, fighting heroically under Patton's Third Army at the Battle of the Bulge and in the Allies' final drive across France and Germany. Despite a casualty rate that approached 50 percent and an extreme shortage of personnel and equipment, the 761st would ultimately help liberate some thirty towns and villages, as well as the Gunskirchen Lager concentration camp.

The racism that shadowed them during the war and the prejudice they faced upon their return home is an indelible part of their story. What shines through most of all, however, are the lasting bonds that united them as soldiers and brothers, the bravery they exhibited on the battlefield, and the quiet dignity and patriotism that defined their lives.
A powerful wartime saga in the bestselling tradition of Flags of Our Fathers, BROTHERS IN ARMS recounts the extraordinary story of the 761st "Black Panthers," the first all-black armored unit to see combat in World War II.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar first learned about the battalion from family friend Leonard "Smitty" Smith, a veteran of the battalion. Working with acclaimed writer Anthony Walton, Abdul-Jabbar interviewed the surviving members of the battalion and their descendants to weave together a page-turning narrative based on their memories and stories, from basic training through the horrors on the battlefield to their postwar experiences in a racially divided America.

Trained essentially as a public relations gesture to maintain the support of the black community for the war, the battalion was never intended to see battle. In fact, General Patton originally opposed their deployment, claiming African Americans couldn't think quickly enough to operate tanks in combat conditions. But the Allies were so desperate for trained tank personnel in the summer of 1944, following heavy casualties in the fields of France, that the battalion was called up.

While most combat troops fought on the front for a week or two before being rotated back, the men of the 761st served for more than six months, fighting heroically under Patton's Third Army at the Battle of the Bulge and in the Allies' final drive across France and Germany. Despite a casualty rate that approached 50 percent and an extreme shortage of personnel and equipment, the 761st would ultimately help liberate some thirty towns and villages, as well as the Gunskirchen Lager concentration camp.

The racism that shadowed them during the war and the prejudice they faced upon their return home is an indelible part of their story. What shines through most of all, however, are the lasting bonds that united them as soldiers and brothers, the bravery they exhibited on the battlefield, and the quiet dignity and patriotism that defined their lives.
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  • Chapter One CHAPTER 1

    VOLUNTEERS

    The atmosphere of the whole country was to get in the service and help. I wanted to do my part.
    --William McBurney

    When seventeen-year-old Leonard Smith stepped off the United States Army troop train in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, in the fall of 1942, it was the first time he had been outside of New York State. For the last three days, he had been traveling with fourteen other recruits, headed to Camp Claiborne, seventeen miles southwest of Alexandria. There, they were to join a recently established armored unit. To Smith's surprise, the train stopped in an open field. The sergeants on the train threw the young soldiers' bags out and told them to get off. Smith and his companions, in full dress uniform and carrying their regulation duffel bags, waited for four hours in the empty field on the outskirts of the Kisatchie National Forest, watching the sun move across the sky. Finally, two of them set off on foot to find help.

    Leonard Smith was one of the more than six hundred men who would come together at Camp Claiborne during the Second World War to form the 761st Tank Battalion. They would hail from over thirty states, from small towns and cities scattered throughout the country, from places as varied as Los Angeles, California, and Holtulka, Oklahoma; Springfield, Illinois, and Picayune, Mississippi; Billings, Montana, and Baltimore, Maryland. Most had volunteered. Some were the middle-class sons of doctors, undertakers, schoolteachers, and career military men; among the officers were a Yale student and a football star from UCLA who would later make his mark in American sports and American history. Many more were the sons of janitors, domestics, factory workers, and sharecroppers.

    Their combat record in Europe during the war was noteworthy. They were to earn a Presidential Unit Citation for distinguished service, more than 250 Purple Hearts, 70 Bronze Stars, 11 Silver Stars, and a Congressional Medal of Honor in 183 straight days on the front lines of France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, and Austria. These accomplishments carried a significance, however, beyond the battlefield. The unit's official designation was "The 761st Tank Battalion (Colored)." As they waited in that hot Louisiana field, Leonard Smith and his fellow recruits were on their way to becoming part of the first African American unit in the history of the United States Army to fight in tanks.

    In the fall of 1942, the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific seemed far from the backwater post of Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. They were as far from Leonard Smith's experience as Camp Claiborne had been before he boarded the train in New York City. Smith was born in Harlem Hospital on November 2, 1924; he was a sickly child at birth, weighing less than five pounds, with both colic and a heart murmur. His mother abandoned him shortly after he was born. Lulu Hasbruck, who worked for New York City taking in children with medical complications, cared for Smith during those early, precarious years. Other foster children regularly moved in and out of Hasbruck's home, but Smith and two girls, Thelma and Flora, remained. Smith would come to regard Lulu as his mother, though she never formally adopted him.

    Despite his short, skinny frame and the heart murmur that kept him from playing school sports, Smith became an active, adventuresome child, regularly challenging other kids in his Brooklyn, and later Queens, neighborhood to footraces around the block. The neighborhood kids didn't seem to mind losing to him. There was something about him that adults and classmates immediately responded to, a combination of good-naturedness,...
About the Author-
  • KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR, six-time NBA Most Valuable Player, is the author of the New York Times bestseller Giant Steps, as well as Kareem and A Season on the Reservation. ANTHONY WALTON is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Mississippi, as well as the coauthor of Reverend Al Sharpton's book Go and Tell the Pharoah.

Reviews-
  • Washington Post Book World

    "A carefully researched and engrossing account that paints the individual dramas of the tankmen against the backdrop of the war . . . A fine tribute to these unsung heroes and a valuable addition to the literature on African American service in World War II."

  • People (Critic's Choice) "A wholly different perspective on the 'greatest generation.'"
  • Charlotte Observer "A brilliant and moving narrative that through its imagery helps the reader appreciate the hardness of battle."
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "A slam dunk . . . Well written, well researched and an excellent read . . . Abdul-Jabbar does an incredible job of weaving [the personal stories] into the context of the war as it unfolded."
  • Sacramento Bee "A touching profile of men who fought overt and subtle racism for the chance to prove their mettle, and a poignant reminder of the unreasonable prejudices of that era that almost kept them on the sidelines."
  • Military History "An inspirational, moving account of courage and comradeship on the part of exceptional men."
  • Houston Chronicle "Not only an exciting, informative military history for the general reader but also a revealing and moving record of racism in America's past."
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    Crown Publishing Group
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Brothers In Arms
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The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
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The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
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