Wednesday, April 24, 2024

How a Black War Correspondent Fought to Tell the Story of the … – History

Farrell Evans
Updated: | Original:
During World War II, the U.S. Army mobilized a huge public relations campaign to glorify its soldiers and boost public support for the war. But that effort largely ignored America’s segregated Black troops, who were given second-class treatment and often relegated to menial support roles. Journalist Trezzvant Anderson fought to fill that gap and give Black troops the recognition they deserved—in part by embedding with the 761st Tank Battalion and documenting their role in winning the war. The 761st, the first Black tank squad to see combat, would go on to earn nearly 400 decorations for heroism in just seven months of combat.
One of a handful of African American army correspondents writing from the war’s European theater, Anderson filed dispatches for influential Black newspapers such as the Baltimore Afro-American, the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. An early—and fearless—civil rights activist, he used his platform not only to report about African American troops, but to advocate for more active combat roles and integrating the U.S. armed forces. In covering the 761st, nicknamed the “Black Panthers,” he had a wider goal: to show Americans that Black soldiers’ patriotism, courage and sacrifice warranted full rights at home.
In his dispatches, Anderson reported the unit’s key moments—from when they repelled a German counteroffensive in the tide-turning Battle of the Bulge to when they broke through the fabled “Siegfried line,” allowing General George Patton’s troops to invade Germany. His writing vividly captured the experience of fighting from the belly of an armored vehicle. “The inside of a tank is a helluva place to be, when red-hot, white-hot steel fragments are ricocheting around, and just can’t go anywhere else but the inside of that tank,” Anderson wrote in one article, later included in a compilation book entitled Come Out Fighting: The Epic Tale of the 761st Tank, 1942-1945. “God, how those things would tear the insides out of a man.” 
He published the book in 1945, to widely trumpet the achievements of Black soldiers—especially to U.S. politicians staunchly opposed to racial equality. According to Anderson biographer Willie Griffin, who teaches history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, his work “reveals the importance of the Black press as a tool for activism.”
By the war’s start, Anderson was already a crusading journalist and early civil rights activist. Throughout the Depression, the Charlotte, North Carolina, native crisscrossed the South, reporting on everything from labor discrimination against African Americans to political activity, social conditions and lynchings. He used his perch as a part-time railway postal clerk to relentlessly report on corrupt and racist hiring practices in the civil service. According to Griffin’s unpublished dissertation on Anderson, his muckraking journalism led directly to the conviction of a prominent Charlotte official—and helped pressure President Franklin Roosevelt into desegrating government and national defense jobs in 1941.
Documenting racism was dangerous business in the South and, according to Griffin, Anderson sometimes wrote under a pseudonym for fear of being lynched. After agitating for increased Black hiring in the civil service and wartime defense industries, he took his fight to the era’s largest employer: the U.S. Army. Enlisting in January 1943, Anderson lobbied for an official war role for the Black press, which didn’t yet exist. Throughout his service, he faced censorship and pushback from white military personnel opposed to giving Black journalists a role in the army’s P.R. efforts and was concerned about their portrayal of Black soldiers’ experience in the segregated U.S. forces.
The Black newspapers Anderson wrote for offered, for much of the 20th century, the most powerful means to reach African Americans. Their news reports and editorials proved influential in shaping attitudes about racism and inequality in America.
At the outset of World War II, when some Black citizens questioned whether they should risk their lives for a country that denied them basic civil rights, many Black papers amplified the theme. The Pittsburgh Courier championed a national “Double V Campaign,” calling for “Democracy at Home-Abroad.” It linked the quest for victory over fascism overseas to the goal of defeating racism at home.
But Black newspapers faced constant existential threats. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, convinced they would discourage their readers from supporting U.S. involvement in the war, pushed repeatedly to indict them for sedition. Using the same rationale, the U.S. Postal Service threatened to ban the mailing of Black newspapers during the war. The Justice Department thwarted those efforts, citing First Amendment protections.
In late 1944, with racial tensions in the military simmering, the War Department created an all-Black public relations unit that would collect news for the Black press in the European theater of operations. When white officers objected, stalling the installation of its appointed Black leader, Anderson stepped into the void to unofficially play that role himself.
“Trezzvant Anderson was not deterred,” wrote Griffin. “He was determined to continue flooding Black newspapers with stories that he felt all Black America needed to hear and read about.” Addressing readers often as “Your Reporter,” Anderson gave Black people, Griffin wrote, “an authentic sense of connection to the plight of soldiers serving in Europe.” He made a point of naming soldiers and listing their hometowns—especially in the South—so readers back home could celebrate their loved ones’ achievements and know they were alive.
Facing heavy military censorship that removed any mention of racism or second-class treatment, Anderson still found ways to advocate for Black troops. In some articles, before he embedded with the 761st, he linked low Black soldier morale to lack of opportunity, arguing they would feel more pride and motivation if allowed to fight. “Perhaps if these colored boys were turned loose, and given a chance to exercise their own initiative, ingenuity and capacity for production without hindrance, and away from any racial atmosphere,” he wrote, “it would be a different story.”
Anderson also advocated for integrated fighting units, making the case that cooperation between races was essential for success against the Nazis. He reported on the success of Canada’s integrated forces and wrote about how racial differences in combat takes a back seat to larger life-and-death concerns. “The front line of fire is a great teacher and builder of fine race relations,” Anderson penned in 1944.  
As the first all-Black tank squad to see combat during the war, the 761st was an experiment closely watched by military leaders, the press and American citizens—particularly African Americans interested in proving that the race could help the country in the war effort. Shortly after the battalion’s arrival in France in October 1944 after two years of training, General George S. Patton, head of the Third Army, famously spoke to the soldiers. “Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you,” Patton said. “Most of all your race is looking forward to your success. Don’t let them down and damn you, don’t let me down!”
Yet in later his diary, Patton showed less optimism. The men gave a good first impression, he said, but “I have no faith in the inherent fighting ability of the race.”
Anderson pressed Patton in his first interview with him about the early performance of the Black troops. “These Negro troops have done a helluva job,” Patton said. “They’ve hauled troops in everything from three-quarter ton weapons carriers to the big tank recovery vehicles.” Based on the success of the 761st, Patton would activate more Black combat units.
The 761st, deployed in the final nine months of the war, was charged with securing cities with a strong German military presence. Anderson, who first embedded with them in their early weeks of action, described dramatic moments of courage.
During the Battle of the Bulge, he wrote how one sergeant, Samuel Turley, heroically gave cover for his company after a German ambush immobilized their tanks outside the village of Morville: “Standing behind the ditch, straight up, with a machine gun and an ammo belt around his neck, Turley was spraying the enemy with machine gun shots as fast as they could come out of the muzzle of the red-hot barrel.” While most escaped, Turley didn’t, “cut through the middle by German machine gun bullets… As his body crumpled to the earth, his finger still gripped that trigger.”
Reporting on the soldiers’ challenges, actions and fears, Anderson portrayed them, as Griffin writes, as “capable and courageous soldiers”—not as caricatures so often portrayed in the era’s mainstream media.
Anderson believed, according to Griffin, that his work as a Black war correspondent was integral to the Double V Campaign of defeating both fascism and racism. In the spring of 1945, he began working on a history of the 761st Tank Battalion—from their inception in 1942 at Fort Knox, Kentucky to their active combat service between November 1944 until May 1945.
Ever motivated to change hearts and minds, Anderson made sure to send the book, Come Out Fighting: The Epic Tale of the 761st Tank Battalion 1942-1945, to white senators in Washington who opposed both an integrated military and African Americans in combat. Whether or not their attitudes were adjusted, his advocacy and reporting helped insure the enduring legacy of the 761st Tank Battalion as one of the crucial combat units of the war.
Watch acclaimed Black History documentaries on HISTORY Vault.
Farrell Evans
Farrell Evans is an award-winning journalist who writes about sports and history.
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