In the NYC companion edition to "The War" one of the people who is highlighted is William McBurney who was a member of this famed Battalion. The story of the battalion is the focus of an excellent book written by Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Tavis Smiley interviewed him back in 2004.From a previous post with a replacement video (I matched pics with the audio0 I even supplied the transcript to read along
original airdate May 21, 2004
Most know that hoops legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the kind of player that graces a sport once in a lifetime. What may be a surprise is that he's a student of history, his major at UCLA. As a child, he spent hours exploring Harlem's Schomburg Center. Inspired by a 1992 documentary, Abdul-Jabbar co-authored Brothers in Arms, the storyof World War II's forgotten heroes - the 761st Tank Battalion, one of the first all-Black tank crews.
Kareem Abdul-JabbarTavis: You've been all right, man?
Kareem: I've been fine, thank you.
Tavis: Good. Before I get into this book, one of the things that troubles me to this day, and I've got any number of conversations about these. I don't know if you have had these kinds of conversations, but I find myself in conversations routinely where because African-Americans, according to the polls and surveys and studies are opposed to the war in Iraq. No community is more opposed to the war in Iraq than African-Americans are, and there are a lot of folk who will take those statistics and suggest that black folk are not "patriots," that they're not down with the cause, they're not down with the struggle, they're not patriotic as other Americans are, and my sense is that they feel that way because what these poll numbers suggest, but they don't understand the sacrifice African-Americans have made for years serving in the military. You have any conversations like that?
Kareem: I haven't had very many. No, from what I can see, just from what I've observed, black people are pretty much in the middle. They're supporting both sides of the issue.
Tavis: Yeah. How did your attention get drawn to the 761st specifically?
Kareem: Well, my father was a police officer with one of the gentlemen in the unit. I've known this gentleman since I was like, 8 or 9 years old. He's one of my dad's best friends, and I had no idea that he was a war hero. I didn't find out he was a war hero till 1992. I was in my forties.
Tavis: You'd known him your whole life, but you didn't know he was a war hero?
Kareem: Right. I had no idea and watched a documentary that talked about what they did and how they had to fight for the right to fight for their country and some of what they did, but unfortunately in that documentary, a number of the facts got confused, and it again created more controversy and saw to it that these men did not get their due recognition.
Tavis: I know you've been asked about this before, but it is really a fascinating part of the book, so forgive me in indulging me for asking again, but Jackie Robinson, the Jackie Robinson, was a part of the 761st.
Kareem: Yes, Jackie Robinson was their morale officer. He came over from the Ninth Cavalry, and he was dealing with a court-martial when they got called over to Europe. He had refused to sit in the back of the bus. He was told to do so by a white bus driver and because he resisted, both verbally and threatened to do so physically, they put him up on court-martial charges, and he was dealing with that when the unit got called over to Europe, and so after he beat the charges, he had a choice either to stay in the army and rejoin his unit or to take an honorable discharge, and he had had enough by then.
Tavis: You said morale officer. What did a morale officer do back then?
Kareem: Morale officer is supposed to keep up the esprit de corps, and just they...soldiers want their officers to be intelligent and athletic and capable, and, you know, Jackie was all of that.
Tavis: Yeah, no question. What specifically did the 761st do? They were a tank battalion, obviously, but what role did they play in World War II? What did they do specifically?
Kareem: Well, in World War II, they were--A battalion would be used by any infantry unit that needed it. What happened was after the D-Day invasion, the Allies, when they went up against the front-line German tank units, the Allies really didn't do very well, and by September of 1944, Patton needed trained tankers. The 761st was the only battalion left that had been totally trained and was just sitting around doing nothing, because they were only supposed to be doing it as a public-relations ploy to get black people to support the war effort.
Tavis: I'm glad you said that. I wrote down this quote from Patton, which was stunning to me, the juxtaposition, at least, of these 2 quotes. So Patton, General Patton addressing the troops in 1944, addressing these black troops, 761st, in 1944, says, and I quote, "Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you, most of all, your race is looking forward to your success. Don't let them down, and damn you, don't let me down." That's what Patton says in '44 to these African-American troops. Later on, writing in his diary, he says that the men of the 761st gave a very good first impression, "But I had no faith in the inherent fighting ability of their race."
Kareem: That was the same night.
Tavis: That's the same night?
Kareem: He wrote that the same night.
Tavis: Now, that threw me.
Kareem: He said he addressed them today, and then you quoted him.
Tavis: So during the day, he's like, "Don't let me down. Don't let your race down. We're depending on you, rah, rah, rah."
Kareem: Then you see what he really feels.
Tavis: And then, that night, in his own diary, he writes, "I ain't got no faith in these cats, because their race don't know how to represent here."
Tavis: So to your earlier point then, I'm gonna leave Patton alone for a second. That's disturbing me, but--I used to like General Patton. He's tricky now to me.
Kareem: Yeah, he is.
Tavis: He's very tricky, but let me ask you, though, whether or not the troops ever found out what Patton really thought of them?
Kareem: Patton wanted them to go out there and do what they needed to do to help his army win, and they did a very good job of that, so he appreciated them on that level, but then at the same time, he saw to it that they didn't get the recognition they deserved. All the paperwork, for example, that people put in to give these guys, to nominate them for honors, got lost in Patton's chain of command somewhere, just disappeared, and it took people working decades later looking back to see to it that they were honored correctly.
Tavis: What's your sense of how they dealt with knowing they were only used because Patton didn't have any other troops left?
Kareem: They knew that it would probably take something like that for them to get a chance, but that's all they wanted was a chance, and they ended up being the best-trained unit that we had. They trained for 2 1/2 years.
Tavis: 'Cause they couldn't fight. All they did was train, so they were the best.
Kareem: They knew everything. They knew all the German equipment, its strengths and weaknesses, and the strengths and weaknesses of the Sherman tank, so when they got out there in the field, they knew how to stay alive, even though they didn't have better equipment.
Tavis: But back to the Jackie Robinson role, at least the role he played earlier on, being their morale officer, though, I can't imagine--maybe you can--I can't imagine knowing that I'm being player-hated on, I'm being mistreated because I'm an African-American. I'm the last one to fight, and you only let me go fight, represent my country 'cause you ain't got nobody else left to go, but then I'm supposed to go out there and be down with America and help us win. That really is the definition to me of patriotism and bravery to do that when you know you only being used because you're black. You're the last thing left.
Kareem: Well, they felt that if they did well, they would prove to America that their bravery and competence went across the board, and it wasn't just in these emergencies when they were needed to fight a very formidable foe.
Tavis: I'm out of time here, unfortunately, but yet, when they came home, they had to still sit in the back of the train, goin' down south, these troops behind...
Kareem: But they came home with an attitude that they could change things, that there was something left to do. I'm sure that what they learned in their military service is what gave them the gumption to go out and make the civil rights movement happen, 'cause it started immediately when these guys got home. All of a sudden, the civil rights movement started, and it didn't stop.
Tavis: Well, it's a great book. 'Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion: World War II's Forgotten Heroes.' No better time now than to read this and be reminded of the contribution that all Americans have made, but certainly, African-Americans as well to the freedoms that we enjoy today. Kareem, always nice to see you, man.
Kareem: Hey, thanks a lot.
Tavis: We'll talk basketball maybe next time.
Tavis: All right, we'll do it again. Up next on this program, now we've talked to Kareem. Now we'll talk to another great actor, Glenn Close. Stay with us.