Eleven years ago the Southside Sentinel published an article on experiences of Raymond Burrell Sr., who was a member of the “Black Panthers,” the first tank battalion comprised of African-Americans.
He was 89 years old when he told his story and recalled vivid details of the role of the 761st Tank Battalion at the Battle of the Bulge in Europe during World War II.
The following is that story, a compelling account of one young man’s experiences and memories that, for better or worse, have stayed with him for his lifetime. It’s a reminder of the consequences of war, and it bears repeating. It’s a story that every American should know.
Burrell turned 100 years old on May 9, 2019. He lives with his daughter in Deltaville and was among the Middlesex County veterans featured in our document series, Homegrown Heroes, which you can view here.
By Tom Chillemi and Republished With Permission from the Southside Sentinel
In the winter of 1944-45, Raymond W. Burrell Sr. of Deltaville was a member of the now famous 761st Tank Battalion—the Black Panthers— that saw extensive action at the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last desperate effort to stop the Allies at the border between France and Germany.
The U.S. Armed Forces were segregated until after World War II, and the “Black Panthers” of the 761st were the first African-American tank battalion.
Jackie Robinson, who would later be the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, was a member of the 761st Battalion. Burrell, who turned 100 on May 9, 2019, said Robinson’s b unk was three away from his, and they talked often.
Burrell recalled details of some of the harrowing events during his 183day deployment. In addition, books have been written about the 761st, which was assigned to General George S. Patton’s Third Army.
On November 2, 1944, Gen. Patton stood on a half-track and addressed the 761st Tank Battalion, said Burrell, who was 25 years old at the time.
“Men, you’re the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army,” said Gen. Patton. “I would never have asked for you if you weren’t good. I have nothing but the best in my Army. I don’t care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those Krauts or Germans.”
Gen. Patton continued, “Everyone has their eyes on you and are expecting great things from you. Most of all, your race is looking forward to you doing well. Don’t let them down, and don’t let me down.”
Burrell said Gen. Patton told the men they had to fight to stay alive. He kept referring to the ground with his hands, showing “what was going to happen to you,” said Burrell.
Patton had sent men up the hill for 90 days “and no one came back,” said Burrell, who wondered if his fate would be the same.
Patton knew a soldier would not take reckless chances on his own, but would still find a way to take the objective, said Burrell.
“Once you leave here don’t listen to anybody; you are on your own,” Patton told his soldiers. “If you get an order from an officer and you see a better way you can do it, pay him no mind. When you leave this point of departure, every man is responsible for his own death. I’ve been sending them up there, and officers have been giving them orders, and they wind up in the ground.”
When he’d finished his speech, Gen. Patton said to Burrell, “You look like you don’t think much about what I said.”
Burrell agreed. “I told him I didn’t think much about what he said.” Burrell then asked Gen. Patton, “If Raymond gets killed, how are you going to get another Raymond?”
Gen. Patton responded with a rhyme, “Raymond’s name is Lou, let him go too. Just save the tanks . . . got any more questions?”
To which Burrell responded, “No, you said it all.”
Burrell tried to transfer out of the 761st Tank Battalion after he saw how a German armor-piercing shell could attach to a tank’s armor and burn through it in 30 seconds.
The 761st Tank Battalion landed in France at Omaha Beach in October 1944, four months after D-Day. “The stench of death hung over the beach like a cloud,” said Burrell.
A 400-mile trek led Burrell and his battalion to “Hill 253.”
Burrell, who was 25 years old, had narrowly escaped death when he and some men were warming themselves by a fire. A German shell exploded nearby and killed all of his buddies. Burrell ran along the road and got into a ditch. Another she ll exploded and covered him with mud.
Later the same day, A, B, C and D companies of the 761st Tank Battalion moved toward a town to run out the Germans. Burrell and his Headquarters Company set up their tank to shoot its 105-mm cannon over the hill at the Germans.
One of the 761st tanks had a track knocked off, recalled Burrell. The men escaped through a hatch in the floor and set up machine guns under their tank.
The Germans broadcast over loud speakers, “We got you now, so give up,” remembers Burrell. Instead, the Black Panthers shredded wave after wave of German soldiers that tried for hours to knock out the American position.
The Germans gave up the fight and when they started to abandon the town, the 761st was waiting at a narrow pass. “We laid down fire on them,” said Bu rrell. Their job was to lob shells in front of the Germans as they left town.
Burrell, assigned to the Headquarters Company, said he told his captain to set the fuse so the shells would have “air bursts” and discharge 15 yards above ground and kill by concussion. All five tank companies fired simultaneously, creating a circle around the German convoy. When it was over, the stalled convoy was about 2 miles long and the truck engines idled until they ran out of fuel.
“They (dead Germans) were sitting up there in the trucks without a scratch on them,” said Burrell, who added he still has nightmares about that sight.
Take cover About 7 p.m. that day a flare lit up the area where Burrell and his company were located. They knew they had to move. German planes “bombed that area all night and didn’t miss a spot,” he said.
Later, Burrell was on guard when a 28-man German patrol came through and saw the damaged equipment.
Burrell said he wanted to use his 50-mm machine gun to cut them down, but he held his fire, knowing the noise would give away his position. Instead, Burrell called ahead and told the infantry to be looking for the Germans. “They captured every last one of them,” he said.
“That was only the beginning,” continued Burrell. The 761st was the spearhead as Allied Forces advanced on Berlin, trying to get there before the Russians, who were moving toward the German capital from the east.
Eventually, the 761st met up with the Russians, who took Berlin. Then, the 761st headed west toward home.
Burrell said the Germans would rather surrender to Americans than Russians.
Sometimes, however, the Germans would walk up to American soldiers acting like they wanted to surrender, but would then produce live hand grenades from under their coats.
While the final surrender was being negotiated in May 1945, a German railroad gun fired a shell that left a huge crater in the earth near the 761st. Burrell and his men wanted to retaliate by knocking down a smoke stack near the railroad gun, but were told to hold fire. “They fired that one for fun, that’s the truth,” he said.
The horror of war stays with Burrell, who always felt sorry for the German mothers who lost their sons, just as the American mothers did. “I had sympathy for them all,” he said. “Look at all the mess we could have done without. It was all started by a few men. I wonder why it happened?
“Greed is one thing that caused it. Everybody wants to be boss. Nobody wants to do the work,” continued Burrell. “We still haven’t learned anything. World leaders still got that mess in their mind.”
It wasn’t until January 24, 1978, that President Jimmy Carter awarded the 761st Tank Battalion the Presidential Unit Citation in recognition of its service and sacrifice.