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Saturday, March 14, 2015


Steve Cole writes:
More than four decades ago, sitting at the dinner table with my father, brother, and mother, I brought up the subject of the faulty organization of the US armored divisions during World War II. Since my father had served in the 14th Armored Division and was the senior colonel of the local Army Reserve, I figured he would know. He agreed that the organization needed more infantry. (A German panzer division had two battalions of tanks and four or six of infantry; a US division had three of each. A battalion is 700-1000 men.) He noted that in several cases during WW2, units from infantry divisions were attached to his division and that the engineer battalion was always getting used as spare infantry.
He also told me a curious story that I did not bother to research until now, almost half a century later. He said that a unit of black infantry had been attached to the division. Nobody wanted them so they were assigned to Combat Command R (my father was a lowly radio operator in the headquarters of that brigade-sized formation) because its commander was less senior that the other two Combat Commands. Combat Command R didn't particularly want them either, but couldn't turn them down. When the tank battalion complained (as they did every day) about the lack of infantry support, the colonel gave them the black unit (Provisional Company #4, as I found when I looked it up, about 140 soldiers.). The tankers were only barely glad to have any infantry at all, until the black troops were thrown into their first battle. "They fought like demons, like they had something to prove," my father told me. He had witnessed one of their attacks with his own eyes from the commander's half track.
Doing a little historical digging proved this to be the case. By November of 1944, the US Army figured out that it was burning up infantry replacements a whole lot faster than expected. (They did not really understand that the faulty system itself was causing casualties.) They started taking able-bodied men from the rear units, replacing them with men who were wounded or sick who could not serve in combat. Many of the malingerers wandering around the Army rear were told that they would not have to go into combat (and could stay with rear area support units) if they would just "come back to work." (That's another story.) Even that was not enough, and some forward-thinking general suggested asking for volunteers from the black support units. (There were only a few small units of black combat troops in France. There was a whole division of them in Italy and another in the Pacific.) The original memo asking for volunteers said they would go into white units as individual replacements, that only privates could volunteer, and that sergeants or corporals who wanted to fight would have to accept demotion to private first class. Several thousand eager black volunteers appeared.
Then Army Policy got in the way, saying that black men could not be mixed into white units. The black volunteers, already retraining as infantry, were formed into platoons of about 40 men, but these had no (official) sergeants and were little more than armed mobs. The former-sergeants in those platoons who were now privates stepped up as squad leaders and did what sergeants do. Those phantom sergeants turned the armed mobs into actual combat-capable platoons. When the platoons were sent to the front, the unit getting them had to provide one white officer and one white sergeant for each platoon. These men were surprised (and delighted) to find that the platoons had an (albeit unofficial) internal organization.
Most of the black platoons went to infantry divisions, where they became one platoon of one company per regiment (about 2500 men).
About 10 platoons went to the 12th Armored Division to serve as entire companies, one each in the three halftrack infantry battalions.
The last three platoons went to the 14th Armored Division as Provisional Rifle Company #4. Those platoons spent about one month in combat before the war ended.
By all accounts, the platoons performed well in all respects, equal to white platoons. This was partly because the men were picked volunteers, partly because blacks hated the Nazis more than typical whites hated them, and partly because, as my father said, "they had something to prove."
The problem came after the peace when the Army ordered the platoons to disband and the men to return to their original non-combat units. This sparked outrage, as the black men had earned their combat patches and wanted to stay with their divisions (which wanted them to stay). About half of them did go back to service units where they served (with complaint) in menial tasks. The rest were rescued by Benjamin Davis, the only black general in the US Army, who got them assigned to one infantry division and one artillery unit, where they could at least stay together and in a "combat" unit. It was a shameful way for the Army to treat combat veterans who had served with honor and distinction. As my father said: "they fought like demons, like they had something to prove."