Saturday, August 15, 2015

Book Reviews: Brothers in Arms

Brothers in Arms
by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton
It's not as widely known as it should be but former NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (KAJ) is something of a Renaissance Man. He's not just a former player and coach but also an author, actor, film producer, essayist and historian. It's this last which is important for this review. KAJ's father was one of the first black NYC transit cops. The elder Alcindor's good friend was Leonard Smith, also one of the first black NYC transit cops. Smitty, as he was called, was a godfather/uncle figure to KAJ, watching out for him in the NYC concrete jungle and making sure that KAJ did not get in any trouble, legal or otherwise. One night in the Lincoln Center, KAJ was in the audience to watch a documentary about the 761st Tank Battalion, a predominantly black unit, which after being attached to General Patton's Third Army, was the first black armored unit in WW2 to see combat. KAJ was modestly involved with the film, rounding up veterans to speak of their combat experiences. KAJ's father was a veteran though he saw no combat. So KAJ was shocked to accidentally run into Smitty at the event and completely flabbergasted to learn that the oft humorous, optimistic and self-effacing Smitty was a decorated combat vet of the 761st. He had served as a tank gunner and loader, won a Bronze Star and seen action in numerous battles in five countries, including the Battle of the Bulge. However Smitty had never mentioned this to Al Alcindor or to his son KAJ. KAJ learned a lot watching the documentary but was disappointed by some quality and factual errors. KAJ decided that he would tell the tale about the 761st Tank Battalion and by extension, all black combat veterans of WW2 ,before it was too late. This 2004 book was the result. Most of those veterans have long since departed this vale of tears but Brothers in Arms remains a fitting testament to their struggles, failures and ultimate triumphs. I have often written that I don't know how people of my parents' generations managed to live through all of the racism, segregation and violence which they did, let alone people of my grandparents' generation, such as Leonard Smith. My maternal grandfather was a WW2 veteran though I don't know if he saw combat or not while a paternal great grandfather was a WW1 veteran who did see plenty of combat while attached to the French Army. As the story goes he was was a true terror to deal with upon his return to the US. Some people say he was scarred by his experiences whiles others claim he was already a very hard man before his combat days. So I wanted to read this book to better understand the challenges faced by black people from that generation.

Brothers in Arms is a meticulously footnoted and extremely detailed book which focuses primarily on three members of the 761st, obviously including KAJ's "uncle", Leonard Smith. It starts out explaining some of the member's hopes and dreams and why they wound up in the 761st. Smitty, for example wanted to be a pilot. But as the Army Air Corps did not accept blacks as pilots, Smitty's recruiter told him the next best thing was to be a tanker. So that's where Smitty went. Many other soldiers had similar stories.


The Army of the mid forties had an officer corps which was disproportionately white and southern and completely uninterested in having black troops in any role other than non-combat and/or janitorial. Black officers were rare and enjoyed little protection against intense disrespect and violence from white soldiers, enlisted or otherwise. And black officer and enlisted man alike had to tread very carefully in the 1940s era South, which is where most of their initial training took place. Insults, beatings and even murders for any reason or no reason at all were not at all uncommon. White citizens were often particularly incensed by the sight of black men in uniform and went far out of their way to belittle and harass. After one murder the 761st was barely prevented from loading up in their half tracks and tanks to invade the local Louisiana town. Initially the officer corps for the 761st was predominantly white. Most of these men viewed being assigned to the the 761st as a demotion and negative comment on their leadership potential. Many of them took this out on the battalion via unending racist talk or deliberate indifference to the well being of their men. This would not have been tolerated in a white unit. I knew that future baseball great Jackie Robsinson had made a reputation for standing up for himself but I didn't know that the incident which saw an almost successful court-martial of the young lieutenant occurred when he was a member of the 761st. Other black officers memorized the rules books backwards and forwards in order to refuse the extra-legal MP enforced rule that black officers could not carry their weapons off base. Things started to change for the 761st as more black officers arrived and the new white commander, Lt. Col Bates, proved to be someone who wasn't interested in race as much as he was interested in his men's performance and safety. As the war dragged on and casualties mounted the Army was sorely pressed to put every available man into combat. 


What finally gave the 761st its chance was when maverick General George Patton, starved of fighting power, temporarily put aside his doubts about black competence to request that the 761st be attached to his Third Army. This proved to be the chance that the 761st needed to make its mark, though by all available evidence General Patton didn't really change his opinion about black soldiers, apparently viewing the 761st as an anomaly. In any event the 761st, aka The Black Panther battalion, primarily made its mark under Patton's command but also served with distinction under other commanders. The book is as mentioned very dense. This is sometimes a drawback. It gives you a "you were there" feeling about the experience of combat. I probably could have done without knowing that soldiers used their helmets both to boil water and to relieve themselves or that people wore clothes until in some cases they literally rotted off.  One minute you're grabbing a bite to eat and in the next minute you're trying to crawl out of your tank because a German artillery observer has called in an all too accurate shelling. One 761st soldier, having learned that his best friend was killed, goes on a near suicidal war long rampage to try to kill every German he sees. Smitty took a very long time to lose his sense of adventure. For the longest time he seemingly didn't process that people were trying to kill him. War is hell, it is said. This book certainly brings that across. It also brings across the stupidity of racism. Some wounded white soldiers objected to black medics rescuing or treating them. With a few notable exceptions most white units were not exactly happy to see the 761st at first. For most people this changed after the experience of fighting together. But for some it did not. As I mentioned in the review of the film Fury, the M-4 Sherman, the most common US combat tank, was severely outgunned by and less protected than the German Panther and Tiger tanks. But outgunned or not, the men of the 761st lived up to their battalion motto and "came out fighting!". If you are a history or war buff you should read this book. I'm sorry it took me so long to get to it but I'm glad I did.
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