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A world famous basketball player writing about the history of World War II may seem incongruous. But there is an order to these things; Abdul-Jabbar's high school mentor, Leonard Smith, was in the 761st Battalion, the first all-black tank battalion to see combat in World War II. Together, Abdul-Jabbar and Smith interviewed the unit's seventy survivors and gleaned from them the story of this amazing band of brothers. The 761st operated under conditions of institutional racism that were as severe and evil as ...
A world famous basketball player writing about the history of World War II may seem incongruous. But there is an order to these things; Abdul-Jabbar's high school mentor, Leonard Smith, was in the 761st Battalion, the first all-black tank battalion to see combat in World War II. Together, Abdul-Jabbar and Smith interviewed the unit's seventy survivors and gleaned from them the story of this amazing band of brothers. The 761st operated under conditions of institutional racism that were as severe and evil as anything it might face on the battlefield. Yet, fighting with Patton at the Battle of the Bulge, it helped to turn back the German offensive. It even helped to liberate the concentration camp at Mauthausen. Abdul-Jabbar speaks to the honor, bravery, and dignity that characterized these men.
The atmosphere of the whole country was to get in the service and help.
I wanted to do my part.
When seventeen-year-old Leonard Smith stepped off the United States Army troop train in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, in the fall of 1942, it was the first time he had been outside of New York State. For the last three days, he had been traveling with fourteen other recruits, headed to Camp Claiborne, seventeen miles southwest of Alexandria. There, they were to join a recently established armored unit. To Smith's surprise, the train stopped in an open field. The sergeants on the train threw the young soldiers' bags out and told them to get off. Smith and his companions, in full dress uniform and carrying their regulation duffel bags, waited for four hours in the empty field on the outskirts of the Kisatchie National Forest, watching the sun move across the sky. Finally, two of them set off on foot to find help.
Leonard Smith was one of the more than six hundred men who would come together at Camp Claiborne during the Second World War to form the 761st Tank Battalion. They would hail from over thirty states, from small towns and cities scattered throughout the country, from places as varied as Los Angeles, California, and Hotulka, Oklahoma; Springfield, Illinois, and Picayune, Mississippi; Billings, Montana, and Baltimore, Maryland. Most had volunteered. Some were the middle-class sons of doctors, undertakers, schoolteachers, and career military men; among the officers were a Yale student and a football star from UCLA who would later make his mark in American sports and American history. Many more were the sons of janitors, domestics, factory workers, and sharecroppers.
Their combat record in Europe during the war was noteworthy. They were to earn a Presidential Unit Citation for distinguished service, more than 250 Purple Hearts, 70 Bronze Stars, 11 Silver Stars, and a Congressional Medal of Honor in 183 straight days on the front lines of France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, and Austria. These accomplishments carried a significance, however, beyond the battlefield. The unit's official designation was "The 761st Tank Battalion (Colored)." As they waited in that hot Louisiana field, Leonard Smith and his fellow recruits were on their way to becoming part of the first African American unit in the history of the United States Army to fight in tanks.
In the fall of 1942, the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific seemed far from the backwater post of Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. They were as far from Leonard Smith's experience as Camp Claiborne had been before he boarded the train in New York City. Smith was born in Harlem Hospital on November 2, 1924; he was a sickly child at birth, weighing less than five pounds, with both colic and a heart murmur. His mother abandoned him shortly after he was born. Lulu Hasbruck, who worked for New York City taking in children with medical complications, cared for Smith during those early, precarious years. Other foster children regularly moved in and out of Hasbruck's home, but Smith and two girls, Thelma and Flora, remained. Smith would come to regard Lulu as his mother, though she never formally adopted him.
Despite his short, skinny frame and the heart murmur that kept him from playing school sports, Smith became an active, adventuresome child, regularly challenging other kids in his Brooklyn, and later Queens, neighborhood to footraces around the block. The neighborhood kids didn't seem to mind losing to him. There was something about him that adults and classmates immediately responded to, a combination of good-naturedness,...