This unit helped rescue the stepfather of Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the waning days of the war.
Freeman made a stop at the Pentagon to promote an upcoming documentary he executive produced on the battalion, set to be released this month. It includes interviews Freeman conducted with Austin and one of the last surviving members of the 761st, who is now in his late 90s.
“All Americans should be inspired by the story of the 761st Tank Battalion,” Austin said. “It’s an incredible story and a deeply American story.”
Austin thanked Freeman for lending his star power to elevate the little-known history of the 761st. He also asked Freeman during a one-on-one conversation if he was surprised by anything he uncovered doing research for the film.
Freeman’s reply was simple: “No.”
But he reminded the audience, which included ROTC students from local Washington, D.C.-area universities, that Black Americans have fought in every American conflict since the Revolutionary War. Freeman also shared his experiences after the release of the 1989 Civil War epic “Glory,” in which he played Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins, a soldier in one of the Union Army’s first African American regiments.
Freeman recalled that people wept and told him they weren’t aware of the hardships Black soldiers had to overcome.
“People who grew up, particularly in the South, think that all we did was drop cotton and drive mules,” Freeman said. “I grew up going to the movies and I learned history from the movies. One of the things wrong with learning history at the movies is, I didn’t see me.
“But if I want my story told, I have to tell it, don’t I?” Freeman said.
Freeman’s visit comes on the heels of last week’s 75th anniversary of President Harry Truman signing an executive order that officially ended segregation in the U.S. military.
Austin noted the links between the 761st, the integration of the military and today.
“It’s one reason why my own life journey can take me from growing up in the Jim Crow South to serving as secretary of Defense,” Austin said, before mentioning the nomination of President Joe Biden’s pick to nation’s next top military officer.
“It’s one reason … one key reason … why President BIden can nominate an outstanding war fighter like Air Force Gen. C.Q. Brown to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
If confirmed, Brown would be the first Black man to lead the Joint Chiefs since the late Colin Powell filled the role three decades ago during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. The Air Force general is among the more than 270 senior military officers whose promotions are being held up by Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama because of his objection to a Pentagon policy that pays travel costs for service members seeking abortion.
Long before his career in cinema, Freeman joined the Air Force in 1955. He had aspirations of becoming a fighter pilot, but was relegated to being a mechanic, assigned to working on and repairing radar systems that synced antennae to track incoming missiles and aircraft.
He told the crowd he was “as mechanical as a bug.”
He did that job for the better part of a year before he got the chance to audition for his dream assignment. It was only then that he realized why he wanted it in the first place. “I decided my attraction to being a fighter pilot was all movie stuff,” according to an interview he did with AARP.
Freeman is best known for portraying enduring characters, such as a pre-Civil Rights era chauffeur in late 1940s Georgia in “Driving Miss Daisy,” South Africa’s anti-apartheid activist and former president, Nelson Mandela, in “Invictus,” the role of God in the comedies “Bruce Almighty” and “Evan Almighty,” and the wise and battle-tested former boxer in “Million Dollar Baby,” for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2005.
He’s also portrayed a number of military and intelligence agency characters, including Rawlins in “Glory,” an Army doctor in the film “Outbreak” and the head of the Central Intelligence Agency in film “The Sum of All Fears.”
The 761st, meanwhile, was a heralded fighting unit, amassing seven Silver Stars, 246 Purple Hearts and one Medal of Honor, according to the National Park Service. Perhaps the unit’s most famous soldier was legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson, a first lieutenant in the battalion. He, however, never saw combat after refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus in 1944. Robinson was later court-martialed and acquitted, according to an account by The National World War II Museum.
The battalion, which broke barriers as the first African American tankers in the U.S. Army, first saw battle in Normandy, France, in 1944. The battalion’s motto was “Come Out Fighting,” and eventually would participate in four major military campaigns across six countries. This would include more than 180 consecutive days in combat, where the battalion would help liberate some 30 towns.
It took years before the segregated unit saw battle. Originally formed in 1942 in Louisiana, the battalion trained there and in Texas for more than two years, mainly due to the belief among the Army’s top brass that Black troops were inferior on the battlefield compared with their white counterparts.
That myth was quickly dispelled.
In November 2020, when then-President-elect Joe Biden introduced Blinken as his choice to lead the State Department, Blinken shared the story of his late stepfather, Samuel Pisar, who spent four years in a Nazi concentration camp. During the war, Pisar broke away from a death march and hid out in the woods of Bavaria. At one point he heard the rumbling of a tank.
“He ran to the tank,” Blinken said. “The hatch opened. An African American GI looked down at him.”
According to Blinken’s half-sister Leah Pisar, the family learned years later who the African American soldier was: Sgt. Bill Ellington of the 761st Tank Battalion.
The “761st Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers,” is set to air Aug. 20 on the History Channel.