The following is a guest blog post by Veterans History Project (VHP) participant Paul LaRue, a retired social studies teacher in Washington Court House, Ohio.
As an educator, you are always looking for projects that make a difference in the lives of your students, and, if you are lucky, in your community. I found that when I came across the Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP). From 2003-2010, my students interviewed 68 veterans for the VHP. Our classroom became a safe space for veterans to share their stories of service while my students learned history directly from those who were there. We had the honor to interview Ohio’s own Lymon Alexander and Buddie Branch, two veterans who served in one of World War II’s most elite African American units, the 761st Tank Battalion. A recent documentary narrated and produced by famed Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman, 761st Tank Battalion: The Original Black Panthers, has helped reignite interest in this important unit.
The Library of Congress has several great resources to assist teachers and students interested in learning more about the 761st. The resources include an original copy of Come Out Fighting, The Epic Tale of the 761st Tank Battalion 1942 – 1945. The Veterans History Project has nine interviews with six members of the 761st. One of the best ways to learn about these remarkable individuals is through conducting oral histories just as my students did.
As was previously mentioned, we had the honor of interviewing Buddie Branch and Lymon Alexander on their service with the 761st Tank Battalion.
The 761st Tank Battalion was organized at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana in 1942 and was assigned to General George Patton’s 3rd Army. The 761st was in continuous combat for 183 straight days and served at the Battle of the Bulge (Bastogne) and the liberation of Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp in Germany. The 761st’s casualty rate was nearly 50 percent. The battalion was a recipient of the Presidential Unit Citation, and members of the 761st were recipients of numerous Purple Hearts and Bronze and Silver Stars. One member of the 761st posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Staff Sergeant Lymon Alexander was born in 1919 and had two years of ROTC training at Wilberforce University at the time he was drafted. As a result of his ROTC training, he was assigned as a training officer. Staff Sergeant Alexander’s interview included his remembrances of the “Battle of the Bulge” and the discrimination he faced during his service.
Corporal Buddie Branch was born in 1926. Corporal Branch was drafted at 18 between his junior and senior years in high school. He served in Company B as a gunner and was the recipient of a Bronze Star for his bravery in combat. Corporal Buddie Branch’s interview included a discussion of the combat action for which he received the Bronze Star, the role he played during the Liberation of Dachau, and him serving with baseball legend Jackie Robinson.
Through the process of participating in VHP, including interviewing two dozen African American War II veterans, my students learned more about history from these U.S. military heroes than they could have ever learned in my history class. I think my student Andy Sheridan said it best:
“Spending time with a few members of the 761st Tank Battalion was especially memorable for me. Some of the most humble, quiet, unassuming men I’ve ever been around. But I count it quite the privilege to have been a small part of documenting their stories and helping to cement their legacy and memory forever in the Library of Congress.”
I encourage you to think about participating in the Veterans History Project and to honor the 761st by engaging your students with some of these Library of Congress resources.