Reviewer John J. Hohn:
John is a frequent contributor to web sites dedicated to writing and
publishing. Raised in Yankton, SD, he graduated with a degree in
English from St. John’s University (MN) in 1961. He is the father
of four sons and a daughter and a stepfather to a son. He and his
wife divide their time each year between Southport and West
Jefferson, NC. To learn more about John FOLLOW HERE
BUY ON AMAZON
Author: Gina M. Dinicolo
Publisher: St. John’s Press
Mention the Black Panthers, and anyone born after World War II will probably recall the political party that was part of the Black Power movement in the 1960s. Less likely is that anyone recalls a group of African-American G. I. tankers who fought under General George Patton in his armor campaign in Europe in 1944 and 1945. In The Black Panther at War author Gina M. Dinicolo mentions the men of the 761st tanker company adopted the name “Black Panthers” for their group, but history proves that the designation did not stick. By contrast, consider the legendary African-American fighter pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen. The Red Tails made history escorting allied bombers on raids into Germany. Or the Red Ball Express. African-American drivers kept the allied forces supplied as they pushed across Europe. Their commitment and stamina enduring 36 hours stints in the cab garnered recognition and praise.
Author Dinicolo points out that the prejudice against blacks was institutionalized in the years leading up to WWII. Army manuals stated that the performance of black Americans was expected to be less than that of whites. Her introduction focuses on the racial tensions and violence that were part of life in the U. S. The armed forces were segregated during World War II. African-Americans were relegated to support functions. As cooks, truck drivers, mechanics and logistical support few were exposed to combat. The prevailing prejudice was blacks did not possess the skills or the willingness to fight.
Nobody today doubts the ability or willingness of African-Americans to perform valiantly in combat. Viet Nam dispelled that shard of ignorance and bigotry. Writing of the era, the theme of lowered expectations of minorities is carried out through the final chapter. One chapter is dedicated to baseball legend Jackie Robinson who was court marshalled on a charge of being disrespectful toward a fellow white officer. Robinson beat the rap but left service because the charge. Aside from detailed reporting of the frequent incidents of discrimination within the ranks and among the civilians, the author does not expand her perspective beyond the context of the time in which the action she reports took place. Her book adds little in helping readers understand the nature of prejudice and its implications as the conflict and misunderstanding continues through to the present day.
Dinicolo makes an all-out effort, however, at claiming the tankers’ share of the fame and recognition, but her story drops several rounds short. It fails to enshrine the heroism and sacrifice of the men it is all about. Dinicolo fails to create a sense of tension and danger. By attempting to provide the points of few of several men in the 761st, her narrative becomes diffuse and superficial. The lack of vigor in her prose doesn’t excite much empathy or compassion. The battle scenes are not dramatic, with little sense of danger or urgency. She relies heavily on mundane modifiers to lead readers. Economy of expression is sacrificed to stating the obvious. “Germans,” for example, “would kill anyone trying to take the town.” Onset of darkness becomes “A shortage of daylight . . .. “ “Enemy fire resulted in a series of tremendous explosions.” (What else?) As an author, she’s not in the battle, not with her troops.
Dinicolo follows several men from enlistment to the battlefield. She is well-grounded in the facts about their training and the battles in which they participated. Her ultimate failure to identify with her subjects becomes evident when she refers to the infantry as “doughboys,” a World War I nickname long out of use by World War II. Dinicolo compounds the gaff by shortening the nickname of “doughs,” a title that is yet to be found in print or film about WWII.
A model for any writer in undertaking a military history of any group is Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose captures the Esprit de corps of his company, provides insight into his subjects without resorting to lengthy biographical sketches, and holds the readers by organizing his story around various themes, whether the conflict with the officers in training or the horror of post traumatic shock syndrome. Readers realize the Ambrose’s intention. Dinicolo, on the other hand, adds too much to the mix, almost as if she is compensating for a lack of dramatic focus.
To be pondered is why the achievements of the 761st have gone unheralded for so long. Perhaps their accomplishments were eclipsed by Patton’s extravagant showmanship. Perhaps the 762st was too small a part of a bigger story. Perhaps, unlike the Tuskegee airmen and the Red Ball truckers, as a small a part a large of a primarily white force, their feats could not be attributed to them as a minority unit acting independently and on their own.
Black Panthers at War chronicles the achievements of very brave and talented soldiers. Any criticism of the work about them should not detract from the magnitude of their accomplishments. That said, any student of World War II and the history of racism in America will find it hard to avoid being disappointed in Dinicolo’s work. Blacks, after all, harbored no doubts about their ability. Astonishment on the part of any is a reflection of prejudice. Black Panthers at War is rich in subject matter. Too bad so little is explored at any depth.