Carlton Chapman was born in Pembroke, a small town in Southwestern Virginia, in 1912. He was working for the Norfolk and Western Railway when the United States entered World War II. In 1942 he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a machine gunner with the 761st Tank Battalion.
The 761st Tank Battalion was a tank unit made up almost entirely of African Americans (at that time the U.S. Army was segregated). Known as the “Black Panthers,” because of their unit’s black panther insignia, their motto was “Come Out Fighting.” Because of the Army’s biases against African American soldiers, the unit trained for nearly two years before leaving for the European Theater. They landed on Omaha Beach in France on October 10, 1944, and became the first Black tank unit to see combat.
The photo of Chapman, in an M-4 Sherman tank, was taken on November 5, 1944, near Nancy, France. Just four days later, on November 9, 1944, Chapman was killed in action. He posthumously received a purple heart medal, which is awarded to U.S. service members who were killed or wounded as a result of enemy action.
Carlton Chapman is buried in Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold, France. He left behind his wife, Maudestine Hughes, whom he had married just the year before.
Chapman’s military personnel file was one of the estimated 18 million veterans’ files that were destroyed in the National Personnel Records Center fire, which happened 50 years ago this July.
February is Black History Month. Visit the National Archives website for more information on our resources related to African American history.