By Geoff Peckham, News Co-Editor
If you were to ask Baron Bates about his father’s college years, he would probably say very firmly that Western Maryland College played a large part in the development of his character. Considering the type of man Colonel Paul Levern Bates was, this is something McDaniel College should take a lot of pride in.
“He always spoke fondly of [WMC],” said Bates after the Founder’s Convocation on September 29. “It had a tremendous influence on him.” Bates was on hand to accept the Trustee Alumni Award on his father’s behalf at the ceremony.
“He always said his purpose in life was to lead the 761st,” Bates said, referring to his time as the commander of the 761st Tank Battalion during WWII, otherwise known as the “Black Panthers.”
The 761st was entirely comprised of African-Americans, the first of its kind. They were never expected to see combat, and very few had faith in them, not even General George Patton, to whose US Third Army the battalion was deployed. But the “Black Panthers” would ultimately be engaged in four major campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge.
Before he was the commanding officer of the 761st, Paul Bates was a student at McDaniel, then called Western Maryland College. Bates was offered 17 football scholarships coming out of high school, but ultimately decided to play under WMC legend Dick Harlow.
He highlighted his college career as captain of the undefeated 1930 team, was named an All-American in 1929 and 1930, and was on the Maryland All-Star Team in his final year.
He earned his degree in Economics in 1931, but as an ROTC student, he was drafted into the army in 1940 before he could complete his master’s in education. He ultimately went on to become the commander of the 761st, where he became one of the most respected men of the battalion.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who researched and wrote the story of the 761st in Brothers in Arms and was also honored at the recent convocation, dedicated the book to Colonel Bates. Baron Bates was surprised to see the dedication when he picked up the book after it was published.
“It’s interesting when you [personally] know history, then read about it,” Bates commented.
He said that except for two small biographical errors, the book is very accurate, and Bates was proud to see the story finally brought to light.
While serving his country during WWII, Col. Bates was wounded when a German patrol infiltrated American lines. Despite his injuries, Bates insisted on staying with his men but wasn’t given a choice by the medics. He would ultimately be awarded the Silver Star, two Bronze stars, and a Purple Heart. In 1978, Bates and the 761st received the Presidential Unit Citation from President Jimmy Carter. They were the only unit to be awarded with this honor.
Col. Bates also played a role in a course of events that would have a huge impact on desegregation.
Second Lt. John Robinson was one of many officers who joined the 761st. Before the battalion was deployed, Robinson was on a military bus, and when he was asked to move to the back, he refused.
A court-martial was initiated, but Col. Bates refused to sign off on it, as he had very high regard for Robinson’s moral conduct. Robinson was transferred to another battalion, but Col. Bates put his career on the line by testifying on Robinson’s behalf at the eventual hearing. Robinson was acquitted and honorably discharged, so he never saw combat.
Robinson eventually went on to desegregate baseball, except he would be known to the American public as “Jackie.”
History may remember Paul Bates as the commander of the 761st. His son may remember him as a “completely different person,” one who enjoyed opera and other cultural activities. But all will remember him as brave hero, a man who was committed to his troops, and who stood up for their rights as African-Americans after the war, reaffirming his place as one of McDaniel College’s favorite sons.