Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers
|Died||November 19, 1944 (aged 22–23)
Near Guebling, France †
|Place of burial||Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial, France|
|Allegiance||United States of America|
||United States Army|
|Years of service||1942–1944|
|Unit||761st Tank Battalion
26th Infantry Division
|Battles/wars||World War II|
|Awards|| Medal of Honor
Ruben Rivers (1921 – November 19, 1944) was a Staff Sergeant in the 761st Tank Battalion, a black tank battalion which served with distinction in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. Sgt. Rivers, who was half-Cherokee, was one of seven African-American soldiers to receive the Medal of Honor, although this official recognition of their heroic actions was not made until 1997.
Rivers was born to Willie and Lillian Rivers in 1921 in Tecumseh, Oklahoma. He grew up in nearby Hotulka, Oklahoma, where he and his eleven brothers and sisters worked on the family farm. After graduating from high school, Rivers worked on the railroad for a time.
World War II service
With the United States' entry into World War II on behalf of the Allied cause, Rivers and two of his brothers joined the armed forces. Ruben would be the only one assigned to a combat unit however, training with the 761st Tank Battalion at Camp Hood in Texas. Nicknamed the “Black Panthers,” they were eventually assigned to General George S. Patton's US Third Army. Despite Patton's racism, the battalion was implemented and performed with distinction in a number of important battles, although Patton himself never officially recognized their accomplishments.
Rivers would play a critical role in some of the earliest action the 761st would see, becoming the battalion's initial hero, but also one of its first casualties. Shortly after arriving in Europe in the fall of 1944, the 761st was chosen by Patton to be part of his Saar Campaign in the Allied drive to the Siegfried Line. On November 8, 1944, Rivers and the others in the 761st's Able Company were launched with the 104th Infantry Regiment in an attack on German positions near Vic-sur-Seille in northeastern France. As they approached the town via a narrow road, a roadblock improvised by the Germans using a felled tree and several mines stopped the progress of the tanks and infantry. The Germans soon trained their mortar and rifle fire on infantrymen stranded in the roadside ditches, and the situation threatened to produce heavy casualties very quickly. Rivers, positioned in the lead tank, realized that following protocol would fail to alleviate the situation. Instead he took action that resulted in the battalion's first Silver Star. His heroic efforts are recounted below in the official medal citation:
During the daylight attack ... Staff Sergeant Rivers, a tank platoon sergeant, was in the lead tank when a road block was encountered which held up the advance. With utter disregard for his personal safety, Staff Sergeant Rivers courageously dismounted from his tank in the face of directed enemy small arms fire, attached a cable to the road block and moved it off the road, thus permitting the combat team to proceed. His prompt action thus prevented a serious delay in the offensive action and was instrumental in the successful assault and capture of the town. His brilliant display of initiative, courage and devotion to duty reflect the highest credit upon Staff Sergeant Rivers and the armed forces of the United States.
Unfortunately, the medal would have to be awarded posthumously. A little more than a week later Rivers would again distinguish himself leading the platoon, but this time he himself would not be so fortunate. On November 16 Able Company, with Rivers in the lead tank, would lead another assault. This time the target was German positions in Guebling. On the way into the town, Rivers' tank hit a mine, disabling it and leaving Rivers with a significant injury. Shrapnel had cut his leg from knee to thigh and as deep as the bone. His commanding officer, Captain David J. Williams, later remembered what happened when he and the rest of the company came to aid Rivers:
With the morphine needle in my right hand about a half inch from Sergeant Rivers' leg, I could have told my sergeant to hold him down. I said, “Ruben, you're going back. You've got a million-dollar wound. You're going back to Tecumseh. You're getting out of this. You got a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.” He says, “Captain, you're going to need me.” I said, “I'm giving you a direct order! You're going back!” I said, Medics, get the stretcher.” He pushed the needle away and got up. He said, “This is one order, the only order I'll ever disobey.”
Allowing the medics to only clean and dress the wound, Rivers took command of another tank and, as the Germans had begun to mark the area for heavy artillery fire, moved to take cover with the rest of Able Company. It would not be until the morning of November 19 that the 761st would again push forward, but by now Rivers condition had seriously deteriorated. A dangerous infection had developed, threatening the loss of life and limb, and the wound was visibly causing a great deal of pain. Rivers had been urged to evacuate the night before, but he had again refused to leave the field. As usual his tank led the way, but while advancing toward German positions near the town of Bougaltroff the Panthers came under extraordinarily heavy fire. Williams ordered the remaining tanks to pull back, but Rivers had located the German anti-tank unit and, with one other tank, moved to fire on the area and cover the retreat. In the process, Rivers was fully exposed, and the Germans quickly trained their fire on his tank, landing two direct hits with high-explosive shells. Rivers was killed instantly.
Medal of Honor
Rivers' final acts, which demonstrated a profound loyalty to his fellow soldiers and dedication to the war effort, earned him the military's highest award, the Medal of Honor. However, although Captain Williams recommended Rivers for the award on November 20, 1944, it would not come until more than fifty years later. Rivers' story is indicative of the lack of recognition afforded to African-American soldiers who served during World War II. Of the 433 Medals of Honor awarded to World War II servicemen, none went to an African-American, although over a million served in the armed forces. On January 13, 1997 some of these omissions were rectified when President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to the families of six African-American servicemen and one living veteran. Grace Woodfork, one of Rivers' sisters, received her brother's medal in his stead.
Among his other honors, Staff Sergeant Rivers Court in El Paso, Texas is named after Rivers.
Medal of Honor Citation
Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers
Citation: For extraordinary heroism in action during the 15–19 November 1944, toward Guebling, France. Though severely wounded in the leg, Sergeant Rivers refused medical treatment and evacuation, took command of another tank, and advanced with his company in Guebling the next day. Repeatedly refusing evacuation, Sergeant Rivers continued to direct his tank's fire at enemy positions through the morning of 19 November 1944. At dawn, Company A's tanks began to advance towards Bougaktroff, but were stopped by enemy fire. Sergeant Rivers, joined by another tank, opened fire on the enemy tanks, covering company A as they withdrew. While doing so, Sergeant River's tank was hit, killing him and wounding the crew. Staff Sergeant Rivers' fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his unit and exemplify the highest traditions of military service.
- List of Medal of Honor recipients
- List of Medal of Honor recipients for World War II
- List of African-American Medal of Honor recipients
- ^ McDonald, Ann. “Lost Hero—Ruben Rivers.” Tecumseh Countywide News. October 5, 2002. Archived July 20, 2003, at the Wayback Machine.; Davey, Monica. “A quest for overdue honor.” St. Petersburg Times. January 15, 1996. National 1A.
- ^ McDonald.
- ^ Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem and Anthony Walton. Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes. New York: Broadway Books, 2004. p 92-99; Medal citation: Potter, Lou, William Miles and Nina Rosenblum. Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II. New York: Harcourt, 1992. p 173.
- ^ Wilson, Joe Jr. The 761st “Black Panther” Tank Battalion in World War II. Jefferson: McFarland, 1999. p 91.
- ^ Ibid. p 89-96. Abdul-Jabbar, 120–135.
- ^ Meyers, Jim. “Oklahoma Native Earns Late Honor: WWII Army Sergeant Finally Gets His Due.” Tulsa World. January 14, 1997. A1.
- ^ Kelly, S.H. "Seven WWII vets to receive Medals of Honor", Army News, January 13, 1997.
- Jim Garamone (January 15, 1997). "Army Finally Recognizes WWII Black Heroes". DefenseLINK News. Retrieved April 12, 2010.