After defeating German forces and capturing the town of Morville-les-Vic on November 7, 1944, the men of the African American 761st Tank Battalion, the “Black Panthers,” continued their advance toward the German border. Like other American tankers, the Black Panthers operated Sherman tanks. These were mechanically reliable, available in quantity, and extremely vulnerable to German anti-tank fire, especially dreaded 88mm Flak. These guns exacted a heavy toll in American tankers’ lives, including the Black Panthers, who needed all of their grit and determination to continue the fight and achieve victory in the autumn of 1944.
Among those leading the way was 23 year old Platoon Sergeant Ruben Rivers of Hotulka, Oklahoma, who was half-Cherokee. An inspiring leader for all who fought alongside him, Rivers had a reputation for acting first and asking permission later. As Rivers led the drive into one German-held town, a lieutenant contacted him by radio, exclaiming: “Don’t go into that town, Sergeant, it’s too hot in there!” Moments later, the sergeant’s voice came on the radio: “I’m sorry, sir, I’m already through that town!”
On November 16, Rivers led the tanks of Able Company alongside GIs of the 26th Infantry Division toward the town of Guebling, which the 4th Armored Division had tried and failed to take some time earlier. Wrecked tanks of the 4th Armored littered the roads and fields across which the Black Panthers advanced. Approaching the town, Able Company’s eleven tanks split into two platoons, one of them led by Rivers. As they crested a rise, the Shermans came under German artillery fire, which knocked out one of the American tanks. But Rivers continued.
Entering town, the lead Sherman rolled over a German anti-tank mine, which exploded with tremendous force and nearly flipped the vehicle on its side. A medical team that arrived on the spot a short time later found Rivers on the ground behind the tank. He was in agony, gripping his leg which had been torn open to the bone. A medic radioed for the sergeant to be evacuated and tried to inject him with morphine. Rivers, however, refused outright.
Capt. David J. Williams stood beside Rivers “with the morphine needle in my right hand about a half inch from Sergeant Rivers’s leg. I could have told my sergeant to hold him down.”
“Ruben, you’re going back,” Williams said. “You’ve got a million-dollar wound. You’re going back to Tecumseh [Oklahoma]. You’re getting out of this. You’ve got a Silver Star and Purple Heart.”
“Captain, you’re going to need me,” Rivers said back through gritted teeth.
“I’m giving you a direct order!” Williams yelled. “You’re going back!” Turning to his team, the captain said, “Medics, get the stretcher.”
But Rivers knocked aside the morphine needle and struggled to his feet, saying “This is one order, the only order I’ll ever disobey.” Pushing past the stunned captain, Sergeant Rivers went over to another tank, ordered out the sergeant commanding it, and climbed aboard to take his place just as German mortar fire zeroed in, forcing the men on the ground to scatter.
Rivers and his men waited that night as combat engineers constructed a bridge into Guebling. On the next day, November 17, the Shermans pushed into the town, with Rivers, still without any pain-killing morphine, leading the way. But the Germans fought back hard, forcing the American tankers and infantry to fight for every inch of ground. Rivers’s Sherman engaged enemy tanks and gunners on several occasions, and remained on alert the following night as the Germans, on one occasion wearing captured American uniforms, attempted to infiltrate back into town.
On November 18, Captain Williams and his medical team found Rivers and his tank still in action. Once again the captain ordered the sergeant to be evacuated.
“Captain, you know better than that,” Rivers said. “This is going to be tough! Another two days won’t make any difference.”
A medic inspecting Rivers’s swollen and infected leg looked up. “Listen, he’s got gangrene!” he shouted. But Williams only had time to say “Ruben” before German guns again zeroed in, forcing the Americans to take cover. He would not speak with Rivers again.
On the following day, November 19, the Black Panthers again attempted to push through the town, but the Germans were ready with heavy tanks and anti-tank guns, which knocked out the vulnerable Shermans one after another. Rivers commanded one of two tanks that stood in a covering position, and as his fellow tankers pulled back under fire, Rivers ordered his Sherman to leave cover and engage the enemy in order to save his comrades. The ploy worked as the Germans shifted their fire to Rivers’s Sherman, which fought back against heavy odds.
“Move back, Rivers!” Williams yelled over the radio.
“I see them. We’ll fight them,” Rivers responded as shells flew back and forth between him and the enemy.
Finally Williams heard the sergeant’s final words on Earth: “Pull up, driver! Pull back, driver! Oh, Lord!"
Moments later, Rivers’s tank blew up.
Such courage became almost commonplace as the Black Panthers continued to fight their way forward to their next big test in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Months and years afterwards, however, Rivers’s outstanding example would continue to inspire his comrades. Captain Williams immediately recommended Rivers for a posthumous Medal of Honor. In common with other African American heroes, however, Rivers was denied recognition. Not until over 50 years later, on January 12, 1997, was the Medal of Honor finally bestowed on Platoon Sergeant Ruben Rivers.
The Black Panthers Enter Combat: The 761st Tank Battalion, November 1944
The men of the African American 761st Tank Battalion entered combat at Morville-les-Vic on November 7, 1944. In an "inferno" of battle, they proved their worth in the first of a series of hard fought battles.
Ed Lengel, PhD
Edward G. Lengel is the former Senior Director of Programs for the National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.