Heroism on the battlefield often goes unrecognized for generations, as it did for Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers.
Born in Tecumseh, Oklahoma, on October 30, 1918, in the closing days of World War I, Rivers gave his life in the struggle against the Axis Powers just over 26 years later, in mid-November 1944. Coming from an African American working-class family of 11, he finished high school and found employment as a railway worker. Registering for the draft in October 1940, Rivers was called to active duty in the US Army in January 1942.
The Army soon assigned Rivers to the newly formed all-Black unit, the 761st Tank Battalion, later to win lasting renown as the “Black Panthers.” In 1942 and 1943, Rivers trained at Camp Claiborne, Camp Livingston, and Camp Polk in Louisiana, then at Camp Hood in Texas. Initially working with the M5 Stuart light tank, Rivers and the 761st received M4 Sherman medium tanks in October 1943 while at Camp Hood. Throughout this period, Rivers repeatedly showed how capable a soldier and tanker he was. The atrocious racism he and his comrades experienced in Jim Crow Louisiana and Texas, both from local whites and from whites in the Army, tested them but did not break them. All the while, they lived the contradiction of being part of a racially segregated military preparing to fight against the racism and totalitarianism of Nazi Germany.
On June 9, 1944, three days after D-Day, the 761st heard the news that it would ship out for combat in Europe. Following additional training at Camp Shank in New York, Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers boarded USS Esperance Bay with his unit on August 27, 1944, and made for the United Kingdom. In Britain, the 761st was outfitted with the latest model of the Sherman, the M4A3 with a 76mm gun.
Staff Sergeant Rivers set foot on the European continent via Omaha Beach on October 10, 1944, a place already central to Army lore after the fierce combat that took place there four months earlier. Racing across France, the 761st Tank Battalion would become part of General George S. Patton’s US Third Army. The Third Army was then attempting to break through the areas of the Siegfried Line protecting one of Germany’s crucial industrial regions, the Saar. Rivers, with Company A of the “Black Panthers,” would cover 400 miles in a mere six days while attached to the 104th Infantry Division.
In early November, the all-Black unit met the Germans in brutal engagements in places in northeastern France, like Vic-sur-Seille and Chateau-Salins, which the 761st seized on November 9 after a four-hour battle. Eventually, the 761st would see a total of 183 days of continual combat. What they accomplished resoundingly refuted racist stereotypes of African American servicemembers.
On November 19, 1944, Staff Sergeant Rivers fell in battle near Guébling, France. Despite the efforts of Captain David J. Williams to confer a Congressional Medal of Honor, posthumously, on Rivers just five days after he displayed such extraordinary bravery, the recommendation was ignored. It was not until 1997, well over 50 years after his death, that Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers finally was awarded the Medal of Honor.
This article on The National WWII Museum’s website and the Citation for his Medal of Honor provide detailed descriptions of Rivers’ heroic actions. His final resting place is the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial in France.
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty: Staff Sergeant Rivers distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action during 16-19 November 1944, while serving with Company A, 761st Tank Battalion. On 16 November 1944, while advancing toward the town of Guébling, France, Staff Sergeant Rivers' tank hit a mine at a railroad crossing. Although severely wounded, his leg slashed to the bone, Staff Sergeant Rivers declined an injection of morphine, refused to be evacuated, took command of another tank, and advanced with his company into Guébling the next day. Repeatedly refusing evacuation, Staff Sergeant Rivers continued to direct his tank’s fire at enemy positions beyond the town through the morning of 19 November 1944. At dawn that day, Company A’s tanks advanced toward Bourgaltoff, their next objective, but were stopped by enemy fire. Captain David J. Williams, the Company Commander, ordered his tanks to withdraw and take cover. Staff Sergeant Rivers, however, radioed that he had spotted the German antitank positions: "I see ‘em. We’ll Fight‘em!" Staff Sergeant Rivers, joined by another Company A tank, opened fire on enemy tanks, covering Company A as they withdrew. While doing so, Staff Sergeant Rivers’ tank was hit, killing him and wounding the rest of the crew. Staff Sergeant Rivers’ fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his unit and exemplify the highest traditions of military service.”