Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers
Ruben Rivers was a Staff Sergeant in the 761st Tank Battalion, an all black tank battalion which served with distinction in the European Theater of Operations during World War II.
Staff Sergeant River 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.
No African American soldier was awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II. In 1993 the Army contracted Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, to research and prepare a study "to determine if there was a racial disparity in the way Medal of Honor recipients were selected." Shaw's team researched the issue and, finding that there was disparity, recommended the Army consider a group of 10 soldiers for the Medal of Honor. Of those 10, seven were recommended to receive the award. In October of 1996 Congress passed the necessary legislation which allowed the President to award these Medals of Honor since the statutory limit for presentation had expired. The Medals of Honor were presented, by President William Clinton, in a ceremony on 13 January 1997. Vernon Baker was the only recipient still living and present to receive his award; the other six soldiers received their awards posthumously, with their medals being presented to family members.
Ruben Rivers was born to Willie and Lillian Rivers in 1921 in Tecumseh, Oklahoma. He grew up in nearby Hotulka, where, along with his eleven brothers and sisters, he worked on the family farm. After graduating from high school, Rivers worked on the railroad for a time then joined the United States Army on January 16, 1944 and obtained the rank of staff sergeant with the all black Company A, 761st Tank Battalion.
Sergeant Ruben Rivers played 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, Sergeant 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.
Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers wasn't done being a hero. Less than two weeks later he again demonstrated his valor and courage, but unfortunately this time Sargeant Rivers lost his life in the event.
This time the target was German positions in Guebling. Rivers' tank hit a mine at a railroad crossing while advancing toward the town with his company. His leg was slashed to the bone in the explosion, but he refused a morphine injection and, as many would do in the 761st, he also refused to be evacuated. He would refuse numerous evacuation offers over the next few days. Taking command of another tank, Rivers advanced with his company to take Guebling the next day and directed his tank's fire at enemy positions east of town through the morning of Nov. 19, despite the company losing three of its five tanks in the town to antitank fire and one to mines. One tank crew acquired a replacement and returned to the town.
Continuing the attack east toward Bourgaltroff Nov. 19, the company was stopped by enemy fire. Capt. David J. Williams, the company commander, ordered his tanks to withdraw to cover, but Rivers radioed that he had spotted the antitank position. "I see 'em. We'll fight 'em," Rivers said, and opened up on the enemy tanks, covering Company A's withdrawal. Rivers' tank was hit, killing him and wounding the rest of the crew.
In November alone, the battalion had 22 killed in action, two who died of wounds, 81 wounded, 44 non-battle casualties, 14 tanks lost and 20 damaged. The battalion went with the Third Army to the relief of the encirclement of Bastogne the following month, and into Germany. By war's end, 761st troops had accrued 11 Silver Stars and 69 Bronze Star Medals, most for valor under fire.