Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers was the first hero and the first casualty of the famed 761st Tank Battalion. The 761st was the all-black unit that trained in Fort Hood, Texas, where a young Lt. Jack Robinson refused to sit at the back of a bus. The heroism of SSgt. Ruben Rivers inspired all the men of the battalion, and helped convince Army commanders and later President Truman that it was time to integrate the U.S. Army.
That Lieutenant was ordered up for court-martial. He was acquitted of all charges, and the trial was covered in national newspapers, because he already was a star athlete. After the war, Lt. Jackie Robinson went on to desegregate baseball. That was the legacy of the Black Panthers of the 761st Tank Battalion.
When the 761st arrived in Europe after D-Day, General Patton gave them one of his famous speeches. “Men, you’re the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army. I would never have asked for you if you weren’t good. I have nothing but the best in my Army. I don’t care what color you are as long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sonsabitches. Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you. Most of all your race is looking forward to your success. Don’t let them down and damn you, don’t let me down! They say it is patriotic to die for your country. Well, let’s see how many patriots we can make out of those German sonsabitches.”
In early November, 1944, a few weeks after their arrival in France, the 761st were assigned to clear out a German position in northern France near Vic-sur-Seilles. They encountered a roadblock – a felled tree lying across the road, with landmines buried all around it. SSgt. Rivers was in the lead tank.
The Germans had set their mortars and artillery to shell the position as soon as the column halted. The infantry dived for the ditches. Standard procedure was to wait for combat engineers to move the obstacle, but SSgt. Ruben Rivers just got out of his tank. He walked through the minefield, braving enemy rifle fire, and looped a cable around the tree, dragging it out of the way. He was awarded a Silver Star for that action, and the 761st came to the notice of the entire European Command.
Silver Star 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.
Ruben Rivers Wounded, Pressed On
Only a week later, the battalion was in action again, with Ruben Rivers again in the lead tank. They were headed to another German stronghold in the northeastern corner of France. SSgt. Rivers’ tank was hit by a land mine, and his leg was torn to the bone, from his thigh to his knee.
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.”
His wound bandaged, Rivers took command of another tank and pushed on for three more days. He had developed an infection, and knew he would probably lose either his leg or his life, or both. As the column of tanks came under withering fire, SSgt. Rivers and a second tank found the anti-tank position and opened fire on it. The Germans responded with two high-explosive shells, killing Rivers while he covered the retreat of his brothers.
Capt. Williams nominated Rivers for a Medal of Honor the next day, and fought the Army bureaucracy for twenty years to have it awarded. But like several other African-American heroes of World War Two, Rivers was denied the Medal of Honor for decades. His sister, Grace Woodfork, received his Medal posthumously on his behalf more than 50 years later, from President Bill Clinton.
Medal of Honor 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.