Before Marvel superhero “Black Panther,” T’Challa, rescued his secret, advanced African kingdom of Wakanda, and before the Black Panthers political organization, founded in 1966, protested police brutality in Oakland, Calif., another group nicknamed the “Black Panthers” served with distinction during World War II – the 761st Tank Battalion assigned to General George Patton’s Third Army. The battalion’s first hero was Ruben Rivers.
In honor of Memorial Day, it is fitting to remember some of our forgotten heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice so we can enjoy freedom in America today.
Ruben Rivers, who was half-Cherokee and half-African American, grew up near Tecumseh, Oklahoma, one of 12 siblings working the family farm. When he and two of his brothers joined the armed forces during World War II, he was assigned to the all-black 761st Tank Battalion and rose to the rank of staff sergeant. Assigned to Able “A” Company, then attached to the 104th Infantry Division, the tank platoon was dispatched to attack German positions near Vic-sur-Seille in northern France.
On Nov. 8, 1944, Rivers’ combat team approached the town through a narrow road that was blocked by fallen trees and land mines. The Germans fired on infantrymen stranded in open roadside ditches. Recognizing that protocols would cause heavy casualties, Sgt. Rivers quickly dismounted his lead tank in the face of enemy fire, attached a cable to the roadblock and cleared the road, permitting the combat team to proceed and capture the town.
A week later, again in the lead tank, Sgt. Rivers led an assault on German positions near Bourgaltroff, France. His tank hit a landmine, disabling it, and he suffered a significant injury from knee to thigh as deep as the bone. In the words of his company commander, Captain David Williams: “With the morphine needle in my right hand about a half-inch from his leg, 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.’ 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 only to clean and dress his wound, Rivers took command of another tank and moved to take cover with the rest of “A” Company. The next morning, a dangerous infection developed in his leg, causing a great deal of pain. Rivers was urged to evacuate but again refused to leave the field. Under heavy German fire, Rivers located the anti-tank unit and radioed in, “I see ‘em. We’ll fight ‘em.”
Rivers and another tank moved into the open to fire on the area, covering “A” Company as they withdrew. The Germans trained their fire on his tank, with two direct hits that killed Rivers and wounded the rest of his crew.
Fifty-two years later, on Jan. 13, 1997, Rivers and six other African American World War II veterans were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. President Bill Clinton presented Rivers’ medal to his sister, Grace Woodfork. The citation reads: “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.”
Ruben Rivers: an American hero. Lest we forget.