A time to live; a time to die: the sad saga of Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers – African Americans and World War II
Dale E. Wilson
The crash of artillery fire kept nerves taut as the men in Captain David J. Williams’ Company A, 761st Tank Battalion (Negro) prepared to undergo their baptism of fire at daybreak on November 8, 1944.
When the order to move finally came, First Lieutenant Joe Kahoe’s five tanks plowed through the mud to take up supporting positions behind a low ridge outside the village of Bezange le Grande. At the same time, First Lieutenant Robert Hammond’s platoon, with Staff Sergeant Ruben River’s tank in the lead, roared down the road as GIs from the 26th Infantry Division’s 104th Infantry Regiment pushed toward their objective, Vic sur Seille. Rivers didn’t get far, though. Just a couple of hundred yards out of town he encountered a roadblock.
Williams’ radio crackled. “Hello, D.J.,” said Rivers, following the Company’s policy of using first names instead of more formal call signs. “There’s a roadblock just ahead. Got mines on it. Doughs in the ditches are getting shelled. Over.”
“Hello, Ruben,” replied the company commander. “Help the doughs. Fire H.E. for effect. Out.” Williams grabbed his binoculars and watched in awe as Sergeant Rivers calmly dismounted from his tank, crawled forward with the tow cable, and carefully attached it to the trunk of the large tree that formed the roadblock. Williams could make out the shape of antipersonnel and antitank mines attached to the tree and held his breath as Rivers painstakingly performed the operation while German infantry fired on him and a brace of mortar rounds exploded nearby. Undaunted, Rivers completed his task, stood up, remounted his tank, and climbed into the turret.
When the tank backed up, pulling the tree clear of the road, Williams observed several black puffs of smoke as mines exploded. Impressed by Rivers’ cool courage under fire, which cleared the way for the tanks and infantry to move on and take their objective, Williams recommended the intrepid tanker for a Silver Star, the nation’s third highest valor award.
Hard fighting continued through the next day as the 104th Infantry, still supported by Company A, pushed on in a bloody battle to take Morville-les-Vic. They continued to press forward on the tenth, and reached Chateau Voue on November 11. The next day, two of Williams’ platoons repulsed a German counterattack near Weiss. On the thirteenth, the battered company withdrew for maintenance.
Three days later, on November 16, while leading his company’s eleven remaining tanks (Kahoe’s platoon had been detached to support another regiment) across a railroad crossing near the village of Guebling, Rivers’ vehicle hit an antitank mine. The mine blew off its right track and severely damaged the running gear. A piece of metal knocked loose inside the turret, slashed Rivers’ right leg, laying the flesh open to the bone from knee to thigh. It was a “million dollar wound,” according to Sergeant Theodore A. Weston, a tank commander in Rivers’ platoon. Captain Williams agreed when he saw Rivers outside the vehicle. Williams could plainly see bone, and later expressed amazement that the wound was not bleeding more.
At that moment, Staff Sergeant Ray Roberson and Corporal Homer Bracy, two of the company medics, pulled up in a jeep. Roberson silently began cleaning Rivers’s wound, painting it with antiseptic. “Do you need a shot, Sergeant?” he asked. Rivers’ face displayed neither pain nor emotion. “No, just tape and bandage it,” he said tightly.
When Roberson finished dressing the wound, he turned to Williams and offered to drive Rivers to the aid station. Williams nodded. “Let’s get him in the jeep,” he said, reaching down to help lift Rivers to his feet.
Rivers brushed Williams’ hand away and struggled up on his own. “I’m not goin’ back, Cap’n,” he said. “You’re gonna be needin’ me round here pretty soon.” Williams started to argue, but Rivers ignored him, pushing past the company commander and hobbling to the nearest tank. As Williams silently watched, Rivers pulled himself up to the turret and ordered the tank commander to get out. The sergeant inside looked questioningly at Williams. When the captain nodded, the noncommissioned officer (noncom) climbed out and let Rivers take his place inside.
The tankers remained on a small ridge overlooking the river outside town for two days, waiting for engineers to bridge it so they could join the infantry in Guebling and continue their advance. Finally, with the bridge in place, they were able to move forward into town and prepare to support the infantry’s next attack.
On the evening of 18 November, Captain Williams and the medics again inspected Rivers’ wound. It was infected. Williams, says Bracy, was concerned about the possibility of gangrene, fearing that Rivers might die or lose the leg if he wasn’t evacuated. Williams again suggested that Rivers go to the rear, but the noncom still adamantly refused. Williams did not try to further dissuade him. He knew the stubborn sergeant’s strong-willed nature all too well. Half African American and half Cherokee Indian, the native of Tecumseh, Oklahoma, told his company commander, “My Negro side says it hurts, my Indian side says it don’t hurt, so I’ll make it all right.”
It was the last time Williams saw Rivers alive.
Early the next morning, November 19, GIs from the 26th Division’s 2d Battalion, 101st Infantry Regiment moved silently through the streets of Guebling, past Company A’s seven operational tanks. The cold, gray dawn shrouded their objective, the neighboring town of Bourgaltroff, which was occupied by elements of the crack 11th Panzer Division.
The tankers watched as the riflemen fanned out into the open area on either side of the road leading toward Bourgaltroff. Williams planned to move out behind the leading wave of infantry with five tanks, leaving Lieutenant Hammond and a wingman tank in covered positions from which they could support the attack by fire.
When the first rounds of the division artillery’s “time-on-target” barrage shrieked overhead, Sergeant Weston ordered his driver to move out. As the squat Sherman medium tank rumbled down the road, Captain Williams ordered his own driver to follow Weston. The other three tanks that were to support the attack fell in behind them.
A steady barrage of American artillery fire poured into Bourgaltroff. Despite the deafening explosions it was possible to hear the distinctive crack of German 88mm cannon fire. One round exploded against the front of Sergeant Weston’s lead tank, disabling the Sherman’s 76mm main gun.
Williams keyed the radio and frantically ordered his crews to fall back and seek cover. Rivers ignored the command, announcing over the radio that he had spotted several German positions and was moving to where he could engage them so the other tanks could safely withdraw.
“Ruben, move back!” Weston shouted over the radio. “Move back, Rivers,” Williams pleaded. “Panthers!” “I see ’em,” Rivers replied calmly. “We’ll fight ’em!”
Rivers was joined by his wingman, Sergeant Walter James, and together they opened fire on the German tanks with their high-velocity 76mm guns. From the corner of his eye Captain Williams saw tracers from German 88mm antitank rounds racing toward the concealed positions from which Lieutenant Hammond and his wingman’s tank were overwatching the assault. Williams repeated his order to pull back and instructed Rivers and James to take cover behind the crest of the small hill they were on.
It was too late. James’ tank escaped, but an 88mm round smashed into Rivers’s vehicle, wounding the loader, Private Everet Robinson, and killing Rivers and the gunner, Private First Class Ivory V. Hilliard.
The loss of Staff Sergeant Rivers and Lieutenant Hammond, who was killed while firing his .50-caliber machine gun in an effort to cover crewmen escaping from Rivers’s disabled tank, devastated their comrades in Company A.
When the fighting ended that afternoon, Captain Williams found the acting battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hollis M. Hunt, and told him he wanted to recommend Rivers for the Medal of Honor. Williams says Hunt first expressed disbelief at the request, then cynicism. “What?” Williams quotes Hunt as saying. “He’s already got a silver Star. You can put your request through channels, but…” Hunt’s voice trailed off. He pursed his lips, adjusted his scarf, and listened indifferently, without comment, to Williams’ description of Rivers’s valor. Four days later, Williams again confronted Hunt, this time as Williams was leaving the battalion command post to return to his unit. He paused in the doorway and pulled out a piece of paper on which he had written a brief narrative describing why he thought Rivers deserved the Medal of Honor.
“This is my recommendation for Sergeant Rivers,” Williams said, walking back and laying the paper on the colonel’s field desk.
Hunt silently nodded, his eyes half closed, and said, “It’s not so easy, Captain. We’ll see.”
That was the last Williams heard about the recommendation. He had other problems to worry about at that point. The Germans were falling back toward the Siegfried Line, and the Third Army, of which the 761st Tank Battalion was a part, was again racing across France after them.
Lieutenant Colonel Hunt was right about one thing: getting a Medal of Honor–or any other valor award–for an African American in the Second World War was a difficult proposition. It was especially difficult in separate combat battalions like the 761st, which were frequently shuffled from one division to another. These “bastard red-headed step children,” as such units were jokingly called, had a hard time getting any kind of support. It’s no wonder they received so few awards or commendations. Paperwork was frequently lost as the units were shunted from one division or corps to another. And no one in any of the higher headquarters seemed to have been particularly concerned about following up on awards recommendations for black troops.
Despite this evident lack of support, the 761st compiled an impressive combat record. In addition to helping the 26th Infantry Division during the Third Army’s breakout near the fortrees city of Metz in November 1944, the black tankers fought with distinction in support of the 17th Airborne Division at Tillet, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. The battalion later blazed its way through the Rhineland, spearheading the 103d Infantry Division’s advance as part of Task Force Rhine. It finished the war attached to the 71st Infantry Division, helping to liberate the Gunskirchen concentration camp and penetrating farther east than any other American unit–linking up with Russian forces on the Enns River near Steyr, Austria.
The 761st was twice recommended for the Presidential Unit Citation in 1945, but both requests were denied. Undaunted, the battalion’s veterans later banded together to continue their fight for recognition, finally receiving in 1978 the award they sought. Meanwhile, Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers–who repeatedly led his company’s assaults, and was credited by his comrades with killing more than three hundred German soldiers during his stellar twelve-day combat career–received nothing for his heroic efforts, from his serious wounding on November 16 until his final sacrifice himself while covering his company’s withdrawal under fire. There is apparently no record of the Medal of Honor recommendation Captain Williams says he gave to Lieutenant Colonel Hunt.
Ironically, none of the 1.25 million African Americans who served in World War II received any of 433 Medals of Honor awarded during that conflict. Furthermore, only two of the 23,000 Native Americans who served were so honored for valor.
Captain Williams is now over seventy years old and retired in Florida. He has been fighting for more than a decade to get the file of his gallant half-black, half-cherokee platoon sergeant reopened, and an impartial hearing conducted to determine if Rivers’ actions were, indeed, “above and beyond the call of duty.”
Today, a resolution (H.R. 4976), introduced to the House of Representatives in June 1990 by Congressman James M Inhofe of Rivers’ home state of Oklahoma, continues to languish without action. Isn’t it time, asks Williams–before he, Weston (who later received a battlefield commission in recognition of his own valor and leadership ability), Bracy, and others who witnessed Rivers’ actions are gone–to give their recommendation a fair hearing?
As Weston wrote in his statement describing Rivers’ actions:
He could have gone home to Oklahoma with his Purple Heart and Silver Star knowing that all A Company loved him as a fine brother and good soldier. I will swear to God that what I have written here is true and accurate. I will never forget those hard days and Ruben’s death.
Anderson, Trezzvant W. Come Out Fighting: The Epic Tale of the 761st Tank Battalion, 1942-1945. Germany: Salzburger Durckerei und Verlag, 1945.
Bracy, Homer A. Affidavit provided to Congressman James Inhofe, 20 June 1990. Copy in author’s personal collection.
Geist, Captain Russell C. “After Action Report” for 761st Tank Battalion, November 1944, dated 2 December 1944. Record Group 407, ARBN-761-0.3. National Archives, Suitland Records Branch, Suitland, Md.
History of the 26th Yankee Division. Salem, Mass.: Deschamps Brothers, 1955.
Stern, Kenneth S. “Liberators: A Background Report.” New York: The American Jewish Committee, Institute of Human Relations, 1993.
Weston, Theodore. Affidavit provided to Congressman James Inhofe, 22 June 1990. Copy in author’s personal collection.
Williams, David J. Affidavit provided to Congressman James Inhofe, 30 June 1990. Copy in author’s personal collection.
Williams, David J. Hit Hard. New York: Bantam Books, 1983.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group