Ruben Rivers was born in Tecumseh, Oklahoma during 1921. His family was large (he had 11 siblings!) and with his parents, they lived on and worked a family farm in Hotulka, Oklahoma. He joined the United States Army with two of his brothers to serve his country during World War II, and became the only one of the three who would serve in a combat unit in the then-segregated Army.
Because of the racial prejudices of the day, the 761st was kept in training for nearly two years while separate tank battalions made up of white soldiers were formed, trained, and deployed for war in mere months. They finally arrived in France for war service on October 10, 1944 and saw their first action about a month later.
Just one week later on November 15, 1944, Rivers suffered a severe shrapnel wound to one of his legs; it had been split open thigh-to-knee when his tank hit a mine. His company commander ordered him to be evacuated. Telling his commander that it was the only order he’d disobey, Rivers had the medics clean and dress his wounds, refused any morphine or any pain killers, and took command of another tank.
Over the next four days, he stayed at his post and continued to refuse evacuation. On November 19, as Rivers’ company was withdrawing and his and one other tank were covering the withdrawal, his M4 Sherman was struck by Nazi German fire and destroyed, killing him.
Captain David J. Williams II, Rivers’ white company commander, nominated him for the Medal of Honor on November 20, 1944. The racism of the day saw that Staff Sergeant Rivers’ courage would only be recognized by the Distinguished Service Cross. It would take over 50 years for that injustice to be rectified.
On January 13, 1997, the award Ruben Rivers so richly deserved was presented to his sister Grace by President Bill Clinton at the White House.
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.
And from Military Times’ Hall of Valor, here is Staff Sergeant Rivers’ citation for the Silver Star:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress July 9, 1918, takes pride in presenting the Silver Star (Posthumously) to Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers (ASN: 38063493), United States Army, for gallantry in action while serving with Company A, 761st Tank Battalion, attached to the 104th Infantry Regiment, on 8 November 1944. During the daylight attack on German positions near Vic-sur-Seille in northeastern France, 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.
The 761st Tank Battalion was deactivated in Germany while on occupation duty on June 1, 1946.