Ruben Rivers

African American WW2 Soldier in uniform standing at parade rest
Ruben Rivers

U.S. Department of Defense

Quick Facts
WW2 Buffalo Soldier and Medal of Honor Recipient
Place of Birth:
Tecumseh, Oklahoma
Date of Birth:
October 30, 1918
Place of Death:
Bourgaltroff, France
Date of Death:
November 19, 1944
Place of Burial:
Lorraine, France
Cemetery Name:
Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial

Ruben Rivers was born October 30, 1918, in Tecumseh, Oklahoma. He grew up in Hotulka, Oklahoma, where he and his 11 brothers and sisters worked on the family farm. After Rivers graduated high school in 1938, he went to work for the local railroad. He later moved to Oklahoma City. On October 16, 1940, Rivers registered for the military draft.  

In January 1942, Rivers was drafted into the Army. He was assigned to a new all-Black tank battalion at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. He arrived at the camp for training in March. It was at Camp Claiborne that Rivers’s unit, the 761st Tank Battalion later known as the Black Panthers, was officially formed on April 1, 1942. Rivers was assigned to Able Company, 761st. The 761st, along with the 758th Tank Battalion, another all-Black unit, was housed in the camp’s segregated area, about a mile away from the front gate, where the roads were rutted dirt. The men lived in moldering canvas tents, next to the camp’s sewage treatment area.

The primary weapon for the 761st was the M5 Stuart light tank. Each tank carried a crew of four people. It had a maximum speed of 40 mph. It was armed with a 37 mm cannon and a .30 caliber machine gun. During the training sessions Able Company commander Captain Charles W. Calvert took note of Rivers’s aptitude. Calvert promoted Rivers to sergeant. On August 23, 1942, the 761st moved to Camp Livingston, 32 miles away, for training maneuvers. The 761st performed on par with the numerous all-white tank battalions. By early September, when they returned to Camp Claiborne, their morale was high as a result of their good showing during maneuvers. Their high morale soon faded as they endured racist taunts from the locals and many of the camp’s officers.

On April 8, 1943, the 761st again left for maneuvers at Camp Polk, Louisiana. They joined the 85th Infantry Division and the all-Black 92nd Infantry Division for Third Army Maneuvers. This was their most intensive training to date. They conducted combat simulations with infantry units for the first time. The maneuvers lasted for two months and again the 761st performed admirably. When they returned to Camp Claiborne in late May 1943, morale was low; the men did not feel the Army would send Black troops into combat regardless of how well trained they were.

On September 15, 1943, the 761st was ordered to Camp Hood, Texas. On October 29, the 761st was reconstituted as a medium tank battalion, using the M4, known as the Sherman tank, equipped with a 75 mm cannon. The Sherman, the newest American tank, was reliable and easily repaired in the field. Ruben Rivers and the other men of the 761st were enthusiastic about this change.

On June 9, 1944, the men of the 761st Tank Battalion received the news they never thought possible. They had been put on alert for deployment to the European Theater of Operations. They were going to Europe! 

In mid-August, the battalion spent two weeks at Camp Shanks in Rockland County, New York, preparing for their overseas deployment. On August 27, the 761st Tank Battalion boarded the Esperance Bay in New York City for the 10-day voyage to Avonmouth, United Kingdom. While in the United Kingdom, the 761st was equipped with the latest version of the Sherman tank, known as the M4A3, upgraded with a 76 mm cannon. 

They arrived in France on Omaha Beach on October 10, 1944. The 761st quickly traveled 400 miles in six days across France to catch up with the Third Army. On November 8, 1944, Able Company, attached to the 104th Infantry, attacked and captured the town of Vic-sur-Seille, France. The next day, the force took Chateau-Salins in a four-hour fight in the season’s first snowstorm, then continued east toward Morville-lès-Vic. This began 183 days of continual fighting for the 761st.

On November 16, 1944, Rivers and Able Company advanced on Guébling, France. While Rivers’s tank was advancing on the town, it hit a mine. The explosion slashed his leg to the bone. Rivers refused morphine, medical treatment, and numerous offers of evacuation for medical care. Commandeering a working tank, he continued advancing through Guebling the next day on November 17. Rivers continued the fight on November 19 east of the town of Bourgaltroff. Able Company met stiff German resistance and Captain David J. Williams ordered the company to retreat. Over the radio, Rivers said “I see 'em. We'll Fight 'em!” and engaged the German anti-tank positions so the rest of Able Company could retreat. During this encounter, Rivers’s tank was hit, killing him instantly while the other four members were wounded.

Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers was buried at Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial in Lorraine, France in C Row 5 Grave 53.

On November 23, 1944, Rivers’s commanding officer Captain David J. Williams submitted the paperwork through official channels to have Rivers awarded the Medal of Honor. Williams knew it was a long shot: no African American had been awarded a Medal of Honor for World War I or II at that point. Williams made it his life’s mission to see that Rivers was not forgotten. 

In the early 1990s, the Department of Defense started to study the issue of why no African Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II. It was determined that Black soldiers had been denied consideration for the Medal of Honor in World War II because of their race. The report put forward a total of seven men who deserved the Medal of Honor for their actions. Ruben Rivers was one of them. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on January 13, 1997, by President Bill Clinton. The award was presented to Rivers’s sister Grace Wilfork. Captain Williams was in attendance that day at the White House.

His Medal of Honor 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, while serving with Company A, 761st Tank Battalion. On 16 November 1944, while advancing toward the town of Guébling, France, Staff Sergeant Rivers’ tank hit a mine at a railroad crossing. Although severely wounded, his leg slashed to the bone, Staff Sergeant Rivers declined an injection of morphine, refused to be evacuated, took command of another tank, and advanced with his company into Guébling the next day. Repeatedly refusing evacuation, Staff Sergeant Rivers continued to direct his tank’s fire at enemy positions beyond the town through the morning of 19 November 1944. At dawn that day, Company A’s tanks advanced toward Bourgaltoff, their next objective, but were stopped by enemy fire. Captain David J. Williams, the Company Commander, ordered his tanks to withdraw and take cover. Staff Sergeant Rivers, however, radioed that he had spotted the German antitank positions: “I see ’em. We'll fight ’em!” Staff Sergeant Rivers, joined by another Company A tank, opened fire on enemy tanks, covering Company A as they withdrew. While doing so, Staff Sergeant Rivers’ tank was hit, killing him and wounding the rest of the crew. Staff Sergeant Rivers’ fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his unit and exemplify the highest traditions of military service.”

Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument

Last updated: January 30, 2023