In May 1993 The U.S. Department of Defense commissioned a study at Shaw University (Raleigh, NC) to determine why no black World War II service members had received the Medal of Honor. Lead researcher, Professor Daniel Gibran, was further tasked to develop a list of deserving and overlooked black candidates to recommend for the highest American military honor.
The exhaustive three-year, 200-page study became Exclusion of Black Soldiers from the Medal of Honor in World War II. The Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second-highest honor for valor, served as the minimum criteria for elevating deserving black recipients for the highest award. It was based on two precedents. First was General John J. Pershing’s order after the end of World War I that all DSCs be reevaluated for consideration for the Medal of Honor. By Armistice Day, only four had been approved. Second, in 1943, General Eisenhower asked his Fifth Army commander in North Africa to do the same. As a result, in both cases, the number of Medals of Honor significantly increased. In the Shaw study a single exception was added to the names of the nine deserving black candidates, who had received the DSC in World War II and that was Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers.
Rivers, who was killed in action in November 1944 had been awarded the Silver Star and it was only as a result of his dogged white commander, Captain David Williams’ tireless efforts that Ruben was added to the list of recommended candidates.
Rivers, who was born in Hotluka, Oklahoma, and joined Patton’s “Black Panthers” the legendary 761st Tank Battalion in January 1942 became part of Able Company commanded by Williams. Captain Williams from a wealthy and liberal Pittsburgh family had high aspirations for training black soldiers for combat but was met with apathy from high command and indifference from his men. The black tankers had watched the war from afar and had determined by early 1944, based on endless training that they would never see action overseas so why bother?
Angered, Williams decided to instill discipline and self-respect in his company if they ever saw action or not. He spent months getting them combat-ready and to the surprise of everyone they were called up. In May 1944 General Patton sent an urgent message to the
War Department requesting more tankers. Apparently, the response back to him was “that the only ones left were the Negro tankers.” Reportedly he said “Who the hell asked for color? I requested tankers."
As Able Company of the 761st got into action in Europe, Rivers emerged as fearless. In early November 1944 with Williams’ tank in the lead on the outskirts of Bezange Le Grange, about a mile from the town the column was stopped by a mined tree across the road.
Rivers in his turret far back in the column determined they were trying to get around an obstacle up ahead. He decided to pull his tank forward and past Captain Williams’ tank. Williams jumped on the radio and asked Rivers what the rush was, for Christ’s sake. Rivers responded on the radio that he was going to get them going on in a hurry.
Just as Rivers finished his response, German shells began whistling to explode around them, tearing up the road and throwing men, mud, and debris everywhere. Rivers took matters into his own hands. He told his gunners to cover him as he jumped out of the turret of his Sherman surrounded by exploding mortar and artillery shells and small arms fire.
Williams had not been watching Rivers’ tank but ended a radio call with Bill Griffin, who’d relayed a message from Colonel Colley asking about their status. Williams informed Griffin that intense enemy fire pinned down the infantry, and a mined roadblock held up their advance.
Williams, popping his head from the hatch, saw to his disbelief that Rivers was calmly uncoiling the tow cable on his Sherman and directing his driver. Rivers fastened the line around the large tree trunk studded with mines that made up the roadblock. Williams brought his field glasses up to his eyes, his mouth hung open, and he whispered, “Rivers, you beautiful son of a bitch.”
Rivers jumped back on the front of the Sherman and leaped in the turret, the tow coil secured. Williams saw the tank pull the tree trunk back slowly to the side. Several mines exploded as it cleared the road, but the column was able to resume the advance. Soon after this action Rivers became lead Abe Company’s tanker and was informed he was being awarded the Silver Star for his actions.
Less than three weeks later after he had been injured in a teller mine explosion, Rivers in the lead tank encountered a German anti-tank battery near Guébling. Sensing danger, Williams yelled over the radio, “Move back, Rivers!”
“I see them. We’ll fight them,” Rivers responded as shells flew back and forth between him and the enemy. Just then, 75mm enemy shells came crashing down, exploding all around Williams’ tank, pinning his movement.
Rivers ordered his driver to roll forward as tracers ricocheted off the front of the tank. Rivers shouted to his gunner to steady on the target. They were 200 yards away from German guns. They would get no further.
According to a war correspondent witness, two German HE shells were fired point-blank at Rivers’ tank. The first shot hit near the front of the tank and penetrated. The explosion cracked the Sherman like an egg and killed Rivers and his crew instantly. A second high explosive shell followed the same path, slicing through the tank and emerging out the back.
Williams, devastated, had lost his best tanker, his almost irreplaceable “fearless fighter from Oklahoma.” At that moment, Williams didn’t care whether he lived or died. And worst of all, he blamed himself for not ordering Rivers to leave the battlefield once he’d been injured. The man could have gone home with the Silver Star. He had done his duty. Somehow, someway, Williams had to make this right. He headed back to his tank as the battlefield fell silent. Williams, exhausted, caught some shut-eye, but his mind still burned with anguish and torment.
Williams reported the next day to Colonel Hollis Hunt Able Company’s dead and wounded, and the Colonel responded with impatience and indifference. Col. Hunt informed him that Able Company was being relieved, and they were to pull back to Obreck with the battalion. As the Colonel turned away, Williams stepped forward to him and said he wanted to put Sgt. Rivers in for the Medal of Honor.
Col. Hunt responded with surprise, “What?”
Williams continued that Rivers had already received the Silver Star and that the Colonel could put it through channels. The Colonel pursed his lips and adjusted his scarf as Williams provided even more details of Rivers’ leg wound and how his tanker refused to evacuate. Hunt remained expressionless.
Several days later, on November 23, Williams went formally to Colonel Hunt’s office and presented him with a typed document listing the reasons Ruben Rivers should be awarded the Medal of Honor. Colonel Hunt lifted the page and glanced over it and sighed and said it was not so easy but he would try. But Williams knew his recommendation would not be acted upon; he knew no black soldiers were being recommended for the Medal of Honor. It would be forgotten about and ignored, and he made a promise that day: if he survived the war, he would not let this stand.
Forty-nine years later he made good on his promise to himself. Captain David Williams with unflagging tenacity, learning of the Shaw study, was determined to see his fearless fighter from Oklahoma honored as he originally intended. Williams was interviewed extensively for the Shaw study and even supplied the authors with photographs of Rivers from the war.
Professor Gibran acquiesced to make a single exception for Ruben Rivers. In the final recommendation to the military he wrote:
“Therefore this study recommends that the army evaluate, for elevation to the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Crosses earned by black soldiers during World War II and, in addition, consider whether Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers, who may have been officially recommended for the Medal for his heroic acts in battle in 1944 and who in any case died unrecognized for acts of valor that resulted in his death, also merits the award.”
In the end, the Army agreed. At the White House ceremony in 1997, David Williams accompanied the Rivers family to see the honor bestowed. Interviewed by the Baltimore Sun afterward, he spoke of the bond between soldiers, and for him, color never entered into the equation.
“You have to understand. In battle, you fight for each other. The pride in the unit. You have a cohesion,” Williams said, then paraphrased Shakespeare’s Henry V, “When men fight shoulder to shoulder and bleed and die for a just cause, they become brothers.”
About the long campaign he waged on behalf of Rivers, Williams said he believed God kept him alive for one reason: To see that Ruben Rivers was awarded the Medal of Honor. In tears at the close of the White House ceremony, Williams proudly proclaimed himself a “Black Panther” and said, “We did win, didn’t we? God can take me at this moment because the deed is done.”
You can find out more about Ruben Rivers' story in Immortal Valor.