Ruben Rivers: Oklahoma’s Own American Hero

Ruben Rivers is Oklahoma's only Black Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, but it would take half a century after his death on the battlefield to get the honor. News On 6's Craig Day had more on the Oklahoman's story of heroism in battle.

Wednesday, February 15th 2023, 10:48 pm

By: Craig Day


As fighting raged in Europe during World War II, members of the 761st tank battalion, comprised primarily of all-black groups of soldiers, first had to fight stereotypes.

The military was segregated and some leaders had reservations about using African American soldiers in combat.

"It was considered kind of an experiment at the time, kind of like the Tuskegee Airmen," historian and author Art Burton said.

After training longer than any other tank battalion, two years compared to a few months for white soldiers, the Black Panthers finally got a chance to fight the Nazis and prove naysayers wrong.

"Some people believed African Americans didn't have the intelligence to be good tankers,” Burton said.

Art Burton has studied African American history extensively. He said military leaders, skeptical of the Black Panthers ability to fight, didn't want to send them, but General George Patton needed them.

After arriving in Normandy in October of 1944, the Black Panthers would go through 183 straight days of combat, liberating 30 towns on their way toward Germany.

The first African American tankers to see combat took part in campaigns through six countries.

"They were ready to fight, they were ready to fight the Germans and when they sent them over they proved their mettle," Burton said.

One of the men who proved his mettle is Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers from Tecumseh, Oklahoma.

"I think Ruben Rivers is a true American hero of World War II and I think Oklahomans can be proud of what he did, his service to his country," Burton said.

As the 761st pushed through Eastern France toward Germany, Rivers' tank hit a mine, shrapnel slashed his leg to the bone. Rivers refused to evacuate.

News On 6 interviewed David Williams, Rivers' commanding officer in 1996.

"So I tried to give him morphine,” Williams recalled. “Ray tried to give him morphine. And he pushed our hands away. He said, 'Captain, this is gonna be bad. You gonna need me. Couple of days won't make any difference.'"

Instead, Rivers took command of another tank, and advanced with his company to keep fighting. The next day, as his fellow Black Panthers pulled back to take cover under heavy fire from a German anti-tank unit, Rivers covered their withdrawal.

"He had no fear,” Burton said. “He was ready to die for what he was trying to do."

Rivers was killed when his tank took a direct hit from two high powered artillery shells. He's buried at the American Cemetery in Lorrain, France.

Because of his heroic actions in France, Rivers' Captain nominated him for the Medal of Honor, but it would take nearly 50 years for it to be awarded.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to Rivers and other African American soldiers from World War II overlooked for the award.

The president said Rivers' fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his unit.

Burton said Rivers should be an inspiration to all Oklahomans.

"They should remember him whenever they remember the veterans of Oklahoma that Ruben Rivers was right there at the top of the heap in terms of being brave, and fighting for his country," Burton said.

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