My husband and I met friends in France last weekend. On our way back to Germany, we stopped at Lorraine American Cemetery in Saint Avold, France to pay our respects.
The Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial covers approximately 113 acres and contains the largest number of graves of military dead of World War II in Europe, most of whom were killed while driving German forces from Metz, France toward the Siegfried Line and Rhine River.
The cemetary is quite a sight to see. And, made me want to learn more about the young men who fought and were laid to rest there. As I researched, one hero’s story has become etched in my mind: Ruben Rivers.
Rivers was born in 1921 in Tecumsah, Oklahoma and he grew up with eleven brothers and sisters. With the United States’ entry into World War II, Rivers and two of his brothers, Robert and Dewey, enlisted. Rivers was assigned to a combat unit, training with the 761st Tank Battalion.
The 761st was made up primarily of African-American soldiers, who at time time were not permitted to serve alongside white troops because of segregation. They were known as the Black Panthers after their unit’s distinctive insignia.
Rivers played a critical role with the 761st, becoming not only one of the battalion’s first heroes, but also one of its first casualties.
Shortly after arriving in Europe in the fall of 1944, the 761st was chosen by General Patton to be part of the Saar Campaign. On November 8, 1944, according to various accounts, the 761st’s Able Company aligned with the 104th Infantry Regiment in an attack on German positions near Vic-sur-Seille, France. As they approached the town, a roadblock stopped the progress of the tanks and infantry. The Allied troops came under fire a situation that could have resulted in heavy casualties in a short period of time. Rivers took action that resulted in the battalion’s first Silver Star. His heroic efforts are recounted below in the official medal citation:
During the daylight attack … 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.
Unfortunately, the medal would be awarded posthumously. On November 16, Able Company, with Rivers in the lead tank, would lead another assault. On the way into the town of Guebling, Rivers’ tank hit a mine, disabling it and leaving Rivers with a life-threatening injury. His commanding officer, Captain David J. Williams, later remembered what happened when he and the rest of the company came to aid Rivers:
With the morphine needle in my right hand about a half inch from Sergeant Rivers’ leg, I could have told my sergeant to hold him down. I said, “Ruben, you’re going back. You’ve got a million dollar wound. You’re going back to Tecumseh. You’re getting out of this. You got a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.” He says, “Captain, you’re going to need me.” I said, “I’m giving you a direct order! You’re going back!” I said, Medics, get the stretcher.” He pushed the needle away and got up. He said, “This is one order, the only order I’ll ever disobey.”
Allowing the medics to only clean and dress the wound, Rivers took command of another tank and, as the Germans had begun to mark the area for heavy artillery fire, moved to take cover with the rest of Able Company. Rivers had been urged to evacuate the night before, but he had again refused to leave the field. On the morning of November 19, his tank led the way and came under extraordinarily heavy fire near the town of Bougaltroff. Williams ordered the remaining tanks to pull back, but Rivers – having located the German anti-tank unit — moved to fire on the area and cover the retreat. In the process, Rivers was fully exposed, and the Germans quickly trained their fire on his tank, landing two direct hits with high-explosive shells. Rivers was killed instantly.
Rivers’ final acts, which demonstrated a profound loyalty to his fellow soldiers and dedication to the war effort, earned him the military’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. However, it would not come until more than fifty years later.
On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to the families of six African-American servicemen and one living veteran, including Rivers.
The citation accompanying the Medal reads as follows:
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.
This is just one of the 10,489 stories of heroism from those buried in Lorraine American Cemetery. And just one of the hundreds of thousands of stories of service from America’s active duty and retired American military personnel.
It took spending a little time at Saint Avold to realize that I don’t recognize those who serve enough for keeping our country safe. In a small way, I hope that this post serves as a “thank you” for all they do.