World War II: July 1997 From the Editor

Seven long-overdue Medals of Honor are testaments
to the heroism of African-American veterans.

On November 16, 1944, Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers was in the thick of a fierce fight with the Germans. Rivers and the rest of the all-African-American 761st Tank Battalion–known as the “Black Panthers”–were advancing toward the small town of Guebling, France.

The men of the 761st were no strangers to combat. They had already fought their way through several French towns, taking part in the offensive of General George S. Patton, Jr.’s Third Army. On this day in November, however, Rivers ran into some bad luck–his tank struck a Teller mine. The force of the explosion blew off the tank’s right track and severely injured Rivers.

When the medics arrived, they found jagged bone protruding from his bloody combat trousers. They offered Rivers morphine for the pain and advised his commanding officer that he should be evacuated immediately. Sergeant Rivers would not accept either suggestion. He gathered himself up as best he could and moved toward another tank. Just then, an artillery barrage began, and orders were given to disperse. Rivers temporarily got lost in the shuffle.

There was a river between the 761st’s location and Guebling. From Guebling, the Americans were to assault the town of Bougaltroff. As combat engineers worked feverishly to complete a Bailey bridge across the water, the 761st fought German troops. On the afternoon of November 17, Rivers was at the head of the column crossing the completed bridge. Although he had lost a great deal of blood and was in tremendous pain, he was able to knock out two German tanks that challenged the American advance and force another pair to retreat.

Early the next morning, Rivers again refused to be evacuated, even though it was obvious that infection was likely and could cost him his leg. Rivers would not leave the men of Able Company.

The attack on Bougaltroff began on the morning of November 19. German resistance was fierce. Almost from the moment they moved out, the men of the 761st came under anti-tank fire. Rivers spotted the area from which the heaviest concentration of German fire was coming and sacrificed himself to allow his comrades to reach safety. His steady, accurate fire distracted the Germans but also gave away his position. Several German rounds were seen striking his tank.

Trezzvant Anderson, a war correspondent from the “Negro Press” who was attached to the 761st, recorded his observation of Rivers’ brave fight. “From a comparatively close range of 200 yards, the Germans threw two HE [high-explosive] shots that scored. The first shot hit near the front of the tank, and penetrated, with ricocheting fragments confined inside the steel walls. The second scored inside the tank. The first shot had blown Rivers’ brains out against the back of the tank, and the second went into his head emerging from the rear. And the intrepid leader, the fearless, daring fighter was no more.”

Rivers’ commanding officer, Captain David J. Williams II, requested that the brave sergeant receive the Medal of Honor. The recommendation was denied.

On January 13, 1997, Vernon Baker, a 77-year-old veteran from St. Maries, Idaho, was welcomed at the White House. Baker received the Medal of Honor for his bravery in the mountains of Italy in April 1945. He had killed nine German soldiers and knocked out several gun emplacements.

Of the seven black men who received their long-overdue Medals of Honor earlier this year, Baker was the only one alive to have his award placed around his neck by President Bill Clinton. Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers, 1st Lt. John R. Fox, Pfc Willy F. James, Jr., and Private George Watson were killed in action. Staff Sergeant Edward A. Carter died in 1963, and 1st Lt. Charles L. Thomas died in 1980.

Although their medals had been denied them for more than half a century, it is never too late to right a wrong, to correct an injustice. “We’ve all been vindicated,” remarked Baker. “Those that are not here with me, thank you, fellas, well done, and I’ll always remember you.”

President Clinton lauded the selfless courage of the recipients. “They were prepared to sacrifice everything for freedom, even though freedom’s fullness was denied to them. Now and forever, the truth will be known about these African Americans who gave so much that the rest of us might be free.”

The medals were certainly a long time coming, but the recognition is richly deserved. True bravery and willing sacrifice know no racial boundaries.

Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II

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