Ruben Rivers of the 761st

I realized the other day that October is Black History Month. Well, except it isn’t. Black History month was back in February. But it’s Black History Month in Europe. Look it up. Personally, I think black people and black history are important year-round, but society seems to disagree. Why else would they dedicate a month explicitly to it except if they wanted to get it over with quickly? In any event, I’ve apparently started studying a particular piece of black history right around the turn of the month, so maybe it’s…. magic?

Because of racism, it took us ages to discover how good blacks looked in the Army dress uniform. Here's Rivers, highlighting my point.

Because of racism, it took us ages to discover how good blacks looked in the Army dress uniform. Here's Rivers, highlighting my point.

 

 

Anyways, today’s post is about Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers of the 761st tank battalion. In November of 1944, Ruben found himself in France, commanding an M4 Sherman against Wehrmacht emplacements and armor. An antitank mine wounded Rivers’ leg when his tank drove over it on November 16th. Undeterred, Rivers rejected attempts to pull him from combat and continued his command. By November 19th, the leg had gone from wounded to infected, and yet Rivers still refused treatment.

A Sherman tank crewed by the 761st tank batallion, A Company. Taken November 9th, 1944, near the Seille. I don't think it's Rivers' tank, but it's from the same assignment. I'm pretty sure It's an M4A3 model with 76mm turret. No assault kit, though, since you can see the chassis MG isn't shrouded.

A Sherman tank crewed by the 761st tank batallion, A Company. Taken November 9th, 1944, near the Seille. I don't think it's Rivers' tank, but it's from the same assignment. I'm pretty sure It's an M4A3 model with 76mm turret. No assault kit, though, since you can see the chassis MG isn't shrouded.

 

While leading an armored advance on a town near Bougaltroff, Able company (which Rivers was leading) was engaged by Wehrmacht Jagdtigers. The Jagdtiger was a tank destroyer that featured a chassis mounted 128mm cannon. The cannon fired explosive or armor piercing explosive rounds that weighed in at just under 30 kilograms. All of this was built into a reinforced Tiger II chassis, making the Jagdtiger (when it worked) a fire breathing demon from hell.

The gunner and loader could stand up (relatively) comfortably at their positions, and the rounds were so heavy, the propellant had to be loaded separate from the warhead.

Rivers was ordered to fall back, and responded with “I see them! We’ll fight ‘em!”, he promptly charged the anti-tank position and engaged, giving the rest of A company enough time to pull back without falling under the Jagdtiger’s guns. Luck finally caught up with Rivers, however, and a Jagdtiger targeted his Sherman, prompting him to order full reverse. Too late however, two rounds sheared off the top half of his tank, killing him and injuring the rest of the crew.

Rivers would (very posthumously, 1997) receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, if not for his success against everything but Jagdtigers, then figuring out how to fit his massive goddamn balls into the commander’s hatch. The Citation is 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.”

Grace Rivers accepting her brother's posthumous Medal of Honor, awarded by the actually respectable half of the Clintons.

Grace Rivers accepting her brother's posthumous Medal of Honor, awarded by the actually respectable half of the Clintons.

Grave markers are too modest for some people. "Yeah, here's Rivers. Medal of Honor, beat down racism at home and abroad. Tank commander. The usual." Still, you'll notice none of his neighbors get a rad star at the top.

Grave markers are too modest for some people. "Yeah, here's Rivers. Medal of Honor, beat down racism at home and abroad. Tank commander. The usual." Still, you'll notice none of his neighbors get a rad star at the top.

Thanks to 761st.com for images directly pertaining to Rivers.

Patton and his Black Tankers

I’ve never felt that we as a society have done a good job at tackling the issue of racism. We always seem to fall into one of two extremes, a call for segregation, or a level of enforced integration that’s outright obsessive or weird. Personally, I find skin color to be a rather secondary characteristic when I evaluate my fellow man. But this article isn’t about me.

 

My thesis is simple. Through the interactions of a General George S Patton, Jr, and the 761st Tank Battalion, I believe there is an important lesson in dealing with racial issues that we all too often overlook in our rush for an absolute 100 percent instant solution.

 

Patton was open and unapologetic in his prejudices. One might even say he was honest about it. In a letter to his wife, written from the North African front of World War II, he stated that “The black man does not belong on the modern battlefield.”

 

Ironically enough, when he put out a call for the best available reinforcement tankers to bolster his forces, he received the Black Panthers, the 761st tank battalion. The army was still segregated, and this battalion consisted almost exclusively of black tankers. Patton responded with a wire to Allied Command, stating “I asked for men, you sent me blacks.”

 

However, as the 761st started active combat, a most interesting thing happened. Patton lightened up with his prejudice. In a speech he gave directly to the 761st:

“Men, you’re the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army. I would never have asked for you if you weren’t good. I don’t care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those Germans.”

Perhaps he was just making the best of something he considered annoying. But perhaps one of the most stubborn human beings who ever lived actually managed to change his mind. Also of interest is that bits of the speech quoted above were worked into the speech at the start of George C Scott’s Patton.

 

Most retired members of the 761st seemed to remember Patton as being somewhat distant. He never talked down to them, and treated them with the same casual abuse he did anyone else. I have a theory as to a possible lesson here. And that’s that no matter who the subject is, the most effective cure for racism has nothing to do with enforcing equality or segregation. The solution is casual association. I think that after watching the 761st’s (stellar, objectively speaking) combat performance, Patton shelved his prejudices and regarded them as any other people under his command.

In addition, there was at least one occasion where Patton discovered an intrinsic tactical advantage in the black soldiers under his command. I’ll warn you now, this idea is going to look ludicrous by modern standards.

 

According to an account from Floyd Dade Jr of the 761st:

During the Battle of the Bulge, Patton settled on a rather ingenious, if a bit offensive, way to counter German saboteurs.

“Back to Patton again—skipping over a lot—going back down to the Bulge, when the Germans had kept a lot of our soldiers and equipment, they dressed the German soldiers up in American uniforms. They would get on these checkpoints directing the traffic, telling you which way to go, this highway and that way. Where the fighting is this way, and this way they're all done. But they would send the guys down that way, and they would ambush them when they come down. They told Patton about that. "George, man, they got us tricked. They are sending the troops the wrong way." Patton said, "That's no problem. Put a black on there. And if the son of a bitch 'aint black, shoot him." So he solved that problem real quick. They started getting those trucking companies and sending up some black MPs. They put them on the check points. But they did it for a couple of days, and it worked. Going the wrong way. A lot of you heard about that gasoline dump, when the Germans ran out of gasoline. They were trying to get to our depot.”

 

“So they got troops dressed up as Americans on all of these checkpoints.” Patton said, "Put one of them niggers up there, that's one thing they don't have. If he's not black, shoot the son of a bitch."

 

Well, that’s a very Patton solution, and a very Patton way of putting it. But it also worked. My point is that race was only an issue for Patton until he started getting results and actually interacting with the battalion. Well, it was also brought up when he wanted to counter Axis saboteurs. Let’s be honest, though, if the thousands of years our species spent developing into ethnic subgroups tossed a literally flawless plan in your lap, you’d have to at least consider the option.

 

Patton would later defend some of the more racist things he’d said over the years in his biography. Personally, I don’t think that means much. When given an opportunity to actually interact with Black People, the prejudice he expressed was far weaker than the professionalism he acted out.

 

Maybe the secret to equality isn’t to force people to be equal, or even to make them change their minds. Instead of considering those different from us as brothers, let’s make the first step of considering them as real, living people we can work with. We forgot to make that step before trying all the other stuff. I figure if it worked on Patton, it can work on anyone.

Saburo Sakai and Harold Jones

I'll be trying a "new" and "exciting" technique here sometimes referred to as "Tarintino-ing it". So I apologize if this comes out dumb as shit.

In 1982, Japanese fighter ace Saburo Sakai met with a man named Harold "Lew" Jones for Memorial Day. They seemed to hit it off quite well. Inspiring, considering that 40 years earlier, they were duty bound to hate the shit out of one another.

Saburo Sakai, looking like a villain, but also fantastic.

Saburo Sakai, looking like a villain, but also fantastic.

Harold "Lew" Jones, looking like a suave Florida bumpkin, which he was.

Harold "Lew" Jones, looking like a suave Florida bumpkin, which he was.

Image from PacificWrecks.org, who I understand keeps a rather large library of donated private photographs. I wish them and their collection well.

Image from PacificWrecks.org, who I understand keeps a rather large library of donated private photographs. I wish them and their collection well.

Now, I will be true to my word, and back us up 40 years. The previous time these two men met was August 7th, 1942, over Guadalcanal. Sakai, in his Zero, was flying out to intercept what he thought to be a flight of F4F Wildcat fighters. The Wildcat was a fine plane, but the A6M2 Zero was a hell of a hard target for even a group of them. Sakai spotted a flight of 8 American naval planes in formation, and moved in to engage.

An F4F, for reference

An F4F, for reference

However, Sakai had misidentified his target. These were not fighters, but SBDs. For those of you that don't know, the SBD (Scout Bomber, Douglas) was a dive bomber that featured a twin .30 caliber machine gun turret covering the rear arc.

This plane is also sexy. But not as sexy as the F6, not being featured in this story, sadly.

This plane is also sexy. But not as sexy as the F6, not being featured in this story, sadly.

Sakai realized his error only when he pulled close enough to prompt the tail gunners to open up. Among these gunners was Harold Jones. Jones later described watching pieces of Sakai's Zero go flying, including bits of the canopy. He also said he caught a glimpse of what was most likely a dead pilot, slumped back in the chair as the Zero tipped upward, apparently out of control. And then it was gone. Jones's squad finished their mission and returned home.

In his short engagement of the bombers, Sakai had absolutely riddled Jones's plane with bullet and cannon rounds, and a medical team had actually run out, anticipating that they'd be pulling a dead tail gunner from the damaged plane once the SBD was landed. But Jones was fine. Well, as much as someone who had just stared down a Zero and also a dead Zero pilot could be, anyways.

Side Note: Based on the accounts I have reviewed, I can't promise that it was Jones that scored the "killing" shot on Sakai's Zero, but it's just as likely him as any of the other 7 bombers.

Meanwhile, Saburo Sakai was *not* fine. One of the gunner's rounds had pierced his canopy, and also his head. According to his account of the incident, he was in extreme pain, and wanted to die. In addition, he received chastisement and also apparently navigation help from a hallucination of his mother. After a 4+ hour flight back home, he touched down as safely as someone with a gunshot wound to the head could touch down in a damaged Zero.

The picture's kind of grainy, and he looks more dazed than anything here. But part of that is because he stopped some of the bleeding with his silk scarf earlier. Combat pilots are a practical type.

The picture's kind of grainy, and he looks more dazed than anything here. But part of that is because he stopped some of the bleeding with his silk scarf earlier. Combat pilots are a practical type.

Sakai survived his injuries, against considerable odds. Before accepting medical attention, he insisted giving a report to his superior officer, and did so, before collapsing. Apparently, most of the staff at his base were too busy to help one of their most experienced, qualified pilots, so one of his squad mates (who would later die over the Philippines), had to stuff him in a staff car and drive him to the medic themselves.

Sakai would lose most sight from his right eye, but returned to flying first as an instructor, and then back to full combat duty near the end of the war. (Rumor is that he was behind the controls of an N1K2 that was especially dangerous to bomber flights, but accounts are dubious, and Sakai himself credits a different pilot with those missions).

Moving forward to 1982, Sabro Sakai met, shook hands with, and got along pretty damn well with the man who most likely shot him in the fucking face 40 years earlier.

Ignore the exceptionally unfortunately placed watermark and observe, if you will, Sakai pointing out the hole in his pilot helmet where the bullet passed through.

Ignore the exceptionally unfortunately placed watermark and observe, if you will, Sakai pointing out the hole in his pilot helmet where the bullet passed through.


There are a number of lessons to be learned from the whole incident. The first is that Saburo Sakai was a hardcore badass. The second is that it's amazing who you can be friends with if you look around past transgressions. And the third is to make absolutely sure that anything you're about to kill is, in fact, the thing you think you're about to kill.