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Tibor Rubin

(1929 - 2015)

Tibor Rubin was a Holocaust survivor and an American soldier awarded with the highest military honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for his service in the Korean War.

On September 23, 2005, 76-year old Rubin was finally awarded the nation's highest military accolade for gallantry in combat - the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Medal of Honor is awarded to those who displayed “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, in actual combat against an enemy armed force.” Rubin was the 18th Jewish recipient of the Medal of Honor since it was created during the Civil War by President Lincoln.

It took 55 years for Rubin's heroic actions to be honored by the country after finally breaking through the wall of government bureaucracy and prejudice towards minorites who fought in World War II and the Korean War.  Rubin's story is none the less amazing for the wait.

Rubin, known as "Tibi" or "Ted," was born in a Hungarian shtetl called Paszto. At age 13, his family was rounded up by the Nazis, and he was sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Rubin survived, but his parents and his two sisters perished in the camp.

When Mauthausen was liberated by Allied troops, Rubin, then 15, swore that he would repay his liberators by going to the United States and fighting against the Germans. "I was going to go to the U.S. and join the U.S. army to show my appreciation ... It was my wish to fight alongside them," Rubin said.

In 1948, Rubin made it to the United States and tried to enlist in the U.S. Army only to be turned away because he failed the English test. He finally passed the exam in 1950 and was sent to fight on the frontlines of the Korean War.

At one point in the war, his company needed to find a route to retreat from their positions, so Rubin single-handedly defended a hill for 24 hours and held off scores of North Korean troops. This feat alone was enough to earn him four recommendations for the Medal of Honor and numerous other military awards. However, Rubin's commander - First Sgt. Artice Watson - who was described by many of Rubin's fellow soldiers as a "vicious anti-Semite" and often volunteered Rubin to go on the most dangerous patrol missions, ignored the orders to put through the paperwork to allow Rubin to receive the coveted Medal of Honor.

Some of the men in Rubin’s company were present when Watson refused to put through the order and they believe he did this because Rubin was Jewish. “I believe in my heart that First Sgt. Watson would have jeopardized his own safety rather than assist in any way whatsoever in the awarding of the medal to a person of Jewish descent,” wrote Cpl. Harold Speakman in a notarized affidavit.

In October 1950, Rubin and the survivors of his company were captured by the Koreans and placed into a POW camp. At the risk of being executed if caught, nearly every night Rubin would sneak out of the camp to get food for the desperate GIs. His acts of bravery and compassion kept between 35-40 soldiers alive until they were finally set free.

“He (Rubin) did many good deeds, which he told us were ‘mitzvahs’ in the Jewish tradition . . . He was a very religious Jew, and helping his fellow men was the most important thing to him,” said Sgt. Leo Cormier Jr., a fellow prisoner.

In the 1980s, nearly 30 years after he had been discharged, Rubin's army friends began protesting the Army's inaction and unfilled promises to recognize Rubin's bravery. The issue quickly reached members of Congress. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced a special bill on Rubin’s behalf in 1988. Former Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.) pleaded for recognition of his constituent. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and former Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) harassed the Pentagon and government agencies to act. The U.S. Army was forced to reexamine their discrimination policies towards awarding minorities during World War II and the Korean War.

The “Leonard Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act” was passed in 2001 by Congress to aid in the recognition of minority fighters. Kravitz, the uncle and namesake of rock musician Lenny Kravitz, was killed manning his lone machine gun against attacking Chinese troops during the Korean War, allowing the rest of his platoon to retreat in safety. Kravitz was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but was downgraded to a lower decoration because of military prejudices.

“It would have been nice if they had given me the medal when I was a young handsome man,” mused Rubin. “It would have opened a lot of doors.” Rubin wanted to receive official recognition for his "Jewish brothers and sisters," and to prove to Americans that there was a "a little shmuck from Hungary, who fought for their beloved country. Now, it’s Mister Shmuck, the hero.”

Tibor Rubin died on December 5, 2015, at his home in Garden Grove, CA.  He was 86 years old. 

His Medal of Honor citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Corporal Tibor Rubin distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism during the period from July 23, 1950 to April 20, 1953 while serving as a rifleman with Company I, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division in the Republic of Korea. While his unit was retreating to the Pusan Perimeter, Corporal Rubin was assigned to stay behind to keep open the vital Taegu-Pusan road link used by his withdrawing unit. During the ensuing battle, overwhelming numbers of North Korean troops assaulted a hill defended solely by Corporal Rubin. He inflicted a staggering number of casualties on the attacking force during his personal 24-hour battle, single-handedly slowing the enemy advance and allowing the 8th Cavalry Regiment to successfully complete its withdrawal. Following the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter, the 8th Cavalry Regiment proceeded northward and advanced into North Korea. During the advance, he helped capture several hundred North Korean soldiers. On October 30, 1950, Chinese forces attacked his unit at Unsan, North Korea, during a massive nighttime assault. That night and throughout the next day, he manned a .30 caliber machine gun at the south end of the unit’s line after three previous gunners became casualties. He continued to man his machine gun until his ammunition was exhausted. His determined stand slowed the pace of the enemy advance in his sector, permitting the remnants of his unit to retreat southward. As the battle raged, Corporal Rubin was severely wounded and captured by the Chinese. Choosing to remain in the prison camp despite offers from the Chinese to return him to his native Hungary, Corporal Rubin disregarded his own personal safety and immediately began sneaking out of the camp at night in search of food for his comrades. Breaking into enemy food storehouses and gardens, he risked certain torture or death if caught. Corporal Rubin provided not only food to the starving soldiers, but also desperately needed medical care and moral support for the sick and wounded of the POW camp. His brave, selfless efforts were directly attributed to saving the lives of as many as 40 of his fellow prisoners. Corporal Rubin’s gallant actions in close contact with the enemy and unyielding courage and bravery while a prisoner of war are in the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Army.

Sources: JTA (September 14, 2005):
Josh White, President Honors a Hero of the Korean War, The Washington Post, (September 23, 2005);
Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.