Corporal Tibor Rubin, US Army: Medal of Honor Series

Twice a prisoner, and initially denied our nation’s highest honor due to antisemitism, Tibor Rubin was finally awarded the Medal of Honor in 2005.

Tibor Rubin in US Army combat uniform, circa 1949. Photo by Army News Service, retrieved from the Department of Defense.

This Medal of Honor story is a little different. Tibor Rubin was not awarded the Medal for action in World War II, but for action during the Korean War, nor was Rubin a WWII veteran. Born to Jewish parents in Hungary in 1929, Rubin was one of six children—three sons and three daughters. His father, Ferenc, was a veteran of World War I, and his mother, Rosa, was Ferenc’s third wife. By early 1944, Rubin’s older brother Miklós had been conscripted for forced labor, and his brother Emery (originally spelled Imre) had left with a friend to avoid similar conscription. Emery and his friend were captured at a train station and sent to a forced labor camp, then to the Mauthausen concentration camp.

Rubin’s father wished to avoid that same fate for his third son, and in March, at not yet 15 years old, Rubin left his home in Hungary to attempt to reach Switzerland and safety. In the company of Polish men who were on the run from Nazis, Rubin was captured near the border of Italy and Switzerland two weeks into the trip. Rubin was deported to Mauthausen, and though his brother Emery was there, it wasn’t until the winter that the brothers were reunited. Sometime in 1944, Ferenc, Rosa, and Rubin’s sisters, Edith and Ilonka, were sent to Auschwitz. Irene managed to survive the war in Budapest. Rubin’s parents were less fortunate; they and Edith perished in Auschwitz in 1944. (Some sources say Ferenc was transferred to Buchenwald and died there.)

At Mauthausen, prisoners experienced various types of mistreatments, from medical experiments, to heavy manual labor, and even forced physical exercise, all meant to wear down prisoners. Here, young Jewish prisoners are forced to play leapfrog. Image from the Bundesarchiv: Bundesarchiv, Bild 192-048 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

On May 5, 1945, Rubin and Emery were liberated by the US Army. They reunited with Irene in their hometown of Pásztó, but deciding to leave Hungary, the three went to a displaced persons camp in Pocking, Germany. It took three years before Tibor was able to immigrate to the United States. He went alone in 1948 aboard the SS Marine Flasher, settling in New York. Emery immigrated the following year, while Irene used the identity of a deceased Czech woman to immigrate first to Canada, and then the United States. Edith, freed from Auschwitz in exchange for medical supplies from Sweden, immigrated there after the war. Miklós had escaped forced labor and joined the Czech resistance during the war. He also immigrated to the United States some years later.

Grateful to the country that liberated him from Mauthausen, Rubin wanted to join the US Army to give back, a promise he had made to himself at liberation—to become a “GI Joe.” His first attempt ended in disappointment when he failed the required English exam. Undeterred, Rubin tried again in 1949, and with a little “help” from some fellow test takers, he managed to pass the exam and enlist in the US Army.

In June 1950, war broke out in Korea. The country was divided at the 38th parallel in 1945, and two governments were formed. Tension continued to rise over the next five years until North Korean forces crossed the border into South Korea on June 25, 1950, and fighting began. In July, the United Nations agreed to provide military assistance to South Korean forces to push Northern forces out and restore peace. US forces, already in Korea, began participation in July. Rubin, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, turned a US Army soldier (though not yet a US citizen) found himself on the front lines in Korea.

Part of the 8th Cavalry Regiment, First Cavalry Division, Rubin was under the leadership of a sergeant who fellow soldiers described as a “vicious anti-Semite,” and who regularly gave Rubin the most dangerous assignments. During one, Rubin defended a hill solo for 24 hours, holding off a steady flow of North Korean forces. He was recommended for the Medal of Honor by several officers, but his sergeant refused to put the paperwork in. Affidavits from men in his unit swore that the sergeant was purposefully trying to get Rubin killed and denied numerous recommendations for the Medal of Honor and other valor awards due to Rubin’s religion.

By the fall of 1950, Rubin’s unit was nearly decimated from fighting, and Rubin had been wounded several times. Most of the men were captured or killed, including Rubin, who became a prisoner of war under communist forces on November 2. Unlike many of his fellow prisoners who struggled to adapt to their situation, such deprivation was not new to Rubin, and he had the experience to know how to survive. Prisoners reported that Rubin would sneak out of the camp at night and steal food from enemy supply depots. He knew the risk—he would be shot if caught—but Rubin understood that to do nothing was certain death. At one point during his imprisonment, the forces holding Rubin learned that he was still a Hungarian citizen. Since Hungary was by that time communist, they offered to return him to his “People’s Republic,” but Rubin refused.

Remaining imprisoned, Rubin was always looking out for the needs of his fellow prisoners. Performing “mitzvahs,” or good deeds, was important to him. In an oral history, Rubin explained that he knew survival was “mind over matter,” even going so far as to convince a fellow POW to keep fighting to survive by bribing him with “medicine” if he promised to not give up. Three times a day he gave the man goat droppings disguised as pills. Convinced he was receiving actual medicine, and with Rubin’s encouragement, the soldier found the strength to stay alive, and did.

Rubin, lying down with a blanket over him, talks to reporters upon his release from the Communist prisoner of war camp. Although life in the camp was difficult, he told reporters from Stars and Stripes that the Chinese treated him much better than the Germans had. Photo used with permission from Stars and Stripes: Frank Praytor/ [image:8D72CDBD-BEC6-4C86-BA5D-193E8BC25875-436-0000BB67BBD10FDE/unknown.png]1953, 2021 Stars and Stripes, All Rights Reserved.

After two and a half years of imprisonment, Rubin and his fellow prisoners were freed on April 21, 1953. Twice a prisoner, Rubin at just 24-years-old had spent nearly four years of his young life surviving in dreadful camp conditions. But his experiences as a prisoner at Mauthausen prepared him in a unique way to survive being a prisoner of war just five years later. That knowledge, and the will to survive while caring for his fellow POWs, is credited with keeping more than 40 American prisoners alive.

On November 27, 1953, Tibor Rubin became a US citizen. He was living in California and working at his brother’s liquor store in Los Angeles. Ten years later he married, and two children followed, but there was still no recognition for his self-sacrifice and bravery during the war. In the 1980s, men who had served with Rubin and who had become his friends, began to protest to the US Army about the lack of recognition for his bravery. Congressmen took interest in the issue and began to take steps to have Rubin recognized. In 2002, the National Defense Authorization Act, inspired by efforts to have the Medal of Honor awarded to Korean War veteran Leonard Kravitz, called for the review of war records of Jewish and Hispanic American personnel. From World War II through Vietnam, records were reviewed to determine if any met criteria for the Medal of Honor, but had been denied due to racism. One of the veterans reviewed was Rubin.

On September 25, 2005, in a ceremony at the White House, President George W. Bush presented 76-year-old Tibor Rubin with the Medal of Honor. Though Rubin reflected on the opportunities he may have had had he been awarded the Medal as a young man, he was proud of what his recognition would mean for the Jewish community. The only Holocaust survivor to also become a Medal of Honor recipient, Rubin died in 2015 at the age of 86.


Medal of Honor Citation

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Corporal 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 night-time 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.”

 

To see Rubin’s Medal of Honor action brought to life, read this digital graphic novel from the Association of the United States Army: Medal of Honor: Tibor Rubin.

Contributor

Kali Martin

Kali Martin earned a bachelor's degree in International Studies and German at the University of Miami and a master's degree in Mili...
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