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Tibor Rubin and the Medal of Honor

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Surviving from a war is never easy. Tibor Rubin (76) had not only survived from two wars, but he also came up as a remarkable hero. For his valor, the Korean war veteran and Holocaust survivor received the highest military award in the USA, the Medal of Honor from U.S President George W. Bush on September 23—after fifty years he was a soldier and being recommended four times by two separate commanding officers for separate actions and his fellow soldiers.

“By repeatedly risking his own life to save others, Corporal Rubin exemplified the highest ideals of military service and fulfilled a pledge to give something back to the country that had given him his freedom,” Bush said in a White House East Room ceremony.

Born in Hungary as a child of a shoemaker, in 1943 young Rubin (13) was taken to the infamous Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria during the Nazis’ effort to eliminate Hungary’s Jews. His mother and 10-year-old sister died in an Auschwitz gas chamber; while his father perished in Buchenwald. Rubin stayed long enough until he was liberated two years later by American troops. “We stunk, had terrible diseases. Still, they picked us up and brought us life,” Rubin recalled recently. He then took a vow to join that Army one day.

In 1948, his remaining family moved to America where he worked in New York City as a shoemaker, and then a butcher, before enlisting in the Army in 1950—not yet a U.S. citizen. Within months, he found himself on the front lines in Korea under the thumb of First Sgt. Artice Watson, an anti-Semite who repeatedly sent Rubin for dangerous assignments, such as to hold a strategically critical hill so his battalion could withdraw. So for the next 24 hours, the lone Private fought wave after wave of North Korean soldiers—ran around to fire from different directions and rolled hand grenades down so the enemy would think there were many soldiers to face in the battle.

For his deeds, the two commanding officers ordered Watson to secure the Medal of Honor for Rubin. But they were killed soon after, and the First Sergeant never prepared the papers. Fellow GIs later signed affidavits stating that the Watson rebuffed Rubin because he did not want the combat honor to go to a Jew. “I really believe, in my heart, that (the sergeant) 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,” former Cpl. Harold Speakman wrote.

His undaunted bravery did not stop there, however. In October 1950 at the Battle of Unsan, the US troops were attacked by a large Chinese army. Rubin defended his unit using the last machine gun to give chance for the badly injured ones to retreat. The battle ended with hundreds of US soldiers—including the severely wounded Rubin—were captured.

Since then they had to fight the constant hunger, fatigue, and disease. Life was made difficult for those prisoners of war that nobody would help the others. But Rubin was an exception. having survived the Nazis concentration camp, he knew how to get through the hardest times. Almost every evening he stole food from the Chinese and North Korean supply depots and share anything he could get with the others. In a letter written in 1982, fellow prisoner James Bourgeois told how everyday Rubin would boil a helmet full of snow to clean his bandages and tend to a large open wound on his shoulder; when the wound filled with pus, Rubin foraged for maggots and placed them in the gash to eat away the infection, saving Bourgeois’ arm. “he was a godsend,” says Leo Cormier, another fellow POW. “Tibor saved my life, as well as many other guys.”

More than 1,600 prisoners were reported to die at the camp that winter in Korea. Rubin was said to keep at least forty inmates alive. Yet he received nothing from the Army but his discharge; kidneys half gone; plenty of implanted stents to keep his heart beating; bad arthritis and an unusable right leg: 100 percent medical disability!

In the early 1980s, his fellow prisoners acted. They began a campaign to have his heroics recognized. In the affidavits submitted to the Army after their release they recommended him for the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star, the Army’s investigation showed.

In 1988, Sen. John McCain introduced a special bill on Rubin’s behalf to force the Army to look into his valorous conduct. In 2001 U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida introduced a bill to force the Pentagon to review the records of veterans who may have been denied the Medal of Honor because they were Jews. And finally Pentagon moved and gave the heroes what they deserved.

Rubin only said in his still-thick Hungarian accent, “After 55 years, I never figured I’m going to get it, so I’m very happy.”

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  • kathryn

    I interviewed a former soldier (now 87 years old) with the 11th Armored Division, the first to come across Matthausen & he spoke with pride of Tibor Rubin and his valor in Korea & the POW camp. Thank you Tibor.

  • Therese

    I recently saw a program that talked about this wonderful man. What an inspiration to all of us about kindness, caring, and never giving up. Most of all about forgiveness. On a daily basis, I serve veterans. I only wish I had the honor of doing even one good deed for him in return for what he has done for all Americans.