The Passing of a GI Joe

Medal of Honor recipient Tibor Rubin wanted to show that Jews could fight as well as die.

Our country lost a hero last Saturday (December 5), a hero it acquired along the way, when Tibor Rubin—“Ted,” as he liked to be called because that was his “American name”—died.  His birth certificate said he was 86, but by his own calculation he was actually a little younger than that since he believed that he had a second birthday when he arrived in America 67 years ago.  

Ted’s story is one of the most remarkable in U.S. military history.  It is a story of daring and determination not quite like any other.  It is a story given flesh and bones by simple human decency.

Voluble and mordantly funny, Rubin, a thick and powerful man even in old age and still speaking an immigrant’s eccentric English, told me about it a few years ago during a couple of interviews I conducted with him for a book I was doing on the Medal of Honor.

The story begins in Hungary where he was born in 1929 in the small town of Paszto.  His family were Jews, but this didn’t matter to their neighbors—not yet, anyhow.  “We have a beautiful life there,” Rubin said.  “We didn’t bother nobody and nobody bothered us.”

As World War II approached, things changed as the Hungarian government, Hitler’s ally, passed a series of anti-Jewish measures imitating those the Nazis had used in laying down a foundation for the Holocaust. When he was 13 and they sensed that night was falling, Rubin’s parents sent him to Budapest in the hope that he would be absorbed by the big city. He survived on his own for a couple of years, but when the round up came, he couldn’t hide.  He was arrested and packed with hundreds of others into cattle cars headed for the Mauthausen camp in Austria.  He never forgot the German commandant’s chilling greeting upon their arrival there: “You Jews, none of you are going to get out of here alive.”

The rest of his family were arrested too, although It was several years before he learned what happened to them.  His father (a hero in the Austria-Hungarian Army in World War I who had been captured by the Russians and spent several years in one of their prisons) died at Buchenwald. His mother and two sisters were sent to Auschwitz.  While being processed there, the youngest of the two girls, 10 year old Elonja, was taken away and put into a line headed for the crematorium.  His mother, who had been selected for forced labor, ran to join the girl, yelling back at her older daughter (who would survive to tell the story), “I’ll go with Elonja.  She shouldn’t have to die alone.”

Emaciated and diseased, Rubin managed to survive until May 5, 1945, when Malthausen was liberated by the U.S. 11th Armored Division.  “When they picked me up I was a sack of bones,” he told me. “I was covered with lice and it didn’t seem that I could live.”  Fed and given medical attention, he slowly returned to the world of the living.  During his recovery, he was sustained by the image of the American soldiers breaking down the gates of the death camp:  “Now I have a debt to pay.  I make a promise. If, Lord help me, I ever go to America, I’m gonna be a GI Joe.”

Entering the purgatory of the “displaced person,” he was eventually sent to a children’s camp to await a final destination. There was only one place he wanted to go, the place he associated with freedom because of the soldiers who had liberated him: America.  But months and then years passed with no visa.  Rubin watched French, Belgian, Italian and even Russian Jews get permission to emigrate while he was forced to stay behind.  His sin was coming from a country that had been part of the Axis; it seemed to make no difference to the authorities that this country had also killed his family.

Finally, in May 1948, he had a deliverance when he was put on a ship headed for New York.  He was given a valise for his meager belongings and ten dollars spending money for the trip.  Wanting to leave every vestige of his past behind, he threw the valise over the side as soon as he was at sea and used most of the money to buy candy at the ship’s canteen.  

Rubin was 18 when he arrived at Ellis Island.  Sponsored by a Jewish refugee organization, he and everything he carried with him were sprayed with DDT. He was given a shower and a haircut and new clothes (the only ones he had were those on his back—cut out of U.S. Army blankets).

The refugee organization helped him get a place to live and a job as an apprentice in a butcher shop in a Hungarian neighborhood in New York.  Everyone spoke Hungarian at work and at home, read Hungarian newspapers, listened to Hungarian music and ate Hungarian food. It was a comforting environment, reminiscent of the old country.  He could have stayed there forever. But Rubin had a different plan: “I want to pay back the country. I want to be a G.I. Joe like the guys who liberate me.  I decided to join the Army.  What was more American than the Army?”

He tried to enlist on three separate occasions, failing each time because his English was so poor that he couldn’t understand the aptitude tests. He finally convinced a recruiting sergeant to feed him the answers and managed to pass.   Rubin joined the Army in February 1950 and was assigned to the 8th Cavalry Regiment.  He was not a citizen yet but the men in his platoon Americanized him on the spot by renaming him “Ted.”

Soon after he finished basic training the Korean War erupted. Within weeks, his unit was in Okinawa, readying for battle.  As the troops were getting ready to board the troop ships that would carry them to Korea, Rubin was summoned by his commanding officer.

“You are not a citizen,” the officer told him, “and I’m not going to let you go. You’ll be transferred to a safe zone.”

“What’s that? Rubin asked.

“A place where there’s no fighting—Japan or Germany.”

Rubin suppressed a smile at the idea that Germany could ever be considered safe for a Jew and asked in his broken English, “What about the guys?”

Taking a moment to understand what he meant, the officer said, “The other men in your unit are U.S. citizens and they’re going to Korea and they’re going to fight there.”

“I go with the guys,” Rubin said.

The officer tried to dissuade him. Rubin wouldn’t budge.  The officer finally threw up his hands and told him that he would have to go to headquarters and fill out a form stipulating that he was volunteering for duty in the war zone.  Rubin completed the paperwork and boarded a troop carrier with the rest of his unit.  The 8th Cavalry arrived in Korea late one afternoon and was in action by four that morning.

Rubin was excited to be able to go into action. But the sergeant of his platoon, a Southerner named Watson, hated Jews and began “volunteering” him for hazardous patrols. Each time he returned from one of them, Watson gave him a look of disgust and grumbled, “You damned Jews, nothing can kill you.  You’re like cats. You got nine lives.”

On one occasion, the sergeant sent Rubin to check out a village not far from the American position.  Rubin returned to say that it was ominously quiet and he believed dangerous.  Watson ignored the warning and ordered him to return with a squad led by Corporal James Hamm and 10 other men.  As they drew close, Korean soldiers hidden in the village opened fire, killing all the Americans except for Rubin and Hamm, who was badly wounded.  Rubin made his way back to his own lines to report what had happened.  Then he said he was returning for Hamm.  “Why bother?” Sergeant Watson asked.  “He’s dead by now.”  Rubin said, “He’s my friend.”  Then he went back for Hamm and carried him to safety.

Later on, in an engagement near Chirye, when his company commander decided to redeploy the men from one hill to another, more defensible one  under the cover of darkness, Watson ordered Rubin to stay behind by himself to cover the movement. He spent the night stocking every foxhole with grenades and rifles and ammunition.  The next morning, the North Koreans, unaware that all the Americans save one had withdrawn, advanced on the position.

“All hell broke loose,” Tibor says. “I was so scared I went bananas.  I was screaming.”  He ran from one foxhole to another, firing the weapons he had hidden and lobbing grenades at the hundreds of North Korean soldiers below and making them think they faced a large force.  He single handedly held the hill until the next day, inflicting a large number of casualties on the enemy.  Then he surprised his sergeant by managing to make his way back to his unit.  As Watson stared at him incredulously, Rubin felt satisfaction: “I show him that Jews can fight, we can bleed like anybody else and we die like anybody else.”

On October 30, 1950, Chinese forces which had just entered the war attacked his unit in a massive night assault.  Rubin took over a machine gun after three other gunners went down.  He continued to man it while the unit withdrew. Just as his ammunition was exhausted, Rubin was wounded and taken prisoner, along with James Hamm, the corporal whose life he had earlier saved.

Now Rubin, who had already survived a fascist death camp, would get to experience the communist variety, first at a place called Pukchin, known by the inmates there as “Death Valley," and then at Pyoktong, where he was thrown in with hundreds of Americans, Brits, Turks, and others fighting under the U.N. banner.  While the camp commanders there lacked the creative sadism of the SS, life there was nightmarish for the prisoners. They were cold, hungry, and diseased.  Dozens died each day, primarily from dysentery. “It was hardest on the Americans who were not used to this," Rubin told me. “I was ready.  I had a heck of a basic training from the Germans."

One day he was pulled aside by a Chinese communist officer who had heard him talking with the other prisoners.

Where are you from?” the man asked in impeccable English the envious Rubin later discovered he had learned as a student at UCLA.

“New York.”

“No you’re not,” the officer sneered. “You can’t even speak English.”

“I live in Hungarian section.”

“Who won the World Series last year?” the Chinese barked.

“What’s World Series?” Rubin floundered.

After he had finally admitted the truth about his birthplace, his interrogator said: “You come from the Peoples Republic of  Hungary and yet you fight for the imperialists.”

“What’s imperialists?”

“The rich man. You fight for the rich capitalist.”

His captors offered to release him to the Hungarians and told him he would have good food and clothes there and full freedom.  Rubin laughed at them: “I’ve been there.  Never going back. I’m in America now.” 

He employed all the skills that had helped him survive the Holocaust to keep himself and other prisoners alive. Many nights he snuck into the Korean supply area to steal food from his captors.  Climbing over and under fences and dodging roving spotlights, he broke into supply houses and jammed whatever provisions he could steal into the legs of his pants and then, cinching them at the cuff with a string, crawled back through the barbed wire to the stockade to distribute what he had to his fellow prisoners.  He treated the sick and injured as best he could without medicine.  When they died, he buried them and prayed the Kaddish over their bodies. The men called him their angel of mercy.

Ted Rubin stayed in the camp until the end of the war. The Army credits him with saving over 40 lives during his two and a half years of imprisonment at Pyoktong.

After the armistice, he was repatriated to the United States.  He returned to work as a butcher and finally received his U.S. citizenship. He had heard rumors that his superiors had recommended him for the Medal of Honor but as the months went by and he heard nothing, he concluded, correctly as it worked out, that his nemesis Sergeant Watson had sabotaged the paperwork. Soon he was married and had two children and medals for an increasingly distant war did not seem very important.

Many of the men in his original unit assumed that he had received the Medal and were surprised when he told them after deciding on a whim to attend a Korean War veterans' reunion that he had never heard anything about it.  James Hamm and others who knew what Rubin had done began a push for a reopening of his file, contacting the Army and their Congressmen.

Rubin thought nothing would come of it.  He didn’t really care.  His life was full.  He had his family. He had also adopted a Home for Jewish Veterans as his personal charity.  Every holiday season for nearly twenty years he organized meals and entertainment and gifts for the men who lived there.  They called him “the Jewish Santa Claus.”

But partly in response to his buddies’ pressure, the Defense Department began in 1996 to reconsider possible bigotry in the awards given—or not--to Jewish soldiers.  The wheels ground slowly—there is a supreme effort to get the Medal right--but finely.  All of the military reviewers who read Ted Rubin’s file—individuals who were accustomed to reading of epic battlefield exploits--were astonished by the evidence of his bravery and endurance, by his survivor’s heart.

In September 2005, justice was finally done when Ted Rubin was awarded the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony presided over by President George W. Bush.  He was the fifteenth Jew to receive the Medal since it was established during the Civil War and the first to receive it for service in Korea.

He was proud to be recognized—the final step in his long journey to America—but for Rubin the best award would always be that he, a refugee from the Holocaust, had been able to become a U.S. citizen. “This is the best country in the world and I’m part of it,” he told me with glistening eyes the last time I saw him.  “I don’t have to worry if the Gestapo is going to knock on my door tonight.  Do you understand what this means?  I have shalom, peace.  People die for it.”


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