When the White House called Corporal Tibor "Ted" Rubin to tell him he was to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor he thought it was one of his friends playing a joke. President Bush has called the 76-year-old Korean War veteran "one of the greatest Jewish soldiers America has ever known." But Ted is characteristically modest. "I was just a country boy," he told me, "but next week I'll be honored with the country's highest award. This is unbelievable."
Being awarded the Medal of Honor is another of a series of adventures in Ted Rubin's remarkable life. He was born in Hungary in 1929, and at age 15 was sent to Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. His first day there an SS captain told the assembled, "None of you will get out of here alive." Ted turned to the man next to him and said, "Nice fellow." Ted survived the next 14 brutal months of captivity, but most of his family perished. His father died in Buchenwald. His ten-year-old sister Elonja was sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and his mother Rosa, who was slated for forced labor, chose instead to face death with her daughter. Mauthausen was liberated by the U.S. 11th Armored Division on May 5, 1945. With nothing left for him in Hungary Ted emigrated to the United States. He promised himself that he would show his appreciation to the country that gave him his freedom, and saved his life.
Ted joined the Army in February 1950, and five months later landed in Korea with the 3rd battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, one of the first American units sent to help repel North Korean invasion forces. Ted was soon involved in the fighting withdrawal to the Pusan perimeter. In one engagement near Chirye, Ted's company was redeploying from one hill to another, and he volunteered to stay behind to keep the enemy guessing until the movement was completed. As Corporal Leonard Hamm relates, "the North Koreans, thinking the hill was still occupied by a whole company, made an all out offensive with all their available troops. PFC Tibor Rubin had stocked each foxhole with grenades, and during the attack the following morning made his way running from foxhole to foxhole, lobbing, one after the other, grenades down upon the enemy, he became almost hysterical in his actions but he held the hill."
For this and other actions, Ted's immediate superiors recommended him for the Medal of Honor. However, before the paperwork could be processed these officers were killed, and a sergeant who might have sent the papers up refused to do so because Ted was Jewish. "Not on my watch," he said. After the Inchon invasion, the 8th Cavalry Regiment moved north towards the Chinese border, and was at the forward edge of the U.N. offensive when the Chinese Red Army entered the conflict. Ted's battalion was destroyed at the Battle of Unsan in early November 1950, while fighting a delaying action against Chinese forces swarming south from the Yalu. Hundreds of Americans were captured, among them Ted, who had manned a machine gun to hold off the enemy as the rest of the unit attempted to withdraw.
Ted found himself in the Pukchin POW camp, also known as "Death Valley," and later at Pyoktong, along with hundreds of Americans, Turks, and others. The camps were at first run by the North Koreans, then by the Chinese, whom Ted said treated them slightly better. Nevertheless, life was nightmarish for the prisoners. They were cold and hungry, and disease was rampant. "Healthy men became like babies, helpless," Ted said. "Everything was stink, death, it was terrible, terrible." 30-40 a day were dying. "It was hardest on the Americans who were not used to this," Ted said. "But I had a heck of a basic training from the Germans."
Ted used all the experience he had gained as a Holocaust survivor in helping to keep himself and other prisoners alive.
Ted used all the experience he had gained as a Holocaust survivor in helping to keep himself and other prisoners alive. "I did it because I was an American," Ted told me, "and because it was a mitzvah. Regardless of color or nationality, they were my brothers." Food was vital for survival, so he began to steal rations from the enemy, who had little enough themselves. Fellow POW Sergeant Carl McClendon stated, "every day, when it got dark, and we went to sleep, Rubin was on his way, crawling on his stomach, jumping over fences, breaking in supply houses, while the guns were looking down on him. He tied the bottom of his fatigue pants and filled up anything he could get a hold of. He crawled back and distributed the food that he had stolen and risked his life."
Ted also did what he could to treat the sick and injured. But many were beyond saving, and diseases such as dysentery could strike anyone. "No one knew when he would die," Ted noted, "It was all random." When prisoners passed away, Ted would bury them, and recite the Kaddish. "I buried my friends, my comrades, American soldiers," Ted said, "and asked the Good Lord to let them rest in peace."
When the Chinese learned that Ted was originally from Hungary they offered to let him return to his home country, which at the time was a Soviet satellite. They promised him a job, good clothes, all the food he could want. But Ted refused to be a pawn for Chinese propaganda and turned them down. "I stood by my oath," he said. Ted stayed in the camp until the end of the war when he was released. The Army credits him with saving over 40 lives during his two and a half years of imprisonment.
When Ted returned to the United States, he finally received his U.S. citizenship. "I was the happiest man in the world," he said. He left the Army and worked at his brother Emery's store. Ted married, and he and his wife Yvonne had two children. By this time there was no talk of medals; the country was moving on, and anyway many men in Ted's original unit thought he was dead. He created a wonder at a 1980 Korean War veterans' reunion simply by showing up.
Ted's case was brought to the Army's attention in 1985, but he was ineligible to receive the award until statutory language was amended in 1996. His is one of many cases being reviewed under section 552 of the 2002 National Defense Authorization Act, which requires the military to "review the records of certain Jewish American and Hispanic American war veterans to determine if any of these veterans should be awarded the Medal of Honor."
Most such awards will unfortunately be posthumous. But on September 23, President Bush will give Corporal Ted Rubin long overdue recognition for his many acts of valor in the Korean conflict. Ted will receive, in his own words, "the highest honor of the best country in the world." How does he feel about it? "It still hasn't sunk in," he said. "I'm just a country boy. It's a dream come true."
This article originally appeared on National Review Online.