The Medal of Honor recipient who survived a death camp as a boy

When Tibor Rubin accepted the Medal of Honor from President George Bush in 2005, it had been half a century since he’d walked free from a Chinese prison camp in the Korean War.

“I was just a little Jew coming back from the most terrible place,” Rubin said in a video interview recorded soon. “How I made it, the lord only knows. I didn’t even know because I was so many times supposed to die over there and I’m still here.”

Rubin’s Medal of Honor was awarded for both his ferocity in combat and his determination to keep others alive during more than 2 years as a POW.

But the will he showed to fight and survive as an American soldier was formed years before, as a Jewish child who was caught in, but survived, the Holocaust. 

A Child in a Concentration Camp

At 13, “Ted” Rubin, a Hungarian Jew, endured the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria, one of the most notorious Nazi death camps. 

“In Mauthausen, they told us right away, ‘You Jews, none of you will ever make it out of here alive’,” Rubin once said in an interview for an Army press release. “Every day so many people were killed. Bodies piled up God knows how high. We had nothing to look forward to but dying. It was a most terrible thing, like a horror movie.”

Close to 100,000 Jews died in Mauthausen over the seven years it was open. Rubin’s parents and two younger sisters also died in Nazi-run camps. 

On May 5, 1945, U.S. troops from the 41st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron of the 11th Armored Division — part of General George Patton’s 3rd Army — liberated Mauthausen.

“The American Soldiers had great compassion for us. Even though we were filthy, we stunk and had diseases, they picked us up and brought us back to life,” Rubin said.

He felt a debt to repay those GIs.

“I made a promise that I would go to the United States and join the Army to express my thanks,” he said.

Army photo
Rubin as a young boy with his family. Photo from the U.S. Army.

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Into the Army

Three years after the war, Rubin moved to New York. After taking a mandatory English test twice, he joined the Army, a path taken by many Jews who had escaped Nazi-occupied Europe and settled in the U.S. Even during the war, young Jewish men who escaped Europe to the U.S. often joined the U.S. military to fight or registered for the draft, said Michael Rugel, director of programs and content for the National Museum of American Jewish Military History.

“They were motivated by their desire to show thanks to their adopted country,” Rugel said. “For some, like Rubin, whose thick Hungarian accent marked him as different, it was a way to show he was as American as anyone else.”

Rubin joined the Army and was assigned to the 29th Infantry Regiment in Okinawa. When the Korean War broke out, Rubin’s company commander told him he couldn’t go because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. He was told he would instead be assigned to Japan or Germany.

Army photo
An M8 Greyhound armored car of the US Army’s 11th Armored Division entering the Mauthausen concentration camp. The banner in the background (in Spanish) reads as: Anti-fascist Spaniards salute the forces of liberation. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.

“I could not just leave my unit for some ‘safe zone’,” Rubin said. “I was with these guys in basic training. Even though I wasn’t a citizen yet, America was my country.” 

Rubin ended up in Korea in February, 1950 with the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. There, he found his first sergeant held a deep streak of antisemitism.

Rubin described serving under the NCO in a video interview

“Every time he needed a so-called volunteer he always called for me. He said get me that son of a bitch Hungarian Jew,” Rubin said. 

When the 3rd battalion’s fighting got closer to the Pusan Perimeter, that same sergeant sent Rubin up a hill as the rest of the company was withdrew to defend their position from a safer spot. He ordered Rubin to sit guard on the hill alone.

Rubin said he prepared to defend his foxhole by prepositioning supplies of hand grenades, extra supply of ammo for his machine gun and clips for his M2 carbine. 

Single Handed

The next day, Rubin’s battalion was attacked by thousands of Chinese troops. Their firepower dwindled to a single machine gun, which three soldiers died manning

“There they come,” said Rubin. “I was so scared, I went bananas. I was screaming. I threw hand grenades. Pull the pin, boom, pull the pin, boom. Then I shoot with my rifle, the M1. Then I shoot the carbine.”

Former President George W. Bush described Rubin’s stand in his 2005 Medal of Honor ceremony.

“That was when Corporal Rubin stepped forward. He fought until his ammunition was gone. He was badly wounded, captured and sent to a POW camp. He risked his life that day to protect his fellow American soldiers, and his heroism helped many of them escape,” Bush said.

For over 24 hours, Rubin fought off North Koreans with hand grenades and a single handgun.

“I prayed to Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, Buddha – I said somebody get my ass out of here, this place is too tough, too rough,” Rubin said in an interview, laughing. “And somebody did it.”

According to his Medal of Honor citation, Rubin “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.”

As the battle ebbed, though, Rubin came to a realization: no one had come back for him. His 1st Sgt. had not sent anyone to check on him,

As the war dragged on, his sergeant continued to send him on impossible missions. When he would succeed, he would not be put in for recognition. 

“They always gave orders to my dad so he was probably going to be killed,” said Frank Rubin, his son who recalled the antisemitism that his father endured years after the Holocaust.

During one mission, Rubin saved Cpl. Leonard Hamm’s life when the first sergeant ordered them to leave Hamm behind. Hamm was pinned down by snipers and Rubin low-crawled for hundreds of yards.  

“Rubin not only saved my life by carrying me to safety; he kept the North Korean snipers off our butts,” Hamm said.

In another fierce battle, Rubin was taken prisoner by Chinese forces after being badly wounded. He would be held in camps known as Death Valley and Camp 5 in Pyoktong. Chinese officials offered to send him back to Hungary, but Rubin stayed with the other American soldiers.

Surviving as a POW

Rubin was held as a prisoner of war for more than two and a half years.

But unlike many of his fellow American prisoners, the life of deprivation in a prison camp was one Rubin already knew. His time in Mauthausen made Rubin somewhat of a “professional prisoner,” Rugel said.

Rubin risked his life to steal food from the enemy storage houses for himself and other prisoners. He also knew from his childhood how to make soup out of grass, which weeds had medicinal qualities and the importance of mental strength during dark times in order to stay alive. He also held pep talks to remind his fellow soldiers that their families were home waiting for them. 

Army photo
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 from Stars and Stripes.

Frank recalled one story his father told about saving his friends from starvation. 

“He saved one guy, he says, ‘I’m giving you medication from the U.S.’ and it was goat shit wrapped up,” Frank said. “That would crack me up. They didn’t know what they were eating.”

Rubin nagged the soldiers to “debug” themselves of lice infestations and treated them while they were sick.

“He’d go out of his way to do favors to help us survive. I once saw him spend the whole night picking lice off a guy who didn’t have the strength to lift his head. What man would do that?,” said Sgt. Leo Cormier. “But Ted did things for his fellow men that made him a hero in my book.”

Many of his fellow prisoners, like Cpl. James E. Bourgeois said they only made it out alive because of Rubin. 

“At one time my wounds got so infected he put maggots in them to prevent gangrene from setting in. This, I am sure, not only saved my left arm — which I have full use of today — but also my life,” Bourgeois said. 

American soldiers credited Rubin with saving more than 40 lives during their imprisonment. Nearly 1,600 U.S. Soldiers died in Camp 5 in 1951.

“He saved a lot of GI’s lives. He gave them the courage to go on living when a lot of guys didn’t make it,” Cormier told the Army. “He saved my life when I could have laid in a ditch and died — I was nothing but flesh and bones.”

Medal of Honor

Rubin was nominated for the Medal of Honor four times by his fellow soldiers.

Awarding Rubin the Medal in 2005, Bush acknowledged the prejudice that he faced. 

“He knew that the America he fought for did not always live up to its highest ideals. Yet he had enough trust in America’s promise to see his commitment through,” Bush said. “He saw it as his personal duty to live up to our nation’s promise, and by doing so he set an example of what it means to be an American.”

Rubin died at 86 on Dec. 5, 2015 in Garden Grove, California.

Rubins’s service convinced his son Frank to join  the military. Frank said his father loved the Army but didn’t want to see his son killed in combat, so he instead joined the Air Force. Frank spent four years on active duty and 29 as an employee with the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Frank said his father was the kind of person who would “give you the shirt off his back.”

He remembered his dad as a funny, down-to-earth person who got along with everyone. He remained religious after the war and continued to pray every morning. 

“If he didn’t have dementia, he would’ve lived to be 150 years old,” he said.

“The real heroes are those who never came home. I was just lucky,” Rubin said. “This Medal of Honor belongs to all prisoners of war, to all the heroes who died fighting in those wars.”

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