An American Hero

by Beth Reece

Adapted from Soldiers Magazine

Tibor Rubin

Corporal Tibor "Ted" Rubin

TIBOR "Ted" Rubin knows what it's like to slowly starve to death, how lice itch when crawling over skin and how giving up on life can seem easier than fighting for it.

Nazi guards made sure Rubin understood despair at the age of 13. A Hungarian Jew, he was forced into the Mauthausen Concentration Camp toward the end of World War II. But Rubin defied odds: He survived. After the war he moved to New York, and eventually joined the same Army that liberated him from hell on earth.

From the horror of the Holocaust arose a bravery that few can match. Rubin went on to fight in the Korean War and was taken prisoner by the Chinese communists. This time, he breathed life into his fellow captives, who were dying at the rate of 40 a day in the winter of 1950-1951.

"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," said SGT Leo Cormier, a fellow POW. "He saved my life when I could have laid in a ditch and died -- I was nothing but flesh and bones."

Rubin was nominated for the Medal of Honor four times by grateful comrades. A medal he might otherwise have received at age 23 is scheduled to be draped over his neck by President George W. Bush in a White House ceremony Sept. 23. While most military decorations are awarded for a single act, Rubin's was earned by courage that withstood battle on the front lines, and then thrived in the face of death for two and a half years.

"People ask, 'How the hell did you get through all that?'" said Rubin, now 76. "I can't answer, but I figured whatever I did, I was never going to make it out alive."


At the end of October 1950, thousands of Chinese troops were laying in wait. Masters of camouflage, they blended into the brush and burned fires to produce smoke to mask their movements. When Soldiers of the 8th Cavalry Regiment were stretched before them like sitting ducks, the Chinese swarmed in.

"The whole mountain let loose," said Rubin, who was then a corporal serving in the 8th Cav.'s 3rd Battalion. On Oct. 30 the 3rd Bn.'s firepower dwindled to a single machine gun, which three Soldiers had already died manning. By the time Rubin stepped up to fire, most of his fellow Soldiers felt doomed in the confusion of battle.

"Nobody wanted to take over, but somebody had to. We didn't have anything else left to fight with," he said. Rubin's buddies say he was a hero, selflessly defending his unit against thousands of Chinese troops.

Battle raged for three days around Unsan, then the Chinese pushed the Soldiers south. Those who survived retreated with little or no ammunition and hundreds of wounded. More than 1,000 men of the 8th Cav. were listed as missing in action after the battle, but some returned to friendly lines or were rescued by tank patrols in the following weeks.

Earlier in the war, as the 8th Cav. moved toward the Pusan Perimeter, Rubin kept to the rear to ward off North Koreans nipping at his battalion's heels. At 4 a.m., while defending a hill on his own, Rubin heard gunfire from what sounded like hundreds of enemy troops. "I figured I was a goner. But I ran from one foxhole to the next, throwing hand grenades so the North Koreans would think they were fighting more than one person," he said. "I couldn't think straight -- in a situation like that, you become hysterical trying to save your life." "He tied up the enemy forces, allowing the safe withdrawal of Allied troops and equipment on the Taegu-Pusan road. The enemy suffered, not only tremendous casualties ... but it slowed the North Korean invading momentum along that route, saving countless American lives and giving the 8th Cav. precious time to regroup to the south," wrote CPL Leonard Hamm in his nomination of Rubin for the MOH.

And when Hamm himself later lay fallen, it was Rubin who fought to go back for him when the first sergeant issued orders to leave him behind. "But we didn't know if he was dead," Rubin said. "All I could think about was that somebody back home was waiting for him to return." Rubin was pinned down by snipers and forced to low-crawl for several hundred yards when rescuing Hamm, whose body was so loaded with shrapnel that he could hardly lift a limb.

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

A Prisoner Again

When battle ended in Unsan, hundreds of Soldiers were taken prisoner by the Chinese. They were forced to march to a camp known today as "Death Valley," ill-dressed for winter's freezing temperatures, exhausted and hungry. Many of them grew sick with dysentery, pneumonia or hepatitis. Others died. "It was so cold that nobody wanted to move, and the food we got was barely enough to keep us alive," said former Sgt. Richard A. Whalen. "But Rubin was a tremendous asset to us, keeping our spirits up when no one felt good."

Years in a Nazi concentration camp had taught Rubin ways of survival that most humans never need know. He knew how to make soup out of grass, what weeds had medicinal qualities and that the human body can sometimes prevail if a person's mind is in the right place.

What his comrades needed, Rubin knew, was hope -- hope to keep them moving and hope to make them fight for their lives.

"Some of them gave up, and some of them prayed to be taken," Rubin remembers. He held pep talks, reminding the Soldiers of the families awaiting their safe return home. He stole food for them to eat, nagged them to "debug" themselves of the relentless lice and even nursed them through sickness.

"He'd go out of his way to do favors to help us survive," said Cormier. "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? I'd have told him to go down and soak in the cold water so the lice would all fall off. But Ted did things for his fellow men that made him a hero in my book."

Rubin thought the best way to overpower his captors was by hitting them where it hurt most -- their bellies.

"They didn't have much more food to eat than we did," Rubin said. "One potato would have been worth a million dollars if any of us had had it to give." So when night fell he stole corn, millet and barley. And when the Chinese planted a "victory" garden, he snuck past armed guards to reap the harvest, stuffing his pants full of radishes, green onions and cucumbers. "The Chinese would've cut Ted's throat if they'd caught him stealing. It still amazes me that they never did catch him," said Cormier. "What he did to help us could have meant the sacrifice of his own life."

Rubin and Cormier became fast friends as POWs. They were assigned as "bunkmates," although mud floors served as beds for the hundreds of men confined together in small rooms. When dysentery seized Cormier's body, Rubin stayed at his side and nursed him. Fellow prisoners credit Rubin with saving the lives of more than 40 Soldiers during his imprisonment at "Death Valley" and later at Camp 5 in Pyoktong. About 1,600 U.S. Soldiers died in Camp 5 in early 1951.

Rubin was repatriated under "Operation Little Switch," the initial exchange of sick and wounded prisoners from April 20 to May 3, 1953.

A Hero is Born

Life as a prisoner under the Nazis and the Chinese are incomparable for Rubin. Of his Chinese captors, Rubin says only that they were "human" and somewhat lenient.

Of the Nazis, Rubin remains baffled by their capacity to kill. He was just a boy when he lost his parents and two little sisters to the Nazi's brutality. "In Mauthausen, they told us right away, 'You Jews, none of you will ever make it out of here alive'," Rubin remembers. "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." American Soldiers swept into the camp on May 5, 1945, to liberate the prisoners. It is still a miraculous day for Rubin, indelibly imprinted in his heart. "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 made a vow that day that he's fulfilled ten times over.

"I made a promise that I would go to the United States and join the Army to express my thanks," said Rubin. Three years later he arrived in New York. Two years after that he passed the English language test -- after two attempts and with "more than a little help," he jokes -- and joined the Army. He was shipped to the 29th Infantry Regiment in Okinawa. When the Korean War broke out, Rubin was summoned by his company commander.

"The 29th Inf. Regt. is mobilizing. You are not a U.S. citizen so we can't take you -- a lot of us are going to get killed. We'll send you to Japan or Germany," Rubin remembers being told.

"But 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 got what he wanted and headed for Korea -- to the good fortune of many Soldiers who served alongside him. "I'm beholden to him," said Cormier, who watched Rubin bend over backwards for his brothers in arms. Luck was also on Whalen's side, because he was herded to "Death Valley" alongside Rubin.

"I have to say this was the luckiest break of my life because he and I went up that valley together, and we were assigned to the same house," Whalen said. "I wouldn't be here today without him."

The same could be said of former Cpl. James E. Bourgeois, for whom Rubin cleaned wounds and bandages with boiled snow. "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.

When being admired for his courage, Rubin is quick to wave off praise. His acts had more to do with his vow to serve than with heroism, 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."

And Rubin can't forget the Jews who died in vain, or the American Soldiers who made survivors of the rest. To them, he dedicated the best years of his life, becoming an American war hero -- a Soldier of uncommon bravery.