WASHINGTON -- Holocaust survivor, Korean War hero and Medal of Honor recipient Tibor Rubin died Dec. 5 of natural causes. The Garden Grove, California, resident was 86 years old when he passed.
Rubin, born in Pásztó, Hungary, in 1929, found himself in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, at age 13. The Nazis had murdered his father, mother and sister before the young man was freed from the camp, May 5, 1945, by elements of the 11th Armored Division from Gen. George Patton's own 3rd Army.
In 1948, Rubin moved to the United States, and by 1950 he had enlisted in the U.S. Army as a way to show his appreciation for his newly adopted country.
Rubin served in the Korean War as a rifleman with Company I, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. On Oct. 30, 1950, after an intense nighttime battle, in which Rubin manned a .30-caliber machine gun where three previous gunners had been killed, he was wounded and captured by the Chinese. He spent 30 months in a prisoner-of-war, or POW, camp in North Korea.
It was Rubin's actions during his time in North Korea that earned him the Medal of Honor - though recognition wouldn't come for the Soldier until some 55 years later, at age 76, when President George W. Bush placed the medal around his neck. That ceremony took place at the White House, Sept. 23, 2005.
Speaking during the event, Bush said that by awarding the Medal of Honor to Rubin, the United States had acknowledged a debt "that time has not diminished."
"Cpl. Tibor 'Ted' Rubin's many acts of courage during the Korean War saved the lives of hundreds of his fellow Soldiers," said Bush during the ceremony. "In the heat of battle, he inspired his comrades with his fearlessness, and amid the inhumanity of a Chinese prisoner of war camp, he gave them hope."
"Many heroes are remembered in monuments of stone," Bush continued. "The monuments to Cpl. Rubin are a legacy of life. We see his legacy in the many American families whose husbands, fathers and sons returned home safely because of his efforts. We see his legacy in the free and democratic South Korea that grew on the soil of his sacrifice. And we see his legacy in a new generation of American men and women in uniform who were inspired to their own acts of courage and compassion."
HEROIC, COMPASSIONATE ACTIONS
In Korea, 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," Rubin recalled during a 2005 interview.
In 1950, Rubin had been a corporal serving in the 8th Cavalry's 3rd Battalion. On Oct. 30 of that year, the 3rd Battalion's firepower had 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," Rubin said.
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 Cavalry 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 Cavalry 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," Rubin said. "I couldn't think straight - in a situation like that, you become hysterical trying to save your life."
Cpl. Leonard Hamm, one of Rubin's fellow Soldiers, had submitted his Medal of Honor nomination. In it he wrote: "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 Cavalry precious time to regroup to the south."
When Hamm himself was later severely wounded, it was Rubin who fought to go back for him when the first sergeant issued orders to leave him behind.
"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 during his rescue of 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," Hamm said.
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." The Soldiers were ill-dressed for winter's freezing temperatures, exhausted and hungry.
Many of those Soldiers 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 Sgt. Leo Cormier, a fellow prisoner of war. "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," Cormier said. "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 of the Mauthausen concentration camp. 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 said.
"I made a promise that I would go to the United States and join the Army to express my thanks," Rubin said.
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 Infantry Regiment 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 eventually got what he wanted - an opportunity to fight in Korea. That opportunity for him turned out to also be a boon for those Soldiers who served alongside him.
"I'm beholden to him," said Cormier, who watched Rubin bend over backward 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.
"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 said. "He saved my life when I could have laid in a ditch and died - I was nothing but flesh and bones."
When being admired for his courage, Rubin was 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."
Following the 2005 Medal of Honor Ceremony at the White House, Rubin was also inducted into the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon. There, he said that living in America was his dream come true and that his service in the Army was his way of paying back the country that was so kind to him.
"I could never have dreamed of being here with the Medal of Honor and joining other heroes, but my dream came true in the greatest country in the world," Rubin said. "The real heroes ... are the Soldiers who give their lives defending freedom."
A funeral for Rubin was held Dec. 8. He is survived by his wife, Yvonne; daughter, Rosie; son, Frank; and sister, Edith Rittri.
(Editor's note: Original articles by Beth Reece and then-Sgt. Sara Wood are included in this report.)