Tibor Rubin: Holocaust Survivor, Medal of Honor Recipient

“When I came to America, it was the first time I was free. It was one of the reasons I joined the U.S. Army because I wanted to show my appreciation.”  – Tibor Rubin

Tibor “Teddy” Rubin is maybe one of the most unlikely Medal of Honor recipients. Born in a small town in Hungary to Jewish parents, Tibor was captured by Nazi forces at the age of 13 and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. For 14 months, Tibor sought ways to survive the terrible ordeal in a camp made infamous for its crushing forced labor. At a camp that likely witnessed the killing of more than 120,000 inmates, Tibor proved to be a most capable and resourceful survivor. On May 5, 1945, Mauthausen was liberated by soldiers from the U.S. 41st Reconnaissance Squadron of the 11th Armored Division.

Several years later, Rubin managed to board a ship bound for New York City in 1947. When his ship reached New York harbor, a stunned Rubin opened his suitcase and poured his clothes made from Army blankets into the waters – they would never work in a land like this.

Rubin sought to repay his new nation by enlisting in the U.S. Army – the same branch that had liberated him from the concentration camp. With little understanding of English, Rubin failed the entrance exam twice, but later, after moving to California, Rubin found a sympathetic recruiter who helped him to enter the ranks. Rubin wanted the Army to teach him how to be a butcher. Others thought his knowledge of Hungarian, German, and some Russian would send him to interpreters’ school, but instead, Rubin was packed into a troopship and sent ultimately to Korea and the Korean War.

Corporal Tibor Rubin’s Medal of Honor Citation

M8 Greyhounds of the 41st Reconnaissance Squadron, 11th U.S. Armored Division outside the gates of Mauthausen in May of 1945 (National Archives and Records Administration)

Corporal Tibor Rubin in the Korean War

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.”  – Tibor Rubin

Rubin’s path to a Medal of Honor was plagued by complications and bigotry. Before the actions for which he would ultimately earn the Medal of Honor, Rubin had been recommended twice. First, for his heroic defense of the Taegu-Pusan Road by his withdrawing unit. Second, for arranging the surrender of two companies of North Korean soldiers. Both times the paperwork was not started by Rubin’s commanding Sergeant.

The defense of the Taegu-Pusan Road eventually formed one of the three actions which were the basis for Rubin’s Medal of Honor citation. Rubin’s Sergeant, Arthur Peyton, ordered Rubin to remain behind as their company moved a few miles to another position. Rubin’s mission was to guard a large cache of grenades, machine gun ammunition, carbine clips, and mortar shells. It was a job for an entire squad, but Rubin was left to function both as supply guard and company lookout. Though Peyton promised relief would come before dark, it did not. Realizing he was abandoned, Rubin prepared a defense, gathering machine gun ammunition and crates of grenades in case the North Koreans attacked him. They came that same night. Rubin, alone, held off the North Koreans, which would have cut the road enabling friendly forces to retreat, and inflicted a “staggering number of casualties” on the enemy.

Troops from the U.S. 27th Infantry Division await attacks by the North Koreans in dugouts along the Pusan Perimeter in 1950. (U.S. Signal Corps)

The second action for which Rubin was recognized took place in October of 1950. During the Battle of Unsan, Tibor’s unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry, came under sustained and heavy assault by Chinese forces that had arrived to bolster the North Koreans. The 3rd Battalion was cut off early in the fighting and left to fend off repeated attacks by itself. Throughout the night and first day of the attack, Rubin manned a machine gun at the south end of the unit’s line. During the defense, Tibor and the men near him received word that the battalion’s headquarters was under attack. Now his company had two missions: to defend against the Chinese and to help their besieged headquarters. While others headed back to assist, Rubin remained with his machine gun, keeping the enemy on the far side of a creek. He returned enemy fire with it for hours until a grenade damaged the gun beyond repair and wounded him, forcing him to retreat into the darkness. By the end of the Battle of Unsan, less than 200 survivors from the 3rd Battalion managed to return to the UN line, Rubin was not among them.

Prisoner of War

Rubin had been captured by the Chinese along with a number of other allied troops. Together they were taken to a POW camp and it is his actions here that are the basis for the third part of his Medal of Honor citation. By the time he was taken prisoner by the Chinese, he had been wounded by shrapnel in his hand, chest and leg. Rubin chose to remain in the prison camp, called “Death Valley” by those kept there, despite offers from the Chinese to return him to Hungary, which had fallen behind the Iron Curtain. Rubin immediately began sneaking out of the camp at night in search of food for his comrades. Certain death if he was caught did not deter Rubin from breaking into enemy food storehouses and gardens and bringing food back to his fellow soldiers. Rubin used maggots to save a man from gangrene, showed men how to combat lice, and rallied their spirits. His acts of bravery and compassion kept between 35-40 soldiers alive until they were finally set free.

The Medal of Honor

The same anti-Semitism that Rubin faced in the ranks during the Korean War, also likely led to his Medal of Honor application being pushed aside. In 1993, a study was commissioned by the U.S. Army to investigate cases where discrimination may have negatively impacted various military decorations. In 2001, only after Congress directed further investigations did Tibor Rubin’s situation come to light. On September 23, 2005, President George W. Bush presented the Medal of Honor to Rubin in a ceremony at the White House. During his remarks, the president recounted many of Corporal Rubin’s remarkable acts. “[He] saved the lives of hundreds of his fellow soldiers. 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. Some of those soldiers are here today, and they have never forgotten what they owe this man. And by awarding the Medal of Honor to Corporal Rubin today, the United States acknowledges a debt that time has not diminished.”

Corporal Tibor Rubin wearing the Medal of Honor after receiving it from President George W. Bush in the White House (White House)

Tibur Rubin was a long-term resident of Garden Grove, California, and worked in his brother’s liquor store in nearby Long Beach. Rubin remained an active volunteer at the Long Beach Veterans Hospital where he later received an award for 20,000 hours of service. In 2017, that same medical center was renamed in Rubin’s honor.

He had survived a Nazi concentration camp, brutal combat in the hills of Korea, and a Chinese Prisoner of War camp. Rubin passed away on December 5, 2015, at his California home in the adopted country that he pledged his life to. He is buried at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California.

“The real heroes are those who never came home. I was just lucky.”  -Tibor Rubin

Watch

Learn More About Corporal Tibor Rubin

Tibor Rubin, An American Hero

Ex-POW Tibor Rubin (Stars & Stripes)

Veterans History Project: Tibor Rubin (Library of Congress)

President George W. Bush’s Medal of Honor remarks

Video: Tibor Rubin Medal of Honor Ceremony

Liberation of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp

Obituary in the New York Times

Recommended Reading

Single Handed:  The Inspiring True Story of Tibor “Teddy” Rubin – Holocaust Survivor, Korean War Hero, and Medal of Honor Recipient

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