Early in May, the Pentagon received a list with the names and backgrounds of 138 Jewish war veterans, with the single thickest file documenting the exploits of Tibor Rubin.
The cover letter asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to review the records of Rubin and the other 137 Jewish veterans to determine whether they were denied the Medal of Honor, America's highest award for bravery in combat, because they were Jews.
Similar appeals have been routinely ignored by the Pentagon over the past decades. But this time, the request carried the force of a law, passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in December, ordering the review.
To some, the request may smack of special Jewish pleading, but it is not the first time that the U.S. military, now a model equal-opportunity employer, has been forced to revisit its earlier record of discrimination against minorities.
In 1996, the Pentagon reviewed the files of Japanese American and other Asian American veterans and belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor to 21 of them. The records of African American servicemen, who were institutionally segregated throughout World War II, were reexamined and eight were recognized for the nation's most prestigious decoration. A similar review of Hispanic veterans has been mandated.
The congressional bill providing for a review of selected Jewish veterans is known as the Leonard Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act. Kravitz, the uncle and namesake of rock musician Lenny Kravitz, was killed manning his lone machine gun against attacking Chinese troops during the Korean War, allowing the rest of his platoon to retreat in safety.
Kravitz was recommended for a Medal of Honor, but the award was downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest decoration.
All the men on the list, save one, had been awarded the Service Cross by the Army, Navy or Air Force. The exception is Tibor Rubin, who was recommended four times for the Medal of Honor by his commanding officers or comrades, two times for the Distinguished Service Cross and twice for the Silver Star -- but didn't get anything except two Purple Hearts and a 100 percent disability.
Rubin, known as "Tibi" to his Hungarian childhood friends and "Ted" to his American buddies, has two other distinctions he would as soon have foregone -- two years in a Nazi concentration camp as a teenager and 30 months in North Korean prisoner of war camp.
The first impression on entering Rubin's modest home in Garden Grove is a living room cluttered wall-to-wall with plastic shopping bags and cardboard cartons. They hold 22 years worth of correspondence, appeals and affidavits by his erstwhile comrades, veterans organizations and congressmen demanding recognition of Rubin's heroism, and all routinely ignored by the Pentagon.
To an initially skeptical reporter, even a small sampling of the hoard of papers reveals a record of bravery and sacrifice, counterpointed by the vicious anti-Semitism of a key figure, reminiscent of wartime novels by a Norman Mailer or Irwin Shaw.
Rubin, 72, was born in Paszto, a Hungarian shtetl of 120 Jewish families, the son of a shoemaker and one of six children. At age 13, he was transported to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria and liberated two years later by American troops. Both his parents and two sisters perished in the Holocaust.
He came to the United States in 1948, settled in New York and worked first as a shoemaker and then as a butcher.
In 1949, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army, both as an assumed shortcut to citizenship and, he hoped, to attend the Army's butcher school in Chicago. Knowing hardly any English, he flunked the language test but tried again in 1950 and passed, with some judicious help from two fellow test-takers.
By July of that year, Pfc. Rubin found himself fighting on the frontlines in Korea with I Company, Eighth Regiment, First Cavalry Division. There he encountered the terror of I Company: Sgt. Artice V. Watson, who, from numerous descriptions, could have been modeled on the sadistic Sgt. 1st Class Rickett in Shaw's "The Young Lions."
Watson, who according to lengthy affidavits submitted by nearly a dozen men who served under him -- mostly self-described "country boys" from the South and Midwest -- was a vicious anti-Semite, who consistently "volunteered" Rubin for the most dangerous patrols and missions.
In one such mission, according to the testimonies of his comrades, Rubin secured a route of retreat for his company by single-handedly defending a hill for 24 hours against waves of North Korean soldiers.
For these and other harrowing acts of bravery, Rubin was three times recommended for the Medal of Honor by two of his commanding officers. Both were shortly afterward killed in action, but not before ordering Watson to initiate the necessary paperwork to secure the medals for Rubin.
Some of Rubin's fellow GIs were present when Watson was ordered to seek the medals, and all are convinced that he deliberately ignored the orders. "I really believe, in my heart, that First Sgt. Watson would have jeopardized his own safety rather than assist in any way whatsoever in the awarding of the medal to a person of Jewish descent," wrote Cpl. Harold Speakman in a notarized affidavit.
Toward the end of October 1950, massive Chinese troop concentrations crossed the border into North Korea and attacked the unprepared Americans. After most of his regiment had been wiped out, the severely wounded Rubin was captured and spent the next 30 months in a prisoner of war camp.
Faced with constant hunger, filth and disease, most of the GIs simply gave up. "No one wanted to help anyone. Everybody was for himself," wrote Sgt. Leo A, Cormier Jr., a fellow prisoner.
The exception was Rubin. Almost every evening, he would sneak out of the camp to steal food from the Chinese and North Korean supply depots, knowing that he would be shot if caught.
"He shared the food evenly among the GIs," Cormier wrote. "He also took care of us, nursed us, carried us to the latrine....He did many good deeds, which he told us were mitzvahs in the Jewish tradition....He was a very religious Jew and helping his fellow men was the most important thing to him."
The survivors of the camp credited Rubin with keeping 35 to 40 of their number alive and recommended him for the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star.
Cpl. Leonard Hamm of Indiana wrote the Army that Rubin had saved his life, both on the battlefield and in the camp. He went on to upbraid the Pentagon for its "degrading and insulting treatment" of "one of the greatest men I have ever known and definitely one of the greatest heroes in this nation's history."
Sgt. Carl McClendon, another soldier saved by Rubin, wrote, "He [Rubin] had more courage, guts and fellowship than I ever knew anyone had. He is the most outstanding man I ever met, with a heart of gold. Tibor Rubin committed every day bravery that boggles my mind. How he ever came home alive is a mystery to me."
Should Rubin receive all the medals for which he has been recommended, he would become the most decorated American soldier of the Korean War.
Back in civilian life, Rubin finally got his American citizenship in 1953. He tried to resume his old job as a butcher, but a combination of crippling afflictions, traceable to his war wounds and POW experience, forced him to quit. He now lives with his wife Yvonne, a Dutch Holocaust survivor, and has close ties with his son, Frank, an Air Force veteran, and daughter, Rosalyn.
Over the years, many attempts have been made to shake the Pentagon's apparent lethargy. In 1988, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced a special bill on Rubin's behalf. Former Republican Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Orange County pleaded for recognition of his constituent, and now the campaign is being spearheaded by Reps. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) and Robert Wexler (D-Fla.).
The Jewish War Veterans (JWV) have championed Rubin's cause for many years. At one point, the organization collected 42,000 signatures on a petition, which was personally transmitted to President Ronald Reagan by a former JWV commander.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. James Cassella said that a review of the combat records of Jewish veterans, depending on their branch of service, will be conducted separately by the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force.
After more than 50 years of waiting, Rubin hopes that the United States will finally and formally recognize his services. He says, "I want this recognition for my Jewish brothers and sisters. I want the goyim to know that there were Jews over there, that there was a little greenhorn, a little shmuck from Hungary, who fought for their beloved country."
We welcome your feedback.
Your information will not be shared or sold without your consent. Get all the details.
Terms of Service
JewishJournal.com has rules for its commenting community.Get all the details.
JewishJournal.com reserves the right to use your comment in our weekly print publication.