Next Friday, as Tibor Rubin enters the White House, generals will stand at rigid attention. The president of the United States also will rise and then drape the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for gallantry in combat, around the neck of the 76-year-old Holocaust survivor and Korean War veteran.
Rubin and a legion of supporters have waited almost 55 years for this triumph of camaraderie and persistence over both bureaucratic lethargy and the prejudice endured by so many old-time Jewish GIs.
Rubin still does not know precisely which of his wartime feats met the standard of “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, in actual combat against an enemy armed force.”
[READ: TIBOR RUBIN, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR, DIES AT 86]
He guesses it might have been the time he secured a route of retreat for his company by single-handedly defending a hill for 24 hours against waves of North Korean soldiers.
All told, his commanding officers and fellow soldiers recommended him for the Medal of Honor for his deeds performed on no less than four occasions. He also was recommended two times for the Distinguished Service Cross and twice for the Silver Star.
Had he received all these awards, he would have become the most decorated American veteran of the Korean War. What he actually got were two Purple Hearts for combat wounds and a 100 percent disability rating.
Rubin, known as “Tibi” to his Hungarian childhood friends and “Ted” to his Army buddies, 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, where he was liberated two years later by American troops. 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.
“I was a handsome dog in those days, and the ladies who worked with me always brought me lunch,” he recalled.
In 1949, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army, both as a possible shortcut to American 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 help from two fellow test takers.
In July of that year, Pfc. Rubin found himself fighting on the front lines of Korea with I Company of the 8th Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. There he encountered the terror of I Company: 1st Sgt. Artice V. Watson, who, from numerous descriptions, could have been modeled on the sadistic 1st Sgt. Rickett in Irwin Shaw's “The Young Lions.”
Watson was reputedly a vicious anti-Semite, who consistently “volunteered” Rubin for the most dangerous patrols and missions, according to lengthy affidavits submitted by nearly a dozen men — mostly self-described “country boys” from the South and Midwest.
The bravery displayed by Rubin during such missions so impressed two commanding officers that they recommended him three times for the Medal of Honor. Both officers were soon afterward killed in action, but not before telling Watson to initiate the necessary paperwork to secure the medals for Rubin. Some of the men in Rubin's company were present when Watson was ordered to put in for the medals, and all are convinced that he deliberately ignored the orders.
“I believe in my heart that 1st 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,” Cpl. Harold Speakman wrote 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.
But not Rubin. Almost every evening, he would sneak out of the camp to steal food from the Chinese and North Korean supply depots, understanding 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.”
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 the mind. How he ever came home alive is a mystery to me.”
For some 30 years after his discharge, Rubin lived quietly in a small house in Garden Grove, with his wife, Yvonne, a Dutch Holocaust survivor. The couple reared two children, Frank, an Air Force veteran, and a daughter, Rosalyn.
In 1953, Rubin finally got his American citizenship. He tried to resume his old job as a butcher, but a combination of crippling afflictions, traceable to his war wounds, forced him to quit.
It wasn't until the 1980s that Rubin's old Army buddies started protesting the Army's inaction in recognizing the man who had saved so many of their lives.
Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) introduced a special bill on Rubin's behalf in 1988. Former GOP Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Orange County also pleaded for recognition of his constituent. In addition, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and former Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) kept badgering the Pentagon.
“From his childhood in a Nazi concentration camp to his valor in Korea, Tibor Rubin never wavered in his fight against tyranny and injustice,”Wexler said. “It is unconscionable that the Pentagon overlooked his acts of heroism for more than 50 years.”
The Jewish War Veterans organization has championed Rubin's cause for many years, and at one point, collected 42,000 signatures on a petition presented to President Ronald Reagan.
But nothing appeared to penetrate the bureaucratic indifference.
Then in the mid-90s, the U.S. military, now a model equal-opportunity employer, finally responded to persistent criticism that it had consistently squelched recommendations for high medal awards to minority soldiers who served during World War II and the Korean War.
In 1996, the Pentagon belatedly awarded Medals of Honor to 21 Japanese American and other Asian American veterans, and eight to former African American servicemen, who were institutionally segregated during World War II.
In 2001, Congress passed a bill providing for a review of selected Jewish veterans, 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.
Years ago, Kravitz was recommended for a Medal of Honor, but the award was downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest decoration.
Under the terms of the Kravitz Act, a list containing the names and wartime records of 138 Jewish veterans was sent to the Pentagon. All the men listed had received the Service Cross from one of the military branches. The exception was Rubin, though his file was the thickest of all.
There's still work to do in reviewing such records. Last week, following receipt of a request for information, U.S. Army spokeswoman Maj. Elizabeth Robbins said that the Army had contracted with the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress for a three-year review of the records of the Jewish servicemen on the list, and for a similar review of Latino American veterans. Robbins said she expected a report on the results later this year.
Still, there was no doubt about Rubin or any need to make him wait any longer. He becomes the 15th Jewish recipient of the Medal of Honor since it was instituted during the Civil War by an act of Congress and signed by President Abraham Lincoln, according to archivist Pamela Elbe of the National Museum of American Jewish Military History.
His first notice of the award came on July 27, when a White House aide called the house in Garden Grove early in the morning and asked for Rubin. His wife said that he was still asleep, but woke him at the caller's insistence.
“The man said that President Bush had just signed the order for my Medal of Honor,” Rubin recalled. “I was thinking, 'b——-' and went back to sleep.”
A little while later, the aide called again to ask what date would be convenient for Rubin to meet with the president. Gradually, Rubin started to believe.
“It would have been nice if they had given me the medal when I was a young, handsome man,” Rubin mused. “It would have opened a lot of doors.”
Nevertheless, ex-Cpl. Rubin is deeply impressed that high brass now must, according to military protocol, address him as “mister” or “sir,” and that he will have an escort of a major and a master sergeant on his way to Washington.
Furthermore, when he wears his medal, tradition requires that even five-star generals salute him and that the president of the United States stand when Rubin enters a room.
He is bound to get a lot of salutes at the White House, and later that day in a ceremony at the Pentagon, hosted by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Rubin is allowed to invite 200 guests for the White House ceremony, and among them will be the survivors of his old company and their families. There will also be relatives, but Rubin doubts that his cousins in Israel will be able to make it.
Although he usually says what's on his mind, Rubin promises to be on his best behavior at the White House and Pentagon: “My wife told me to be very humble, very nice.”
When Rubin was interviewed three years ago, he told this reporter, “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.”
Times have changed.
“Now,” said Rubin with a self-deprecating laugh, “It's Mister Shmuck, the hero.”