MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're here to pay tribute to a soldier with some extraordinary devotion to his brothers in arms and an unshakable love for his adopted homeland of America.
NORRIS: At the White House today, 76-year-old former Army Corporal Tibor Rubin received the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism. Indeed, `extraordinary' is a word that seems to run through his life's story.
BLOCK: Tibor Rubin was born to a Jewish family in Hungary in 1929. When he was still a young boy, his family was forced into a German concentration camp. Most of his relatives died there, but Rubin survived and was liberated by the US Army. He made a vow that he would join that army. He moved to America, and in 1948 he did join up. He was eventually sent to the front lines in the Korean War. He kept his fellow soldiers alive time and time again on the battlefield and later when his unit was captured and held as prisoners of war.
NORRIS: Tibor Rubin sat down with us to talk about his service in Korea, and we should warn you that the situations described are gruesome, and the language is at times a bit coarse. Among the many things Rubin is honored for, the Battle of Unsan in October 1950. The soldiers of the 8th Battalion 1st Cavalry were surprised by a large Chinese offensive. The casualties were massive. Corporal Rubin used the last machine gun to defend a position so his badly wounded soldiers could retreat. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The unit Rubin was a member of was the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division.]
Corporal TIBOR RUBIN (Recipient, Congressional Medal of Honor): I was the last guy on the gun. I was going with the gun quite a long time, you know. And all of a sudden, they threw a hand grenade, and actually I got wounded on my hand, and I got wounded on my chest with the shrapnel. Then all of a sudden, because of that, they knocked out the gun, too.
NORRIS: After the battle, hundreds of members of the 1st Cavalry were taken prisoner and forced into a camp. They battled fatigue, hunger and freezing temperatures. Most Americans had never known such misery, but it was somehow familiar to Corporal Rubin.
Cpl. RUBIN: I had a very bad experience. I only was 40 months in a German concentration camp, which prepared me for that terrible life. So I start helping the young soldiers.
NORRIS: What kind of survival skills had you learned in the concentration camp?
Cpl. RUBIN: All the American GIs, you know, like I am now, but at that time, I wasn't; we was rotten spoiled. We had good life like I have now. I'm rotten spoiled. And the kids coming--they don't have any kind of experience. The war was terrible. It is actually hell. But when you get captured, you become a nothing. You don't have no rights. You're no more a human being. You're just no mother, father there, you know, no army back you up. You're just a nothing. So, you know, that's when you needed a lot of help. (Unintelligible) first of all. The winter was very hard. There was no medical care. There was no food. They don't have nothing much to eat even themselves.
NORRIS: Food was so scarce that Rubin began to sneak out at night to steal whatever he could find: barley, millet, animal feed. Rubin had picked up essential survival skills in the concentration camps. The most important of those lessons, he said, was that the mind could prevail even as the body suffered. And suffer they did. Prisoners were dying at the rate of 40 a day.
Cpl. RUBIN: A lot of guys have dysentery, and that's what kill us most. And you already can tell when a young man's going to die. His eyes was already--how you call you can say--start sink in. The teeth and the gums start showing up, you know. And we figured a few days, probably he gonna be dead. They used to come to me and say, `Rubin, John is very sick. You have to help.' I said first, I told them, `What can I really do?' So they told me that, `You Jews know everything.' I said, `It's not true, because we Jews don't know everything, 'cause if I did know so much, I wouldn't be here.' But then if--what can I do?
So I went--well, it's not--a pretty nasty thing I did, but I went--you know, the Chinese bring in goats and the lamb, not for us, for themselves. And, you know, the--when they--how do you call--when they drop the thing, it's look like M&M's. So I put it in a little paper, and I went to Johnny. I just mentioned John. I did that many time. I went to Johnny, say, `Johnny.' He was already very sick. I said, `The Red Cross come and bring us new medication.' I told him, `Johnny, I cannot give you any medication. Only way I can get it for--give it to you, if you try to get better. If you don't try, I have to take it away from you, because we have so many sick people like you, and they need it.' So I said, `I want to hear that from your mouth. You tell me you're going to try with all your might.' So the poor guy said it, `I will, I will,' you know. So I gave him three pieces. It was nothing more than goat shit and lamb shit.
But, you know, I told him, `This our best medicine,' so I don't know if I would be successful, but I gave him three times a day. When I give it to him, I always check how he's doing, everything. I gave him a lot of pep talk. And in a few days, I see I do good because, you know, he start coming to himself. I set him up. I gave him water, a lot of pep talk. He was close to dead when we started. And through a few days, he started to get better. I set him up to get his strength back, and he come out of it. He come home.
NORRIS: The US military says that more than 1,600 POWs died that winter at Camp V in Korea. Tibor Rubin's fellow detainees say his actions kept at least 40 prisoners alive. Over the next decades, Rubin was nominated several times for service medals, including the Medal of Honor, but there were always problems with his paperwork. The Pentagon now says that someone in his chain of command may have stymied the process because Rubin was a Hungarian Jew. Rubin is not going to pretend that he feels good about that, but he does feel great about that medal the president draped around his neck today. And after all these years, his humor still helps him cope.
Cpl. RUBIN: I make a joke out of it. I always say the next time I join the United States Army, my name's going to be McDonald or Jones or Miller or Schmidt, because that Jewish name not going to work. Took them 55 years. Meantime, I was recommended four different times a Congressional Medal of Honor, two times a Distinguished Service crest, two times the Silver Star, (unintelligible) on it quite a bit. You know what I mean. But listen, I'm getting the biggest medal from United States. After 55 years, I never figured I'm ever going to get it, so I'm very happy.
NORRIS: Corporal Tibor Rubin, it's been an honor to talk to you. Thank you so much.
Cpl. RUBIN: Thank you very kindly. Appreciate it.
NORRIS: Tibor Rubin received the Congressional Medal of Honor today at the White House.
BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.