Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Honor of Armistice Day: A Jewish War Hero Remembered

Sammy Dreben, “The Fighting Jew,” (1878-1925) was a new immigrant to the United States when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. It’s ironic that one of the main reasons that Dreben fled from his native Kiev was to avoid conscription of Jewish boys who were forced to serve for 20 years in the Russian army. But, then again, the U.S. Army was not the Czar’s army.

During Dreben’s first 3-year term of service, he fought against an insurgent uprising in the Philippines (then a U.S. Territory) and also helped rescue hostages during the infamous Boxer Rebellion in China. In 1902, he was honorably discharged, but re-enlisted from 1904-1907, and was stationed in El Paso, Texas.

After his second honorable discharge, Dreben became a mercenary. While he wanted to fight against the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War, he ended up in the Panama Canal Zone. From there he became involved with the liberation armies of Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico and Guatemala.

In 1917, Dreben re-enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in World War I. At 39 years of age, he was sent to France. He distinguished himself in numerous engagements, especially with his machine gun prowess, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire, the highest French honor.

In 1921, the retired Dreben was asked by General Pershing to be an honorary pall bearer for the burial of the Unknown Solider at Arlington National Cemetery on November 11.

On March 14, 1925, a nurse accidentally gave Dreben a lethal injection. Newspapers around the country paid glowing tribute to First Sergeant Sam Dreben and the Texas Legislature adjourned for the day in his honor. As per his widow’s wishes, Dreben, an observant Jew, was buried in the Jewish section of a California cemetery rather than in a military cemetery.

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