Article first published in Vol. 23 (2004-2005)
By Rachel Feree, Jessica Jeffers and Lindsay Werner
The Philippines. China. Central America. Mexico. France. The travels of a soldier might mirror the aspirations of world powers, civil unrest in countries around the world or the fight for freedom by allies. Such was the path of Sam Dreben, a Russian immigrant and American soldier.
Samuel Dreben was born on June 1, 1878, the youngest of five boys, into a Jewish family in Czarist Russia. Hatred for Jews in Russia was mounting, and Dreben saw his friends and family beaten and killed in pogroms. Although his mother dreamed of her son becoming a rabbi, her child sought to serve the military instead of a congregation.
Image caption: Russian-born Sam Dreben fought in the Mexican Revolution and was a decorated World War I hero. Photo courtesy of the El Paso County Historical Society .
Russia's strict laws required every boy at the age of 14 to enlist and serve 20 years in the Russian military. The only exception to this rule was a family's oldest son. The pay was $15 per year, the living conditions dreadful, and Dreben discovered that Jews could not become officers in the Czar's army. The young Dreben ran away twice, once as far as Germany, but finally he made it all the way to England.
In England, he worked the docks of Liverpool for enough money to go to the United States. Twenty years old, Dreben met up with family in Philadelphia, Pa. He worked temporarily in his uncle's tailoring shop, harboring the dream of becoming an American soldier.
A few weeks later, he got his chance. A U.S Army recruiter offered Dreben three meals a day, a free uniform and $15 a month, a veritable fortune for the Russian immigrant. Hymer E. Rosen, writing for the Texas Jewish Historical Society, said, "Within an hour little Sammy held up his hand and swore to protect the United States against all enemies, received his first meal, and was issued an ill-fitting uniform with real brass buttons. When he returned to the home of his relatives his aunt exclaimed, 'Sammy you're crazy, don't you know that soldiers get killed?'"
In 1899 at the end of the Spanish-American War, the United States acquired Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. However, Filipinos declared their independence, beginning a three-year guerrilla war against the United States. In his first assignment as a U. S. soldier, Dreben served in the Philippines under Gen. Lawton of the 14th Infantry.
Dreben's outfit, ordered to end the rebellion, was marching towards a stone bridge when suddenly an enemy cannon loaded with black powder, nails, and scrap iron exploded. Everyone dove for cover. "All but one man. A lone soldier emerged from the smoke, moving at a half trot onto and across the bridge, disappearing as he leaped into the enemy trenches," said one of Dreben's fellow soldiers, Tex O'Reilly, according to Rosen. The short, stout Dreben had begun a career of soldiering where his own safety was often his last thought.
Dreben's next assignment was in China, where a campaign had begun to rid the country of foreigners. The secret society, Fists of Righteous Harmony, also known as "Boxers" because they practiced martial arts, began attacking all Christian missions and foreigners. An international relief force of about 9,000 men, including the 14th Infantry, was sent in to rescue foreign legations in Peking and they helped lift the siege in August 1900.
After his first stint in the Army, Dreben returned to the United States and worked at odd jobs, even serving as a municipal rat catcher in San Francisco. But fighting more than rats was in Dreben's blood. He reenlisted in the Army in 1904 for another three-year hitch. After his discharge, he joined soldier-of-fortune General Lee Christmas to fight in rebellions in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. During this time he also met fellow adventurer and mercenary, Tracy Richardson, who became his closest friend.
The two men became close friends, joining the Mexican Revolution and fighting first for Madero and later for various generals, including Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa. Dreben and Richardson commanded machine gun squadrons and taught the Mexican soldiers military strategy and use of modern weapons. When Villa broke alliance with Venustiano Carranza, Dreben remained loyal to Carranza.
In the southern Chihuahua site of Parral, General Pancho Villa and his army outflanked General "Cheche" Campos' federal army, for whom Dreben was fighting, and captured Parral. Most of Dreben's men fled, but with the help of a small machine gun squad, he stayed on for hours, retreating and then opening fire until darkness afforded them the opportunity to rejoin the federal army.
For two years, Dreben fought against and for both the government and the revolutionaries, enjoying success as a fearless fighter and skilled strategist. But Pancho Villa's infamous raid on Columbus, N.M , ignited Sam Dreben's allegiance to the United States. He volunteered his services to Gen. John J. Pershing in the Punitive Expedition and served as a scout.
While living in El Paso, he met Helen Spence. On September 26, 1916, the 19-year-old Helen married the former soldier, then 38. Helen quickly became pregnant, and Dreben decided to try fatherhood instead of soldiering over the world. But their tiny daughter died at age four months of gastroenteritis, plunging Dreben into deep depression, according to his biographer, Art Leibson. They were divorced shortly after the baby's death.
On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I. Dreben reenlisted in the Army in 1918 at Fort Bliss, 11 years after his second honorable discharge. Enlisting as a private, he was promoted quickly to first sergeant in Company A of the 141st Infantry, under Richard F. Burges, also from El Paso.
The El Paso Times related several years later that Dreben had saved Major Burges' life. When their regiment came under intense fire, Major Burges found a dugout and was ensconced when Dreben, for some reason, insisted he get out and find another. Before long, the dugout Burges had been in was bombed.
Dreben earned the Distinguished Service Cross for extreme heroism in St. Etienne, France. The Infantry was ordered to drive out the German Army from a mountainous barricade. An enemy platoon was relieving a machine gun detachment on the right front of American lines. Without hesitation, Dreben asked for volunteers to knock out the machine guns.
Dreben charged right into the German unit. Unharmed, Dreben arose from the dust of enemy fire, killed 14 troops and seized control of four machine gun nests. For his acts of courage, he received the highest decoration of the French Army, the Medaille Militaire , the Croix de Guerre with Palms, and the Italian War Cross, as well as his own country's highest award for enlisted men.
New York journalist and author Damon Runyon wrote a poem about Dreben entitled "The Fighting Jew, " an epithet by which Dreben would become known across the country.
El Paso welcomed Sam Dreben when he returned home. He became involved with prominent real estate and insurance circles and resided at 2416 Montana. Rosen tells us that during the early 1920s, as a member of the American Legion in El Paso, Dreben introduced a resolution prohibiting members of the Ku Klux Klan from joining local posts.
Dreben said this of the Klan: "These men, oath bound to secrecy, hide behind their masks and say that because I am a foreign-born Jew I am not good enough to be an American. Every time America has called for volunteers, I have put on the uniform. They did not ask me at the recruiting office if I was a Jew, and they did not ask me on the battlefield what my race or religion was. The soldiers didn't wear masks in France, other than gas masks, and they don't need them now." After some debate, Dreben's resolution was passed.
In 1921, Dreben received another honor. General Pershing picked Sam Dreben, among others, to serve as the guard of honor on November 11 for the burial of the Unknown Soldier of World War I at the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.
In his later years, Samuel Dreben married again, and the couple moved to California. There, he worked with West Coast Life Insurance Company. On March 14, 1925, on a routine visit to the doctor, Dreben mistakenly was given a toxic substance rather than his prescribed medicine. He died the following morning.
Two days later, the flag was flown at half-mast at the Texas capitol, and its legislature adjourned for a day. General Pershing sent Dreben's widow a heartfelt telegram proclaiming his friendship and saying, "Your husband was the finest soldier and one of the bravest men I ever met."
Newspapers all over the country published the news of his death. Damon Runyon wrote in the eulogy he prepared for Dreben, "If I were asked to write his epitaph, I would put it in a few words. I would simply engrave in the granite shaft: SAM DREBEN, ALL MAN." He was buried at Grandview Memorial Park in Glendale, California, by the American Legion Hollywood Post 41.