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Jews in the Wild West

SAM DREBEN-Warrior, Patriot, Hero

By Hymer E. Rosen (El Paso)
courtesy of the Texas Jewish Historical Society

SAM DREBEN came to the United States in 1898, a penniless little immigrant from Russia. Who would have thought that twenty-three years later, on Armistice Day in 1921, he would be serving in the honor guard at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Seventy years later, Dreben remains almost as unknown as the soldier he helped to inter in Arlington National Cemetery. Yet this adopted El Pasoan was a much decorated American soldier who also participated in some of the most swashbuckling adventures of the early 1900s.

The day after his death in Los Angeles on March 15, 1925, newspapers all over the country carried front-page articles that paid tribute to him. The El Paso Times was no exception and, indeed, devoted the better part of an additional page to the subject of Sam Dreben's life and military career, including a two-column eulogy written by his good friend Damon Runyon. In the eulogy, Runyon described Sam as "'a short, dark, chunky man, of self-effacing manner"- popularly known as "the fighting Jew" - who was "the bravest, the gentlest, the courtliest man I ever knew." "He struck you as anything but a fighter," continued Runyon. "He was almost painfully polite, always apparently greatly abashed . . . But beneath the velvet of his demeanor was the iron of a warrior soul."

El Paso has been home to several warriors more famous than Sam Dreben -Pershing, Bradley, Patton, Terry Allen - but none of these was more colorful or more courageous than he was. And the memory of his daring exploits lingered in the El Paso Southwest for several decades after his death. Whenever old-timers used to apt together to talk about well-known border characters, someone was sure to mention Sam Dreben. And then the stories about him would begin to flow—wonderful stories that took you all over the world with Sam "the fighting Jew": to the Philippines, China, Central America, Mexico, France.

Sam’s story actually began in Poltava, Russia, where he was born on June 1, 1878, to deeply religious Jewish parents. While he was still an infant, his family moved to Odessa on the Black Sea. Mrs. Dreben wanted her Sammy to become a rabbi, but the idea did not appeal to the youngster, who dreamed of being a soldier and wearing a uniform with shiny buttons. When informed that a Jew could not serve as an officer in the Czar's army, Sam was disappointed but not disheartened.

Twice he ran away from home, once going as far as Germany, only to find that there were no jobs for Jewish boys in that country. He returned home for a time and labored in the fields, listening to the stories of America, the refuge of the oppressed. At eighteen he left home for good, stowing away on a ship bound for England. In London, Dreben earned a precarious living carrying vegetables to market, but was soon fired for eating some of the produce. Obviously England was not the land of opportunity that he was seeking. But getting to America was not going to be easy. He managed to make his way to Liverpool, where he worked for a time as a dock laborer and as a tailor's assistant in a sweatshop, for one pence a day.

After saving enough money for the price of steerage passage to the United States, he arrived in New York City in January, 1899, and went to Philadelphia, where relatives had preceded him. He soon realized that the United States was not the star-spangled heaven he had imagined it would be. A person had to work to eat, and Sammy was unable to find a job. For a few weeks he attended night school, struggling to learn the English language.

In 1899 the war in the Philippine Islands was going on, and Dreben heard stories of the fighting. Moreover, he learned from a recruiting sergeant that the regular army, to his amazement, paid its soldiers fifteen dollars a month and three meals a day. "Do they give the uniform too?" he asked.

"Sure, you get all your clothes," the sergeant told him, "and also medical attention. Why, if you get killed they don’t even charge a cent to bury you."

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 soldiers get killed?"

"Maybe, but they don’t charge you anything to eat," Sammy assured her.

Dreben was assigned to Company G, Fourteenth United States Infantry, then stationed at Bacoor, in the Philippines, and was given a ticket and expense money to San Francisco. With other recruits and a few old-time regulars, he boarded a train for San Francisco. The Army had a time-honored custom in those days called "chiseling the rookies." On the first day Sam was initiated into the game of stud poker. On the second day he was broke and went hungry for the rest of the trip, except for handouts from his companions.

At San Francisco the squad of recruits was marched aboard a transport. In a short time, Sam learned that extra coal passers were needed in the stokehole. Every soldier who volunteered for a four-hour shift would receive the princely sum of one dollar. It seemed like found money, and for four hours Sam sweated in the terrific heat below deck. At the end of the shift he came on deck weary and weak, but he had a silver dollar in his pocket. On the mess deck a bunch of soldiers were ganged up in a corner shooting craps. Sam had learned all about the game on the train from Philadelphia. At least he thought he had. He took the dice, dropped his dollar on the deck, and said, "Shoot de works." One roll of the dice and Sam heard the verdict: "Snake eyes." And he saw his silver dollar disappear.

In the Philippines, on his very fast day under fire, Sam characteristically "shot de works," but this time—as indeed throughout his military career—he did not come up "snake eyes." The incident was later described by one of his fellow soldiers, Tex O'Reilly. Sam's outfit, ordered to put down the rebellion for independence led by Emilio Aguinaldo, was marching toward a stone bridge, where—unknown to the American soldiers—the rebels had placed "an ominous looking cannon loaded with black powder, nails, rivets and scrap iron, good for a single blast." Suddenly it "blasted away," and the men lucky enough to escape being hit scrambled 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." It turned out that Sam survived unscratched, and when his fellow soldiers later demanded an explanation of his "damfool conduct," he responded in his guttural English": "Vell, I heard the captain say 'Forvards!' and I don't hear nobody say 'Stop."'

Dreben next saw action in China, where the Fourteenth Infantry was deployed to rescue the besieged legations of the United States and other western nations in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. After the Rebellion was crushed, Sam, his Army hitch over, returned to the United States and got a job as a municipal rat catcher in San Francisco.

Finding that type of employment disillusioning for a fighting man, he enlisted in the Army. At the end of his hitch, be found himself in the Panama Canal Zone. The next day he joined a force of adventurers, led by General Lee Christmas, fighting in the Guatemalan revolution. There he met Tracy Richardson, a machine-gunner-for-hire and a soldier-adventurer who was to become Sam's close friend and comrade-in-arms. Before the fighting was over, Sam was made a "coronel." The two soldiers of fortune followed wars wherever they found them.

According to one account, Dreben became involved in a Central American revolution which seemed to be going nowhere, both sides fighting aimlessly and listlessly. Sam picked the likeliest-looking side and got a job organizing its army. He drilled, cussed, fed, and paid his troops, but got no appreciable results. They still lacked spirit. Thinking it over, he hit upon a brilliant scheme. Appealing to their love of glory and finery, he promoted every man in the army. The lieutenants became captains, the captains became colonels, the colonels became generals, the generals became field marshals, and the buck privates became second lieutenants. There were no enlisted men. He then outfitted them all in splendid uniforms trimmed with gold braid, the whole army looking like the male chorus of the Strauss operetta The Student Prince. Now the bedizened officers fought like devils.

Sometime during the Mexican Revolution, Sam established his residence in El Paso—at 2416 Montana Avenue. But he was often away from home—fighting in the Revolution. At the outset he fought in Madero's revolt against Porfirio Diaz. Later he was in many revolutionary battles in Chihuahua, fighting with Generals Jose Ines Salazar, Emilio P. Carnpa, and Pascual Orozco. He also fought with Pancho Villa, serving as Villa's purchasing agent for a time. But when Villa and Venustiano Carranza broke their alliance, Dreben remained loyal to Carranza.

One revolutionary battle stands out from the others. It took place near Parral , in southern Chihuahua. Even with Dreben and Richardson on his side, General "Cheche" Campos' federal army was fighting a disorganized war. Suddenly, General Pancho Villa and his army on their flank, struck a blow, and faded away into the desert. Soon they returned and captured Parral, causing most of Dreben's men to flee the city. Sam, with only a small gun squad left to help out, grabbed a machine gun and began to fire upon the Villistas, stopping their charge. Then he began working around the flanks of the area on foot with fewer than a dozen Mexican troops. With his hands on the trigger of his machine gun, he and his men retreated several hundred yards. When the enemy again advanced, he opened up and drove them to cover. He continued these tactics for more than two hours until darkness gave him and his men a chance to rejoin the retreating federal army. It has been described as the greatest solo battle of the Revolution.

Another exploit, recalled later by some of Sam's El Paso friends, took place near Jimenez, where the Federales were concentrated. Dreben and Richardson, now fighting against the government forces, were entrusted with the job of forming the rebel line of defense. From the hills they watched the advance of the army below. Homer Scott, a young photographer who had been following the numerous battles in Mexico, armed only with a camera, was nearby. Viewing the scene near Jimenez, Scott called to the two warriors and asked, "Why don't you load one of the switch engines of the train with dynamite and bump them in the nose?"

It was a grand idea. They brought one of the old engines to the top of the hill, hastily packed it with 800 pounds of dynamite, and scattered percussion caps over the boxes. When the enemy trains were almost within rifle range, Sam opened the throttle, tied down the whistle, and jumped from the cab! Like a monster out of a nightmare, that roaring death machine rushed down the slope, striking the leading government train head on. There was a terrific explosion, and wreckage was strewn for a hundred yards across the track.

Twice during the Revolution, Sam came to the rescue of his friend General J.J. Mendez, military commander of Ciudad Juarez. The first rescue came in response to a revolt against General Mendez by one of his young captains, Jesus Valverde, who was angry because he had been severely disciplined by the General for insubordination. Routed in the middle of the night from his bed in Juarez, Mendez crossed to El Paso. He immediately applied to Chihuahua City and Mexico City for reinforcements and returned to Juarez accompanied by Dreben, who was to instruct the troops in the use of the new equipment. Soon, however, Sam was placed in command of the defense of the Customs House. He and Mendez then led a charge against the rebels and expelled them. Dreben received the thanks of the Mexican government for his work in quelling this revolt.

Then, with hardly a respite, along came a second rebellion, full of hot action but lasting only a few hours. Another ambitious young captain named Castre, with visions of being a second Pancho Villa, had decided it was a good time to stage a revolt and had gathered a small army on the outskirts of Juarez. General Mendez could scarcely muster a score of loyal soldiers and a few guns. Instinctively he raced once more across the river to El Paso and consulted his old friend Sam Dreben. By the time he and Dreben could return to Juarez. firing had already started and the Customs House was being attacked. But once again the loyalists prevailed.

After Villa carried out his infamous raid on the American garrison at Columbus, New Mexico, Sam's allegiance to his adopted country proved stronger than any of his allegiances in Mexico. When General John J. Pershing entered Mexico chasing after Villa, the little soldier promptly volunteered his services and served with distinction as a scout for Pershing in the Punitive Expedition. When Pershing withdrew to El Paso in 1917, Sam returned to civilian life.

Now a married man and almost forty years old, Sam thought his soldiering days were over. However, two events changed his expectations: the death of his infant daughter (which plunged him into deep sorrow) and the entry of the United States into the World War. When a special company was recruited in El Paso, Sam enlisted as a private but was soon promoted to first sergeant in Captain Richard F. Burges' Company A of the 141st Infantry.

After training at Camp Bowie, the regiment was ordered to France, where it participated in several of the hardest campaigns of the war—among them, the Meuse Argonne drive and the allied Champagne offensive. On one occasion, as reported (much later) in The El Paso Times of March 16, 1925, Dreben saved Major Burges' life: " ...when their regiment was under heavy fire, the Americans had taken some ditches. Major Burges had found a dugout and was in it when Dreben came by and insisted that he get out of that one and spend the night in another. He had gotten out on time before his dugout was bombed. 'Yes, he saved my life, by this thoughtfulness,' Burges said."

It was not merely "this thoughtfulness" that inspired in Major Burges his profound respect and deep affection for Sam Dreben. According to Burges, Sam was always the first man to reach the objective during attacks, his initiative and courage serving consistently as an inspiration to his men. And, indeed, the records of Sam's deeds in World War I bear out these words. At St. Etienne, for instance, Dreben captured a machine-gun nest, killing fourteen Germans single-handedly. For this heroism, be was decorated with the highest French honor given an enlisted man---the Medaille Militaire--and a second medal, the Croix de Guerre with Palms. He also received the Italian War Cross and the United States Distinguished Service Cross.

First Sergeant Dreben and Major Burges returned from France together, and were met by cheering crowds in their hometown of El Paso. Once again a civilian, Dreben became a prominent figure in real estate and insurance circles.

The esteem in which Dreben was held by the ranking military officials of the United States and France is illustrated by the following incident. Sam, wearing all his decorations, attended a convention of the American Legion in Kansas City, Missouri. While walking through the lobby of the hotel, he met General Pershing and Marshal Foch on their way to a banquet being given for the military notables present. Pershing immediately stopped and, turning to Foch, said, "This is one of my bravest soldiers." Foch, seeing the French decorations pinned on Dreben's chest, embraced him in the French style. Pershing then invited Sam to the banquet. Needless to say, Sam accepted with pleasure.

Rabbi Martin Zielonka, of of Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso from 1900 to 1938, knew Dreben for many years and bore testimony to Sam's pride of Jewish descent. The rabbi was in fact a close student of Dreben's life and published his findings in a long article entitled "The Fighting Jew," which appeared in Volume 31 of the American Jewish Historical Society (1928). Norman Walker, a newspaperman who also knew Dreben well, said, "Sam's two most cherished possessions were his Jewish ancestry and his American citizenship."

Although Sam Dreben's career as an active soldier ended with the signing of the Armistice in 1918, his "warrior soul" remained strong and vigorous. Sometime in the early '20s he made a significant contribution to American Legion policy in El Paso by fighting for what he knew to be right. When a known Ku Klux Klan member sought to join the organization, Sam introduced a resolution prohibiting any Klansman from membership in the Legion: "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." A stormy debate followed, the chair ruling that Dreben's resolution was out of order. But Sam appealed to the post for a ruling, and his resolution carried without a dissenting voice.

In 1921 Dreben received an invitation from Washington, D.C. The Unknown Soldier was to be buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery on November 11, and General Pershing had picked the guard of honor from among the men who had shown the greatest bravery in the war. Among those chosen—and the list included such luminaries as Sergeant Alvin York—was El Paso's Sam Dreben.

On March 16, 1925, the day after Sam's death, the Texas Legislature adjourned for a day in his honor, and the flag was flown at half staff at the state capitol. General Pershing sent this telegram to Sam's widow: DEEPEST SYMPATHY IN GREAT LOSS YOU HAVE SUFFERED IN THE DEATH OF YOUR HUSBAND ... HE WAS MY DEAR FRIEND. And in his nationally syndicated newspaper column, Damon Runyon wrote: "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.

Hymer Elias Rosen has been active in the El Paso scene for over fifty years, with a diversified background in the entertainment field and research in the area of Jewish pioneers in the Southwest. This article originally appeared in the Summer 1994 newsletter of the Texas Jewish Historical Society. Used with permission of the Texas Jewish Historical Society.

Photo of Sam Dreben courtesy of Werner Hirsch.

Link to another Sam Dreben Page
Biography of Sam Dreben by Art Leibson