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First Name: Sam

Last Name: Dreben

Birthplace: Poltava, RUS

Gender: Male

Branch: Army (1784 - present)

Home of Record: El Paso, TX

Date of Birth: 01 June 1878

Date of Death: 14 March 1925

Rank: First Sergeant

Years Served:
Sam Dreben
'The Fighting Jew'

•  Philippine-American War (1899 - 1902)
•  World War I (1914 - 1918)
•  Mexican Expedition (1916 - 1917)


Sam "The Fighting Jew" Dreben
First Sergeant, U.S. Army

Sam Dreben was born on 1 June 1878 in Poltava, Russia (now Ukraine). With prospects for a Jew in Czarist Russia exceedingly bleak, he ran away twice (once reaching Germany), before emigrating for good at the age of eighteen. He went first to London, then to America, arriving in New York City in January 1899.

Military Career

Dreben enlisted in the U.S. Army on 27 June 1899 in the 14th Infantry Regiment and was shipped to the Philippines (acquired by the U.S. as a result of its victory in the Spanish American War) to help put down a native insurrection led by Emilio Aguinaldo. He quickly distinguished himself in battle. Later, he participated in the rescue of westerners besieged in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion.

Mustered out in 1902, he took a succession of unsatisfactory jobs, including an attempt to fight for the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War, before reenlisting in the U.S. Army in 1904. This time, he was stationed at Fort Bliss. It was here that he was trained how to use a machine gun, a skill for which he became well-known (and would need in later years). He made friends in nearby El Paso, TX before his second Army enlistment ended in 1907.

Dreben's wanderings then took him to the Panama Canal Zone. After several unsuccessful business ventures, he was recruited to fight for various liberation movements in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Mexico. It was in Guatemala that he suffered his only combat wound - a shot in the rear. In the Mexican Revolution, Dreben fought with, and against, such famous leaders as Francisco Madero and Pancho Villa. For a time he served as a member of Pancho Villa's Golden Guard. When the latter made his infamous raid on Columbus, NM, on 9 March 1916, killing some civilians, Dreben joined the Punitive Expedition sent by an outraged America to bring his former comrade-in-arms to justice. Dreben served as a scout and became good friends with the expedition's commander, General John "Black Jack" Pershing. The Americans were never able to catch the elusive bandit, and the fiasco eventually came to an end in 1917.

In early 1917, Dreben (then thirty-nine) married nineteen-year-old Helen Spence. They soon had a baby daughter. However, America's entry into World War I eventually lured him back into the Army, enlisting in the 141st Infantry Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division. Enroute to the fighting in France, he received word that his child had died.

Dreben once again distinguished himself in combat. For his bravery at St. Etienne in October 1918, Sergeant Dreben was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire, the highest French honor. General Pershing, now commander of the American Expeditionary Force, called him "the finest soldier and one of the bravest men I ever know [sic]."

Post-Military Life

After the end of the war, Dreben returned to El Paso, where he divorced his wife because of her infidelity in his absence. The war hero then settled down and started a successful insurance business.

In 1921, Dreben received another honor; he was selected by General Pershing to be one of the honorary pallbearers (along with another World War I hero, Alvin York) for the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on 11 November.

In the same year, Dreben and some others were recruited by El Paso police to illegally extradite an escaped prisoner, Phil Agulin, who had murdered a policeman. The men set up a false medical office in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico advertising the removal of tattoos. The plan was that when Agulin came in for treatment, they would apply anesthetic, then drive him to El Paso. However, Agulin was not rendered fully unconscious and was able to cry for help. Dreben and the others were arrested, but were released from prison after three days due to pressure from the U.S.

In 1923, he married for the second time, this time to Meade Andrews. She convinced him to move to California for a fresh start.

On 14 March 1925, Dreben died when a nurse accidentally injected him with the wrong substance. Newspapers all over the country, including the New York Times and the El Paso Times, paid tribute to him. Famed columnist Damon Runyon wrote a eulogy, and the Texas Legislature adjourned for a day in his honor.

Medals and Awards

Distinguished Service Cross
Croix de Guerre (France)
Medaille Militaire (France)

Death and Burial

First Sergeant Sam Dreben died on 14 March 1925. He is buried at Grand View Memorial Park in Glendale, CA.

Origin of Nickname/Handle:

Texas WWI Exceptional Gallantry

Honoree ID: 2435   Created by: MHOH




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