Behind the Iron Curtain and into the Special Forces: Rudi Horvath
By Bob Seals
Dr. Deborah S. Cornelius, a noted east-central European historian, has described the Kingdom of Hungary in World War II as being "caught in the cauldron." The nation faced a geographical dilemma between two implacable ideological opponents leading to widespread misery and destruction during the war. Unfortunately, after the fighting ended in May of 1945 Hungarians remained "caught in the cauldron," now, a postwar communist one. For some, remaining in a communist Hungary was not an option.
One young Hungarian, Rudi Horvath, inspired by the prospect of service in the Cold War United States Army, went to elaborate and highly dangerous lengths to escape from behind the Iron Curtain, embarking upon a dangerous and fascinating journey leading to service in the nascent Army Special Forces of 1952. As an original 10th Special Forces Group member, Horvath helped to establish that superb force of unconventional warriors prepared to conduct guerrilla warfare if the Cold War in Europe during the 1950's suddenly turned red hot.
A true child of the city of Budapest, Rudolf Gyorgy Horvath was born in 1931 to Francisa and Gyorgy Horvat in the capital of the Hungarian Democratic Republic. Named for a prince of the Habsburg royal family, young Rudi lived with his older brother Edward in a neighborhood on the east, or Pest, side of the capital city. Enrolled in a Roman Catholic school in Budapest, he was athletically inclined in his childhood formative years, running track and field, swimming, playing soccer and ice skating. His developing athleticism and competitive skills served him extremely well later in life. Rudi's father, a combat veteran of the Austro-Hungarian Army, had fought during the First World War on the Italian Front, eventually succumbing to the effects of a back wound received in the deadly trenches.
Hungary, as a nation, during the world wide depression years of the 1930's, moved further to the right politically, and began to increasingly look towards Nazi Germany as a model. Having lost almost seventy percent of her prewar territory and population as a result of the widely hated Treaty of Trianon, the saying "Nem, nem soha," "No, no, never," seemingly guided all Hungarian politics. School children such as Rudi had to recite twice a day in class: "I believe in one God, I believe in one homeland, I believe in God's eternal truth, I believe in the resurrection of Hungary." With the death of his father in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War, the coming years were to be difficult ones for young Rudi and the Horvath family.
Hungary, led by "His Serene Highness the Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary" Admiral Nicholas Horthy, had repudiated the Treaty of Trianon, withdrawn from the League of Nations, begun to rearm, and declared war against the Soviet Union soon after the German invasion of June 1941.
Rudi's older brother Edward served in the Royal Hungarian Army as a signals officer during the war, part of the sizable Hungarian forces that fought on the Eastern Front with Germany against a common communist foe. Increasingly, the war affected Horvath's childhood, as bombing raids, taking shelter in cellars, German occupation troops, and Jewish classmates wearing the Yellow Star became part of his life in Budapest. Unbeknownst to his mother, young Rudi began to pursue a lifelong passion for flying, participating in elementary glider training after school, a training pipeline for future Hungarian Air Force officers.
In 1944 the Regent Admiral Horthy began negoations with the Allies towards Hungarian withdrawal from the war. Such efforts led to German occupation, kidnapping of the Regent and his family by commando Otto Skorzeny, followed soon by installation of the extremely violent fascist Arrow Cross Party by the Nazis in order to keep Hungary in the war. The stage was set for one of the longest and deadliest sieges of World War II, the Siege of Budapest, as an "an ocean of green gray Russians, all coming from the east" advanced upon the city. With the arrival of Christmas Eve 1944, Budapest was now completely surrounded by Soviet forces as 70,000 German and Hungarian troops obeyed yet another Fuhrer directive to stand and die.
Fighting during the siege of Budapest was street to street, and 13 year old Rudi quickly learned basic combat survival skills while seeking life's basic necessities for himself and his mother. The teenage boy learned how to recognize the howl of a shell, when to duck, how to bypass a checkpoint, avoid a patrol and, most importantly, survive amidst the chaos of war. The deadly siege continued for some six weeks, of the longest during the war, until the final German and Hungarian defenders surrendered in February of 1945. The city was now in ruins with three quarters of her buildings destroyed, no electricity and half the population gone.
Soviet occupation of Budapest was brutal. Murder, looting and rape were the order of the day as Soviet General Rodion Malinovsky gave his Russian troops three free days to sack the capital, with an estimated 50,000 Hungarian women violated during the spree. With his mother safe in a secure hiding place, Rudi ventured out in search of supplies. Like most in Budapest he endured various forms of Soviet abuse to include the theft of his watch, and forced labor to clear rubble and dig mass graves for the new communist masters of Hungary.
After the war Hungary, like other Eastern European nations behind the Iron Curtain, faced a myriad of problems. These included a sizable Soviet occupation army, political oppression, and lack of freedom and economic opportunity. Losing, by some accounts some ten percent of her population, post-war GNP was only half of prewar figures, and half a million Hungarians had fled to the West. Hyper-inflation, perhaps the worst ever recorded in history, was so bad that it reached an estimated peak of "…158,486% per day…with 300 billion pengo only able to purchase one chicken, two liters of olive oil and a few vegetables." At the beginning of 1946 the average daily ration for an adult in Budapest was a pitiful 480 calories.
One bright aspect of life for Rudi during this period was visits to the American legation information center in Budapest. US provided media at the center only served to highlight the misery behind the Iron Curtain, and Rudi found "as I compared American culture to that of communism, my desire to escape grew." For Hungarians these years were also ones of Stalinist terror, with self-described "Stalin's best pupil," the hardliner Communist Matyas Rakosi crushing any democratic hopes.
Years passed but little changed. A peace treaty with the Soviet Union in 1947 was signed but a million and half Russian troops and oppression remained in Hungary. For Rudi the year 1948 was to be a major turning point. The catalyst for change was the return of his older brother from an American POW camp near Strasbourg, with the much maligned Army World War II C-ration a powerful advertisement of American plenty. Rudi was astonished "when my brother returned home, he was so well-nourished…that he could not fit into his old civilian clothes," having been fed only half the daily combat ration of a GI, including the much maligned aforementioned canned combat ration. The contrast was even more pronounced with those Hungarians returning from Soviet POW camps to the east, with "many died within a few months after returning home."
Entering his secondary schooling Rudi developed an interest in engineering and continuing his studies in college. Hungarian students were required to attend summer labor camps, where they were evaluated for political reliability, and future service to the communist regime. One summer, assigned kitchen duties at camp, Rudi was instructed to cook red cabbage. Having only green cabbage, he had to use paint to make his dish the correct mandated color, leading to the entire camp being "indisposed" for several days. Humorous perhaps, but this anecdote illustrates the fear omnipresent throughout the communist nation. Even teenagers at summer camp had to be on their guard. From 1949-53 some three quarters of a million Hungarians were charged with "offenses against the state" with several hundred thousand imprisoned, interned, or sent to forced labor camps, some never to return home.
By 1950 facing the end of his last year of schooling, a now 18-year old Rudi had made a fateful decision, "…our lackluster existence under communism only increased my conviction that I needed to defect as soon as possible." Traveling northwest from Budapest to Prague in Czechoslovakia for a track-and-field meet to compete in the 4X100 meter relay and javelin, Horvath began to plan his "Great Escape" from behind the Iron Curtain with thoroughness worthy of a future member of Army Special Forces. His operational security was complete, not informing anyone, to include his mother and brother, in order that they could deny truthfully under later questioning, any knowledge of his defection.
It was to be an epic escape across four nations, hundreds of kilometers, border zone "no-man's lands," avoiding armed Soviet checkpoints and patrols, finally culminating in a daring midnight swim across the Danube River.
During his mission analysis, Horvath considered many routes, to include the most obvious, but heavily guarded escape route due west from Hungary into Austria. "I reasoned that the Czechoslovakia-Austria border would not be as heavily guarded," a planning assumption that proved to be correct. Taking a train south from Prague, Rudi headed south for the Soviet occupied sector of Austria. He carried a 9mm Frommer automatic pistol in his briefcase, as a last resort, grounds for immediate execution on the spot by communist border guards if discovered.
Successfully evading border guard questioning on the train stop prior to Austria, he was able to discover a sympathetic farmer, and fellow javelin thrower, near no-man's land, who provided a safe house and important crossing information. Using darkness and the cover of a rain storm, Rudi soon hit the border, and "…crawled on my belly, looking for mines, trip wires, booby traps, or electric fences." Going under a barbed-wire fence, he was now within the Soviet controlled zone of Austria.
Lying up in a day time hide site, Horvath was soon on the move again, heading southeast for the city of Linz, with the American zone of occupation temptingly just across the Danube River. Near the city of Zwettl disaster was near as Rudi literally ran into a large wedding party, but was able to evade the subsequent security patrols after the locals reported his alien presence. Hiding again, now in a cemetery that afforded a good overview of the river and possible crossing sites; Rudi encountered a friendly priest from the nearby church who provided some "good intel" on local Soviet patrols and checkpoints.
Once more using the cover of darkness, Horvath constructed a small raft of wood and an empty gas can that assisted his clandestine crossing from the Soviet to US zone of occupation. Successfully across the river, Rudi was now in brightly illuminated Linz, at last across the Iron Curtain. Little did he realize at the time that "I would not begin wearing an American Army uniform for another 15 months."
On the first day of July, 1950, as Rudi Horvath crossed the Danube, the United States Army that young Horvath wished to join was not the superbly equipped and trained force that had decisively defeated their Axis opponents five years before. The Army of 1950 was an "ever-shrinking" one; a poorly trained and equipped force, "trying to make do on a shoe string budget." Reduced to ten divisions from a war-time peak of 89, only one division was rated at the time as being combat-ready. Many of the Army's enlisted men were indifferent draftees, counting the days until their obligation was over. Years later General Ridgeway reflected "We were, in short, in a state of shameful unreadiness." Four days later after Horvath's crossing of the Danube, in South Korea, Task Force Smith was unfortunately to discover the truth of General Ridgeway's comment.
For Rudi Horvath, the next 15 months were to be a time of additional challenges. He was to face a general lack of knowledge about the Lodge Act and enlistment in the U.S. Army, survived another border crossing, this time into West Germany, and a subsequent short stay in a West German jail for crossing the border. Continuing to study English, Rudi worked odd jobs in order to survive. Horvath's sheer persistence paid off, and after Army testing, he reported to Sonthofen for induction in October of 1951. "I was elated! ...After more than a year of overcoming major obstacles, I was a member of the U.S. Army." Private Rudolf G. Horvath, RA 10812064, was now in the Army, and soon on a transport ship bound for the United States of America, and Basic Combat Training.
After an initial evaluation at Camp Kilmer, and 16 weeks of basic training at Fort Dix, Horvath's English was improving quickly with the help of a buddy, Brian Hopper. Upon graduation he received orders with "…10 other Lodge boys, to report to the Psychological Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, NC…I had no idea what my new assignment was about…[but] I was enjoying my new life." Unfortunately, life as a Psychological Warfare soldier for young Private Horvath was rather unsatisfying. Deeply suspicious of anything associated with propaganda, he found his days filled with making the barracks shine as an expert on the operation of a buffer vice constructive, challenging training. "I knew that I had more to offer the Army and the U.S. than my skill at mopping floors!"
Change was coming in the spring of 1952. Reporting to a required briefing for Psychological Warfare Center enlisted men on Smoke Bomb Hill, Horvath listened to an officer named Colonel Bank talk about the new unit he was forming and why interested soldiers should volunteer. Bank was looking for "special" soldiers to fill the ranks of this new force, especially soldiers with language ability looking for a challenge. All the draftees walked out but a handful of Lodge Act soldiers remained, including PVT Rudi Horvath. "Despite the Army adage, ‘Never volunteer,'…I was anxious to sign up…I saw a great opportunity for returning to Hungary and settling some old political and personal scores."
Assigned to the 21st Operational Detachment of the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Rudi Horvath was now a member of the only Army unit trained and organized to conduct guerrilla warfare that summer of 1952. The 10th SFGA was commanded by legendary Office of Strategic Services (OSS) World War II veteran Colonel Aaron Bank, with unconventional warfare experience in Europe and Indochina. The backbone of the newly formed group was the Operational Detachment or FA Team. Commanded by a Captain, the team consisted of 15 men; two officers and thirteen enlisted men, who could be task organized into organizing, equipping, training and advising indigenous forces up to regimental size.
Army Special Forces began to organize and Horvath found "…a sense of urgency prevailed." Everything had to be done at once, barracks renovated, equipment procured, officially, or even better unofficially, plans formulated and training conducted. Training was tough, continuous and mission oriented with physical fitness, demolitions, communications, medical and weapons proficiency stressed. With only eight months of service Rudi found himself at a disadvantage, studying and finding…" I had to soldier hard to keep up with the NCOs." Soldiering hard he did, earning a demolitions MOS, and later MOS' for both light and heavy weapons. Attendance at Jump School at Fort Benning, GA followed. Promoted to Private First Class, Horvath was officially commended by COL Bank for his superior performance during Joint Exercise Operation Tenderfeet. With riots in East Berlin and intelligence fears of a Soviet invasion of Europe in 1953 increasing, the 10th SFGA was alerted that autumn and soon moved overseas into new billets at Bad Tolz in southern West Germany.
Horvath and the soldiers of 10th SFGA found Bad Tolz to be a perfect Special Forces venue with excellent facilities, comfortable quarters, superb local training areas and friendly Bavarian townspeople. Forward deployment near planned operational sites afforded the opportunity for realistic training throughout Europe, with the Lodge Act members such as Rudi now "worth their weight in gold" with their extensive language and cultural expertise. Horvath by now had six languages: Hungarian, German, Slovak, Russian, French and English. He was invaluable in exercises in Germany and across the continent as his Detachment trained hard for a possible guerrilla war. Exercises such as CORDON BLEU, challenged the SF Operational Detachments as they trained future resistance forces, gathered intelligence, and organizing and running Escape and Evasion nets for downed friendly pilots and other assets.
Additionally, Rudi skiing abilities were utilized during winter exercises, teaching skiing and cold weather survival as an instructor in the nearby mountains of Bavaria. Survival was a key, years later he reflected that "…all the Lodge boys had one thing in common: a knack for survival…we had survived World War II and all the postwar hardships, and we had made our way out of Eastern Europe. We possessed a skill that was hard to duplicate through training…" Tight security precautions were a must that had to be strictly followed with all the Lodge Act soldiers. These included tight controls on pictures, names and family information that could mean death or a labor camp back home for family and friends still behind the Iron Curtain. For example, once again on a track and field team, now throwing his javelin for group, Horvath's face had to be blacked out in the 10th SFGA 1956 yearbook.
"Dedicated adherence to Spartan standards, maintenance of continuous operational readiness for the conduct of multiple, complex missions; complete faith in the capability to execute those missions and the willing acceptance of hazards far beyond the normal call of duty have made the 10th Special Forces Group airborne the unit with the greatest combat potential in the Armed Forces." - Colonel Aaron Bank, Commander
For Horvath, by this time promoted to Sergeant, the years flew by in southern Germany. By 1956, after three busy years, his five year Lodge Act enlistment was soon up. Back on a troop ship headed to the United States, he pondered his future, still wanting to pursue higher education. Events in Hungary afforded Rudi an additional opportunity to serve once again. On 23 October 1956 a peaceful demonstration in Budapest led to what became known as the Hungarian Revolution, "seven days of freedom," behind the Iron Curtain. Taking advantage of his language and country expertise, the Army employed the recently discharged SGT Horvath back at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, helping to receive, organize and de-brief the thousands of Hungarian refugees and "freedom fighters" who had successfully escaped the chaotic and bloody aftermath of the 1956 revolution.
Ironically, for a Special Forces soldier, rather than liberating the oppressed in his Hungarian homeland, he now helped the oppressed find freedom in his new homeland, the USA. Soon discharged from active duty, Rudi worked hard as a civilian, settling down near New York City. He became a very proud U.S. citizen one year later in 1957, and pursued his higher education with a vengeance. He was awarded his mechanical engineering degree in 1969, became licensed as a professional engineer, and had a successful career as a mechanical engineer before retirement. Always adventurous, Horvath became a multi-engine rated licensed pilot, and continues to love downhill skiing. In his homeland, Soviet troops were to not leave Hungary until forty-five years after the war, in June of 1990.
"Special Forces…suited their temperaments and special abilities. All were foreign born…a heavy concentration of such men gave the outfit a Foreign Legion flavor…team rooms were heavy with foreign accents, and the rosters looked like those of Notre Dame football teams," in those early days of Army Special Forces, according to author Charles M. Simpson III.
Rudi Horvath was one of those who enlisted under the Lodge Act, serving with honor and distinction in the early U.S. Army Special Forces, after a death defying escape from behind the Iron Curtain. Historians have judged the Lodge Act to be a limited success, as just over half of the total 2,500 authorizations were ultimately filled under U.S. Public Law 597, 81st Congress, 2nd Session, before the program was closed in 1955. But for Special Forces the Lodge Act was extremely influential.
As noted Special Operations Historian Dr. Charles Briscoe has pointed out, Horvath was one of the cadre of Lodge Act soldiers who provided an important, and near impossible to duplicate, language and cultural capability in the embryonic Army Special Forces. Not all Lodge Act soldiers served in Special Forces, but the hundred or so who did provided a skill set; that if the Cold War had gotten hot, would have been invaluable in an unconventional warfare environment employed against advancing Soviet forces. The Lodge Act soldiers also demonstrated to Army Special Forces the vital importance of language proficiency and the necessity of languages in support of unconventional warfare and other special operations missions.
Additionally, Rudi Horvath's experiences in successfully escaping from behind the Iron Curtain seemed to indicate the existence of a very real potential for resistance behind Soviet lines during those early Cold War years. Several individuals, to include clergy, helped him during his escape, at great risk to themselves, their communities and families. One can reasonably extrapolate that a similar level of support in Eastern Europe would have been available had those estimated 100 Soviet divisions headed west and the forces of one U.S. Army Special Forces Group headed east.
Returning to Fort Bragg, NC in 2002 to address the Special Forces Officer Qualification Course on his remarkable experiences as a guest speaker, Rudi Horvath remains today an inspiration to current and future Special Forces soldiers. He is one of the few remaining original members of the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), and continues to assist present day Army and Special Operations historians capture the past. Today, the "Godfather" of the Army Special Forces Lodge Act soldiers remains delightfully active at age 82, continuing to live life to the fullest, skiing, traveling, reading widely about Special Operations and maintaining his engineering license.
Rudi Horvath, one of the initial 10th SFGA soldiers from 1952, after 60 plus years in his original uniform. (Author photo)
The much maligned World War II era U.S. Army Combat or C ration led indirectly to Horvath’s defection from behind the Iron Curtain. (Internet)
The Flint Kaserine at Bad Tolz in southern Germany proved to be a perfect venue for the Army’s only operational Special Forces Group in 1953. (10th SFGA 1956 yearbook)
The famous Trojan Horse Distinctive Unit Insignia adored the front cover of the 10th SFGA yearbook from 1956. Photographs of Lodge Act soldiers such as Horvath had to be alerted for security reasons. (Horvath collection)
The rugged terrain of Southern Bavaria provided superb training areas for 10th SFGA after arrival in 1953. Horvath would be put to good use by Group as a skiing and survival instructor during cold weather training depicted. (10th SFGA yearbook, 1956)
A young PVT Rudi Horvath, left, and fellow Lodge Act soldier enroute to United States aboard a U.S. Army troop ship ponder their future. (Horvath collection)
Rudi Horvath, third from right, on the 1955 10th SFGA award winning track and field team. Note his face blackened out for security purposes. (10th SFGA Yearbook, 1956)
Original, unaltered photo of the 10th SFGA Group track and field team, Rudi Horvath third from right. (Horvath collection)
10th SFGA soldiers preparing for an airborne operation, note the unknown Lodge Act soldier with his face concealed. (10th SFGA 1956 Yearbook)
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About the author:
Bob Seals is a retired Army Special Forces officer currently working at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School on Fort Bragg. He lives on a small horse farm with his wife, a retired Army Veterinary Corps officer. He was fortunate to have served with several Son Tay Raiders during his career.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.