MY 2nd MOST MEMORABLE YEAR
from the imperfect memory of Harvey Sirlin
First let me set the record straight My most memorable year was, and will always be, our first year of marriage. Ruthie and I fell in love at first sight Our love for each other was instantaneous and magical, and I was deliriously happy. Add to that the birth of our first child, and I was floating on air.
1. THE BEGINNING.
My second most memorable year began on a cold Winnipeg winter night in early 1948 with a phone call from my cousin Hershie Stein "You still want to go fight in Palestine?" "Sure I do". He told me to go to a small cafe on Main near Atlantic Ave. and in a rear booth I would find Toby L. who would be my first contact. Toby directed me to go, a few nights later, to a rifle club at the main police station on Rupert Ave. There my next contact, whom I don't recall, sent me to an address on Salter St.. This was the home of , if I remember correctly, Sully Spector. I remember going upstairs where I found about another 10 fellows all waiting to be interviewed.
The interview was a very interesting experience. While Sully asked the questions, a burly fellow with a moustache sat silently besides him. What was fascinating about him was that while one eye looked you up and down-- the other eye stayed fixed on your eyes. Never did find out who he was. From here we went for a physical exam and for a dental check-up and dental work if needed. All done gratis of course by doctors in the community. All this took time. I got a passport with a visa to France, bought myself a good pair of paratrooper army boots,packed as little as possible, was given rail tickets to New York, and departed Winnipeg on May 2nd 1948. I was full of excitement going out into the world and into a meaningful adventure.
My parents, of course, were not too thrilled about my going off to a war. My dad tried talking me into postponing my departure until the Fall, but in the end told me that if he was my age he probably would be doing exactly the same thing. I did come from a strong Zionist home, and I do believe that I was finally doing something that they could be proud of.
The train trip took 36 hours to Toronto,where I was met by Joe Talsky who took me to his home. Mrs. Talsky greeted me so warmly that I was sure that we were family. The Talskys and my Uncle Sam and Auntie Riva were very close friends in previous years in Hamilton. I remember being up in Joe's room while he was finishing packing when the radio blared "it's 12 noon and this is CK-- Toronto"! I thought to myself" I don't believe it - Toronto, Maple Leaf Gardens-wow!". That afternoon Joe took me to a doctor who pumped 5 shots into my arm, and that evening we left by train for New York, with Mrs. Talsky. I think the train was called The 5th Ave. Special.
We sat up all night on the train. I couldn't sleep if I wanted to. I didn't want to miss a thing. As dawn broke we were travelling parallel to the Hudson River through beautiful countryside, and we were becoming a commuter train picking up passengers along the way. At last New York! What a sight for a Winnipeg boy. Row upon row of multi-storey apartment buildings. The BIG city. I stayed with Joe at his aunt's place in the Bronx - 626 E141st St. We got there by subway - another thrill!
That evening we met the rest of the fellows who were to sail with us. We were 15 in total. We gathered in a room in the Paramount Hotel.. They then checked to see who had visas for France. The "they" were Moshe Shifrin, an Israeli studying in the USA and who was to be in charge of us on the ocean crossing, and one or two others. Those without visas were asked to hand over their passports and told that they would get them back the next day. Meanwhile that night we set out to do the town. We started out by going to Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe,a distinctly high-class night club. One of the fellows let them know that we were going to Palestine to fight. They shone the spotlight on us and we got a big round of applause, but we still had to pay the bill. And what a bill. Besides the drinks, which was done by measuring how much was left from the full bottles which were brought to the table, some of the fellows wanted food. But they soon realized that they would need partners in order to be able to afford the prices. It was funny to hear them hollering out" I need a partner for a bowl of soup" etc.. We all made a pact that on the way back we would come to the Diamond Horseshoe with corned beef sandwiches in our pockets.
The next day we met again and lo and behold the passports without visas now had French visas in them. We were all duly impressed by the organization behind us. We were then told that the next day we were to go to a certain govt. office and at the reception desk we were to state the name of our ship, the "Sobieski". We would then be directed to a specific desk where we would be given a document showing that we did not owe income tax. This was because when we entered the USA we all declared that we were visiting and then returning to Canada. That night we went down to the Village to a steak house and then a night club, and sometime during the wee hours we walked back to Times Square for breakfast at the automat. Those were different times... we thought nothing about wandering through the city in the middle of the night.
2. CROSSING THE ATLANTIC.
The next day, May 8th, we boarded the S.S. Sobieski and that evening we sailed out of New York. The Sobieski was a 15000 ton liner which sailed from New York to the Mediterranean, specifically France and Italy. It was a Polish ship with an Italian catering crew, and indeed most of the approx. 750 passengers were Italian. Eight of our own guys, including myself, got our own inside cabin. The others were dispersed in different cabins. To say that my first few days were a joy would be telling a lie. I was sick and pale which I blamed on the "shots" in Toronto. But for the balance of the 10 days of the crossing,I was fine. I had a lower bunk in the cabin and the upper bunk was occupied by a fellow Winnipeger and one of the finest human beings I've ever met--- and who would turn out to be my future brother-in-law, Leib Shanas.
Our cabin steward was a man named DiBiasi. DiBiasi earned 30 American dollars a month. So we made a deal with him..... for 1 American dollar a day plus one carton of American cigarettes a day, he would bring breakfast for all eight of us every day to our cabin. He was delighted and we were delighted. We had been instructed not to have anything to do with one another during the voyage, but on May the 15th when the State was declared we all gathered in our cabin and celebrated the founding of the State of Israel. It was a poignant and proud moment. One other bit of excitement was when an American boarded the ship at Gibraltar and soon began asking us questions. We had a meeting to decide what to do with this very inquisitive person, and for a while we even decided to throw him overboard, which naturally we did not do.
On May the 18th we landed in Cannes, France. From here we were to take the train to Marseilles, but first we had to get our luggage out of Customs. Not being shy, a few of us jumped the counter at Customs and began putting all our luggage on the counter meanwhile shouting at the Customs officer that we didn't parlez French. We then put an American cigarette in his mouth and asked him if he would like a whole carton. When he nodded yes we then told him to chalk all the bags "cleared".... which he did. Different times!
My first impression of France was "just like in the postcards". I was thrilled. The shuttered houses, the (then) quiet streets, the soft air---everything that I had imagined. We boarded the train soon after and arrived in Marseilles late that evening. There was a truck waiting for us at the station, we climbed aboard not really knowing where we were heading. All I remember of that trip was the strong smell of cow manure that seemed to follow us for miles. We arrived at a DP (displaced persons) camp on the outskirts of Marseilles called "Grande Arenas". I don't really recall our first night there, but early next morning we were introduced to a slight taste of what lay ahead for us. We were lined up and asked who would like to go for a swim. It being a beautiful sunny day everyone said "I". We were told to get towels and to report back immediately. We were lined up into two columns and headed out of the camp onto a dirt road at a trot. When we looked straight ahead of us all we could see was a large hill in front. When we asked our "leader" where the sea was, he replied" on the other side of the hill". What an introduction to Israeli army training! We pushed and shoved one another over not one hill, but a couple of hills, until we finally reached the sea. One of the guys, a fellow Winnipeger, who was a little heavier than most of us said "lie me down at the water's edge and just leave me here".Most of us were exhausted, but we all made it back to camp. It helps to be 20 years old. That night we were put on guard duty. We were given the wooden staves from the ends of the cots that we slept on, and were told to guard the perimeter fence against a possible break-in by North African Arabs. It always helps to have an enemy to keep you on your toes.
I must admit that I don't remember much about my wretched bretheren who survived the horrors of the concentration camps. Maybe they kept us apart deliberately, but I do remember one blood-curdling scream coming from somewhere in the camp, and it seemed to epitomize and make real to me the suffering of the Holocaust.
After no more than two days at Grande Arenas we were moved to a chateau just outside of the village of Trets. This was to be our home and training camp for the next approx. three weeks. I don't recall how many we were at Trets. My guess now would be about 50 to 60 trainees including some girls. They came from Canada, England, USA, Holland, Belgium, Norway(l), Sweden(2), and perhaps other countries as well. Those running the training camp were Israelis.
The chateau was a very large house set in the hills. I remember a narrow dirt road running in front of the chateau with a continuous running water fountain set in the hill on the other side of the road. I presumed it was mountain run-off, because it was always cold and clear and drinkable. Little did we realize that these hills were to become our nemesis.
Our days started off with a morning run led by a lithe Romanian named Dov. The run started off downhill, and after a short while Dov would send the girls back and then with a grin he would turn to us and say "everybody piss". Dov was learning English. But every day Dov would take us farther, and every day fewer of us would come back with Dov. Not from the lack of trying. I can remember Leib Shanas running besides me and wheezing like an old steam engine so badly that I wanted to push him to the side for fear that he would hurt himself. Where we really did hurt ourselves was in what was called "sportsamachine" (or something like that). This consisted in running in the hills for hours on end. Every day brought new casualties. Sprains, and the occasional actual break in the legs. We also took weapons training. This consisted mainly of Sten Gun dismantling and assembling. For these lessons we always had a lookout on the roof in case there was a surprise inspection by the French authorities. The French were aware that this was a camp for "displaced persons", and would occasionally visit. We had all removed the labels from our clothing, and on these occasions were instructed to speak in Yiddish only or to keep quiet. I personally don't think that anyone was fooled, and that a blind eye was turned, or that money changed hands.
For me the highlight of those weeks was the morning that I was chosen to raise the Israeli flag over the camp. My heart was swollen with pride and joy. We followed the turmoil in Israel as best as we could, and we were all anxious to leave as soon as possible. I was approached and asked to stay on as an instructor, but naturally I refused. Finally on the morning of June 10th we were put onto covered trucks and left our chateau and the village of Trets, where the people who happened to be in the streets shouted "Palestina, Palestina". Nobody was fooled. We then arrived back in Grande Arenas where there was a newly arrived group of Canadians, amongst others, and in this group was my dear friend Al Chapnick. Needless to say we were overjoyed to see one another.
That evening we were put on buses and driven to the tiny port of La Ciotat. Before we left the buses .we were told that if we were to hear a whistle being blown, that we were to immediately grab a bag and get right back on the buses. Because everyone was allowed only one bag they emphasized that all the bags would be accounted for. We slowly made our way down a narrow wooden pier in the dark. At the far end of the pier sat a French official at a small wooden table busily stamping anything put in front of him. All this by the light of of one kerosine lamp. Once we had been duly stamped we were led to this rather small-looking boat and told to go below with our bag. The bags were all tossed onto a heap of other bags and we were told to make ourselves comfortable on one of the long wooden tiers lining the hold. That the boat's last passengers were fish was self-evident by the stench in the air. Oh well, I thought, this is probably the boat taking us . to the ship. Hah! Maybe the others were smarter than me, but I sure got a shock when I woke up the next morning.
4. CROSSING THE MEDITERRANEAN.
Soon after the boat left the pier, I fell asleep...a deep sleep. As I've said before it helps to be 20 years old. When I woke in the morning and realized that the boat was still moving it dawned on me that this was "the ship". There was lots of excitement as everyone seemed to stir at the same time. We also did one more thing at the same time, and that was to go up on deck to check things out, get a breath of fresh air and find out about eating breakfast. What we didn't realize was that when 150 people gather on one side of the deck ( the galley side) of an 80-ton 120- foot long fishing vessel, that vessel slowly starts to capsize. Immediately there were shouts of "everyone down below". It was then decided that we would be organized in sections, and go up on deck a section or two at a time. I ended up in Joe Warner's section which turned out to be a stroke of luck. How they arrived at who would be a section leader I don't know, but certainly Joe was an easy going guy with an infectious laugh. I think that we were 14 in a section. Maybe that's how much each wooden tier held, tightly packed in. I didn't relish the thought of spending most of 24 hours down in the smelly hold when a near catastrophe changed all of that.
Al Wank, a hulking "take charge", but lovable guy from Brooklyn, took charge of the galley. What there was to cook, for the love of me I can't remember. It seems that we ate the same thing day after day. Maybe it was the second day out when "it" happened. Al was cooking something in the galley shed on deck when he let out a holler "FIRE!" The bottom of the stove broke loose and burnt a hole right through the deck and into the luggage pile below. What a mad scramble it was to find the burning piece, put it out, and make sure that nothing else was burning or smouldering. If the boat had caught fire we would have been done for. There was one lifeboat on board and it had a hole in the bottom. As for life-jackets, forget it. After this near catastrophe it was decided that there would be a 24-hour fire watch. As luck would have it, our section was chosen to do a 12 hour stint on deck every day.
The name of this magnificent vessel was the" Marie Annick". It was a French fishing vessel that was hired to transport us to Israel. The British had left the country on May 15th, so we were not running their blockade. The first truce of the war came into effect at the same time that we left France, a fact unknown to us at the time, and men of military age were not supposed to enter the country during this time. At any rate we were on the high seas with a drunken French crew of 3 from what I could see, but with an opposite Israeli crew with one addition-- a revolver.
At about the same time as the fire broke out, the engine started to act up. It was then decided to put into the harbour of Bonifaccio in Corsica for repairs. The crew being apparently in their usual state of inebriation promptly ran us up on a protruding large rock in the harbour. This left us high and partially dry with a hole in the hull of the boat. We managed to remove ourselves from the rock by putting a rope around a rock behind the boat and as many of us that could pull on the rope tugged with all our might. That this method worked was nothing short of a miracle. The authorities did not allow us to enter the harbour proper and dock. They probably feared for the safety of their property. At any rate we put back out to sea now pumping the bilges by hand to keep as much water out of the vessel as possible, and limped towards our next destination--- the Straits of Messina.
Apparently despite our pleas to be allowed to put into the port of Messina in order to fix our engine, we stood outside the port for the better part of the day to no avail. With no choice it was decided to keep going. It couldn't have been more than a day or so later that the engine quit altogether. There was only one recourse--- "raise the sail" came the command. I was on fire watch up on deck when the sail was raised. I was watching a passing freighter at the time and was told to duck my head as the boom would swing around when the sail was raised. I ducked and then raised my head and was astounded to see that the freighter was headed now in the opposite direction. I hollered out" you guys see that? That freighter swung around on a dime". The guys burst out laughing. It was of course we that had swung around. We were now a sailing vessel left to the vagaries of the wind.
Day after monotonous day passed. The same routine and the same food day after day. I really felt sorry for those cooped up in the hold, except for short periods up on deck for meals, or to go to the head which was a shed on deck that covered a board that was fixed to the boat but hung out over the water. Anyhow you never needed to worry about flushing. We also periodically hosed each other down with sea water, which maybe left you feeling cleaner but definitely stickier. The only noise besides the gentle lapping of the waves, was Johnny Low's typewriter going "clickety-clack" for hours on end. I thought to myself "what the hell can he be writing about? There's nothing happening". Of course there was always lots of banter coming from the characters on board. There was Walter "Heavy" Greaves an Irish-American merchant sailor who served in WW2, and had his own personal vendetta with the British. Then there was Kaplan, also an American merchant sailor from WW2, with a girth that could match Heavy Greaves, who loved to describe himself as " the people's cherse"-- for what I don't know. Add to this Harry and Hannah a rotund cheerful married couple who could keep you in stitches, and what more could a young fellow, out in the world for the first time, want?
I did think to myself from time to time "isn't it ironic that we spent weeks getting ourselves into top physical condition, and here we are losing all that through inactivity?" Actually more was not being lost through inactivity. Constipation was rife. I had 4 or 5 bowel movements in the 12 days, and I was one of the lucky ones. One of the fellows had to be carried of the boat at the end, he hadn't gone once in 12 days.
We were lucky with one incident that could have ended in tragedy. One day we were becalmed, and a few of the guys decided that because the boat wasn't moving that they would go for a swim. Most swam tight to the boat, but one ( I believe that it was AE. from Toronto) decide to swim a bit further out. He was a strong swimmer but he soon realized that although we were becalmed we were still drifting, and drifting faster than he could swim! A few of saw this also and were horrified. There was nothing that we could do with no power, no wind, and no lifeboat. Fortunately the boat trailed a long rope (the rope that pulled us off the rock in Corsica?). He just managed to get hold of the rope and was hauled in. What a relief!
It seemed to take forever to pass the island of Crete, and on the morning of June 23rd 1948 we sighted the coast of Israel. It was just a sandy stretch of land, but we raised the Israeli flag on the Marie Annick, we stood to attention and sang Hatikva and wept like babies! What excitement as we followed the coastline to Tel Aviv. Then shock. There was a huge column of smoke coming from what looked like the centre of town. We thought that the Egyptians had bombed the city. Then we saw a twin-engine plane heading in our direction, and I thought if we are about to be bombed also--then we're finished. I don't remember any panic or fear. The plane circled us as if to identify us, and then flew off. It turned out that the smoke was coming from Menachem Begin's supply ship the "Altalena", which was still burning on the beach near the old Kaete Dan hotel. Sometime later when I found out the full story behind the Altalena, plus other assorted incidents, I had nothing but contempt for Begin. But that's another story.
Believe it or not, as small as the Marie Annick was, she still couldn't pull into the port at Tel Aviv. We were taken off in groups of 30 or 40 in a glazed-in passenger lighter that rode too low in the water for my comfort.
What excitement, what a mix of emotions when we stepped on Israeli soil for the first time! "Look a Jewish policeman! A Jewish dog ( the policeman's German shepherd)!" We were then given one of the best meals that I ever ate, cream cheese sandwiches and oranges, after which we were processed through immigration. Because the truce was still in effect, except for a certain number of "returning residents", everyone had to go to a UN camp. The "returning residents" could go directly into the army. The Americans all got" returning residents" cards. Imagine my delight when I was also picked out to get one of those pink cards. I believe that myself and Max Robinson were the only Canadians to go directly into the army.
My next recollection is being on a bus headed for an army camp just outside of Netanya. What sticks in my mind after all these years, is a short stretch of road near a place called Kfar Ma'alal, where the eucalyptus trees bordering both sides of the two-lane road formed a green arched canopy over the road. I don't know why but this short stretch of road seemed to say to me " this is the Israel of my dreams". Even a few years later, when I drove a truck for the kibbutz, whenever I passed through this bit of road it took me back to that first day in the country.
Upon arriving in the camp we were formed into three ranks, like a proper platoon, and a short, mustachioed, grizzled but lovable man of about 40 announced" my name is Shlomo Weinstein and I'm your sergeant". I wanted to run out and hug the man. Shlomo guided us through,the army induction process. We were issued khaki pants and shirts, were photographed and issued our army book, plus rather crude "dog tags" with our army number. My number was 74019. For some unknown reason I felt that this was a lucky number-- who's to explain? All this took place after we had a physical exam on the 24th. There was one worrisome moment for me when the doctor wasn't quite happy with my heart beat. He then requested that I climb up and down a short flight of stairs, while he went on to exam someone else. The minute his back was turned I only put one foot up on the first step and then back down again. I thought "no way is anyone going to turn me down at this stage of the process". Needless to say whan he checked me the 2nd time I passed. On the 25th of June we were officially inducted into the Israeli army. Because many of the fellows thought that they would be compromising their citizenship, we were not required to sign an oath of allegiance to the country, but instead signed a watered down innocuous oath of allegiance to the army.
6. THE ARTILLERY
The next day I was sent to a camp at a place called Pardess Katz, literally Katz's Orchard. I soon found out that this was an artillery base camp. I was, to say the least, upset. After all, I did spend 5 years in the Canadian Reserve Army ( starting with the official rank of Boy until my 16th birthday), and did end up as a sergeant--instructor with the Winnipeg Light Infantry, and so I saw myself as an infantryman. I arranged to speak with the camp commander and told him that I didn't travel 5000 miles to serve in the artillery, and that if I couldn't go to the infantry then I wanted to serve in the armored corps. He heard me out very patiently, and in good English said that he would like to help me, but unfortunately was not allowed to transfer personnel. But he told me that in the next camp I could definitely apply for a transfer. He was a hell of a lot smarter than me.
I was standing in front of my tent wondering what to do next, when in came a truck with familiar faces. I stopped them and asked them what unit they were with. "Secret weapons" was the reply. They said that they couldn't talk about it. "Great" I said. "I'm going with you". They told me that as soon as they picked up their supplies that they would smuggle me out of there and take me to their unit. I was happy as could be, but I should have realized that if you come to an artillery base camp to pick up supplies, that you probably belong to the artillery.
I waited anxiously for the truck to return, and when it did I was hidden under the tarpaulin that covered the supplies, and so began my first desertion from within the Israeli army-- at least that's what I thought. When we were safely out of sight of the camp I crawled out from under the tarp and again questioned the guys on the type of unit they were in. But no one was talking. All they could say was "you'll see".
It didn't take too long before we arrived at the unit's location. It was an abandoned winery on the outskirts of Herzlia set in a grove of eucalyptus trees,and right at the edge of the beach. The minute we got off the truck one of the fellows took me to see the "secret weapons". Imagine my surprise when there in front of me were these two large WWl French 75mm artillery guns. They were very large guns which moved on 4 wheels, and had 4 seats on the gun itself . They probably were originally intended for coastal-battery work or anti-aircraft work, but certainly not the counter-battery work that we were going to do. Anyhow I thought to myself" the joke is on me, they probably were going to send me here anyway". I was told that these were the first heavy artillery in the army. Up to now the heaviest guns were ancient 65mm's called "Napoleonchiks". I was further informed that there were 6 of these "new" 75's, and that 2 were training with Hebrew-speaking crews, 2 with Yiddish-speaking crews, and of course these 2 were with English-speaking crews. I never did see the other 4 guns, but I was told that the 2 Hebrew-speaking crews were heading for Jerusalem, the Yiddish-speaking crews to another part of the country, and our 2 guns were heading for the Galilee, as soon as the truce finished on July the 9th.
I was next taken to meet the commanding officer, Mike Landshutt, a gentile from Australia who was an artillery officer in WW2. Mike was well over 6 feet tall and about 2 inches wide, and with that handsome Anglo-Saxon look. He greeted me very warmly and was obviously happy to add to his crew. My first remark to him was "Mike you've got 2 guns sitting side by side. One bomb wipes out both of them". He said "Harvey you're absolutely right, round up a couple of fellows and move them apart".
Living in tents at the edge of the beach meant that the first order of the day was for 20 or so fellows to run naked into the sea. After that came the serious business of training on the gun. Everything except firing the weapon. I and a couple of other fellows were giving Mike a hard time about not wanting to be in the artillery. We wanted a transfer, and he and his second-in-command Len, a Jew from South Africa who also was an artillery officer in WW2, kept trying to convince us that we were needed right here. In retrospect they were right, for they only had about 2 weeks to train all of us non-artillery types. Maybe that's why Mike made me the "elevation man" on one of the guns. The "elevation man" sat on the front seat on the left side of the gun, and it made you feel like you were an important cog in the war machine.
Anyhow one night Mike and Len took us dissidents into Tel Aviv (my first time ),and directly to the Pilz Cafe on Ha Yarkon St.. There they plied us with drink while the band played on, and whispered sweet promises of glory to come, until we all gave in. They then stopped the music, took us up on stage, and put a thin blue ribbon on the right shoulder epaulette of our shirts. This ribbon was our unit's official badge. There were handshakes all around, and we went out into the blacked-out night of Tel Aviv. We rode back to camp in the back of the pick-up truck in style, on very comfy wicker chairs that we pilfered from the exterior of the Pilz Cafe. Probably the first robbery they ever experienced, for which I beg their forgiveness.
A word about the guys in the unit. The crews were made up of fellows from South Africa, England, USA, Canada, and one Iraqi Jew. not to mention of course, our ' commanding officer from Australia. By and large they were great guys, and except for one, could be relied on in a crisis. But the nicest part was that everyone was judged on his merits, and you never felt that you were "different". It was a nice comfortable feeling to know that you were amongst your own. I would say that the South Africans as a group were the most mature, and I think that this held true wherever there were English-speaking volunteers. At least that was my own personal feeling at that time and really ever since then.
At this point I threw myself into the training whole-heartedly, even taking it upon myself to make sure that the guns were properly greased at all times. We were issued new "uniforms"--coveralls. I also got a helmet. A large blue US Navy helmet meant for someone who also had on a headset. I never wore it, I only used it as a miniature sink for washing. Instead I had a nice light black beret on most of the time.
The first truce ended at midnight on Friday July the 9th. No units were supposed to move until that time, but the instant it became dark we pulled out of our idyllic training camp, and with 3 US Army 5-ton trucks began hauling our 2 guns with their ammunition and our 20 some-odd guys with all their personal gear, towards the Upper Galilee. It was a long, slow, and arduous process with continuous changing of tasks for the trucks and the continuous shifting of the fellows from one truck to another. Finally at first light we arrived in the town of Afula. Because we had taken no provisions with, we all started looking for a store, a bakery, or a cafe where we could purchase food. Being from the Galut we didn't realize that everything was shut down on the Sabbath (this being Saturday morning). As we came back to the guns wondering what our next move would be, the most heart-warming event (for me) of that year happened.
There coming towards us were a whole group of towns-people carrying food in their arms. I remember one eldery lady, who could have been my Babba, standing in front of me with what I swear was her breakfast and insisting in Yiddish, that despite my objections, I must eat the meal because I was a soldier and needed my strength. This moment only reinforced my belief that I was doing the right thing, and I've carried the image of that moment with me these 51 years.
My first introduction to the sounds and sights of battle came later that morning when we parked our guns in a grove of trees outside the town of Rosh Pina. In the distance I could hear the sounds of explosions, and all around us there were vehicles scurrying to and fro. Shortly afterwards we moved out and onto the road going north. At one point we drove as fast as we could manage, and then turned off into a wheat field at the west side of the road A short way into the field we were ordered to set up the guns. This was a 45 minute task. The guns had to be lowered by jack off the wheels, then the four support legs had to be splayed, and the guns had to be levelled. We dug a shallow trench for the ammunition, and we were finally ready for action.
The general situation was as follows: We were under the direct command of the 2nd Brigade which was known as the Carmeli Brigade after their commander Moshe Carmel, but we had the right to pursue targets independently. We were now located in a line almost due west of Kibbutz Ayelet Hashachar at the foot of a range of hills, and approx. 8 miles from the Syrian border, but only about 5 miles from the Syrian positions at Mishmar Ha Yarden which they had captured before the first truce.
Mike, with one of the South African fellows as his aide, was our forward observation officer who relayed co-ordinates back to Len, who in turn set the traverse and elevation degrees for the crews and controlled the firing. Without these two officers we would have been useless.
Our first shot was fired from Gun #1 (not mine). Because the guns had not been fired since arriving in the country, and the shells were as old as the guns, it was decided to fire the first shell using a lanyard (a long rope) attached to the firing lever. We all took cover, including the guy pulling the lanyard, and to our great joy the gun fired perfectly. Both crews took up their positions, and we started our duel with either 4 or 6 Syrian 25-pounder artillery guns. For the next 5 days we fired both by day and by night from this position. When we weren't firing we would carefully cover the guns with camouflage nets as the Syrians kept sending over a Harvard airplane (a WW2 trainer really) to look for us. Some other unit fmally shot it down, to our great relief.
I think it was on the second day that our gun nearly got myself and the guy who sat next to me. When the gun fired I used to turn my back to the muzzle and bend slightly. This time as the gun fired I felt something go swoosh past my forehead, and the guy next to me let out a yelp. What had happened was that the rim of the casing of the shell, which was outside of the breech of the gun, could not contain the blast of the shell due to its poor condition and blew off a steel shield called a blast plate. It was this shield which flew past my head and took of small pieces of flesh from the other fellow's chest. Fortunately this was the only mishap.
It was about this time that we did our best work. We got word that the Syrians were attacking with 5 light tanks and infantry. We started firing High Explosive shells at them, but they kept on advancing. Whatever units of our army that were in front of us apparently scattered, and we were told that we were to keep firing even over open sights, as we were all that stood between them and the road running north and Rosh Pina. Once we could see that there was nothing more that we could do, we were to take our personal weapon and head for the hills behind us. I watched the gun barrel go lower and lower, and then we started using shrapnel shells. Just when the gun barrel was at the horizon and I was sure that the next thing that I would see would be a Syrian tank, I was given new elevations which started raising the gun barrel. Evidently the shrapnel was playing havoc with the Syrian infantry and they decided to retreat. When their tanks saw the infantry retreating, they also turned around. Another small but important miracle in the war!
Two other incidents during these 5 days, aside from being bitten in the face by what I presume was a non-poisonous scorpion while sleeping on the ground, were the 0 following: The Dud- It was my job to dislodge any shells that didn't fire. I had a long pole with a cup-shaped device at the end which I inserted into the barrel of the gun from the muzzle end and with which I was to gently push the shell out of the breech into the arms of the firer. As luck would have it one of the shells didn't fire, and it was time for me to do my thing. I remember keeping my head as far below the muzzle of the gun as possible while wondering what would happen to my hands which of course were pushing on the pole. Needless to say everything went off without a hitch.The Shower- One afternoon we were told that one of the trucks was going into Rosh Pina to fill a water tank, and if someone wanted to go with to shower they were welcome. I jumped at the opportunity to shower and wash clothes. We drove in to the outskirts of the village where there was a fair size pipe, with a curved-down piece at the top, sticking out of the ground about 10 feet into the air. Water tankers were driven underneath and filled. We stood underneath and showered and washed our clothes. Everything dried in ten minutes under the hot sun. One of the vehicles that came in was driven by a fellow that I had become friendly with in France. His name was Moe Pierce, a WW2 vet with a great disposition. Moe got all excited when he saw me and told me that he belonged to a great outfit led by Leo Heaps a decorated WW2 Canadian officer, and begged me to come join their outfit. I said that I couldn't leave my unit now, but he persuaded me to go with him to his outfit which was only a 10 minute ride away. His outfit was camped near a Crusader-built castle, and consisted of armoured jeeps. To be quite honest I don't remember much about the unit or the equipment, but I didn't have a good feel about it. But that's how units seemed to have built their strength in those days. Anyhow Moe drove me back to Rosh Pina where the truck waited for me, and we headed back to the field. We knew that one section of the road was exposed to the Syrian artillery, and sure enough they began shooting at us. Instead of just gunning the truck down the road, the driver swerved onto the field and headed cross-country to the guns. We arrived back at the guns all covered in dust and dirtier than when we had left!
The 5th day at this position brought a nasty surprise in the form of a shell burst very close to our guns. The concussion blew me right off my seat and onto the ground. This was followed by another near miss, and we were ordered to take cover. I remember taking cover with a couple of other guys between a stone well and a low stone wall. At this point I noticed that my beloved black beret was missing and I got up to run back to the gun to look for it, when one of the guys said "don't be crazy". I lay down again. I never did find my beloved beret. All of this came as a surprise to us as the Syrians up until now hadn't even come close.
After some time we were ordered back onto the guns and we fired long enough to make them take cover, and then spent an agonizingly long 45 minutes getting the guns . back onto their wheels and the ammo back on to the trucks---and took off from there.
I don't remember our next location that well because I believe that we were only there for a day, or possibly for one night. I vaguely remember that we were further north in an olive grove or at the edge of an olive grove, but what remains vivid in my mind is the following. The two guns were side by side,maybe 50 yards apart, and we both fired well into the night when our gun was told to stop firing and that we were to go to sleep. For whatever reason we decided to sleep in front of our gun. The ground was very stony and it was impossible to dig any kind of a slit trench to sleep in, so we lay ourselves down with our heads on our packs and I was soon in dreamland, despite the noise of the other gun firing. I woke up at first light and looked around me, and to my surprise saw none of my crew beside me, where they had gone to sleep the night before. I quickly got up and saw that they were all sleeping behind the gun and not in front of it where I was. They then explained. to me what happened. One of the shells from the other gun exploded prematurely just as it left the gun, and rained shrapnel on their packs which were also in front of their gun. They quickly ran over to check on us, and fortunately none of the shrapnel reached us. They woke everyone up and told us to move behind the gun, and so they all did---everyone except me. Apparently I refused to get up and told them that I'll take my chances and I'm staying put. I don't remember that conversation at all.
There is one other thing that I have to relate. Apparently we were short of nose cones for the shells. These were rounded metal points which were screwed onto the nose of the shells and which I presume hit the fuse that exploded the shell on impact. Anyhow we had the carpentry shop at Kibbutz Ayelet Hashachar make us up wooden ones. Naturally they were not perfectly shaped and to our great delight they made a horrible screeching sound the minute they left the gun. We figured that even if they didn't hit anything they would scare the living daylights out of the Syrians!
Our next move was into the deserted Arab village of Zook Tachtani (Lower Zook). This is the name as best as I can remember it. It would be about where Kiryat Shmoneh is located today. The two guns were in two adjacent yards behind one-storey rather long adobe type houses, with just a low stone wall dividing the two. This was our last position as the second truce came into effect on July the 19th.
Three incidents happened while at this location that stick in my mind after all these years. The first concerned Peter from Huddersfield (near Liverpool). Don't ask me the when, or how Peter and Kiwi first showed up. Somehow these two 16 or 17 year-old merchant seamen jumped ship in Haifa and ended up in our unit. That's how loose things were in those days. They were anxious to see some action and I guess they had more faith in our side than the Arab side. I took a liking to both of them,after all we were all kids with the optimism and the "live one day at a time" attitude typical of the very young. It was also a very different kind of a war that you would fmd today. Not that it would make any difference if you were killed or wounded---you would still be dead or maimed, and your parents would grieve or your life would be dramatically altered. It was different because all the sophisticated weapons of WW2 and later, still hadn't made their appearance. There was a foretaste of what was possible when our three B17 bombers flew over our location and dropped their load on the Syrian positions. The magnitude of the explosions was such that you said "thank goodness it was them and not us". --- Back - to Peter.
Once more the Syrians managed to get our range in the village. Once more we were ordered to take cover. There weren't many places that you could take cover and still hear the order to get back on the guns, so I lay down some distance behind the gun and next to the low wall. Peter was with the other gun and so he lay down in the other yard and some distance behind me. After a while I heard him call to me "Harvey give us a fag". He was always bumming cigarettes and I was an easy touch. I told him "if you want a smoke then come and get it". I wasn't going to risk my neck to give him a cigarette. He sprinted over to me, hopped the low fence and lay down next to me while lighting up. Just then a shell landed in the next yard, and when we looked up to see where it landed, it looked awful close to where he had been lying. I think that we both looked at each other wide-eyed. I presume that he eventually ended up back in his beloved 'Uddersfield.
The second incident was a joke played on me by Mike, who I think thought that I took this whole war business too seriously. One afternoon there was a lull in the firing and Mike and a few of the guys were playing cards in the one room house in front of the gun. I had borrowed Mike's field glasses and was standing on the front grapevine-covered porch straining to see what, if anything, I could make out of the enemy's position. All of a sudden there was a whine through the leaves of the arbour above my head and a slight shower of grapes from above. In a fraction of a scond I flew into the room and hollered "did you guys hear that?" "Hear what?' "A shot" "What shot?" But the smirks on their faces gave them away. I slowly walked around the table and there was Mike's right arm down by his side still holding his pistol. At least his aim was good.
The third incident concerned another scorpion bite. I was sitting on a rock with my hand placed on the rock, when - wham- a terrific and painful sting in my finger. I instinctively knew it was a scorpion. I started to look for it to see if it was poisonous, when there was another holler from one of the other fellows "scorpion bite". Our first-aid man rushed over to him and decided that he should travel to Kibbutz Dafna just up the road, for an antidote shot. I informed them that I also had been bitten, and it was decided that I should also go along. The ride to Kibbutz Dafna didn't take long, and we were led into an underground bunker. This was the medical bunker of the kibbutz, and I was informed that the whole kibbutz was underground in various bunkers. The doctor proceeded to produce a gigantic needle which frightened the hell out of the other guy, and which caused me to suddenly remember that" maybe it wasn't a scorpion after all".
The second truce came into effect on July the 19th, and I can't recall my reaction to it. Maybe it was one of relief, or just plain acceptance as another fact of this war. After all, we were lucky and suffered no casualties except for our second-in-command Len who got a piece of shrapnel in his rear end when he fortuitously turned himself around at the right time. From what I remember he was only away for a day. It's my recollection that we only stayed in this location another day or two, but 51 years can fool the memory.
What I do remember very vividly is that part of one of those days was one of the most enjoyalble few hours that I spent in that whole year. Myself and two or three other fellows found a beautiful clear, cool, running stream not far away. The stream ran under a small bridge that spanned the road to Kibbutz Dafna and Kibbutz Dan. It being a typically hot July day we all stripped down to the buff, not far from the bridge and threw our clothes in the stream and washed them, and then laid them out on the bank to dry--and then slowly stretched ourselves out in the shallow stream, letting the cool water gloriously caress our bodies and minds. We were completely at peace with ourselves, I think in part because of the satisfaction felt that we had just done 10 days of a man's job in a righteous cause. Even the fact that a small passenger bus stopped on the bridge with all the passengers craning to get a good look at us, didn't disturb us one bit. Maybe it was voyeurism, but more probably it was to make sure that we were alright.
The guns were then ordered back to the outskirts of Rosh Pina. They were set up, under guard, in the fields within walking distance of the village, and we were bivouaced in the "post office" in Rosh Pina itself. No one seemed to know what our next move would be, but I imagine that the entire army was taking stock and reorganizing for the next phase. But we, at least a few of us, knew what our next move would be. The townspeople had quickly moved back into town and all the businesses were opened including the cafes.
That evening myself and a couple of other guys got permission to leave our barrack and go visit one of the cafes. Because the wine was reasonably priced we decided it would be nice to have an evening of mirth and laughter. We all ended up slightly inebriated, and I presume ended up returning to our barrack making quite a row. The next morning we were told that we were now confmed to barracks when the other fellows go out that evening. Well that evening the good people of Rosh Pina, much to their disbelief, got the show of their lives. The fellows got to drinking and singing louder and louder, and the townsfolk thought the British had come back. They couldn't believe that Jewish boys could or would carry on like this. Unfortunately they had not seen anything yet. It seems that one of the fellows decided that he was going to lead the singing---using an empty wine bottle for a baton. In one of his upbeats or maybe it was a downbeat, his baton came into contact with a skull. The owner of this skull took umbrage at this attack on his person and proceeded to punch out the "conductor". A whole donnybrook took place after this. A message was immediately sent out to our barracks, and we "bad boys" were sent out to break it up and drag them back home. We had a great time.
Unfortunately we never did get to know or meet the people of Rosh Pina, we weren't there long enough. But there was one thing we all remarked upon, and that was that the children were all stunning looking--- all seemed to be little blondies, but the parents were quite the opposite --- not nice looking at all. Go figure.
I don't think that we stayed in Rosh Pina more than a week, but then again I could be wrong - but not by much. One thing that I do remember about our short stay in Rosh Pina and that was Mike's "secret mission". One evening Mike came to us and said that he required three good shots for a special mission. I immediately volunteered as did Danny Tate from Toronto and a third fellow. I felt good about having Danny along as not only was he a WW2 commando vet, but also a very quiet unassuming type. We met Mike before dawn and headed towards the border on the back of a truck. I thought to myself "a real mission at last. Maybe cross-border reconnaisance". A short while later we arrived at the edge of a deserted Arab village, and followed Mike silently into the village. He motioned for us to be quiet and then said the following "you guys stay here but spread out a bit, I'm going to the other side of the village and when you hear a shot you'll see a flock of pigeons coming your way and each of you had better get one. " We couldn't believe our ears! We were so mad that we set up all kinds of targets and just blasted away,scaring off most of the pigeons. It took us a couple of hours to each get a pigeon which the cook in Rosh Pina wouldn't let near the kosher kitchen. I had a hard time forgiving Mike for this "secret mission".
We were informed that our guns would be moved to Haifa to do anti-aircraft duty at the oil refineries. We then decided to throw a party for the 2nd Brigade. We visited all the kibbutzim in the area and scrounged all the fiuit we could, and did our best to make it a real "do". But I only have a very vague recollection of it. I also have only a very vague recollection of discussing the unit's next move with some of the fellows. I know that I was very unhappy with this next move. Anyhow I found soul-mates in two of the fellows, Georgie (Gershon) Jameson from Johannesburg, and Davie Boxer from Los Angeles. The three of us decided that as soon as the unit gets to Haifa we were going to leave the unit and go to Tel Aviv in order to join the Palmach. There was no way that we were going to stay on anti-aircraft duty in Haifa.
My only recollection of the journey to Haifa is being parked on a main street in a small town with hordes of people surrounding us and admiring the guns. Everything felt right, the warmth of the air, the rural feel of the town, even the smell in the air. The fact that this was Israel, these were my people, and that I was helping to make a difference in our future. I'm not so sure that the ftrst seeds of Aliyah weren't planted there.
My ftrst recollection of Haifa was of us being up on the Carmel some time in the late afternoon, waiting for further orders. I remember looking around and admiring the view from the mountain. After all I was a prairie boy used to flat terrain. My only other recollection, and this one is quite vivid, is of the whole crew travelling into town from the Refineries the next morning in order to eat breakfast at a cafe. No mess facilities had yet been set up for the unit. Davie, Georgie and I had thrown all our gear onto the truck while Mike and Len turned a blind eye to what was going on. On arriving at the cafe the two of them went in first while we shook hands with all the fellows as they went into the cafe one by one. We threw our duffel bags over our shoulders and hiked to the edge of town where we hitched a ride to Tel Aviv and a new chapter in our army "career".
7. THE PALMACH
To be absolutely honest, I don't remember the trip to Tel Aviv at all. Maybe we even took the bus. As a matter of fact I don't remember too much about the next few days, except for the following. That afternoon I remember us going to the Palmach recruiting office on Rothschild Blvd. about a block or so east of Allenby. It seems to me that the office was a converted apartment on the ground floor of a typical 4 or 5 storey apt. building. There must have been about a couple of dozen fellows milling about outside the building. I remember receiving a new army identity book, and we were probably told to report back in a couple of days. They must have issued us passes so that we could go to the "Town Major's" office where chits for hotel accommodation were issued. This was my fIrst good look at Tel Aviv, and it charmed me in a way. It still had that small town feel about it. Traffic was very light with most of the vehicles on the road being public transportation, old-fashioned buses with all their windows wide open. There seemed to be loads of orange juice kiosks where the same glass got a quick "shpritz" of cold water before being filled for the next customer who never seemed to mind. And the railway from the south crossed Allenby next to the Post Office, while traffic was halted.
Both Davie and Georgie had relatives in Tel Aviv. Davie went to visit his while Georgie was nice enough to invite me to go and visit his aunt and uncle. His uncle, Dr. Sucharow, had his office in their apt.. We went there for lunch the next day. His uncle and aunt were a charming couple and both spoke a very passable English. But what was an eye-opener for me, and made me feel a bit inadequate, was the fact that their 13-year old son Boris, spoke German to his parents, Russian to his Grandmother (who lived with them), English to us and Hebrew in the street. I remember that after lunch Dr. Sucharow insisted that we must all lie down until three o'clock. He explained that in the heat of the day everyone goes home for lunch from 1 P.M. till 4 P.M., then businesses are re-opened till 7 P.M. Anyhow his examining table was my bed for a very restless two hours. I visited with the Sucharows from time to time during the early 50's and then lost touch.
The next afternoon Davie got us involved with an arrangement that was foisted on him. This involved taking two very nice, but very plain, girls rowing on the Yarkon River. I guess he figured there was safety in numbers. We managed to get the boat out into the middle of the river, which was not very wide, but we were having a devil of a time getting back to shore. I'm not so sure that it wasn't the girls who got us back to shore. Us guys had a real laugh about it afterwards.
I think that it was the next day that we reported back to the Palmach office. We were then transported, with others, to an army base at Be'er Yaacov --- about a half hours ride south of Tel Aviv. I remember that it was evening when our names were called out and we and others were loaded on a truck. We knew that we were headed for the Negev, because we were told back in Tel Aviv that we were joining the Negev Brigade. I can't remember my feelings as we left the camp. I was probably excited and pleased that something definite was happening.
We travelled to Kibbutz Negba which was about as far south as you could go before hitting the Eyptian positions. We got off the truck and were told to sit down as we would have a long night's walk ahead of us. Kibbutz Negba was all blacked out and everyone lived in bunkers. The kibbutz had already repulsed Egyptian attacks. I understood that the unit that we were going to join was in the Israeli-controlled portion of the Negev, and that the area was cut off from the rest of Israel by the Egyptians. I also understood that we would be walking through the Egyptian lines and very close to one of their strongpoints, the Teggart Fortress at Iraq Suweidan. These fortresses were built at regular intervals throughout the country and were previously used by the Palestine Police and I presume the British army.
We left Kibbutz Negba at around midnight on what I presume was a moonless night. My guess is that it was about the 10th of August. We were about 30 guys altogether, half with weapons and half without. I was without a weapon and not too thrilled about it. We were told that we would be walking in single file with someone without a weapon behind someone with a weapon. The logic being that if the person without a weapon gets hit---well that's too bad, but if a person with a weapon gets hit, then the fellow behind him takes over his weapon. What other orders were given I can't remember, but one order that was not given was to muffle everything that could make a noise, such as a digging tool banging against a water bottle. Having trained in the Canadian Army that at night you make no noise while listening for the enemy's noise, to me it was like walking with the Israeli Philharmonic while they played the 1812 Overture. Sure enough, at one point in the walk the Egyptians started to fire mortars in our general direction, and I believe they also sent up flares to illuminate the area. We were fortunate in that they were nowhere near us with the mortar fire, and also in the fact that it was known that they didn't like to venture out from their positions at night. Suffice it to say that we covered the approx. 6 or 7 miles (10 Km.) safely, and arrived before first light at Kibbutz Gevar Am.
I don't remember us going into the kibbutz, but I do remember us sitting in the field nearby while waiting for our transport. Shortly after dawn the trucks arrived and we were off to our new home--- the Depot at Kibbutz Ruhama. Why it was called the Depot I don't know, but it was a collection of wooden prefab huts a bit away from the kibbutz itself. Davie, Georgie and myself were soon introduced to our new army duties here--waiters in the mess hall! We accepted the job in good humour realizing that a) we were "the new boys on the block" b) that our knowledge of Hebrew was non-existant c) with the second truce being in effect, the only actions now were patrols. The gang that we were serving were known as "chayot hanegev", literally "the Negev beasts". I presume that most of them were down here from the early days on, either from late 1947 or early 1948. I know that there were other English speaking Machal down there at the same time, but I don't remember having any contact with them.
After about a week of "slinging hash" during which time our Hebrew vocabulary was enlarged by the words for "vegetarian" and "alternate choice", we decided that enough was enough. We marched over to the adjutant's office to voice our displeasure at what seemed like a permanent job. Solomon the adjutant was a character. To me he looked to be in his 40's, had what you could call a grizzled look, and sported a large moustache. But what fascinated me was how he took care of flies that annoyed him, and there was no shortage of flies. If a fly landed on his arm he would slowly move his other hand over until he would, again slowly, squash the fly with his thumb. While this minor drama was taking place he would be looking and talking directly to you, and acting as if this was a natural function. I think that I missed most of the conversation because I was so transfixed by this unusual feat. Buf Solomon was also smart enough to know when he had pushed a good thing to it's limit, and so we were promised that in the next day or so we would see "action".
True to his word, in the next day or so I was stuffed into one of the home-made armored cars. These were basically 5-ton White trucks stripped to motor and chassis and with a home-made steel body and turret added. They had two Spandau machine guns as their armament. Needless to say I was like a "5th wheel", with no particular function. I was of two minds about the whole thing, first because I resented the fact that I had no particular function, but on the other hand pleased that I was doing something other than slinging hash. I think that I went on two or three patrols, and on one of them we were actually shot at. We were driving with the door open because it was hot as hell in the vehicle. when the shots rang out. The fellows quickly shut the door, and tried to determine where the shots were coming from. None of the shots hit the vehicle, and we stopped as I gather that the others were deciding what to do. I couldn't see what was happening outside, and I didn't understand what was being said. I felt a bit let down when I saw that we were turning around, but I couldn't blame the others. They knew that our outfit, the 9th Battalion of the Palmach, was due to be rotated north for reorganization very shortly.
A couple of miles west of Kibbutz Ruhama lay Kibbutz Dorot. It was at Kibbutz Dorot that a small airfield had been established, that is a piece of ground had been levelled, and I guess compacted, to take a DC 3 airplane. I remember going there one night, I guess to help load a truck, when I watched a DC 3 come in so heavily laden that one wing dipped so low that I thought that it would crash. Someone said that they had flown in directly from Czechoslovakia, where most of our arms were coming from. After that, flights started coming in from up north with units of the Givati Brigade including to my great surprise, a fellow from Winnipeg by the name of Joe Abramson, whom I knew.
It was about then that I had my second, and last, bout of homesickness. I don't know what triggered it, except that someone's radio was playing some of the old songs and suddenly a wave of sadness and melancholy swept over me. It only lasted a short while, maybe ten minutes or so, and then it was gone forever. The first time was while we were in France at the chateau, but that time there were tears in my eyes.
I hadn't been with the unit more than about three weeks, when we were told that we were going back north. I was about to experience my first airplane ride courtesy of the Israeli air force. We were trucked over to the "air field" at Kibbutz Dorot, where we lined up alongside this dust covered DC 3, or C-46 as the case may be, when the pilot, a cocky American, told us that if any of us felt like being sick then we should be sick here on the air field and not in his plane. Although I had no trepidation about flying, this kind of threw me. I should mention that some of the other fellows had flying experience in WW2 and of course went through all the exaggerated motions of air sickness for the benefit of us "greenhorns". We boarded the plane and sat on two long metal benches with indents in them for seats, on each side of the plane. We took off without a door on the plane, and Israel being the size that it is, we landed at the Tel Nof (Ekron) air base 20 minutes later. The flight was smooth and a great introduction for all us first-timers. It was mostly take-off and landing anyhow.
From there we were transported to the army base at Be'er Yaacov for what we understood was to be a re-organization of the unit. I'm sure that the whole Israeli army was going through a total restructuring into a unified, totally cohesive organization. No more rogue units. Also new equipment and armaments were being acquired and absorbed. I was still not aware of the bigger picture, but this was the end of the Haganah and the beginning of the Defense Army of Israel. It was also the beginning of the end of the Palmach. The Palmach would be slowly integrated into the army, even though the officers refused to wear ranks and ate with everyone in the same mess hall.
7. THE JEEPS
The Jeep Company of the 9th Battalion of the Palmach totalled no more than about 50 men. There were 3 platoons of 4 jeeps each, with 3 men in each of 3 jeeps, and 4 men in one of the jeeps in each platoon. Each jeep had two machine guns, irony of ironies, German Spandaus obtained from Czechoslovakia, one mounted up front for the jeep "commander" and the other mounted on a high swivel for the rear gunner. The 4th man in each platoon was a first-aid man who came complete with stretcher. The jeep that I drove carried the first-aid man. The 9th Battalion also had an armored car company, the number of which I never did know, and infantry mounted on half-tracks,also of an unknown quantity to me. I did know a few fellows in the armored cars, one being the only other Canadian in the 9th. Otherwise we "jeepniks" seemed to be a world of our own.
The fellows in the jeeps were roughly half English-speaking volunteers from overseas, and half Hebrew-speaking Sabras or those who had been in the country for some time. As far as I knew they were Palmachniks for some time. The fellow that I shared a room with here in Be'er Yaacov, who was later killed in the Sinai, had been in the Palmach for 6 years and had a photo album with photos of those 6 years which he shared with me. He was a soft spoken, modest individual, and was the wireless operator for the captain of our company. We all got along well, although naturally each group tended to socialize with their own. The platoon commanders were all Hebrew-speaking but with an adequate grasp of English, as were the various jeep commanders with English-speaking crew. Many of the orders were given in Hebrew, which we all leamed to recognize by their sound.
Us overseas volunteers were composed mainly of South Africans, which pleased me greatly, as I've said before I always considered them to be the most mature as a group, a few from England, 5 from the USA, and me the lone Canadian. And then there was the famous Belgian known to everyone as Eskimo. There was also one French Jew by the name of Albert Mantout (? spelling) who became my jeep commander and friend. Two of the fellows from England were real characters. One served in a special commando group in WW2 known as the SAS, and was awarded the Military Medal for bravery, but you had to watch out for him. He would suddenly grab you by your shirt and butt your head with his, this left you with a headache for some time.. The other was about 5 feet tall with a sweet disposition and a beard which seemed to go down to his waist. He had a motto which he espoused to anyone who would listen, namely " you need to have 2 fires going. One for the chai (Indian for tea), the other for the dhobi (Indian for laundry)". He served in North Africa in WW2 in a unit called the Long Range Desert Group. They would spend lengthy periods behind enemy lines doing reconnaisance and spying on enemy troop movements. There was a great bond formed amongst us overseas volunteers (Machal), and again it was a good feeling to know that you were being judged on the type of person that you were rather than who you were. I can't help but repeat how comfortable it was to be amongst your own.
Before we started our actual training, our jeeps arrived. The keys were left in the jeeps and anyone could "borrow" one, all you needed was gasoline. I solved this problem by obtaining a short piece of hose and siphoning gas from any available half-track because they stood higher than a jeep. Then I would give anyone willing a wild ride around the camp roads. The officers must have been watching and were obviously impressed with my driving skills, and so for our first exercise appointed me the captain's driver. Well wouldn't you know that the first thing I managed to do in this cross-country exercise, was to get us stuck in the sand. I was quickly demoted to driving a corporal. Actually he was just a jeep commander with no official rank, the aforementioned Albert whose English was quite good but when excited would holler at me in French "lentement, au gauche, au droit"; luckily I retained some of my high school French. But I always referred to him as my corporal, mainly in deference because he was much older than the rest of us. He was I believe 33 or 34 years old, and rumour had it that he had served in the French underground in WW2 as an officer.
I don't remember our training period at all, except for one night training exercise in which we were to find our way back, in the jeep, to a predetermined spot using landmarks only. It's amazing how confused you can get over a very short distance in a featureless area. I can remember Albert and myself having a hot debate over which way to turn. How it was resolved, like most of the rest of that period, I don't remember.
One episode that remains clear in my mind is the night that we turned into armed bandits. There obviously was a behind the scene struggle between the Palmach and the newly organized IDF ( Israeli Defense Forces). I know that the jeep that I drove (No. 4545) was not in very good condition. It did not have the power that it should've had. Now, whether it was the quality of the equipment, or the quantity, or both, I don't know. But the Battalion Commander called us together one evening, and we non-Hebrew speakers were informed by our buddies who spoke English, that our Commander Haim Kidoni (literally Haim "of the bayonet") who one day would be chief of staff by the name of Haim Bar-Lev, has commanded us to arm ourselves and go into Tel Aviv and literally steal jeeps and bring them back to camp! And we did! I remember going in a half-track with others into Tel Aviv and holding up a garage on Rehov Salameh and removing a couple of jeeps. The mechanic couldn't believe what was going on, nor could the officer in the Police Force who soon appeared on the scene. He apparently was pleading with us not to do things in this manner, but to no avail. Of course nobody was going to use force. Maybe it was explained to him that it was only that a point was being made. At any rate, our unit arrived back at camp with a number of stolen jeeps and one Studebaker with a flat tire. What the end result was, I don't know. I'm sure that the vehicles were returned, and a point was made. But it was bizarre. Funny how I remember that so vividly and can't remember the training at all, except that we never got any anti-aircraft training.
We all got leave for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and I decided that I would spend it in Jerusalem. I guess that Georgie and Davie went to their relatives, and since I still hadn't bonded with some of the other guys, I went by myself. I hitched a ride on some vehicle that went as part of a convoy to Jerusalem. At that time the "Burma Road" was still in existence. This was a stretch of dirt road over which most vehicles had to be assisted by tractors. Otherwise there was no problem reaching Jerusalem. I wish that I could tell you how I felt upon first seeing the city, but to be honest I don't remember.
I do remember being given a room in a hotel called The Blue and White. It was located on the second floor of a building, as I found out that many hotels were. I also remember that the propietor or manager was very nice and explained to me that he would bring me water every day for washing, and please don't try to flush the toilets as there was no running water. He would "flush" them a few times a day with a bucket full of water.
I had a very interesting experience on one of the days that I was there. I remember standing on one of the streets that seemed to have a very good view of the surrounding area, when an officer in the police force started talking to me. He soon discovered that my Hebrew was non-existant, but his English was quite good. He was fascinated by my unit badge which I wore above the left pocket of my shirt. The badge was a red cloth triangle with the Hebrew words "mobile strike force" and the metal Palmach pin in the centre. I think that he was taken with the idea that a Jewish boy from Canada would come to join the fight.
When he found out that this was my first time in Jerusalem, he invited me to join him on his rounds. I don't remember most of our wanderings, but towards the end he told me that he would take me to the "front". The "front" turned out to be a long 3-storey building (if my memory serves me correctly) that had been evacuated of its tenants, and which he called the Bokharian Quarters. Here he turned me over to a soldier with instructions for him to show me the Jordanian positions, and also to feed me lunch. I thanked him profusely and felt lucky that I had met him. The soldier showed me how they had knocked holes in the apartment walls so that they could go from one end of the building to the other. We eventually made our way to the top floor where he led me to a partially sand-bagged window. He told me that from here you could see the Jordanian positions, but I shouldn't look for more than a few seconds as there are snipers watching. Imagine my surprise when I looked out and found that the Jordanians were in a building that looked to be about ten feet away. Needless to say I didn't linger at the window.
The other item that remains quite vivid in my memory is the awareness of sniper fire. Streets that ran directly into Arab held areas were the most susceptible. You could see people pausing at certain intersections, and then making a dash across it. I naturally followed suit. What was interesting was that across the narrower dangerous streets what looked like large bedsheets were hung from building to building across the street, thus obscuring the view of a potential sniper.
I don't remember how long I stayed in Jerusalem, or what I saw or where I went, it's all a blank. I also can't recall the mood of the people, but to a naive youth every thing seemed to be as normal as possible given the circumstances.
It wasn't too much longer before we were ordered back to the Negev. My guess would be about the middle of October. Under the truce agreement the Egyptians were to allow supply convoys down to the Negev, but during daylight hours only, I believe. At any rate our convoy was made up in the evening as I remember us forming up on the main street of, I believe, Rishon LeZion. I remember that the shops were lit up dimly but there were no street lights. We travelled in convoy down a paved road, and after a few hours were safely in Israeli territory after an uneventful trip. Just how many vehicles and what types were in the convoy was unknown to me. At any rate our jeeps drove to our staging area which was the orchard at Kibbutz Gevulot. It was still dark when I remember fellows approaching us and in very concerned tones asking us how many were killed or wounded in the convoy. Apparently Israeli radio announced that, contrary to the truce agreement, an Israeli convoy was attacked by the Egyptians. Also, apparently, the army produced some shot-up trucks to substantiate this claim. This was the pretext used to start the fighting again in order to break the Egyptian blockade of the Negev, and to capture Beersheba. We of course didn't realize it, but Beersheba was about to become our new home for the next few months.
The task of the Jeep Company in the attack on Beersheba was to cut the road to Hebron in order to prevent reinforcements being sent from Hebron. With the jeeps was a 3/4 ton truck (command car) carrying dynamite with which to blow up a bridge on the road. Well, what can I tell you? It was a night with a very heavy mist, a fog really, and it was soon apparent that we had lost our way. We wandered for hours, and only with the first light of day did our officers think that they finally knew where we were. They spotted a fortified position on top of a slight hill, and shouted "shelanu", which means "ours". They couldn't have been more wrong. In the next instant "ours" opened fire on us. The Egyptians didn't realize that we were going to drive up to say hello, but obviously thought that we were going to attack them. Fortunately for us there was a gully not far away in which we all took cover, because we had another problem to deal with. Just at the moment that we were fired upon, the Command Car with the dynamite broke down, and was sitting there like a big fat target.
Whether I was ordered to do it or I volunteered I don't recall. But I went out with my jeep and backed up to the Command Car, hooked a chain on to it's bumper and tried to pull it. For whatever reason I couldn't move it. Maybe with all the firing going on I forgot to release something on the vehicle. At any rate I sat down by the right front wheel of my jeep and shouted back to them that I couldn't move it. They started yelling back "for God's sake don't sit there, that's what they're shooting at and that's where the dynamite is!" I took their advice and ran some distance away, although there was no place really to take cover. No sooner did I lie down when a shot glanced off a rock not ten feet from my head. I immediately ran back to the wheel of the jeep shouting "it's safer to be where they're aiming at". True story, so help me. You surprise yourself at times. They fmally told me to come back with the jeep to the gully.
They got someone else to go out and try to retrieve the dynamite, but decided that this time he would get covering fire. So I was sent out again as No.2 on Albert's machine gun. We ran to a slight rise and gave covering fire while the Command Car was successfully pulled into the gully. Now it was our turn to run back. I swear that I saw spurts in the dirt ,alongside of us as we ran, and when we got to the gully I felt as if I had run 10 miles with my heart pounding wildly.
Somehow we extricated ourselves from this situation because the next thing I remember is going into Beersheba from the southern end of the town. We spread out and. approached carefully as there were shots being fired over our heads, and I'm not sure that the situation was clear to anybody. We then moved up the main street very slowly towards the main police station which was the last holdout, when we were informed that they had just surrendered. We then started to go through the houses for two reasons. One was to make sure that there were no stragglers, and two was to look for useful items such as chickens (which we did find), corn flakes, and other tasty items. To the army's credit they allowed a very short time for looting from the shops, and then clamped down with Military Police making sure it was stopped.
The units started marshalling themselves in the open spaces, and I thought to myself "I hope there are some units at the edges of town in case the Egyptians counterattack". But just then I was given another task. A fellow from one of the other units had one leg almost blown off, and needed to be transported to a medical facility of some sort. The stretcher was set up on my jeep and he was lifted onto it, and we set out to fmd a doctor or an ambulance. The situation was absolutely chaotic, and in utter frustration whoever was travelling with me and the wounded fellow said "head for Mishmar Hanegev". That was the kibbutz they started out from, and a hospital had been set up there. I did not hesitate or tell anyone what our plan was, and under this fellow's guidance headed as fast as possible for the kibbutz. I was absolutely furious at the fact that we couldn't get immediate help in Beersheba, and was cursing the chaos that seemed to exist. At any rate when I returned sometime later, my unit had gone. They had left towards the next objective which was Bir Asluj. I hope that the fellow on the stretcher made it.
In Beersheba I was advised to return to our staging area at Kibbutz Gevulot, which I did somehow or other---again I don't remember and it's not really important. The fIrst fIgure I saw was Arnold Brown with his massive beard. I must have looked pretty tired because the fIrst thing he did was to sit me down and make me a nice cup of tea. That's when he repeated his mantra to me "two fires going, one for the chai (tea) and one for the dhobi (laundry)". The next one to get a hold of me was Solomon the Adjutant. He began scolding me by saying that I had deserted my unit. I really lashed out at him, in part because I was tired, and told him that I wasn't about to leave a badly wounded man to just lie there and possibly die. That evening the rest of the unit joined us, having merely recconnoitered towards Bir Asluj to make sure that the Egyptians were not preparing to counter-attack. The next day our unit moved to Beersheba, which was to become our home for the next two-and-a-half to three months.
We quickly picked out a lovely two-storey house on the main street for ourselves, and set about preparing the chickens that we had "liberated". I was one of the chicken pluckers because I was otherwise useless in the kitchen. As I was plucking I thought "what would Mama say if she could see me now", because we never lifted a finger in the kitchen at home. One of the South Africans whom we nicknamed Migdal (which means Tower in Hebrew), because of his height, appointed himself as chef and we enjoyed a real treat sitting on the floor. By the way, Migdal whose real name is David Teperson, became one of the most prominent builders in Israel and at the age of 74 (and with the rank of Colonel in the Reserves) became the longest serving man in the Israeli Army. Anyhow our dreams of residing in splendour didn't last long as headquarters soon decided that they were more suited to this style house.
We were moved to a long one storey house with all of its rooms facing a high stone fenced courtyard. I think that we were two platoons that occupied this house of about 6 or 7 rooms. They also set up the kitchen and mess hall just for the jeeps in the house next door, not only with its own cooks and kitchen staff, but with servers also. But the nicest surprise came almost immediately. My platoon got a new platoon commander, a 19-year old by the name of Motta Gorban who by the time he became Chief-of Staff years later was known as Motta Gur. Motta had taken part in the attack on Beersheba as part of a platoon of newly graduated officers. I welcomed this change as our previous platoon commander was a very distant and cold fish who had as little contact with us as was possible. I don't even remember his name. Motta was born to lead by stature and by nature. He was tall and heavy set, and he never hesitated and knew what he wanted. He also took an interest in everyone's welfare--- needless to say I liked him.
We soon settled into, what seems from this distance of time, a steady routine of patrols, reconnaisance forays including long distance ones behind enemy lines with Motta always busy making maps, and testing enemy strongpoints by riding up to the top of a rise within firing distance and giving them a blast of machine gun fire until they replied. At that point we would back down the rise and if Motta felt that they hadn't shown us everything that they had, we would wait until everything was quiet and pop up again and do it all over again. We never did meet an Egyptian patrol, although I used to worry sometimes as we would travel a lot using the wadis. Some of them were great for driving in and you could reach a fair speed, although I don't remember our speedometers working. What worried me of course was that they were also great for ambushing someone. Anyhow, ninety-nine percent of the time I had the greatest confidence in Motta's ability to keep us out of trouble.
It always felt good to get back to the relative safety of Beersheba after a long day out in the field. We had rigged up a shower at our house to wash away the dust from our travels, and then it was nice to sit down and have a hot meal served to you. I honestly don't remember the kind of meals that were served, but I do remember the kosher corned beef that we ate in the field. I remember it for two reasons. Reason # 1- It was made in Winnipeg by Chicago Kosher, a fact that I time after time pointed out to anyone interested (which was no one). Reason #2- It was good, cold or hot. The fellows who had served in WW2 all agreed that it was far superior to bully beef.
I don't recall much in the way of entertainment being laid on, such as movies, but maybe there were. It seems to me that we spent the evenings doing a lot of talking, really getting to know one another. I started to bond quite strongly with the fellow who drove the third jeep in our platoon, right behind me. He was my age and from South Africa but had served in the South African army in WW2, including time in the line in Italy. South Africa had lost a Division (14000 men more or less) in North Africa, and apparently were signing up under age youth with parental consent. My buddy, Irwin Cohen, came from a broken home and got one of his parents to consent. His experiences had left him a very nervous individual, and when we would return from some trying foray I knew that Irwin would have to hold his coffee cup with two shaking hands. He settled in Israel in a Moshav Shitufi also, where we saw him and his family from time to time.
A highlight of all the entertainment was when Leonard Bernstein conducted the Israeli Philharmonic in Beersheba. I can't remember what they performed, but the ovation was wild. However, I think that the highlight for me came one day when there was a reading in Yiddish of a Shalom Aleichem story by one of the entertainers. It was the most beautiful Yiddish I had ever heard, and I enjoyed it with a large crowd of young guys just like me. The most thrilling moment for me came when Ben Gurion visited Beersheba. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time as it was an unannounced visit. I was thrilled to be standing within 10 feet of someone I considered a living legend. I wanted to reach out and take his hand, but didn't have the nerve.
The one break in the routine came when we were sent north to the army camp at Sarafand to pick up new jeeps. This would have been sometimes between Oct. 21st ( the fall of Beersheba) and Dec. 22nd (the start of the fighting that took us into the Sinai). It was a beautiful fall day and I remember sitting under a tree just enjoying the relaxing day when, about 4PM, I noticed the offices emptying of the young guys and girls who were stationed there. Sarafand was a major camp with a large headquarters staff. But what also caught my eye was the fact that a large number seemed to be going to the bus stop probably heading home in the Tel Aviv area. For a moment I thought to myself "am I crazy? Here I am, I came 5000 miles and am risking my life---and they live right here and get to go home every night". Then I answered my own question. "You have to do what you think is right, and not look at others", and I felt better for it. From Sarafand we took our new jeeps to a private machine shop in Petah Tikva for some final outfitting, and in the early evening drove back to Tel Aviv where supper would be my very first falafel.
I remember one other very touching incident as we drove through Tel Aviv. Apparently our whole crew travelled north, because the first aid fellow on my jeep who was a very young Israeli of Sephardi descent, suddenly hollered out "Abba, Abba"( father, father). There walking on the sidewalk was his father! We all stopped and waited while father and son embraced, and this was the first time that I had any insight into how a parent must feel with their child in danger, or even gave any thought to it. Our next stop was somewhere on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. We stopped in front of this wooden kiosk with a kerosene lantern providing the only light, in what looked like a poorer neighborhood. It was fully night by now, and the city in this area was very quiet. Anyhow we were now going to have "supper" catered by this kiosk in the form of a wartime falafel. Because pitas were always provided by the Arabs of Jaffa, there were no pitas to be had now. What the man did was to cut a loaf of bread in half (not lengthwise), then he scooped out the inside of the bread and filled the hollow with. falafel balls and vegetables. I loved it, but I always enjoyed bread anyhow. We drove back to Beersheba that night, and I can still smell the distinct aroma of the burnt-out Arab villages on the way back. But I was now the proud driver of my new jeep No. 10601 (the same number backwards as frontwards).
We were a motley crew, sartorially speaking. We were all dressed in various shades of khaki depending on what part of your "uniform" came from what country. Mostly it was British or American battle dress, my tunic was a British battle dress tunic, my friend Irwin's tunic was American complete with sergeant's stripes, and so on.. We had no helmets, and so again wore everything from peaked caps to wool stocking caps (a favourite) to mine which was an Israeli army issue soft peaked cap---to replace my beloved black beret lost in the Galilee. The only standard issue were our Israeli army sweaters which were issued with the onset of the much cooler, even cold, winter nights. In addition we were issued a truly motley collection of overcoats. My overcoat was a familiar British army "greatcoat". I had one for five years in the Winnipeg Light Infantry, with the only difference being that my Israeli one had no buttons. To overcome this problem I took the two little belts that were only meant to adorn the back of the coat with the help of two shiny brass buttons, missing with the rest of their relations, and pulled those two little belts around the front and tied them in a knot in order to keep the coat wrapped around me. RSM Sewell of the WLI would have had apoplexy.
Some made an effort to look jaunty, or perhaps it was meant to give them a romantic look. Lee Rapaport from the USA, with whom I also formed a closer friendship later on, always wore his wool cap at a jaunty angle, and for good measure would throw an Arab kaffia around his shoulders for the added "desert" touch. But the one that I always admired for his dignified look and bearing was my jeep commander, Albert Mantout. Like Motta, Albert had a physical presence. He was about 6 feet tall, well built with a handsome rugged face, and slightly balding. Add to this his ever present pipe and calm demeanour, and you tended to believe the rumours that he was a Major in the French Resistance Movement. His only outbursts of nervousness took place when we were busy out in the field at night driving cross-country where you had to be careful not to end up in a ditch or a hole, and in part it was my fault. Let me explain why. I do, and did, have spectacles to correct some short-sightedness, but which I didn't wear during the day because I never felt the need for them. It was only while driving at night that I felt more secure if I wore my glasses, but unfortunately I managed to break half of my right lense and I guess that the idea of having a one-and-a-half lensed driver manouvering over tricky terrain in the dark (don't forget - no lights), flapped the unflappable Albert. So he would lean out of the vehicle and strain into the dark and would holler "au gauche," or "au droit," or his favourite " lentement".
Let me tell you one more interesting anecdote about Albert. While we were in Beersheba there was another unit stationed there, called the French Commandos, who were instrumental in the capture of the town . They were not a very large unit and were made up of Jews from France and from North Africa. They were led by one of those larger than life characters, a gentile with the nom-de-guerre of Teddy Eytan. His second-incommand was a ruggedly handsome Jew who was a friend of Albert's. I did wonder why Albert was also not in that unit, but I'm sure that he had very sound reasons. Anyhow, one evening Albert's friend came to visit with Albert, and they sat in one of the rooms off the courtyard with the windows open, and we could hear an animated discussion going on for hours. One of the fellows who had a slight understanding of the French language told us that they were debating what kind of a society the Jews of Israel should become. Apparently Albert's friend was of the opinion that Israel should be a nation like all others, with their faults and blemishes, while Albert took the view that Israel should truly be a "light unto other nations" with a highly moralistic society. I was truly impressed by the fact that these two rugged individuals would engage in a philosophical debate about what the !ong term end result of what they were risking their lives for, should be. I mulled it over myself for a while, and tended to agree with Albert---oh well, so much for kind thoughts and wishes.
One small comment on the weather. If an almost ideal climate can be conjured up for a war, then the Negev in the Fall and Winter would fit that bill. We had very little rain in Beersheba, and no rain further south. The days were very pleasant with only a sweater or light jacket required, and in Winter you would need the overcoat on most nights. I also don't recall the wind being a factor, but then after all these years I seem to have trouble recalling much of what happened---but maybe they were not worthwhile events.
10. THE SINAI
On December the 22nd 1948 fighting broke out again. Israel was determined to push the Egyptians back to the international borders, and to thereby lay claim to at least all of the northern Negev. I and my unit mates were, for the most part, unaware of the larger picture. How we were prepared or instructed for this next campaign I don't recall, but I suppose there was some excitement as we prepared our vehicles and got all our gear together for what we knew would be more than a one or two day patrol.
The task of the Jeep Company was to set up an ambush half way between two important Egyptian bases. The first Egyptian base, Bir Asluj, was about 30km. (20miles) south of Beersheba, and the other base, Auja el Hafir, was at the Sinai border about 50km (30miles) south of Bir Asluj. We took a long circuitous route in order to avoid being detected by the enemy, probably a route that we had mapped on one of our previous patrols.
Before going any further, I must state that I only have partial recollections of any of the actions that we were involved in. I may remember the start and finish and no middle, or the middle and no start or finish---but what the heck, this is no military historical document, just the imperfectly remembered happenings and impressions of a 20-year old youth from Winnipeg who never had any intention of putting anything down on paper, let alone after a 50 year gap.
I don't remember any of the trip down to the ambush site, but I do clearly remember the setting up of the ambush. We set up our 23 machine guns on the crest of a small crescent shaped rise on the east side of the road, after parking our jeeps where they couldn't be seen by anyone coming down the road. We obviously were expecting enemy reinforcements to be heading north from Auja once an attack was launched on Bir Asluj. We also laid mines across the road and alongside the road, and the plan was to hold fire until the lead vehicle hit a mine. Some of the other vehicles that would try and either turn around or bypass the first one would hopefully end up on one of the mines beside the road. To add to this I was sent up fairly close to the road as No.2 man on the PlAT (an anti-tank weapon), with of course the fellow who was to fire the weapon. Maybe I was chosen because I was familiar with the weapon from my WLI days, I don't know.
I was pleased with what looked like a perfectly planned ambush. My confidence in our officers went up a notch. After a while the word came down that an enemy convoy was headed our way, and everyone was told to hold their fire until they hit a mine. I couldn't see down the road from where I lay, but I could hear vehicles when a shot was fired. I couldn't believe it! Someone got nervous and spoiled the whole thing. We must have rushed back to our jeeps, because the next thing I remember is us racing across this fairly flat area firing and chasing Egyptian vehicles and fleeing Egyptian soldiers. It took us quite a while to round them up, and I had a good look at this segment of the Egyptian army. They were a bewildered and frightened lot more interested in holding onto what looked like woven baskets which held their food, than holding onto their rifles---let alone fire them. When they could see that no harm would come to them they popped up all over the place, some just happy to get a ride back to our holding pen. We even put one in the back of our jeep and let him "man" our rear gun---with the cartridge belt removed of course. All of us, including him, were grinning from ear to ear.
But back at the holding pen we discovered that my first-aid man, the young fellow whose family came from one of the Arab countries, was herding them in with blows from his rifle. We soon put a stop to that. Many of this lot were dark skinned Sudanese including a rather large fellow with a white arm band, who kept pointing to it and saying over and over "doctor". He was probably a fust-aid man. Anyhow we made quite a haul. Lots of trucks, an armored car intact, and that first vehicle fired upon, with blood on the front seat. We started to check the cargo on some of the trucks, and I jumped on one of them with steel barrels as its cargo, looking for gasoline. Imagine my shock when there lying backwards over the barrels was this Egyptian who looked like he was sleeping. Upon closer examination I saw a neat hole in his forehead with very little blood. I don't think that I had the heart to move him. One of the trucks contained cartons of Egyptian .Gold Flakes cigarettes. This excited us, free cigarettes, all you could store in your jeep. I also acquired a souvenir ---an Egyptian officer's cap. I found it on the ground, and for a moment toyed with the idea of wearing it. But I soon discarded the idea from the sanitary angle, if not from the safety angle. I did remove the badge from the hat, and still have it to this day.
We then headed to Auja al Hafir (Nitzana today). When we arrived the Egyptians had been cleared except for a line of pillboxes. We then got the bizarre order to charge this line of pillboxes and clear them. I thought that the "brass" had gone mad, we weren't tanks or armored cars, and a few machine guns would devastate us. We charged, and much to our relief found the pillboxes empty. I have a feeling that this was a "we're pretty sure, but let's check anyhow" thing---but I was concerned enough that it is still clear in my mind today.
Shortly after that we crossed the border into Sinai, which of course is Egypt. The Israelis were all excited, as one of them said "we're crossing the border without passports". The next bit of action took place within the next night or two. I remember our jeeps pulling up, in the dark, to a small group of vehicles which I presume was the command post for this operation. In the distance you could see flashes and hear gunfire, while just ahead of us was what looked like a mortar barrage. The operations officer was pointing us in the direction of this mortar barrage while our captain was apparently questioning him. The next thing that I saw was the operations officer jumping up and sitting himself on the hood of the lead jeep, and with one hand holding on to the vertical metal bar that was welded to the front of every jeep (and that stuck up about three feet above the hood), with his other hand made a sweeping motion of "follow me". It reminded me of the cavalry charges of bygone days. I was greatly impressed by the leaders who truly did lead.
He lead us through the mortar barrage and to our positions on the flank of the infantry. We parked our jeeps and dug ourselves shallow slit trenches. I was given Albert's machine gun while Albert apparently went back with the operations officer. Our job was to protect the infantry's flank, and probably to cover them in case of a counterattack. We lay there for quite a while when suddenly artillery shells started coming our way. First they fell short and then they were long, and I braced myself for the next round which I was sure would be close---but they were short again. Some of the fellows had gone to great lengths to make their slit trench as comfortable as possible, even gathering whatever shrub there was for bedding. But I thought how ironic it would be if you spent all that time and effort---only to have a shell land on you! I said to myself "there is no way that G-D is going to have a laugh at my expense", so I dug a very shallow and uncomfortable trench and made the best of it.
The next thing I remember is the battlefield becoming very quiet, and then you could hear individual voices, and then the movement of vehicles with their lights on. I picked up the other two fellows from my jeep, and we went looking for Albert. As I drove around with my headlights full on, suddenly in the sweep of my headlights I picked up the back of a small truck with the bodies of our dead stacked on the back. I had seen Egyptian dead in Beersheba, and then in the ambush earlier in this campaign, (the name of the place where the ambush took place is AI Mushrafa) but this was the first time that I had seen our own, and it sent a shudder through me. I realized how lucky we were to only be involved in this attack in a peripheral manner.
At first light we headed for the road junction called Abu Ageila, about 25 miles south of the border. This was an important junction as it controlled the road south through the Sinai, and the road west to the coastal town of El Arish. The Egyptians fled from here at our approach. I vaguely recall seeing an Egyptian half-ton with a 20mm cannon mounted on the back hightailing it down the road going south. I always joked that it was the sight of big Al Wank, with his wild beard and ferocious look, that scared the daylights out of them. Al's jeep was first in with me right behind him. At any rate Abu Ageila became our base for the 15 or so days that we were in the Sinai. Aside from a few incidents that remained with me, most of that time is a complete blank.
Others soon joined us at Abu Ageila, coming down in an assortment of vehicles including a big silver Dan bus taken right off his Tel Aviv route. In trying to turn himself around the driver ended up stuck in the sand. I and a few others went to try and push him out. As we were pushing, someone shouted "Spitfire". Sure enough, here was this Egyptian Spitfire coming straight for this wonderful target---and us. We ran like hell for the nearby wadi which had a fair size mound in the middle The spitfire left the bus and came after us. When he came from the right side we ran to the left side of this mound, and when he came from the left, we of course ran to the right side of the mound. It seems to me that I remember us kind of joking as we ran, because we knew that we could get to the other side of the mound before he could. This happened two or three times when I looked up and saw another plane heading our way, and thought "we're in for it now". Then I heard short bursts of machine gun fire and realized that the newcomer was Israeli. His aim was good, the Egyptian was soon trailing smoke, and then I watched him nose dive beyond the horizon and heard the explosion of him hitting the ground. By coincidence I was able to confirm the kill to the Israeli pilot who shot him down, a couple of nights later. This happened the same night that one of the Americans, AI Twersky, lost his leg when his jeep went up on a mine.
We were on our way to the Egyptian airfield at EI Arish. It was night and we were travelling on the paved road towards the airfield, when just as we reached a slight bend in the road with a low rise in the terrain to our right, there was an explosion behind my jeep someplace. I thought that we had driven into an ambush and was bracing myself for small arms fire, when we were made aware that the jeep behind me had hit a mine. What had happened was that there were three mines laid in the road---two on one side and one on the other, with just enough room for a jeep to go through. By sheer good luck the first jeep, driven by Al Wank, went right between them. I made it a habit to follow in his tracks and so I went between them, but Al Twersky who was taking the injured Irwin Cohen's place, hit the mine on his side of the road. What followed immediately is a blank in my memory, but some other jeep with a stretcher might have taken him away, or there was an ambulance in our group of vehicles. At any rate, he lost his left leg. I saw him last October at our little reunion, and he gets around so well with his artificial leg that you wouldn't know that it wasn't a real leg.
We pressed on towards the airfield and again everything is hazy. Maybe some other group got there before us, because the next thing I remember is a pick-up truck arriving with a couple of air force fellows in it . They had come to haul back an Egyptian Spitfire that had been captured at the airfield. After putting the tail wheel of the plane in the truck behind the tailgate, and I presume tying it down, one of the air force fellows asked if anyone had witnessed the incident with the Egyptian spitfire. I said that I had, and I confirmed the "kill" for him. He was a South African by the name of Boris Senior.
The next incident that comes to mind is our ill-fated effort to knock out an Egyptian airfield about 30 or 40 miles south of Abu Ageila. Our intelligence had informed us that the airfield was very lightly defended with no heavy weapons. Our jeep company travelled towards the airfield in the late afternoon, then a couple of miles short of the airfield we pulled over to the side of the road and were told to relax while we waited for all units to organize themselves. It seems that we were to give covering fire while the infantry would attack in half-tracks. It was to be a surprise attack.
I remember stretching out and reading the same letter over and over again, when suddenly there was a commotion as an Egyptian army truck roared past us. He shouldn't have been coming from the direction that he came from, but there he was. We were caught completely off guard. We quickly mounted our jeeps and sped towards the airfield realizing that it would now be an alerted garrison. We dismounted and rushed towards the barbed wire fence with our machine guns. We started giving covering fire with me acting as AIbert's No.2 keeping the ammo belt out of the dirt, when I looked up to see an Egyptian spitfire bearing down on our line of machine guns. I said to myself "machine gun fire"---no machine gun fire, "bombs"---no bombs. He must have taken off in a big hurry in order to save his plane from destruction or capture. Lucky us.
After some time we were told that the mission was being aborted, apparently the infantry was meeting stiff opposition from 20mm cannons that weren't supposed to be there. Such are the chances of war, if not for that one Egyptian truck it might have been a completely different story. Anyhow no one got hurt that I know of, and it didn't change the final outcome of the campaign. Also it gave us bragging rights to the title of "being closest to the Suez Canal".
The next incident that comes to mind is of us attacking an Egyptian strongpoint. An opening had been cut in the perimeter barbed wire fence, and Al Wank's jeep was first one through with me following closely behind. There was a large explosion from the direction of Al's jeep, and dirt and debris filled the air. My first-aid man, who sat directly behind me, moaned. I immediately thought "if he's hit, I must be hit". I started feeling my body to see if I was wet anywhere, the "wet" being blood. To my surprise, and relief, I couldn't find any indication that I was hit and I surmised that the moan from behind me was one of fear. There in front of me was AI's jeep badly damaged from hitting a mine, and the crew of three all standing besides the jeep---stunned. Al was standing facing me, and after a few seconds said "my cigarettes". He had filled the back of his jeep with cartons of Egyptian cigarettes, and at this moment they were his chief concern. I lied and reassured him that I would look after his cigarettes, trying my best to calm him in what I felt was his moment of shock. Luckily none of them were hurt, for there were two "saving graces" if you were unlucky enough to be blown up in a jeep. One was the blast shield that was under the jeep,this saved you from a lot of shrapnel. Two was the fact that your chances of being blown clear of the jeep were excellent, unlike being inside an enclosed vehicle where you could end up being tossed against the vehicle itself.
The rest of us jeeps continued our advance when the next incident happened. Once more there were explosions accompanied by dirt and debris filling the air, and when I looked up I couldn't believe my eyes---we had just been bombed by a biplane. It was a picture out of WWI. I later confirmed that the Egyptians had bought a number of Fiat biplanes from Italy; I wasn't hallucinating. The rest of this action is a complete blank.
A humorous thing happened when our platoon returned one day to our base in Abu Ageila. There sitting on his jeep with a great big bandage wrapped around his head, was Davie Boxer. I liked Davie for two reasons---what you saw was what you got, and he had a great sense of humour, even if the joke was on him. I looked at the bandage and went up to him and asked what had happened to him. With a straight face he replied" I got hit by an anti-tank rifle", and then while I was still digesting this bit of startling news a big grin spread over his face and he said "our anti-tank rifle". The jeep that he was on had a Boyce anti-tank rifle mounted on the front swivel instead of a machine gun. This weapon, that I was familiar with from my days in the WLI, was probably outmoded from the first day of WW2. At any rate, somebody forgot to lock the swivel mounting and Davie had the misfortune to have his head in the way when the gun swung around.
It reminded me of when we were in the artillery together, and one day Davie came back from "going to the toilet" in the field somewhere, with a big grin on his face. It turned out that he had crapped unknowingly in the collar of his coveralls and then pulled up his coveralls. Apparently just as he was about to do his 'business', the Syrian Harvard airplane came over our area. Davie was so intent on keeping an eye on him that he forgot to pull his coveralls forward when he squatted, and so ended up soiling his coveralls. He had a good laugh while relating the story, even though the joke was on him. May he rest in peace.
Four more items have remained in my mind all these years. One was the sandstorm, or maybe more correctly, the dust storm. One afternoon this terrible dust storm blew up. We all had goggles which we promptly put on, but you also had to find something to wrap around your face, as the dust got into your mouth and nostrils. You couldn't see more than a few feet around you, needless to say we didn't go anywhere. I also thought "good, there'll be no Egyptian planes this afternoon". That was the thing that worried me the most - airplanes. Maybe it was because I had to concentrate on my driving and didn't trust the others to keep a sharp eye out for the planes which seemed to make a habit of coming around about four o'clock every afternoon. Most of the time they were very ineffective, dropping bombs from a very high altitude and scuttling off home. Anyhow I don't think that the storm lasted more than a few hours, just one more experience in an already eventful year.
The second item that comes to mind was seeing this fancy looking car on the road, driven by an older looking civilian, heading obviously for our area. When I inquired about it, I was told that the man was a medical specialist who drove down from Tel Aviv every day to assess the seriously wounded. I couldn't help but admire this man, and thought to myself "there are special people in this world". The next rememberance was much more ominous. I remember standing near the jeep waitng for the command "sit on the jeeps", given in Hebrew by Motta, when there was a heavy swooshing sound through the air above us going towards the Egyptian lines. I must have said "what the hell is that?". One of the WW2 vets said "we've now got 105mm's". This steady upgrading of destructive power made a chilling impression on me.
Our last night and day in the Sinai were very interesting (for lack of a better word). We came back to our base at Abu Ageila in the evening, and after our evening meal, our 26-year old Battalion commander gathered everyone together and announced that it was our battalion's job to hold on to this spot no matter what, and that we should prepare ourselves for a long stay here. Then sometime towards morning we were woken and told to pack our things, we would be moving out shortly. Talk about being confused. But apparently politics had reared it's ugly head, and Britain invoked its defense treaty with Egypt in order to save the Egyptian army from an embarrasing defeat. We were informed that we had until 5PM to pull out of the Sinai. Our jeep unit was detailed to stay with the engineers who were to blow up a bridge plus other installations, and then to escort them out.
It must have been late in the afternoon when I was standing around waiting for the engineers to finish their work. when I looked up and there heading straight for me was my worst nightmare, 4 or 5 SpitfIres at what looked like to me to be about 50 feet above the ground. I probably broke the world record for the broad jump. There was a slit trench about 30 or 40 feet away, but I made it in one giant leap. The planes were British, and they came to check and see if we were actually pulling out. Shortly afterwards the engineers blew the installations and the bridge, and we headed back over the border. This was Jan. 8th 1949, according to the records.
I don't remember the sequence of events after this, but sometimes in late January our unit was transferred north to the army/air force base at Tel Nof.
11. TEL NOF
The first thing the army did was to give us leave, and a wonderful thing happened to me - I met Aliza and Max Keren. It happened like this. Albert Mantout asked me where I was going on my leave, and I told him that I didn't have any place in particular to go to. He then invited me to join him as he was going to visit a wonderful couple whom he was sure would be delighted to meet me. I then accompanied him on the fIrst of what would turn out to be many visits to Apt. #8, 54 Hovevei Zion. When we arrived nobody answered the door, but Albert soon produced a key that the Kerens had given him, and let us in. He also was familiar with the liquor cabinet, and we were soon sipping sherry.
When Aliza arrived she seemed to be genuinely pleased to see us, and greeted me very warmly even though I was a complete stranger. Max soon came home from his job as the assistant manager of the Gestetner Co., and was equally kind and welcoming. The Kerens were both about 44 years old at the time, and myself having just turned 21, I kind of looked at them as I would've looked at an aunt and uncle. They both spoke excellent English, and there was no problem with communication. Albert's connection to the Kerens was through Aliza who was the liaison person between the French volunteers and a local group called the "Soldiers Welfare Council" (rough translation).
The Kerens invited me not only for dinner that evening, but also to sleep over on their living room sofa. I was truly touched by their generosity, and accepted gladly. Anyhow in later years Aliza would always claim that I slept for two whole days, when recalling our first meeting. My version is that I slept until noon the next day. The Kerens were truly a wonderful, generous couple who became my family in Israel, and in time I also had a key to the apartment. If there is a special place in Heaven for people of this nature, then I'm sure they are both there.
The alternative to sleeping on the Kerens sofa was to go to the Town Major's office and get a chit for one of the hotels who were happy to stuff 4 or 5 or 6 guys to a room. I've even slept on the roof of one hotel, and the ultimate in discomfort was on a pool table in one enterprising establishment. The last resort was to go to a tent camp called Machaneh Yona (Camp Yona) which was located on the beach, so I was told, past Rehov Frischman which was then the end of the world. (By the way, Rehov means street in Hebrew, and like in French comes before the street name.) But from the stories that I heard about the guys who frequented the place, I said that the only way that I would go to stay in Macheneh Yona would be if Al Wank was to go with me as kind of a bodyguard.
I can't remember what I did exactly on that leave, but I'm sure that I went to the Soldiers Club on Rehov HaYarkon (the original one on the East side of the narrow street), and also to the office for the American and Canadian volunteers on Rehov Ahuzat Bayit. That was where we picked up our mail and left letters for mailing. That was also where we got a supplement to our army pay of one and a half Pounds a month. The Israeli Pound was then worth about three American dollars. If I remember correctly, you could get a pretty decent meal for about a third of a Pound. Anyhow the association for American and Canadian volunteers added, if I remember correctly, three and a half Pounds which brought our monthly total to five Pounds. You couldn't live lavishly on this amount, but because most of my leaves were for only a few days, I found that I could get by. My dad also sent me money, and so on one leave I enjoyed the luxury of having a room all to myself.
When this leave was over I returned to our new base at Tel Nof. What we found there was a complete mess. I don't think that there were cots to sleep on, although I may be wrong on that item, meals were meagre fare with an egg for breakfast and an egg and tomato for lunch, and worst of all not an officer in sight. This last item bothered me the most, because they were in my estimation and Canadian army training, responsible for our welfare. Anyhow somebody had stolen passes from the battalion orderly room, and so I and Al Wank and I believe Lee Rapaport decided that we would go to see Jerusalem. We found someone who wrote Hebrew to fill out the passes, and away we went.
We spent, if my memory serves me correctly, the better part of a week in Jerusalem where we were introduced to Fink's Bar and I discovered Carmel Hock wine. I'm sure that we spent most of our days seeing the sights, but again, what we saw specifically, escapes me. When we returned to camp the officers were all there, but nobody mentioned our absence. This kind of mystified me, but I thought "maybe nobody missed us". Fat chance. When three guys go A WOL for the better part of a week, they're missed. But it wasn't until Friday, days after we got back, that two military police showed up at my barrack and told me that I was going for a trial now.
Which officer conducted the trial, I don't remember, but he listened very patiently while I gave him all my reasons for going AWOL, including the fact that there weren't any officers to share our poor conditions at the time. All this was conducted in English of course. I expected to get a sentence that would see me confined to barracks for approximately 2 weeks, so imagine my shock when he said "one week in jail". At this point our new regimental sergeant-major, Naftali by name, took over. Naftali had just graduated from sergeant-major school and conducted himself and the proceedings in the finest British tradition. He even had a nice shiny sergeant-major's badge on a leather strap around his wrist. He informed me that I would be going directly to jail, and then took whatever I had in my pockets for which I was issued a receipt, and then asked for my belt and shoe laces. Then, holding up my falling pants and with my boots flopping as I walked, two military police escorted me to the jail.
The jail was an existing one room building which was undergoing renovations at the time. The building had just been designated as a jail, and I was inmate #2 in this establishment. There was some fellow in there before me, for whatever reason I don't recall. Al and Lee soon joined me, and when we surveyed the scene found the following: there were loose wires everywhere, plus pieces of steel piping lying around, which made a mockery of taking away our belts and shoe laces. But worst of all was the fact that they were covering all the windows with tin sheets. Al and I got two pieces of pipe and poked them through the last free window, which still had bars on it, and prevented the workmen from boarding up this last window. This of course brought Naftali on the run. We told him that we were not murderers or criminals, and that we required light and air. He saw the reasoning in this, and agreed that the window would remain uncovered.
We were also informed that we would not be allowed cigarettes, canteen privileges, or writing material. And that's where the open window became our friend. That evening some of the boys came to visit us at the open window, and when we explained the restrictions that had been placed on us, they then supplied us with cigarettes, chocolate bars, etc..We then had to find a hiding place for all our "illegal" booty. We managed this by lifting a ceiling tile and concealing everything in the ceiling. We next enlisted whoever was on guard duty outside our door to knock on the door whenever there was an inspection coming. The guards were great guys who played along with our game. We needed the guards because there was no washroom facilities in the building, and so we would bang on the door and holler the Hebrew word for whatever bodily function we had to carry out. They would then escort us to the privy where we would do our smoking, and then a leisurely stroll back in order to get some fresh air and stretch our legs. The guard would also escort one of us to the kitchen in order to bring back the meals for the four of us. This also was done in good humour. When it was my turn to fetch the meals, I would lead the fellow through my barrack in order to say hello to the guys and he never minded it. It was tricky though carrying the meals and trying to keep your pants up, while walking with flopping boots on. But, as I said before, it was all done in good humour.
The next day, or maybe it was the Sunday, we were told that we were to be assigned to a work detail. We put up a big stink about this, and said that if we were to be denied cigarettes, canteen privileges, etc., then we absolutely refused to go to work. This presented a problem for them, but after a while it was decided that we wouldn't have to work. This was a small victory for us, in what we looked on as a game of some sort. We also started marking the days on the wall with strokes, just like in the cartoons. The only sobering note came when a visitor from Winnipeg came to see me at the window. I reassured him that what I was in for was not a serious offense, and begged him not to tell my folks where he saw me. Anyhow just as we had settled in to prison life quite nicely, on day number 5 we were told that there was a general amnesty declared, and so along with Menachem Begin and his cohorts, we were also released from jail.
12. EILAT and the NEGEV again
I can't remember how we passed the month of February, but early in March we were part of the task force assigned to take the rest of the Negev right down to Eilat. This was to be a two pronged attack with the Golani Brigade following the Jordanian border down the Arava, and the Negev Brigade (our Brigade) attacking Eilat, which did not then exist, from the border with Egypt. The function of the Jeep Company was to travel down following the border with Egypt, and to act as escort to a jeep load of air force fellows with wireless equipment. The route we followed was over very hilly terrain. I remember standing in the jeep as it moved very slowly, and placing first one wheel and then another from boulder to boulder. That evening was when I had my first breakthrough in the Hebrew language. We had stopped just after dark while a few fellows went ahead on foot to check out an Egyptian police post not far away. After a while they came back and announced "ain ma leassot sham" (there is nothing to do there). I was thrilled that I fmally understood a complete Hebrew sentence, as short as it may be.
The next day we arrived at a pre-determined place which was a long flat area that was soon to become an airfield. AIl that needed to be done was to clear the rocks, which we did while the air force fellows set up their wireless equipment, and soon the base which was code named "sde avraham", I believe, was operational. It wasn't long before the first planes came in with more units and equipment. I couldn't help but admire the army's planning. The next morning when I woke up I couldn't believe my ears. What sounded like the Red Army choir, seemed to be approaching from the distance. It sounded just like the songs we were used to hearing in the WW2 propaganda films from Russia. But there as large as life, coming into view, was a platoon of Russian Jews with their Sten guns slung across their chests Russian style and led by a gleaming bald head by the name of Sasha or Misha. This time it was hard to believe my eyes, but I was thrilled by the fact that here we were, Jews from different points of the compass with one common objective - to defend ourselves and to show that we wouldn't be pushed around anymore. Apparently they had been sent to scout the area closer to the Gulf, and came back reporting that there were no Egyptian troops in the area.
The whole attack on the Eilat area was a bloodless, one shot I was told, effort. The Jordanians kept backing up as the Golani Brigade advanced, and I was told that at one point when they appeared to hesitate, one shot from one of armoured cars was enough to get them moving. We came into Eilat in the morning sometime. AIl that existed there was a rather sad looking small building that was used by the Palestine Police, and the place was called Urn Rash Rash. What was interesting was that about a mile further south was a lovely stone house which had been built by, and occupied by, an Englishman named Richardson. Apparently Mr. Richardson was evacuated by the British forces in Akaba, Jordan, shortly before we arrived. To the credit of the Israeli army they immediately put a guard around the house so that it wouldn't be looted or vandalized.
That evening we left Eilat and whether we went back to Tel Nof or spent the rest of March escorting convoys down through part of the Negev I don't remember. What I do remember is the area called Maalei Akrabim (Scorpion's Ascent), which was a series of very tight and narrow switchbacks from which I saw at least one truck slide off the edge and take a tumble to the next level. We also were the first to claim the areas known as Kurnub and Ein Husub, but when I consult the record I find that this took place in December. So much for memory, especially after 50 years. A good deal of this part of the Negev looked like what we thought the back side of the moon would look like, with depressed levels full of their own hills. A very strange but fascinating area. I also remember that one night we were caIled out and sent to Sdom, but the only thing that I remember of that trip was the huge change in climate. In the Negev.the night was cold, and I had my coat wrapped around me. At Sdom I could've worn a pair of shorts, it was that warm. I marvelled at the radical change in topography and climate in a relatively short distance. I also consulted the record on this trip, and found that this also took place in December as part of the gradual widening of our grasp of the Negev.
At some point we must have returned to our base at Tel Nof, from which we journeyed out one more time, I would guess around the middle of April. This time we went to the Beit Jubrin area, once more to patrol, I presume. We had one terrible incident when we were called out one night to escort a group that were bringing back the bodies of four Israelis that were ambushed in our territory. Not only were they shot, but they were also mutilated. I didn't look. By this time armistices had been signed, and this incident was in violation of that agreement. The army decided that the Arabs had to be shown that we would not tolerate these incidents, and so the next day in broad daylight in full view of the enemy positions, four Arab prisoners were executed. Not that the execution went smoothly. The four Israelis, who were from the scouts in our outfit, had great difficulty in pulling the trigger. The officer giving the order to fire had to shout it a number of times until the first scout managed to fire, which was quickly followed by the other three. The Arabs being executed apparently accepted this type of "justice", because they didn't flinch at all through the entire ordeal.
At this point in time, early May, a lot of fellows were getting discharged and heading home. Also, if I remember correctly, what was a kind of final parade of the battalion was held at Tel Nof. I guess that we must have been between 400 and 500 fellows and I distinctly remember that when the battalion commander was asked by the brigade commander "how many are ready?", when the battalion commander replied, a huge murmur went up from the fellows on parade. When we asked for a translation from the others, we were told that instead of the standard reply of "so many (the actual number) are ready"---"muchanim" in Hebrew, he replied "so many (the actual number) fighters"---"lochamim" in Hebrew. I couldn't have been more proud. It was as if this was the final payment for the past 11 months, and I couldn't have asked for anything more than that. But I was ready to go home, and I certainly was ready to leave the army which now was becoming more and more like a regular army with its necessary rules and regulations.
Mustering out didn't go smoothly, although miracles of miracles, I did fmd my lovely gladstone suitcase which my dad had bought for me before I left home. The army had kept it safe and sound in a warehouse someplace.
The problem with my discharge was in the number 7. I made my 7's the American way, without a horizontal stroke across the vertical leg of the 7, the way it is done in the rest of the world. This led to confusion, as the army kept trying to match my name with the number 14019, instead of 74019. But there was an upside to all of this. I was given extended leave and stayed in a lovely soldier's hostel on Rehov Mapu. There the next bed to mine was occupied by a fellow about my age, and he informed me that he was from Argentina. This was a revelation to me, as I didn't even suspect that any Jews lived in South America. He also informed me that there was a sizable community there. We spent quite some time in conversation, curious about our respective communities. He spoke no English, and I no Spanish, and so we conversed in Yiddish. I was thrilled by the different ties that bind us Jews together.
I thoroughly enjoyed those last few weeks in Tel Aviv. I would be out onto, then a relatively quiet, Rehov Ben Yehuda before seven in the morning, pick up a Jerusalem Post (maybe it was still the Palestine Post), go to my favourite cafe near the Mediterranean, and re-read my latest letter from home. Before lunch I would go to the bar at the Gat Rimon Hotel, drink a kummel (which I learned to enjoy there), jump out the open window which was about four feet above the ground, run across HaYarkon and into the apartment where two enterprising Yiddishe mammas served a real home-made lunch. Afternoons were usually spent at the soldier's club with any of the fellows that were still there.
They were probably the most tranquil weeks of my life, full of unspoken satisfaction in what I had done with the past year of my life, and not too much thought to the future. I did though accompany Leib Shanas and others to a meeting with a wealthy Canadian-Israeli woman to discuss possible financial backing for a proposed kibbutz in the Negev. Nothing came of this meeting, but the kibbutz did become a reality as Kibbutz Kissufim in the western Negev.
I don't remember saying goodbye to the fellows I served with, but I did keep in touch with Georgie Jameson who married one of the nurses, and who initially settled in her home town, the then charming village of Tel Mond. I also kept in touch with Lee Rapaport with whom I had discussed the possibility of us taking a place in Beersheba and opening up a kiosk, because it was rumoured that those who were in on the capture of the town could get a free house. Needless to say, nothing came of that.
When I finally got my army discharge, I had then to arrange my ticket home. This was done through a private agency on behalf of the government. The girl who was making the arrangements on my behalf, and I, had a misunderstanding. This turned out to my benefit. When I asked her how I was to be travelling home, she said "by ship". I thought she meant by ship across the Mediterranean, while what she meant was by ship across the Atlantic. Anyhow I protested and said, " but all those that I know are going by air". I meant across the Mediterranean, but she thought I meant across the Atlantic and she said, "OK, by air all the way". All this time she was making eyes at me, probably figuring that if she made eyes at enough fellows, one of them would take her to America with them.
The majority of fellows had gone home by the time that I left on June the 15th, 1949, but there was a substantial number who did stay on. They came not only to fight for a Jewish homeland, but for their own new home. More honour to them.
13. HOMEWARD BOUND
Compared to my journey to Israel, the trip home was uneventful. I wouldn't even mention it except to relate a couple of amusing incidents, and to give a peek into air travel 50 years ago. I was going to say a half-century ago, but that sounded too far back in time.
There was no EL AL Airlines at the time, so we left on a non-scheduled, unpressurized DC 4 bound for Zurich, Switzerland. We must have left very early in the morning because our first stop was in Rome---for breakfast. Meals were not served on planes in those days, and so you made meal stops. We were about a dozen young ex-army fellows among the passengers, and so when they brought us rolls, juice and coffee, we sat around very patiently waiting for breakfast. You know, cereal, eggs, pancakes etc., when we were informed that this was 'continental breakfast'. We immediately called for more rolls. We arrived in Zurich about lunch time, and split up into small groups. I went with two other fellows, and we started to look for a restaurant. We spotted a restaurant with a big sign that said KATZ. "Good, a Jewish restaurant", so we thought. When we went in, there were all the other guys, and they immediately started laughing. We asked them what was so funny, and they pointed to the menus which read 'Die Shwartze Katz'. The place was called The Black Cat, and they too had been fooled.
After 5 days in Zurich, I flew to Paris on a twin engine Air France plane called a Languedoc. Each row of seats had its own table, and judging by the dozen or so people on the plane, this evening flight was for the wealthy going shopping in Switzerland. When we arrived in Paris the customs offIcial marked all the bags without checking any. I spent eight great days in Paris with the Israeli govt. paying me 2500 francs ($8.00 US) a day, which was more than enough. My hotel room, in a student hotel, cost 215 francs a night, and a good meal would be about 350 francs. From there I flew to London (lunch), Prestwick, Scotland (dinner), Keflevik, Iceland (breakfast), Gander, Newfoundland (lunch), and fInally Montreal and the Ostrow family's hospitality. But I was one tired guy.
I finally arrived back in Winnipeg about Ju1y the 2nd or 3rd,1949, landing at Stevenson Field and walking out of the little red brick 'terminal' building, to be greeted by a warm and wonderful family. My 2nd most memorable year had come to a close.
In looking back over this year in my life, I realize how fortunate myself and the other overseas volunteers were from a few standpoints. The vast majority of us reached Israel after the first truce started on June 9th 1948. Only a small group had reached the country months earlier. The rest of us arrived as soon as we could, after the State was declared on May 15th. We had no way of foretelling what the future would hold. There was no way that we could foresee a war that would be waged by fits and starts. There was no way that we could foresee a highly motivated Jewish army with its genius for organization and equipping, defeating the Arab armies with their superior numbers and equipment without a terrible struggle. There was no way that we could know that the most difficult part of the war was fought before we arrived. There was no way that we could be aware of the tremendous casualties that were suffered in the initial stages (until the first truce) of what could only be described as a life and death struggle between uneven sides.
But we were prepared to sacrifice ourselves, and many of us did put ourselves in harm's way --- and I think that that is to our credit. Of course, there were those who did pay with their lives or suffered harm to their bodies, and for them it was as big as a war can get. I also feel fortunate that through happenstance, like many others, I ended up in a relatively small group of wonderful fellows whose strong bonds of friendship have been formed by their mutual experience, and whose strength has not diminished all these years.
A postscript. On October the 20th 1998, almost 50 years to the day that Beersheba fell, five of us "Jeepniks" had a 3-day reunion in a rented country house near Asheville N. C.. Except for Eskimo, whose real name is Robert Klaper and now from Kansas City, I had not seen any of the others for 49 years. What a warm reunion that was. All those years seemed to melt away with every story brought to light by faulty memories. We remembered more of the good times than the bad, and we were all proud of what we had done. There was Al Twersky from Pittsburgh, who went up on a mine behind me and lost his leg as a result. There was Al Wank from Sunrise Florida, who went up on a mine in front of me. There was Jack Benatan originally from Capetown South Africa, There was Eskimo, and then of course there was me.
Well, maybe this is a catharsis for my private memory, lovingly stored and nurtured in the back of my mind all these years. Who knows?