Israel reborn: we were there

In mid-May of 1948, I was walking down Market Street in San Francisco when I passed a small movie theater that screened only newsreels.
May 19, 2015

In mid-May of 1948, I was walking down Market Street in San Francisco when I passed a small movie theater that screened only newsreels.

The outside marquee announced “The Jews Fight for Their State.” For the first time it fully hit me that the Jews — commonly dismissed at the time as cowards and draft-dodgers — were actually taking on five vastly superior armies.

I took the train back to Berkeley, where I was a junior at the University of California, but had a hard time focusing on my classes. With the school year nearing its end, I decided to join the fight for the creation of a Jewish state.

Why? As in every country after every war, here too a legend has grown around the roughly 800 to 1,000 American men and women who clandestinely joined the Israeli army, navy, air force and medical corps — that all of them are heroic idealists willing to sacrifice everything for the cause of the Jewish state.

Of course, in actuality, the motivations were much more complex. As described with only slight exaggeration by novelist and screenwriter Harold Livingston, a Conejo Valley resident who served as a volunteer pilot for the Israel Air Transport Command before and during the War of Independence:

“Ben-Gurion’s Foreign Legion — they took anyone. Misfits from America, English communists, South African Zionists, Soviet army deserters, Polish noblemen, ne’er-do-well soldiers of fortune. If you want adventure and excitement, come on over. … If you want to write a book. If you’re running from the police. If you want to get away from your wife. If you want to prove that Jews can fight. If you want to build a new land.”

As for myself, my reasons for going were mixed, too. My time as an American combat infantryman in France and Germany during World War II had left me feeling restless; my early exposure during the mid-1930s to Zionism in a Jewish school and youth organization in Berlin had left an imprint, and because a new Jewish state comes into being only every 2,000 years or so, I figured I probably wouldn’t be around for the next time.

But how to get there? Jewish communities in other English-speaking countries actively supported the volunteers, but in America, an infinitely more timid Jewish community than today’s worried that those crazy kids going to Palestine might raise the dreaded specter of “double loyalty.”

In the absence of real weapons, men of the 4th Anti-Tank Unit train on a wooden dummy gun. Tom Tugend is fourth from left. Photos courtesy of Tom Tugend

Eventually, someone tipped me off to go see one Michael Elkins, the business agent of the Butchers Union in San Francisco. I knocked on Elkins’ office door and asked him to get me to Israel. He blanched. Apparently I had bypassed a circuitous security system by just barging in, but Elkins finally agreed to start the ball rolling.

(Elkins, by the way, later gained considerable fame as the Israel correspondent for the BBC, reporting on the first day of the Six-Day War that Israel had already won, even as every other news source was proclaiming that armies from five Arab countries were about to crush Israel.)

My next step was to get a passport. At the time, every new U.S. passport issued on the East Coast carried the warning, “Not good for travel to Palestine,” but the San Francisco passport offices apparently hadn’t heard of the new provision, and that was to prove quite helpful later.

I finished my semester at Berkeley awaiting news about arrangements for my Israel trip. I went home to Los Angeles and took a summer job, but a month later was still without transportation. I either had to find a way to get to Israel on my own or enroll for my final year of studies at Berkeley.

As the school registration deadline neared, I decided to buy a train ticket to New York and set off with just a few personal possessions, my brand-new passport and the address of the Land and Labor office in Manhattan. The latter acted as a pipeline sluicing volunteers to Israel.

Upon my arrival, a man asked me if I had a valid passport. I said yes. He asked whether it was stamped “Not valid for travel to Palestine.” I answered no. 

“OK,” he said, “we have a ticket for you on a boat to France leaving in two days. Can you make it?” “Sure,” I said.

The ship, named Marine Tiger, ironically had been chartered by the U.S. Department of State to transport American students enrolling in European universities.

Thanks to my stint on the Berkeley humor magazine, the Pelican, I was chosen as editor of the ship’s mimeographed daily newspaper and assigned to a tiny cabin, which also housed the ship’s loudspeaker system. The only record available blasted out the national anthems of the member states of the United Nations; as a result, to this day I can hum the stirring martial airs of El Salvador and Liberia.

Three other Israel-bound men also were on the ship, but we had been warned not to acknowledge that we knew one another, so we went through an elaborate ritual of fake introductions as total strangers.

Clockwise from top left: Dirty, unshaven soldiers, including a young Tom Tugend, were known as “Beasts of the Negev.” Soldiers of the 4th Anti-Tank Unit inspect an evacuated Jordanian position in their drive toward the Red Sea. Tom Tugend, now 89, is an award-winning journalist and contributing editor to the Jewish Journal. He lives in the San Fernando Valley.

At Le Havre, France, we were met by an Israeli contact who put us on a train to Paris, and from there, on to Marseilles. At that city’s train station, another contact conveyed us to Camp Grand Arenas, which served as a transit camp for North African Jews as well as European Holocaust survivors waiting for boats to take them to Israel.

For a few days, we whiled away our time between training sessions by getting acquainted with girls in Marseilles and at the camp before being crammed into a creaky ship named the Pan York, which in an earlier incarnation had plied the waters as a banana carrier.

By this time, a temporary armistice had been declared between Jewish and Arab forces, supervised by a United Nations contingent whose job was to ensure neither side would reinforce its fighting forces.

Nevertheless, the Pan York set off, albeit under tight security. The ship’s hold had been reconfigured with planks, stacked four levels high, serving as “beds,” an arrangement familiar from concentration camp photos.

Nobody was allowed to leave the hold to go on deck during the five-day voyage to Haifa, and the Israelis in charge, laboring under the delusion that the English and American volunteers represented a sane and stable element, assigned us to keep order, and the human cargo in place, until the ship cleared the harbor.

When we reached the port of Haifa, while the genuine refugees passed quickly through immigration inspection, our Israeli chaperones had figured out a route to circumvent the U.N. inspectors and brought us directly to the waiting trucks without any paper processing.

Shortly after we arrived at Camp Sarafand, a former British base near Tel Aviv, the fighting resumed and the question, in our minds, was to which units we would be assigned.

At that time, the Israeli manpower distribution system, as least for foreign volunteers, seemed a throwback to feudal times, when the local baron recruited his own troops, mainly among the local peasants, by promising certain bounties.

My recruiter was Lester Gorn, a Hollywood scriptwriter who had served as a major in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Gorn had persuaded the Israel army command to let him organize something called the 4th Anti-Tank Unit, which was to consist solely of “Anglo-Saxon” volunteers. (One of the ironies of the time was that in stepping on the soil of Israel, “Jew Boys” from America, Britain, South Africa and Australia were instantly transformed into “Anglo-Saxim.” They then became members of Machal, the Hebrew acronym for Volunteers from Abroad.)

What inducements could Gorn offer? Well, the 4th Anti-Tank Unit would be a “democratic” outfit, he said, with no ranks or saluting and with all major decisions to be made by majority vote — except in combat.

How is that for irony — a bunch of Jewish guys firing a swastika-emblazoned gun at the enemy?

That offer was too good to turn down for a lowly ex-GI who instinctively disliked saluting officers, and off I went in Gorn’s jeep. We soon arrived at the unit’s encampment, where I quickly noticed that something was missing — there were no anti-tank guns in sight, only one wooden replica of a cannon. 

When I asked where the real guns were hidden, Gorn acknowledged there were none, but as soon as the Israeli infantry captured a gun from the enemy, he said, we would be in business.

Indeed, within a short time, our unit of about 60 men welcomed a 17-pound artillery piece, originally deployed by British forces in World War I, which had been captured from the Jordanian Legion under the command of a British officer.

We made do using this venerable weapon mainly as an artillery gun against Egyptian fortifications until the Battle of Faluja in the Negev, when Israeli troops surrounded a sizable Egyptian force under the command of one Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who would later become president of Egypt.

The beleaguered Egyptians fought stubbornly and held out from October 1948 until the armistice was signed in the spring of 1949. Our unit was part of the encircling Israeli forces, and one day we got an amazing surprise. A shipment of top-rated anti-tank guns had arrived from Czechoslovakia, originally destined for Germany’s World War II Wehrmacht.

The weapons were so new, they were still wrapped in the original oil cloth, which we quickly ripped off to discover a curious emblem stamped into the side of the gun barrel — a big, fat swastika.

How is that for irony — a bunch of Jewish guys firing a swastika-emblazoned gun at the enemy?

Our unit had a strange mixture of men, all from English-speaking countries, but with a variety of often-incomprehensible dialects. The best soldiers were the South Africans, responsible and levelheaded. The Americans, Canadians and Brits were more of a mixed lot, except that no one could understand what the men from England’s Yorkshire district were saying.

Finally, there were two young, wide-eyed Australians, who arrived fairly late in the game after taking a slow boat from their country to join the fight.

The youngest member of our unit was Jason Fenton, a downy-cheeked 16-year-old Brit who later became an English professor at Saddleback College in Orange County.

The oldest guy, probably in his mid-40s, was a Polish-born immigrant to the United States, who ended most discussions with the heavily accented declaration, “You’re full of s— like a Christmas turkey,” or, when spying a young female, urged us to “clean those rusty pipes.”

Jesse Slade was definitely the most exotic member of our troop. A Native American from Texas steeped in the tradition of the Old West, he proved to be a peerless advance scout. The last I heard of him, in a news report from Israel many years later, was that he had been arrested for rustling cattle from a farmer in Jordan.

My closest affinity was with Ralph Anspach, who later became an economics professor at San Francisco State University and the inventor of a board game called Anti-Monopoly. He is the central figure of the just-published book “The Monopolists” by Wall Street Journal reporter Mary Pilon, describing Anspach’s decades-long legal battle against Parker Brothers, owner of the popular Monopoly game.

In his memoir about our unit, Anspach wrote, “Tom Tugend used to volunteer for dangerous missions more than anyone else. He explained to me that one could only appreciate life to the fullest when coming close to losing it.”

Anspach is partially wrong and partially right. I did not obsessively look for dangerous missions, though I did volunteer for one or two night patrols to feel out the defenses of the encircled Egyptian troops in Faluja. 

But he is correct in describing my rationale for doing so. Above my desk at home I have posted a Yiddish proverb that reads, “A man should live if only to satisfy his curiosity.” I believe in experiencing as many facets of human life as possible, and that includes hunger and opulence, marriage and fatherhood, and occasionally risking one’s life.

That certainly doesn’t make me a hero, the most abused and overused word in the English language. In the minor challenges of daily life, I can agonize endlessly over minor glitches, disappointments and arguments. But by some quirk in my genetic makeup, I have never really worried about matters of life and death. I believe who shall live and who shall die is determined purely by random chance.

In what proved to be the last major action of the War of Independence, our unit drove down the eastern edge of the Negev along the Jordanian border, heading for the Red Sea. As we advanced, we were at times accompanied by a lone Piper Cub, serving as a spotter plane.

In the evening, we could hear the authoritative voice of the BBC declaring, “Israeli forces, under massive air force cover, are advancing south … ”

Around 5 a.m. on March 11, 1949, we crested the final hill, and spread out below us was the village of Um Rash Rash, consisting of two mud huts and a flagpole, the site of the future bustling city of Eilat. Immediately to the east was the Jordanian port of Aqaba, with two British warships at anchor, and to the west the border with Egypt.

On both sides of the bay, gray craggy mountains were turning reddish in the early sunlight while flanking the crystal-clear water of the Red Sea. Immediately, a jeep with a British officer hustled over from Aqaba to make sure the aggressive Israelis didn’t plan to attack the crown’s ally, Jordan. As soon as the jeep left, we stripped off our dusty fatigues and jumped into the waters of the Red Sea in the buff.

 After about two weeks, the war was finished, and with the passage of time, the role played by the foreign volunteers has grown in magnitude, especially among the air force lads. But make no mistake, the Israelis won their own war and paid the price in dead and wounded.

 Perhaps our major contribution was to lift the morale of the Israelis, knowing that their Diaspora brethren (and a fair number of gentile volunteers) were with them, atoning in a small way for their elders’ inaction during the Holocaust.

For most of us, our modest part in the creation and survival of the Jewish state represents, I believe, the most important act of our lives.

During World War II, GIs scrawled on the shattered walls of European battlefields the words, “Kilroy Was Here.” From that same viewpoint, the surviving volunteers of Israel’s War of Independence can affirm with some pride, “We Were There.”

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