November 19, 2018

Front-Line Valor

As a journalist in the Yom Kippur War, I came upon a Patton tank company refueling behind the Israeli lines in Sinai during the last

week of fighting. Nearby, an artillery battery was firing in support of forces beginning to cross the Suez Canal through the hole in the Egyptian lines punched by Gen. Ariel Sharon’s division.

The tank unit was made up of young draftees. They had been in combat since the opening hours of the war 12 days before and stubbly beards covered their faces. The company commander, a kibbutznik named Amikam from the Jezreel Valley, said the company was to have been rotated but the men refused to come off the line. "As long as they want to stay, we’ll let them." Platoon commanders listened intently to an information officer just arrived from Tel Aviv as he described on a map developments on the Syrian front.

Iraqi and Jordanian forces had joined the battle there, he said, saving the Syrian army from a rout.

The soldiers projected a quiet confidence and maturity that was striking. They had held on during the first three hellish days of the war when some in the Israeli high command feared collapse on both fronts. Israeli armor had been stopped cold by a new weapon deployed in massive quantities — the Soviet-made Sagger anti-tank missile. For the first time since the tank was introduced in World War I, infantry had acquired the advantage over tanks. Like their comrades elsewhere on the front, Amikam’s company had by now figured out how to cope with it.

The soldiers praised the Egyptian infantry — "They fought like men, especially the first two days" — but said the Egyptian tank crews were no match. When they learned that I was from an English-language newspaper, The Jerusalem Post, the men I was talking with suggested I speak with an "Anglo-Saxon" officer attached to them, the term used in Israel for someone from an English-speaking country. A second lieutenant was summoned, a tall, pleasant looking young man. One of his arms was covered from wrist to elbow with a bandage or a cast — I can no longer recall which, only the incongruous whiteness of it amidst the desert dust.

His name was Alan. Since we could not identify officers by family name I did not even ask it. He was from Los Angeles, his father a doctor in Beverly Hills. Alan had come to Israel four years before on his own straight out of high school for ideological reasons and took up residence on a kibbutz for a few months before entering the army. His service was due to end in half a year and he intended to visit his family as soon as it did, he said.

He was attached to the tank company as an artillery spotter, a task that kept him at the forward edge of the battlefield, and he had been under heavy fire since the beginning of the fighting. "This is why I came here," he said. "Not that I want war but I’ve done what I had to."

A few days after the war ended, I received a call from someone at Alan’s kibbutz. Nothing had been heard from Alan since the fighting ended. His sister, who was in the country, had seen my mention of him in the newspaper. Could I identify the tank unit he was with so that they might try to track him down? His indigenous artillery unit had lost contact with him.

The man from the kibbutz called back a few days later. Alan was dead, he said. He had been killed when the tank unit was ordered to cross the canal, the day after our meeting.

The Egyptians were heavily shelling the crossing point where a solitary pontoon bridge connected the two banks. Alan’s halftrack had been hit but he escaped intact and managed to climb aboard another. This was hit, too, and Alan was killed.

In the subsequent years, I thought of him from time to time when I thought about the war. There had been something special about him, a sense of decency — for want of a better word — that he radiated. I was curious to know more about him but I did not even know his family name.

A few months ago, shortly after publication of my book, "The Yom Kippur War," I received a letter from someone who had read it. I had briefly mentioned my meeting with Alan in the book and the reader, an Israeli now living in New York, said they had served together in the same artillery unit during the war. He identified him as Alan Chersky, "a wonderful young man and a great friend." He also enclosed a copy of an obituary published by the Israeli Artillery Corps. It noted that after his arrival at the kibbutz at age 18, Alan had worked in the cowshed, taught the kibbutz children baseball and played clarinet for his own amusement. He was the first immigrant from the United States to have finished an officer’s course so soon after his arrival in the country. Alan, 22, was survived, said the obituary, by his parents, two sisters and a brother.

I managed to contact his parents whose grief over his loss was still palpable after three decades. Scant solace though it be, I was able to transmit his parting words to me: "I feel fulfilled."

Abraham Rabinovich, a graduate of Brooklyn College and a U.S. Army veteran, worked as a reporter for Newsday before joining The Jerusalem Post. The author of several books, including “The Yom Kippur War” (Schoken, 2004), he lives in Jerusalem.