In the past, we’ve written about the Jewish Americans who, after World War II, went to the Holy Land to fly German fighter planes during Israel’s War of Independence. Now, writing at The Times of Israel, another veteran tells of leaving the U.S. for Israel in 1948 to fight for the Jewish state on the ground:
The Israeli manpower distribution system, as least for foreign volunteers, was a throwback to feudal times, when the local baron recruited troops by promising certain bounties. My recruiter was Lester Gorn, a Hollywood scriptwriter who had served as a U.S. Army major during World War II.
Gorn had persuaded Israel’s army command to let him organize something called the 4th Anti-Tank Troop, which was to consist solely of English-speaking volunteers, or “Anglo-Saxim” in local parlance. The troop would be a “democratic” outfit, Gorn said, with no ranks or saluting and with all major decisions to be taken by majority vote — except in combat.
For a lowly ex-GI with little fondness for military punctilio, the offer was too good to turn down and off I went in Gorn’s jeep. We soon arrived at the unit’s encampment and I quickly noticed that something was missing: There were no anti-tank guns in sight, only one wooden replica of a cannon.
When I pointed out the omission, Gorn assured me that as soon as the Israeli infantry captured a gun from the enemy, we would be in business.
Indeed, within a short time, the unit welcomed a 17-pound artillery piece that had been seized from the Jordanian Legion. We made do with this venerable weapon until the battle of Faluja, where Israeli troops surrounded a sizable Egyptian force under the command of one Col. Abdel Nasser, later to become president of Egypt.
The beleaguered Egyptians fought stubbornly, but one day our unit, part of the encircling Israeli force, received a perfect present – a shipment of anti-tank guns from Czechoslovakia that was originally destined for Germany’s Wehrmacht. The weapons were so new, they were still wrapped in the original oilcloth, which we quickly ripped off to discover a curious emblem stamped into the side of the gun barrel – a big, fat swastika.
Irony doesn’t get much better than that – a bunch of Jewish guys firing a swastika-emblazoned gun at the enemy…
After the war, the role played by the foreign volunteers was largely ignored by historians. Hollywood had the opposite problem – their renderings tended to exaggerate their contribution. Make no mistake – the Israelis won their own war, and paid the price in dead and wounded.
Still, for most of us, our small 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.” In a similar sense, the surviving volunteers of the War of Independence can affirm with some pride that we were there.