The Godfather of the IDF

John Henry Patterson, godfather of what is now the IDF, and a modern Israeli hero

Credit:(Photo: "With the Judaeans in the Palestine Campaign," 1922)

John Henry Patterson (November 10, 1867 – June 18, 1947)  Why you should know him: A man who lived an exciting life, Patterson played many roles — author, hunter of man-eating beasts, soldier, Zionist, and godfather among IDF men.

Born in 1867 in Ireland, John Henry Patterson joined the British Army at the age of 17, and would serve until well into his fifties.

While serving in what is now Kenya near the turn of the century, Patterson had his most famous adventures.

In 1898, he was the overseer of the building of a railroad bridge over the Tsavo River. At the start of the project, two lions began attacking and eating people in the nearby area. The superstitious workers believed the lions to be evil spirits, and blamed the incidents on Patterson’s arrival. Over a period of nine months, the two male lions killed up to 140 people. After months of unsuccessfully tracking the beasts, in December of 1898 Patterson was able to shoot both of them. His workers, who had been ready to kill Patterson, presented him with a silver bowl to show their appreciation. In 1907, Patterson published his first book, an account of the ordeal, The Man-eaters of Tsavo. The book has inspired at least three movies, the most recent of which was The Ghost and the Darkness, starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer. The two lions were stuffed and are still on display over a century later in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.

Years later, during World War I, Patterson — a Christian — became a major figure in Zionism. He did so as the commander of the Zion Mule Corps and the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, also known as the Jewish Legion. Patterson’s men — Jews — faced harsh anti-Semitism from their superiors. Patterson sacrificed his own promotion in order to defend his men and make sure they received fair treatment. His men, in turn, supported and respected him. Decades later, those he led would become the foundation of what is the IDF (Israel Defense Forces).

After retiring from the military, Patterson continued his Zionist support — advocating justice for the Jewish people. One of his closest friends was Benzion Netanyahu, father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Benzion named his first son after Patterson — Yonatan Netanyahu, the Israeli hero who would lose his life during the 1976 raid on Entebbe.

But Patterson was not just the godfather of an Israeli hero — he was the godfather of the modern IDF. Before dying in 1947, his final wish was to be buried in Israel, the land he loved. Just this month, in December 2014, John Henry Patterson and his wife were moved from their plot in California and re-interred in the Holy Land, a fitting final resting place for such advocates and allies of the Jewish people and their homeland.

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