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Mickey Marcus

(1902 - 1948)

David Daniel Mickey Marcus, a tough Brooklyn street kid, rose by virtue of his courage and intelligence to help save Israel in 1948 and become its first general since Judah Maccabee. After a distinguished career in military and public service to the United States, the 46-year-old Marcus wrote his name forever in the annals of Israeli history.

Born to immigrant parents in 1902, Marcus grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn where, to defend himself against neighborhood toughs, he learned to box. His high school athletic and academic record won him admission to West Point in 1920, from which he graduated with impressive scores. After completing his required service, Marcus went to law school and spent most of the 1930s as a Federal attorney in New York, helping bring Lucky Luciano to justice. As a reward, Mayor LaGuardia named Marcus Commissioner of Corrections for New York City.

Convinced that war was imminent, Marcus voluntarily went back into Army uniform in 1940, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor served as executive officer to the military governor of Hawaii. In 1942, he was named commandant of the Army's new Ranger school, which developed innovative tactics for jungle fighting. Sent to England on the eve of D-Day, he voluntarily parachuted into Normandy with the troops of the 101st Airborne Division. Marcus helped draw up the surrender terms for Italy and Germany and became part of the occupation government in Berlin. Admiring colleagues identified him as one of the War Department's best brains. He had a bright future ahead of him as a member of the Army's top brass.

In 1944, Marcus's consciousness of himself as a Jew took a dramatic turn when he was put in charge of planning how to sustain the starving millions in the regions liberated by the Allied invasion of Europe. A major part of his responsibilities involved clearing out the Nazi death camps. Here, Marcus came face to face with the survivors of Nazi atrocities and saw with his own eyes the piles of uncounted Jewish corpses in Europe's death camps. Following that assignment, Marcus was named chief of the War Crimes Division, planning legal and security procedures for the Nuremberg trials. Through these experiences, Marcus came to understand the depths of European anti-Semitism. Though never previously a Zionist, Marcus became convinced that the only hope for the remnants of European Jewry lay in a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

In 1947, Marcus returned to civilian life. A few months later, the United Nations authorized the partition of Palestine and the eventual creation of a Jewish state. Within days, David Ben-Gurion asked Marcus to recruit an American officer to serve as military advisor to Israel. Failing in his attempts to recruit one of his friends, Marcus decided to volunteer himself. The U.S. War Department granted Marcus, who was a reservist, permission to accept the offer, provided Marcus not use his own name or rank and disguise his military record.

Thus, one "Michael Stone" arrived in Tel Aviv in January 1948, to confront a nearly impossible situation. The widely separated Jewish settlements in Palestine were surrounded by a sea of hostile Arabs. The newly created Israel would have no defensible borders, no air power, a few tanks and ancient artillery pieces and almost no arms or ammunition. The Haganah was an effective underground organization but it had no experience as a regular national army. Facing it were well-supplied Arab armies determined to drive the Jews into the sea. The pro-Arab British administration in Palestine prevented the importation of military supplies to the Israelis.

Undaunted, Stone designed a command structure for Israel's new army and wrote manuals to train it, adapting his experience at Ranger school to the Haganah's special needs. He identified Israel's weakest points as the scattered settlements in the Negev and the new quarter of Jerusalem. When Israel declared independence and the Arab armies attacked in May 1948, Israel was ready, thanks to Stone's planning. His hit-and-run tactics kept the Egyptian army in the Negev off balance. When the Jewish section of Jerusalem was about to fall, Marcus ordered the construction of a road to bring additional men and equipment to break the Arab siege just days before the United Nations negotiated a cease fire. Israel had withstood the Arab assault with its borders virtually intact. In gratitude, Ben-Gurion named Marcus a Lieutenant General, the first general in the army of Israel in nearly two thousand years.

Tragically, Marcus did not live to see the peace. Six hours before the cease fire began, in the village of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, Marcus was unable to sleep. He walked beyond the guarded perimeter wrapped in his bed sheet. A Jewish sentry saw a white-robed figure approaching and, not understanding Marcus's response, fired a single, fatal shot. Marcus's body was flown back for burial at West Point, where his tombstone identifies him as "A Soldier for All Humanity." Hollywood would later immortalize Marcus in a movie, "Cast A Giant Shadow."

Ben-Gurion put it simply, "He was the best man we had."

Source: American Jewish Historical Society

Photo: Public Domain.