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Israel Defense Forces: North American Volunteers in the Israeli Army

by Ralph Lowenstein

Americans and Canadians served in virtually every unit of the Israeli army. Some had been students at the Hebrew University before the outbreak of hostilities, and quickly volunteered for the armed forces. Others were recruited in the U.S. and Canada by Land and Labor for Palestine. A few were students in Europe on the G.I. Bill of Rights when they sought out Israeli authorities and volunteered for service.

There were perhaps fewer than 500 Americans and Canadians in the Israeli army (not including a similar number that served in the air force and a handful in Israel's small navy). The army numbered about 30,000 persons on May 15, 1948, and approached three times that figure by the conclusion of the war in March 1949. So the American and Canadian numbers were not great.

However, since most were veterans of the U.S. or Canadian armies, with combat experience in World War II, they provided military expertise that, in many cases, the Israelis lacked or possessed in small numbers. Some brought this expertise to armor, artillery, medicine, nursing and vehicular maintenance and repair. A military specialty such as driving, which would have been common in the U.S. or Canada, was greatly needed in Israel, since few Palestinian Jews had cars and virtually none of the survivors of the death camps in Europe, now pouring into Israeli ranks, had ever been behind the steering wheel of a vehicle.

Just getting to Israel, halfway around the world from the Northern Hemisphere, was an ordeal for most volunteers. It consisted of being sent by plane and ship, clandestinely, to France or Italy - with the threat from the State Department that, at best, military volunteers would be in violation of passport regulations, and, at worst, could lose their citizenship. Once abroad, the volunteers' passports were exchanged for Displaced Persons' papers. With these assumed names, the Americans and Canadians were melded into the populations of Holocaust survivors living temporarily in run-down estates in Marseilles or port cities of Italy until transport to Israel arrived.

The final journey to Israel by ship was the most difficult ordeal of the journey. The ships were overcrowded; sanitation and food was inadequate; safety devices aboard ship were non-existent. In many cases, the Americans and Canadians became part of the ships' crews enroute to Israel. The trips were made during the hottest days of summer. Some of the smaller ships took ten days or more (in what would normally be a two or three-day sea journey) just to traverse the Mediterranean Sea to Haifa.

At Haifa, United Nations observers were usually waiting at dockside to assure that only bona fide displaced persons embarked from the ships - this, while Arab armies were streaming across the borders of Israel from the north, east and south. The volunteers had to pass this test with Yiddish learned from their immigrant parents. Those without that ability, were smuggled into the country.

Once in Israel, most of the volunteers for the ground and sea forces were taken by bus to Tel Letvinsky, a former British army base outside Tel Aviv (the site of the present Tel Hashomer Hospital), where uniforms - or, more precisely, pieces of uniforms - were distributed, and rudimentary Hebrew lessons begun. At the same time, they were subject to a "shaping up" process: officers from combat and service units would travel to Tel Letvinsky to see which new recruits filled specific needs of the unit. Some of the volunteers were assigned to units and went into combat within a few days of arriving in the country.

The weapons of the Israeli army were nothing like the weapons the Americans were used to. The greatest number of rifles and machineguns were of German design, having been purchased from Czechoslovakia. Sten guns, a simple sub-machine gun, were made in Israel, as were the armored cars used by the few armored units. There was no artillery and no tanks, except for two British Cromwells transferred to the army by British defectors and one Sherman welded together from scrap. The only familiar vehicle, other than jeeps, was American halftracks, purchased as salvage in European depots. Lionel Drucker, a Canadian, provided the Israeli army with its first instruction in tank maintentance and tactics.

Although Americans and Canadians were assigned to virtually every Israeli unit, a large number ended up in the two battalions - one infantry and one armored - of the 7th Brigade. The 7th was the newest brigade in the Israeli army, and had been decimated in the failed attack on the Latrun fortress blocking the road to Jerusalem. Thus, at the time when most Americans and Canadians arrived in Israel, around mid-summer of 1948, the 7th had the greatest need for fresh bodies.

One of the first Americans to join the fight for Israeli independence was Mickey Marcus, a West Point graduate, a World War II combat colonel and a former New York City police commissioner. He wrote Israel's first field manual, and helped the fledgling army with logistics. He probably would have become one of the highest ranking Israeli field commanders had he not been killed, tragically, by one of his own sentries during the campaign to open a new road to surround Jerusalem.

The highest ranking North American in the army following Marcus's death was a Canadian, Ben Dunkelman, who became commanding officer of the 7th Brigade. Dunkelman had had a distinguished career as a combat officer in the Canadian army in Europe during World War II. The 7th Brigade, with its large component of Americans and Canadians in the 72nd Battlion (infantry) and 79th Battalion (armor) spearheaded the campaign that cleared the northern Galilee of Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis and the Palestine Liberation Army in late October, 1948.

Some American and Canadian volunteers remained in Israel following the signing of the various armistices in March 1949. But the overwhelming number returned to their homes and families in the United States and Canada.

Five volunteers from Canada and 17 volunteers from the United States died in army combat. They were among the 40 Americans and Canadians killed while serving in Aliyah Bet and all branches of the Israeli military during the War of Independence.

Sources: Aliyah Bet and Machal Virtual Museum