Above: Station Wagon Photo Credit: Michael Spiller Wikimedia Commons
Wall Street Journal, 1973, Yom Kippur War
Vignettes of the Yom Kippur War: Volunteers from the Bronx,
A Fleet of Station Wagons, A Vietnam Vet
An American Accent, by Ray Vicker from Tel Aviv
I had been driving from Tel Aviv since 3 o’clock in the morning, helping the little Fiat pick its way through the bleak sand and rock of the Sinai. Now it was dawn, and the soft, thin light filtering through the palms along the Mediterranean threw up harsh shadows on the trucks and tanks of the Israeli army base at Bir Gafgafa.
I pulled up at the side of the road just as two US-made F-4 Phantom jets flitted past me overhead, and I noticed that the group of naked soldiers lathering themselves under a nearby field shower hadn’t even noticed the noise.
On the other side of the road, the commander of an American-made Patton tank stood talking casually with another officer. I reached into the back seat of my car for a bundle of Hebrew-language newspapers I had brought up from Tel Aviv. Someone there had told me how hungry the men at the front were for newspapers, any newspapers.
The tank commander saw my bundle and yelled down at me: “You don’t have a newspaper in English, do you?”
I shook my head, sadly; this was a request I hadn’t anticipated.
“I’d give my left arm for last Sunday’s New York Times,” he said. Then, seeing the surprise I knew was on my face, he added: “Yeah, I’m from the Bronx. Where the Yankees play.” But he wouldn’t tell me who he was. “My mom doesn’t even know I’m in the army,” he said, “and I don’t want to upset her. I’ll tell her about all this when it’s over.”
‘I just got back’
The vignettes of the war overwhelm the memory, but they quickly create the clear impression that the Yom Kippur war was not altogether an Israeli-Arab war. It had a strong American accent.
On another day, I had picked up a hiking soldier on the road from Tel Aviv to the Golan Heights. He was carrying a rifle, and he had slung his steel helmet over his shoulder. He had crawled into the back seat to slump gratefully into a car, perhaps to sleep if he could. He didn’t want to talk much, and he was too tired to enjoy the pastoral, postcard view of the Holy Land.
“It was just the other day,” he had been told, explaining who he was. “I had been visiting my parents. I got back to Israel in time to get into this.”
The road twisted and climbed in sweeping curves up the escarpment, bringing the whole Sea of Galilee into view. Far to the north, sun glinted on the dome of the Italian church that marks the place where Christ gave His Sermon on the Mount. The guns boomed in the distance, growing louder as we surmounted the last ridge and swerved onto the Golan Heights.
The shelling on those heights didn’t provide much incentive for conversation either, especially as the Syrian border neared. At each shell burst, a plume of smoke and dust spiraled high into the air, lingering for a minute or two in the bright sunlight, reminding us that the road ahead paralleled the border.
Finally, he motioned me to stop by the side of the road. He was a soldier back on his duty turf. He asked me to call his parents when I got back to a telephone. He gave me a name and address in Brooklyn. “If you get a chance, tell them regards from their son, Ami. Everything is okay.” He got out, waved, and then he was gone.
Not everyone who comes to Israel gets to put on a uniform. In the cramped headquarters of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, David Miller, executive secretary of the Tel Aviv office tells of the young American with three years of fighting in Vietnam who appeared in his office recently.
He wanted to do something for Israel and had flown in on his own to offer his services. “But,” says Miller, a native of Baltimore who immigrated here nine months ago, shaking his head, “he couldn’t speak Hebrew. So he wouldn’t have fitted into our army.”
“Did you tell him to go home?” I asked.
“No. I sent him to the police force. I thought they might be able to find something for him to do where language would have been of no consequence.”
Call from Brother
Paul Greenfield, the tall, 40 year old president of Abner Cleaning Co. in New York City, claims to be one of the first Americans to have rushed here to offer his bit and get a vital job. His brother, Murray, is a Tel Aviv businessman who first visited Israel in 1947, before it even had that name as an independent nation, and who settled here to build an auto sales and appliance company and an art gallery.
Says Murray: “As soon as I heard the announcement about the war on Yom Kippur, I phoned Paul in New York, and suggested he fly over to see what he could do.”
Says Paul: “I phoned El Al (Israel airlines) and got on to the next plane, beating the crush which developed the next day when all the Israelis abroad wanted to go home.”
Murray immediately headed for the Defense Ministry headquarters in central Tel Aviv. He persuaded them that Israel needed a citizens’ transport corps because the army had requisitioned the civilian truck- fleet. Says he, “Most of the people in Tel Aviv who own station wagons are Americans, and I know who they are because I sold the cars to them”.
When the Defense Ministry said yes, Murray quickly organized a fleet of 200 station wagons, and he put his brother, Paul, to work. Murray’s wife, Hana, who usually runs the family art gallery, was put behind the wheel of a Ford Torino, and she set out like any American suburban wife delivering the kids to the dentist.
The first job for this fleet was a rush job to distribute hundreds of stretchers to hospitals around the country. “Second day of the war and we were handling hundreds of stretchers,” says Murray, “I felt sick thinking of the casualties.”
Says Paul: “In the first week I drove 1,500 miles from one end of the country to the other on this and other jobs.”
A typical job: Drive to Jerusalem on army orders to pick up several hundreds of pounds of scrap bronze in a yard t and haul them to a foundry in Hadera, a town halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv.
The foundry melted the metal and poured it into a casting desperately needed by the army. That casting was still warm when Paul hustled it into the station wagon and rushed the component to an army base.
Station Wagons by Murray Greenfield
In those days, all vehicles in Israel – cars, trucks, everything that was licensed by the Motor Vehicles Registry, were also registered with the Israeli army.
When the war broke out on Yom Kippur, the next day I went to the Ministry of Defense’s offices - and it was not easy to get in – lots of security - and I met someone in the transportation department. I explained to him that I could mobilize several hundred station wagons with drivers whose cars were not registered with the Ministry of Defense and whose owners had not been drafted because they were new immigrants, or at least someone in the family was at home using the car. They couldn’t believe me and actually didn’t think it would be necessary to mobilize these people and their station wagons. But they gave me two pieces of paper that allowed the owner to drive into a security zone with a car. I took those two pieces of paper. In those days you made copies by putting two pieces of paper plus the document into a heat machine and out came a photostatic duplicate. I immediately made copies as I was the owner of one of these copying machines. I needed it for my business, which was a duty-free shopping business especially designed for new immigrants.
And I waited for the Defense Ministry’s call. By noon of that day I had two calls, so I looked at my list of cars sold to new immigrants, and of course both persons immediately responded and said yes, they wanted to be part of the war effort. As the day progressed the telephone calls became more frequent, and my staff, mostly women, and I started calling up people and preparing them in case they were needed.
Suddenly I found out that the drivers, being new immigrants, didn’t know Hebrew. In order to solve that situation, we contacted English-speaking families whose children were born in Israel or at least had a good knowledge of English and Hebrew, and we started to match these young people with non-Hebrew speaking drivers and their cars. Within a few days we had several hundred cars traversing the country, carrying all kinds of parts for tanks and airplanes, and spare parts for trucks. Otherwise they would be carrying an officer and a psychiatrist to visit homes to tell people that their loved ones had been killed. My office broke up into day and night shifts, and we carried on until we had a new request a few days later.
The bakeries needed people to work day and night. They needed employees to come to work. There were almost no buses so we developed something new which we called the ‘mafia run’. It’s a play on words. In Hebrew the word mafia means bakery, but of course in English we all know what it is. And so we helped supply the troops and the country with bread.
One of the very interesting things that happened was that the army wanted to supply coupons for the fuel for the cars. They were taken aback when the owners and the drivers of the cars said “no” – that was the least that they could also contribute.
An interesting story that was a kind of a side issue - people came in off the streets saying they wanted to help and they had cars. Some were even tourists and they wanted to drive, and I wondered how they knew how to get to my office, so I questioned them. They said there was a sticker on their front window saying “Go with your car to Murray Greenfield if you want to help the war effort”. I found out that some individual who knew what we were doing had printed up labels and put them on the windows of cars, telling them where to go to volunteer.
Over the years many different people whom I have met have told me how thankful they were that they weren’t just new immigrants sitting at home while the country was mobilized.