A tribute whose time has come

Zipporah Borowsky Porath has published a booklet about Mickey Marcus, Israel’s first general... 61 years after she was asked by David Ben-Gurion.

June 4, 2010 23:21
Col. David (Micky) Marcus

Col Micky Marcus. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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From January 1948 until his tragic death on June 11, 1948, American West Point graduate Col. David (Mickey) Marcus (nom de guerre, Mickey Stone) was a well-kept Israeli military secret. During that time, he served as military adviser to David Ben-Gurion and the underground Hagana, produced training manuals for the nascent IDF and directed the construction of the Burma Road, which ended the stranglehold on besieged Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion appointed Marcus supreme commander of the Jerusalem front in May, two weeks before his death, with the rank of general (Israel’s first general).

Marcus was killed by a young sentry when he was mistaken for an enemy intruder when returning to the Israeli position on the night of June 11. As Marcus spoke very little Hebrew, he did not understand the sentry’s request for a password, and the soldier did not comprehend Marcus’s response in English.  

On June 12, 1948, prime minister David Ben-Gurion, foreign minister Moshe Sharett and high-ranking military officials headed the list of pallbearers who carried the casket of General Marcus through the streets of Tel Aviv prior to a memorial service attended by thousands of Israelis. Ben-Gurion eulogized this American volunteer who had “succeeded in making outstanding contributions to the building and perfecting of our war machine. His name,” Ben-Gurion stressed, “will live forever in the annals of the Jewish people... and American Jewry will be proud of its great and gallant son who has given his life for the liberation of Israel.”

From Tel Aviv, the body of Mickey Marcus was flown back to the US, where he was buried at West Point, the only American soldier buried there who died fighting for a foreign country. In June 1949, a year after Marcus’s death, Ben-Gurion wanted to honor the memory of this gallant hero in an English publication. Fellow American Zipporah Borowsky Porath, a young journalist who arrived in Jerusalem in 1947, was assigned by the IDF to interview Ya’acov Dori, Yigael Yadin, Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Sadeh, Shlomo Shamir and others who had served with Marcus while their impressions were still fresh. However, that project never saw the light of day.

Now, 61 years later, based on her on-the-spot notes from 1949, Porath has written a 42-page booklet entitled Col. David (Mickey) Marcus – A soldier for all humanity, published this spring by the American Veterans of Israel Legacy Corp. and the American Jewish Historical Society.

“What I learned about Marcus,” she said in a recent interview, “is fascinating and complex and is still pertinent today.”

In this new work, Porath provides “a vivid, animated and authentic picture of the man, his motivation and his contribution to the Israel Defense Forces.”

The publication of the booklet has been especially timed, after six decades, to highlight a memorial tribute to Mickey Marcus sponsored by US Jewish War Veterans in Jerusalem Post 180. The event, which is open to the public, takes place on Thursday at 2 p.m. at the Ammunition Hill Auditorium, and Porath will be the featured speaker. (For more information, contact Post Commander Dan Nadel at shirlidn@bezeqint.net).

Porath is a freelance writer and editor who served as a Hagana medic in the siege of Jerusalem and in the fledgling IAF. She has been living in Israel since the establishment of the state. In 1988, the letters she had written home to her family in the US during the War of Independence, capturing the historic events as they occurred with freshness and immediacy, were published by the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. Entitled Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948, the volume has gone through five editions in English and one in Hebrew. The final letter in Porath’s book is the only letter about Israel’s War of Independence and birth of the state to be included in the prestigious 20th century anthology Letters of the Century.

David (Mickey) Marcus was born in Brooklyn in 1901. Though he was a “scrawny kid,” he was accepted to the US Military Academy at West Point on the strength of a spectacular high school athletic record and gained fame there as an intercollegiate welterweight champion boxer. Following his graduation in 1924, he retired from the service in the late 1920s and went on to earn a law degree. A man of great integrity, he was appointed by New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to be the city’s commissioner of corrections.

In 1940, Marcus put his legal career on hold and reenlisted in the US Army, serving first as a major war planner at the Pentagon. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was made commandant of the new Ranger School, developing innovative tactics for jungle fighting in the Pacific. Switching to the European military theater, Marcus parachuted into Normandy as part of the D-Day assault. He was a witness to the Nazi atrocities in liberated concentration camps, and that experience touched him deeply. By V-E Day he was a full colonel, heading the War Department’s Civil Affairs Division.

In early 1947, at age 46, he returned home to his wife to resume his promising legal career. However, later that year Ben-Gurion instructed veteran Hagana commander Shlomo Shamir to secretly recruit high-level military officers to help create a modern army for the Jewish state-to-be. As Shamir told Porath, “Mickey Marcus searched in vain for West Point retired generals. All were fearful of jeopardizing their careers. Mickey decided to go himself.”

He told Shamir, “I may not be the best man for the job, but I am the only one willing to go.”

On one occasion, asked by his Palmah jeep driver why he had come, Marcus thrust out his wrist dramatically and said, “See these veins? The blood of Abraham flows through them. That’s what brought me here... You gotta help your brother out in a fight.”

In a letter to his wife he wrote, “I doubt if I have ever done anything – anywhere – any time, that is more worthwhile.”

In his first report to Ben-Gurion, after inspecting the ranks of the partisan army, he wrote, “I found less than I expected and more than I hoped for.”

Marcus said he considered “the fighters’ innate intelligence, ability to improvise, outstanding devotion and self-sacrificing spirit powerful weapons in themselves, the makings of a first-class army.”

In her booklet, Porath quotes from an assessment of Marcus by Ya’acov Dori, the new state’s first IDF chief of General Staff: “He was like a shot in the arm for the army, injecting confidence and optimism… He taught us to learn the weaknesses of the enemy and to use this knowledge to our advantage… He pressed us to consider the practical side of military organization… We were in awe of his quick grasp of situations, his courage and humanity… His ability to acclimate and adjust to what we had here despite his vast military training and experience. He was a most unconventional regular soldier.”

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