From the front lines in 1948

Ahead of this week’s Remembrance and Independence days, we look back at a first-hand account of the war that made Israel a reality.

By TOM TUGEND
May 5, 2019 01:23
4 minute read.
TOM TUGEND.

TOM TUGEND.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Shortly before 10 at night the first men leave their sandbagged bunkers and amble up to the main tent. Informally, they fall into three lines of five men each. A lieutenant leisurely checks their equipment. Beside me, an Israeli soldier translates in whispers: Bayonet? Two hand grenades? 100 rounds of rifle ammunition? Ken, ken, ken, b’seder (“Yes, yes, yes, OK”).

The sergeant hands out hard fruit candies from a tin can. Pushing two candies from one cheek to another, we move out by a narrow trail through the mountain-ringed circular valley across the Faluja-Hebron Road, and past the last Israeli guard.

“Good luck, boys.” (Final remarks always sound artificial in books or movies, but in our mood of slightly heroic renunciation the words feel singularly appropriate).

We turn left, cutting through our minefield. It is a cool night with a half moon. Some 1,200 yards in front of us looms the trapezoid-shaped hill which marks the village of Iraq el Manshiya, protecting the western approaches to Faluja.

We are through the minefield and cut to the left, walking along the side of the wadi. In the center of the file, immediately behind the lieutenant, the radio operator listens intensely to the instructions coming over his walkie-talkie. Once in a while, he moves forward a few steps and whispers to the lieutenant.

The man in front of me drops suddenly and before he hits the ground I am down too. The lieutenant crouches forward and checks the file. We wait 10 minutes. Then we slowly move forward again. I am intensely alive and aware of everything around me. Every movement or noise makes a sharp impression on my senses. Everything I see, hear and smell etches itself into my memory.

Eight hundred yards ahead of us our searchlights play their beams on the top of the hill. Suddenly they are turned off and the file of men is etched sharply against the skyline. As with so many experiences in the last months, the scene reminds me of screen shots from various bad war films.

The man behind me silently passes up a box of machinegun ammunition. I shift my rifle to the left shoulder and recover the distance.

Some 140 yards from the bottom of the hill, we walk around a clump of prickly pears. This is the landmark. I look at my watch: It’s 10:45, so we’ve covered 1,200 yards in three-quarters of an hour.

The lieutenant whispers to me in English. He lies down, beside him the radio operator and the first-aid man. Two riflemen 10 yards to his right, two riflemen two yards to his left. We are 50 yards from the Egyptian bunker. We can hear the voices of the Egyptian guards across a slight rise to our left.

Four of our men detach themselves and slowly crawl forward. The sergeant with a PIAT anti-tank rifle, two machine gunners and one man with wire cutters. Forty yards from the bunker, a sharp click, and they are through the wire inching forward. Suddenly a flash and a shell explode. A few rifle shots from across the rise, but no fire from the bunkers. Either the enemy guards are dead or too clever to give away their position. Our Spandau machine gun opens up. Silence, one more round from the PIAT.

The four men crawl back. The sergeant whispers and we move back too. Fifty yards further, a red flare goes up. We drop to the ground. A few rifle shots. The flare dies, we jump up
and immediately down again as a green flare rises above us, curves and drops beside me.

We are walking very fast now. After a few hundred years my stomach muscles loosen, the tension slowly drains from my body and in its place creeps a profound tiredness. The senses are dulled, the box of ammunition gets heavier with every step. I put one foot in front of the other automatically.

We are challenged by our first guard, “How was it, did you hit anything?” he asks. “Nothing much,” we say depreciatingly, and a bit contemptuous, as soldiers talk to those who stayed in the rear.

There is lukewarm tea in the tent. No jubilation or self-congratulations. It is part of the daily job. Only the talk, a little too intense, and the laughter, a little too loud, hint at the tension of the last two hours.

There will be another patrol tomorrow night, and another a day after that, and so on.

THIS ARTICLE was written in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, when the author was serving as squad leader in an antitank unit composed of volunteers from English-speaking countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and South Africa. My unit was part of a force encircling an Egyptian regiment in the Negev’s Faluja Pocket, com
manded by a Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, later president of Egypt.

Tugend sandwiched the Israel Independence War between his service in World War II, during which he fought with the US 254th Infantry Regiment, which was attached to the First French Army during the fighting in France and Germany.

Uncle Sam recalled him at the start of the Korean War, which he spent in a less combative position as editor of the Foghorn, a weekly newspaper for wounded GIs at the Letterman Army Hospital on the grounds of the Presidio in San Francisco.

Tugend was named to the French Legion of Honor, holding the rank of Chevalier (Knight).


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