Israel's Christian soldiers

Every Israeli schoolchild knows the name "Mickey" Marcus.

gutsee book 88 298 (photo credit: )
gutsee book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Every Israeli schoolchild knows the name "Mickey" Marcus. A West Point graduate and World War II veteran, Col. Marcus was also a legendary officer in Israel's 1948 War of Independence, the anniversary of which was marked in early May this year. His death at the hands of one of his own men is part of Israeli folklore. Dressed as a Beduin and unable to speak Hebrew, he was mistaken for an enemy and shot by a sentry guarding his camp.

Marcus was part of a special group of some 3,500 men and women, including a number of Christians, who came from 37 countries in 1948 to help defend the newborn Jewish state from Arab invasion. Offering crucial military skills that would prove decisive, they were known as the Mahal overseas volunteers.

Their task was one that many military experts deemed impossible. Among the doubters was American recruit Robert Leeds, who had learned to pack parachutes in the US civil air patrol. It was a skill he put to use in the War of Independence to airdrop supplies to isolated settlements in the Negev.

"We were all very apprehensive. I personally felt like it was impossible to win the war," Leeds recently told The Christian Edition. "I came to fight out of a sense of adventure, but didn't have much hope of victory at first. It didn't look good, and I didn't really believe in God at the time."

On paper, the odds were overwhelming. Five Arab armies invaded on May 15, 1948 - the day after David Ben-Gurion declared independence - armed with hundreds of modern tanks, combat aircraft, artillery pieces and transport, and tens of thousands of well-equipped soldiers. Against this, the Jewish forces initially fielded no modern artillery pieces, tanks or combat aircraft, few military transport vehicles and around 10,000 rifles and assorted small arms. Their meager weapons and supplies were scattered across the country and divided between three different militias: the main Hagana force numbering about 15,000, 3,000 Palmah troops from the kibbutzim, and 2,000 Irgun and Lehi fighters.

Into this chaos stepped the Mahal volunteers, almost all WWII veterans with desperately needed skills and experience. Of the 3,500 foreigners, 119 were killed in action.

A good number of the volunteers were Christian Zionists who came to fight for Jewish restoration to their land. One was Al Schwimmer, who later founded Israel Aircraft Industries. Schwimmer had been in the US air transport command in WWII, and knew a lot of pilots and ground crew. He recruited many of them to help smuggle aircraft, weapons and fighters into Israel in defiance of an international arms embargo. He did this via false companies and other illegal means for which he never apologized.

Operating out of airfields in Czechoslovakia, Schwimmer's pilots flew C-46 transport planes filled with disassembled Messerschmitt MA-109 fighters, B-17 bombers, and various other aircraft and supplies.

Now living in Pennsylvania, Mike Ondra, a bomber in the US Air Force, found himself working for Schwimmer after the war.

"Many of us didn't know at first what Al was up to; we thought it was a legitimate business. When we found out the truth, many of the boys quit. But I stayed on because I wanted to help the People of the Bible and believed it was God's will. I was proud to serve with the Israelis, and I believed God would give us the victory," Ondra said.

Evi Dahms, who recently published a book about her late husband Fred and his Mahal comrades entitled Gutsy Guys and Rattletrap Planes that Helped Save a Nation, voiced similar sentiments.

"Fred was very sympathetic to the Holocaust survivors. Even after he found out what Al Schwimmer was really doing he stuck with it because he believed it was the right thing to do. I believe that most of us were aware we were participating in a history-making event - a biblical prediction coming true. This gave us a cause, a purpose, a motivation to do all we could."

Although many of the Christians volunteered for theological reasons, there was no proselytizing and few organized religious services for either Jews or Christians. The foreign volunteers and native Israelis mixed easily, and for most there was no distinction made between Jew and Christian.

"The Jews were rather proud of the fact that these Christians had joined them and were proud to be associated with them," recalls Elias "Ellie" Isserow, a Jewish volunteer from South Africa.

On Jewish holidays the Christian and Jewish volunteers celebrated together. A Christmas party was even held at Tel Nof airbase south of Rehovot in 1950.

The Jewish volunteers were motivated by equal parts Zionism and adventure. However, these were seldom if ever discussed. Jews and Christians "just sort of homogenized," according to Isserow. Off duty, they would swap war stories and jokes and talk about future plans, including dreams of staying in Israel after the war.

Isserow has fond memories of the Christian "Mahalniks" he knew, saying, "they were good people, interesting people."

One was John Harvey, who came from Cyprus, where he had been operating a small private airline. He brought several De Havilland Rapide aircraft which he put at the disposal of the embryonic Israeli air force. A test pilot, he also flew aircraft illegally from England.

Another, Milton Royce Boettger, was a WWII veteran who had grown up in a Jewish quarter of Johannesburg. He had associated with Jews all his life and later married a Jewish girl. Boettger arrived with his best friend, a Jew named Dennis Gochen. Boettger became a B-17 gunner in the IAF, Gochen a navigator.

Leeds, the adventurous atheist, had several experiences that changed him forever. It all started when he was assigned to an Israeli "bomber squadron."

"I thought I'd be trained to use a Norton bombsight in a B-17 or B-24. This was a very complicated device, and I wondered how long it would take to learn," Leeds recounted recently. "But the first night, they took me to a four-seater Beechcraft Bonanza and told me to get in the back. Then they handed me several homemade 25 lb. concussion bombs and a 50 lb. Swedish 'bunker buster' that I had to arm by hand, as well as a packet of magnesium flares, and taught me how to hold each device over the side and drop it as we flew over the target. In less than an hour, I was a fully trained IAF bombardier!"

It was on a mission to bomb the Lydda air base (near Lod) that Leeds had a revelation.

"We were flying very low and all of a sudden the searchlights came up and we were illuminated. The tracer fire was so thick, I thought I could get out of the aircraft and walk on it. We flew through this metal storm and completed our bombing run. When we got back to the base, I got out and ran my hand over the entire fuselage. There was not a single bullet hole. That night in my room I went from being an atheist to being an agnostic. I knew it was a miracle I was still alive."

Another incident was to further shake Leeds.

"One afternoon an Egyptian Spitfire was strafing Tel Aviv. I got angry, grabbed a homemade Sten gun and went up on the roof. The Egyptian pilots would shoot at any target of opportunity, and I guess that's what I was. He came at me with all six barrels blazing. The entire roof of the building was shot to bits, but I didn't get a scratch. I raised the Sten gun and fired three rounds, but it jammed. He came around for a second run and again my weapon jammed," said Leeds.

"For his third run I simply threw it at him. It didn't come anywhere close to hitting him, but he didn't come back for a third run either, and I wasn't hit."

Leeds helped form the paratroop battalions that are still the elite units of the Israeli army. On July 4, 1948 he married Peggy, a Mahal volunteer from Finland whom he met at a hotel in Rome en route to Israel. They served together at the parachute packing plant Leeds established in Tel Aviv, but on the day they were married, aside from embryonic Hebrew, they could not speak a common language. Still, they were united by a love of Israel that they still share as they prepare to celebrate their 58th anniversary.

"I still feel a deep attachment to Israel and the Jewish people," said Leeds. "I know there's no way they could have won the war without heavenly intervention." D