‘The right thing to do’

Christian volunteers honored for defending newborn Israel in ’48.

Christian IAF airman Glenn E. King 311 (photo credit: Jerry Klinger)
Christian IAF airman Glenn E. King 311
(photo credit: Jerry Klinger)
It took awhile to find the gravesite of Glenn E. King. A few weeks back, I first discovered his name while reading details of the history of the nascent Israel Air Force.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations approved a plan to partition Mandate Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Hostilities immediately broke out in the land, and a week later the United States declared an arms embargo on the belligerents. In reality, only one side was impacted by the embargo – the Jews. The local Arabs were fully backed by five surrounding Arab armies, some trained and equipped by the British, among others. The decisive moment in the struggle came as Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948.
Glenn King died three weeks earlier in a tragic air crash. As his C-46 lumbered down a runway outside Mexico City, one engine began spitting and smoking as the plane strained to get off the ground.
The aircraft was overloaded with a cargo of weapons bound for Israel before FBI agents could stop them. Its engines strained for power in the thin air. The C- 46 rose briefly and then crashed in a violent, fiery orange ball of death. Glenn King, the flight engineer, was killed instantly. The pilot, Bill Gerson, died a few hours later.
Glenn happened to be an American Christian. Ironically, a Christian was thus the first casualty of the Israel Air Force.
Al Schwimmer, the legendary scrounger who helped assemble the rudiments of an air force, flew to Mexico City to claim the bodies and bring them back to America. Glenn was 31. He left behind a widow and several children.
Glenn was buried in a cemetery at the end of a runway in Burbank, California.
I had a four-hour layover in Burbank recently and felt it was my duty to find his grave and pay my respects to this forgotten hero.
The Pierce Brothers’ Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery is the resting place for many famous early aviation pioneers. It became Glenn’s resting place not because he was a renowned aviator.
It was chosen because the Jewish underground, the Hagana, used the isolated airfield to smuggle weapons out of the United States to Israel.
When I found the gravesite, it was a simple flush-to-the-ground stone which read: “Glenn E. King, A Cobber, 1917- 1931.”
A Cobber? What is a Cobber? Some quick research showed it is an Australian word from the World War II era which simply means “friend.” They would say to each other “Good day, cobber!” Curiously, it is pronounced similarly to the Hebrew word for friend – haver. Whoever placed the stone for Glenn King recognized him as a friend.
Days later, I was invited by the American Veterans of Israel to come to West Point in New York for an annual memorial service for Col. Mickey Marcus. He was a Jewish graduate of West Point who served America with honor in World War II. When the struggle for Israel’s young life was at stake in 1948, he volunteered to serve with the Israel Defense Forces.
Marcus brilliantly reorganized and led the tattered Jewish recruits coming fresh from the post-Holocaust detention camps in Europe. He created a disciplined fighting force to help stop the five Arab armies who had invaded Israel.
Marcus was a brilliant tactician but tragically fell to “friendly fire.” One night he went outside of his lines to reconnoiter. Not speaking Hebrew, he was stopped by a sentry who demanded a password and misunderstood his English answer. The guard opened fire and Marcus died just before the liberation of Jerusalem. His body was repatriated to the United States, and he was interred at West Point.
The American Veterans of Israel hold an annual service to remember Marcus.
This year was no different, yet it was very different. The service to remember Marcus was also dedicated to honoring the non-Jewish friends of Israel who had served as foreign volunteers in the IDF during the 1948 War of Independence.
The Jewish volunteers came for clear enough reasons. The world had stood largely silent while Hitler and his accomplices murdered over six million Jews. But the Christian volunteers were more of an enigma. They were fewer in number, but they came just the same and for their own varied reasons.
Some Christians came for adventure, some came as mercenaries, some came for religious reasons, but almost every one of them came because they knew it was the right thing to do. The Holocaust was not some vaguely distant horror; it was a freshly uncovered abyss of human depravity that these Christians could not permit to happen again.
They all knew that choosing to fight for Israel was a risky proposition with scant odds for success. They came just the same. Some never left. Some of them rest to this day in the soil of Israel as respected heroes.
As time and history have marched on, the memory of these Christian figures has faded. But not on this Sunday at West Point.
The ceremony on May 1, 2011 turned into quite a remarkable day. America was marking its own Holocaust Remembrance Day. Hitler was confirmed dead on May 1. It was also the day that a team of US Navy seals finally caught up with arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden.
So it was that Jews and Christians gathered that same day to remember their common effort to prevent another Holocaust.
Old vets, young cadets, children, grandchildren and friends assembled in the Jewish chapel at West Point, overlooking the Hudson River Valley.
The memorial program was called to order by AVI director Rafi Marom. His reading of a quote from the Cadet Prayer set the tone: “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole can be won.”
The flags were presented, followed by the US and Israeli national anthems.
Maj. Shmuel Felsenberg, the Jewish chaplain of West Point, delivered the invocation. Six memorial candles were lit.
Israel’s Consul General to New York, Ido Aharoni, noted that “the Mahal oversea volunteers – both Jews and Christians – played an integral part in Israel’s victory in the War of Independence. Brothers in arms, yesterday and today... It is because of this brotherhood that Israel has withstood the threat of destruction.”
Among the assembled were aging Christian veterans and families of those who had gone to help Israel in her time of peril.
Augustine Labaczewski, or “Duke” as he preferred to be known, sat in the front row. He is a Polish Catholic from Philadelphia who learned to speak Yiddish better than most Jews when he worked in a Jewish bakery. After WWII, his friend Mike Pearlstein invited him to join in smuggling desperate Holocaust survivors into Palestine. Duke served on two Hagana ships, the Hatikva and the Trade Winds, before going ashore to join the Palmah and fight in the Galilee near Tiberias.
Duke was asked to speak – but all he could say was, “You have to continue doing the right thing, just do the right thing.”
In a quieter moment, he explained his motivations more clearly. “I think that when you see six million [Jews] are killed, how can you not go?... The only thing I could feel was that we had to win, there was no losing there.”
Buzz Beurling, the brother of Canada’s finest World War II fighter ace, came to represent his sibling. Some said Buzz volunteered for the excitement, but the reality was he came because of his deep personal faith. Buzz died in a crash in Italy and was buried in Haifa with full military honors.
As the memorial service for Col. Mickey Marcus concluded, I left convinced more than ever that Israel exists because Jews and Christians stood together in that day with one ideal and hope before them – securing the Jewish homeland. • Jerry Klinger is president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation; www.JASHP.org http://www.jashp.org/>