Yom Kippur War: Remembering ’73 as Israel turns 73

My experience serving in the Yom Kippur War.

Leon Charney relaxing in the Sinai Desert after a ceasefire was declared. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Leon Charney relaxing in the Sinai Desert after a ceasefire was declared.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My family – my wife and I and three sons – made aliyah from Johannesburg on February 16, 1961, on a temporary resident status for two years. Two years later, we became citizens and I then joined the army, too old for full national service at the age of 33.
After a medical examination, I got a profile of 97 and was told to bring proof of my being an architect by profession. I came back with my bachelors of architecture degree, but was told I was being posted to the medical corps. No need for architects in the army! 
I was drafted to the administration section of a new, first-in-Israel, field hospital in Sinai. One of my tasks in peace time was to check addresses of our personnel for an emergency call-up, including looking for addresses in dark streets of Jerusalem in winter.
On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1973, while we were sitting with friends, their son came from shul to report that doctors were being called up.
Early the next morning, my commander, Nathanson, called me to report at 8:30 a.m. at our unit’s address in Jaffa, driving with a big sign on the window – “on military service.” 
I was given a list of whom to fetch and take directly to the airport, waiting for prime minister Golda Meir to order mobilization, which came at 10:30. I picked up four doctors, took them to the airport and went home.
The next morning at 06:30, my wife took me to Tzrifin, where our equipment was stored and where I was told to report. I later heard that the first doctors arrived just before the first injured.
With equipment loaded and more men arriving, we drove on trucks to our Sinai hospital (which was in the early construction stage) in Refidim. 
We drove for five hours, having tanks, ambulances and other military vehicles overtake us.
The whole hospital was just being erected, so the whole hospital was in tents that we helped set up. At its largest stage we were over 600 personnel including over 250 doctors and nurses. Largest field hospital in the world.
There were different administrations – medical and supportive, which included us. During the first few nights, we slept under the stars where we also ate cold, prepackaged food made for the army.
Our administration office was opposite the helicopter pad, which was continually bringing in the wounded from the frontline, which I avoided watching as I cannot take seeing blood on injured people. Half our office was under a concrete roof only, part of the permanent future hospital.
Next door to us was a large air force base called Refidim, where we had a small clinic. One of the nurses was killed when an Egyptian plane attacked us with gunfire.
For me it was the first time under attack, which I got through without fear. Suddenly our non-medical commander, Avi, appeared (he had been touring Africa), and he called Uzi, who was in charge of us, and afraid to move off the concrete roof (we used to bring him food!) 
“Uzi, I hear your deli shop in Herzliya is shut and the food rotting and I am sure you are worried,” Avi shouted.
“I sure am,” he replied, so Uzi went home.
He turned to me and said, “You are now in charge!” 
Me? I had no rank or stripes like some of the others. He called me aside and explained that there are two positions in the army – rank and responsibility. I was now responsible! 
Before the war ended, I became a sergeant. Here are three incidents that I will never forget:
A compilation of postcards written by the writer to his family while serving in the IDF during the Yom Kippur War. (Courtesy)A compilation of postcards written by the writer to his family while serving in the IDF during the Yom Kippur War. (Courtesy)
The blood donation 
There was a call on the loudspeaker for anyone with blood type O – that’s me! As they took my blood, my blood pressure dropped to 60/30. I quickly received coffee and so on, and half an hour later got up.
Fresh blood is needed for after a complete blood transfusion. The next day, I saw the recovering, sleeping soldier. Our hospital had established a clinic across the Suez Canal and staff kept crossing over.
Eventually I managed to organize a bus converted to an ambulance for us and we crossed the canal and visited Port Said under siege, even going to its beach.
The trip home 
On my second leave home, I hitchhiked home from Sinai, by trucks, cars, anything that moved.
After five hours, my last car lift stopped to let me off at the Savyon entry where I lived, and a soldier came to the car hoping for a lift. I got the surprise of my life. The young soldier was my 18-year-old son, Danny! He was a Golani soldier, hitching home for four hours on his first leave from the Golan Heights, where he was stationed, after participating in the battle to take back the Hermon outpost.
That was an astonishing moment for both of us as well, as the driver, who was so touched by the encounter that he took us all the way home. I let Danny go in first, which was a huge surprise and relief for Menorah, my wife; such an emotional moment. Just imagine this whole coincidence. On my first visit a few weeks earlier, I walked in on my wife unannounced while she was hanging up laundry. 
My nephew’s injury
Mid-war, my sister from Tel Aviv managed to call me telling me that her son, Dani, was injured and in my hospital. I searched but was told he arrived two days prior, injured in the eyes and ears, and was not hearing and not seeing. He was a paratrooper, had crossed the Suez Canal with Ariel Sharon’s unit and was hit by a shell nearby. Apparently he recovered quickly, found the arms depot at night, took a gun and returned to his unit! Today he is Prof. Dan Aravot, chief heart and lung transplant surgeon at Beilinson Hospital. 
As most soldiers in those days were smokers and came directly from home, I organized a car to take me to the nearest shekem (shop) to buy supplies, relieving the tension.
I EVENTUALLY left with the last group closing up to go home in mid-February.
Our eldest son, Danny, ended his army service as a lieutenant-colonel, volunteering as an intelligence officer in a reserve unit on the Lebanese front. Our second son, David, was a transportation helicopter pilot, also a lieutenant-colonel, and flew all the Egyptian-Israeli peace participants over Israel.
Upon landing, as Menachem Begin, Ezer Weizman and others exited, Anwar Sadat thanked the pilots and invited them to visit Cairo. Our youngest son, Johnny, was an Apache helicopter fighter pilot, serving until the age of 45, retiring with the rank of colonel and volunteering as a coordinator between air and ground forces.
Today we live in a completely different Israel. Today after the pandemic, Israel is again climbing in all fields, science, technology, conservation, agriculture and health, leading Israel to continue being “an example unto nations.” May I continue serving my family and community as I have always been doing.