Veterans: In the navy

Aryeh Wetherhorn, 76, from Rhode Island to Ashkelon, 1972.

ARYEH WETHERHORN stands next to a self-portrait holding memorabilia from the navy. (photo credit: JUNE GLAZER)
ARYEH WETHERHORN stands next to a self-portrait holding memorabilia from the navy.
(photo credit: JUNE GLAZER)
Aryeh Wetherhorn received only one combat injury over the course of seven years in the US Navy and another seven in the Israel Navy.
It happened on the first day of the Six Day War in 1967. He was studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that year, having completed college and three years of active service in the US military.
“The day the fighting started, some fellow students and I asked if we should set up an emergency clinic at the National Library and were told ‘Not yet,’ so we went out and set it up anyway,” Wetherhorn relates.
“When the sirens went off, we ran around campus getting people into shelters. Someone was firing from the Old City and a spent bullet came flying into Givat Ram, through the open door of the building I was in, slid along the floor and tumbled down the stairs. I went to pick it up. It was very hot and I burned my fingers.”
Fortunately, the emergency clinic wasn’t busy.
“One student had been injured by a shell fragment. We gave him some aspirin and sent him back to the dorm,” he recalls.
“The tennis courts were being used as a prisoner-of-war interrogation compound. An Egyptian prisoner captured in the Old City, was in danger of dying from dehydration because he was afraid we would poison the water. We sent one of our medics and a civilian doctor, both originally from South Africa. By speaking to him in English, the medic and doctor were able to persuade the Egyptian it was safe to drink.”
After that adventure, he returned to the United States and applied for voluntary recall to four more years in the US Navy, requesting to be assigned to the Pacific fleet. Just after reporting to his new ship in San Diego, he met Madeline Engberg, and they wed in June 1968.
“My wife says the way I proposed was part of a conversation. First I told her we’d go live in Israel. She said, ‘Really?’ Then I said, ‘By the way, Will you marry me?’ She said yes to both, but she was much more enthusiastic about the idea of getting married.”
Their firstborn, Talya, was born while her father was on a ship near the Philippines.
He was awarded the Navy Achievement Medal for his performance on that eight-month cruise, most of it off the coast of Vietnam. Then he was transferred to the Atlantic Fleet for the remainder of his contracted service, finishing in Newport, Rhode Island.
Talya called her parents “Abba” and “Ima,” and when Wetherhorn’s military contract was finished in 1972, they made aliya.
“I wanted to be here before the next war, and we just made it.”
In the navy, Wetherhorn’s Zionist passion was ignited as a student of history and math at the University of Michigan.
“I was active in a student Zionist organization on campus and I was in an Israeli dance group at the university Hillel House. We performed all over the state.”
BORN IN January 1940, Lee (later Aryeh) Wetherhorn was raised in a Reform family that moved from Florida to Colorado to Kansas City, where he graduated from high school in 1957.
“My parents weren’t particularly interested in the State of Israel, but I definitely was,” he says. He perfected his Hebrew during his year at the Hebrew University by intentionally hanging out with Israelis.
After making aliya, the Wetherhorns welcomed daughter Ronit during their initial brief stay in Ashkelon. They then moved to Haifa, where Wetherhorn intended to serve in the merchant marine.
However, before he could start that job, he heard back from a naval official he had contacted upon arrival.
At first, he was assigned to navy missile boats.
“I was the only officer on the missile boats who wore a kippa at that time,” Wetherhorn says. He was part of the Israeli raid on PLO targets in Lebanon during the night of April 9, 1973, an operation best remembered for the woman’s disguise donned by Ehud Barak, then commander of the Sayeret Matkal unit.
On the eve of Rosh Hashana, Wetherhorn started a new assignment at navy headquarters in Tel Aviv. At home in Haifa on Yom Kippur, he went to services in the morning and when he came home for the break Madeline told him the navy had called.
“I put on my uniform, had my wife make me some sandwiches, got into the car as the sirens started going off, fairly flew to Tel Aviv and then there was nothing to do until that night when the missile boats were sent out. We caught the Syrians and then the Egyptians, and after that they didn’t want to come out and play anymore.”
The navy then sent him to a computer course and he served another couple of years.
Sons Micha and Elisha were born in 1975 and 1977. One of Wetherhorn’s Talmud study partners in Haifa was part of the first group of families establishing the Gush Etzion town of Elazar. When the Wetherhorns felt ready to leave Haifa in 1979, the friend urged them to join the 17 families living in Elazar. They remain there today, where the population has grown to 500 families.
UNTIL HIS retirement, Wetherhorn worked as a systems manager for a computer software company. Madeline headed the English department at a local elementary school.
Though he left naval life, for the past 30 years Wetherhorn has been writing about naval history in Israel, Europe and the United States for various publications.
Active in Jewish War Veterans of the United States, he served as vice commander of Jerusalem Post 180 from 2012 to 2013 and as post commander from 2014 to 2015.
He also builds small model ships. He has given some away, but he still has a collection of 5,000 – mostly warships, which he paints in camouflage colors.
“I’m thinking of writing a book on American naval camouflage in the First World War because that touches on so many different things – how the brain perceives colors, the laws of warfare, and even art, among other topics,” he explains.
Wetherhorn also enjoys genealogy.
“The family tree I’ve built over the past decade includes about 7,000 names dating from 1810,” he says.
Every Tuesday evening, Aryeh and Madeline Wetherhorn participate in the Jerusalem Scrabble Club, purportedly the largest Scrabble club in the world. They’ve been members since its inception in April 1983.
The children are all grown and live nearby with their families.
“We get to see them often. Being a grandfather is a great joy,” says Wetherhorn, who currently has nine grandsons and three granddaughters.
“As we often say in our family, we never had much money, but we were always rich.”
Living in Israel, he says, “is a connection. I always felt Jewish and there is a religious aspect to this, but it’s not the primary thing. It’s more a feeling that I belong here and here belongs to me.”