The path to heroism

In 1948, the Burma Road became Jerusalem's lifeline.

burma road sign 88 (photo credit: )
burma road sign 88
(photo credit: )
In 1947, David Ben-Gurion asked American Colonel Mickey Marcus to find an American officer who would serve as a key strategic military adviser to the burgeoning Jewish army. Marcus volunteered himself and the US Army granted him leave. He arrived in Tel Aviv in January 1948. As a result of his courage and the intelligence he provided in early 1948, David Ben-Gurion made him commander of the Jerusalem front, and Marcus was given charge over the Etzioni, Har-El and Seventh Brigades. Ben-Gurion also made him a major-general. Marcus was the first Jewish soldier to hold this rank since Judah Maccabee more than 2,000 years ago. By May 1948, when the Jewish section of Jerusalem was about to fall, Marcus had already commanded several successful operations. To lift the Arab siege he decided that it was necessary to construct a bypass road through the mountains around Jerusalem in order to bring arms, supplies, medicine and water to the city. Three Palmah soldiers helped him complete his mission. On brief leave from the army, they tried to find a way from the besieged city to Tel Aviv while hiding from the Arab Legion. They followed old goat paths that went through the hills and managed to reach Kibbutz Hulda. With a group of 150 soldiers they came back to the route they had discovered, trying to clear the path and make it passable for jeeps. On the night of May 29, 1948, soldiers of the Har-El Brigade followed the route with a jeep, and after three hours of maneuvering through the steep Judean Hills, they met at Beit Susin with another jeep coming on the east road from Jerusalem. (The passage was named "The Burma Road" after the road built by 200,000 Chinese laborers during World War II which allowed the Allies to transport goods from Burma to China.) This road of heroism, envisioned by Mickey Marcus, was a 25-kilometer path that linked Jerusalem to a road leading from Tel Aviv. For four weeks, soldiers and civilian volunteers labored in its construction under the cover of night and within range of Arab mortars. The work was considered so essential that the chief rabbi gave permission to work on it on Shabbat. The Burma Road provided relief for Jerusalemites for nearly five months until December 1948, when the road connecting the Nahshon and Shimshon junctions was completed. Had the convoys not gotten through, the Jews remaining in Jerusalem would have most likely starved or been forced to surrender. In a tragic accident, Marcus was killed by friendly fire mere hours before hostilities ended. LOCATED IN the heart of green forests with recreation areas and panoramic lookout points, today's Burma Road is a well-marked path where family cars can travel freely. Visitors are now able to drive through the route where armored conveys climbed and see the silhouettes and remains of the armored cars which were left as a memorial to the actions of those who saved the city. One of the ways to enter the Burma Road is from the Har-El overlook on Road No. 44. The stone house at this site was the school of the Arab village Beit Jiz, and next to it there is a picnic site, a children's playground and wooden signs with schematic maps explaining the historical sites along the road. From there, follow the red-marked path heading east (right) to Ein Susin, the Arab village that was conquered in 1948. Here you can walk among the old eucalyptus trees and look at the old pumping station which was part of the system supplying water to Jerusalem from a pool at Hulda. Continue straight for about 1 km. to Ma'aleh Te'enim, a steep section where fig trees are planted on both sides of the road. (This section was hard for the pre-state vehicles to negotiate, and supplies were carried by animals to the top of the hill and reloaded on trucks which came from Jerusalem.) Recently this section was asphalted, and iron silhouettes of trucks and jeeps describing the battle were placed at the site. The road continues east (follow the red-marked signs) to the Serpentines Descent, which is not a recommended drive unless you're in a 4x4. Here you're advised to walk down the hill and enjoy the view. Once you're ready to continue, get back into the car and continue 400 meters forward. At the crossroads go on with the road to the bottom of the serpentines where you can view the water pipeline monument. This pipeline replaced the main pipe after the Jordanians blew up the pumping station in Latrun. Keep on with the red-marked trail to the Carob Park where picnic tables are located under the canopy of a huge carob tree. This is a recommended place to rest and walk to the Burma Road lookout, where a panoramic view of the Masrek Nature Reserve, Beit Meir, the fortified heights (Mishlatim) of Mount Orna and the Convoy Ridge are revealed. Next are Ein Hila and Ein Mesila, two natural springs where the Jewish National Fund has built recreation areas for children to play while the adults rest and enjoy the sound of flowing water. A few hundred meters along the road is the Sha'ar Hagai observation point. Standing there, above the highway to Jerusalem, one can see how easy it would have been for anyone holding such position to stop traffic along the main road. For those of you with family cars, this is where the trail ends, as the continuation is suitable only for off-road vehicles. If you're with a 4x4, you can continue and climb all the way to Beit Meir and the Masrek Nature Reserve. Whichever route you choose, you'll leave the Burma Road trail with a piece of Zionist history and the feeling of having being privy to just a little of what soldiers and citizens went through in the battle for Jerusalem. Directions: From Highway No. 1, take the Sha'ar Hagai exit and turn on to Road No. 38 towards Beit Shemesh. At the Shimshon Junction, turn right onto Road No. 44, and then right again at Kibbutz Harel, where the Burma Road is signposted.