Monday, September 24, 2007

Travels with Abe, an Israeli’s Perspective: Drafted in 1967

Welcome back with another article from an Israeli friend, Abe. Abe is a guest contributor with history to tell. Perhaps you will begin to see an Israeli’s perspective of this world that we live in and what we are up against. Respectfully, Bosun

Drafted:

In November of 1967 I was drafted. The aftermath of the Six Day War was intoxicating. Stories filtered down. General Ariel (Arik) Sharon had been wounded fighting his way into Northern Sinai through Gaza. General Goradish and his 7th Brigade of tanks had had very tough battles, but “Goro” had done the job. The Golani brigade had taken the Golan Heights with the help of a unit of paratroopers and the immortal Shermans. The Sherman tank, a veteran of WW2, had had a face-lift, stomach change and prosthetics installed all over. What emerged was the Super Sherman. This tank featured a 105mm gun, a new 460hp Cummins diesel engine,

and modifications to the tracks and suspension. The M4A1 had become the M51. The best tank Israel had was the Centurion. This tank was also worked on and changed. The third tank was the French made AMX13. Light (only 13 tons) and fast, it’s function was supposed to have been scouting, but in Israel it was used as a Main Battle Tank (MBT).

There were rumours that there was a new MBT in the field. Among the first tanks to reach the Canal, it was rumoured, was a company of M48 Pattons… The latest word in tank warfare.

We heard about Ammunition Hill and other battles on the Jerusalem front. It hadn’t been easy. The Jordanian army, The Arab Legion, was British trained and had fought well.

The darlings of Israel were the paratroopers. They had fought well on all fronts. All my friends (including myself) wanted to be paratroopers. We were drafted. I reported to the Draft office in Haifa, was put on a bus, and we were off. At the main induction camp, just east of Tel-Aviv, we were grouped into tents, and had our first army meal…nothing to write home about, especially since I was picked to wash the cooking pots.

The paratroopers had an office in the camp, and next morning, four of us went together, as a group, to sign up. There are special units you could volunteer for, and this was one of them. We then endured a week of hell, while the DIs argued and debated over who was to stay and who was to wash out. They ran us to death, and followed that up with calisthenics. They did everything they could think of, to try and dissuade us from continuing. The paratroopers had 5 times the volunteers they needed, so only the top 20% in sheer stamina made it. I was good, but I wasn’t in the top 20%, so I was kicked out. Three of the original four volunteers were out, and we returned to the tent, depressed. As we sat, feeling sorry for ourselves, a corporal walked in and told us to pick up our kit, and follow him.

We followed the corporal to a waiting bus. We climbed on, and saw that the bus was full. We took the last three seats and watched as the driver took the roster from the corporal. The doors slammed shut, and we were gone…gone? Where? Where were we going? I asked the guy sitting beside me, and he answered with one word…”Magah.” “What,” I asked, “is Magah?” “Don’t know.” I stood up in the bus and asked out loud if anyone knew what Magah was. Nobody knew, but we were going there.

We were about to find out. The bus rolled into a camp in southern Israel. There was an old Cromwell tank on a pedestal at the entrance. We then understood that we were going to the Armoured Corps.

The bus stopped and we disembarked. There was a sergeant yelling at us to get into formation. As we stood, he gave each one of us two yellow epaulets. “What are they for?” We asked. “You’re going to Magah.” “What’s Magah?” The answer was immediate, “Patton tanks.”

But we were about to learn something else first, Basic training. For two months we were trained as infantrymen. Day and night, we drilled and marched and fired and ran. We went on forced marches and, of course, camped out in the field. A sergeant was God and a corporal was God’s assistant. We were all Gadna’ trained, but that didn’t count. This was “Man Stuff.” Gadna was considered child’s play. This was the “real thing.”

The rumour spread throughout the camp; we were about to be sworn in. Traditionally, the Armoured Corps rookies were sworn in on Massada. Massada was the last Jewish holdout of the revolt of 70AD against the Romans. It’s a stronghold built at the top of a steep and tall hill overlooking the Dead Sea. The Romans besieged it for three years. At the end of those three years, there ensued a battle that has gone down in history as one of the greatest heroic stands ever. During the fighting, the Romans built a ramp. They were great engineers, especially when working under fire. Slowly but surely, week after week, the ramp of earth climbed higher and higher. Finally, the ramp was done. It was made of the salt-desert sand of the Dead Sea Valley, and was hard as stone. It was very, very steep, but there were many Legionnaires available to push the wheeled siege engines and huge shields. When the Romans reached the fort itself, they found everyone dead. The Jews had picked 100 men to kill everyone else, 10 of those to kill the other 90 and one to kill the last nine. The last man committed the sin of suicide and fell on his own sword.

Massada has been, for centuries, an example of courage for Jews all over the world. In Israel, it had become an IDF tradition. Rookies of certain combat units were sworn in there, and given their first rifles. We were taken by truck to a point just east of the town of Arad, overlooking the Dead Sea Valley, and set out on a 25km forced march. We arrived before Massada with our tongues hanging out and set up our camp…exactly where the 5th Legion Fretensis had camped 2000 years ago. I had a bad taste in my mouth and sure enough, I soon found out there was good reason. We stood at parade at the foot of Massada. To our left was the Roman ramp, built 2000 years ago, still there, still very, very steep. We were informed by our Company Commander that we would have to run up the ramp with full kit. We ran. Upon reaching the top, panting, we were told that it wasn’t good enough; we would have to do it again…

We ran up that ramp, again and again, for 10 hours. At the end of those 10 hours, thoroughly exhausted, we stood at parade on the top of Massada. It was night, and the site was alive with flaming torches. The ceremony was haunting and will never leave the memories of those who were there. We vowed “Massada Will Not Fall Again.” We knew what that meant. “Massada” stood for the whole State of Israel. We swore it wouldn’t fall. We had been given our first rifles, and we lifted them high as we swore the oath. A new age-group was taking over the defense of the country.

By the end of those two months, we were an infantry unit.

After that, we were told that we were about to be trained as crewmen of Patton M48A2C tanks. For two months, we went to school. We had been asked what job we would like to do in the tank. I chose driving because I had seen a Russian movie about a tank driver who leads a breakout from a German POW camp in WW2, and takes his buddies to safety in a stolen T34 tank. I liked the whole idea and figured that being a tank driver would be cool. Most of us got the job we wanted. Towards the end of the roster, some didn’t. I have always been lucky in that my last name begins with an A.

We sat in a classroom for half the day, and then drove tanks the other half. We learned how to maneuvre a tank under any and all conditions. We learned about the inner workings of the tank, and how to get out of jams in the field. We cross-trained. Drivers, loaders and gunners learned each other’s jobs and were drilled in them. We still performed our main jobs, but we were well trained in all aspects of tank operation.

At the end of the two months, we were pronounced ready for unit training. Another two months of Platoon, and Company training. Formations and live-fire exercises were practiced and drilled. We lived in the field and went without sleep for days at a time.

We were informed that we would be sent to the Suez Canal. Buses came to the camp to pick us up. The buses went to Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, and entered a camp. “Why are we here?” “Change of plans,” we were told, “You have another month’s training before going to the Canal.”

We were introduced to the M48A3 (Israel). There was a reason for the (Israel) designation. These tanks were older M48A1s and A2Cs. Israeli workshops had changed them. The 90mm main gun had been swapped for a British 105mm, giving the tank more range, accuracy and punch. The gasoline motor had been replaced by a more powerful and fuel-efficient diesel. Other systems (radio, gunnery sighting, range-finding and others) had been added, some of them very advanced Israeli designs. We had a tank that was a new generation, compared to the A2C we had trained on. This tank was ready to go to war.

Seven months after being drafted, we were an operational battalion of tanks and were stationed in the Suez Canal Zone.

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