LATRUN, Israel (JTA) – “We called them the bomb chucker-outters,” laughs the silver-haired octogenarian.
Smokey Simon, 88, is talking about flight officers in the nascent Israeli air force in 1948 – a force that initially had no military aircraft. The officers had to carry the bombs on their laps and hurl them from their small civilian planes when the target was identified.
“We had to tie them in so they did not fall out with the bombs,” he says.
Simon volunteered to help start the Israeli air force after flying for five years in World War II for South Africa and Great Britain.
He was among the few hundred former volunteer fighters in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence who gathered Wednesday, Israel’s Memorial Day, in a clearing of pine and olive trees in central Israel to remember their fallen comrades.
White-haired and mostly in their 80s, some walking with the assistance of canes and walkers, the volunteers retold the stories of the days that shaped their lives and the country’s history.
They were members of Machal, a Hebrew acronym for foreign volunteers. In 1948 they constituted a force of 3,500, both Jews and non-Jews who served with the fledgling Israeli forces during the war.
When they decided to leave their comfortable lives far away for a war in the Middle East filled with danger and uncertainty, the memory of the Nazi genocide in Europe was still painfully raw.
“I came because of the Holocaust,” says Stanley Medicks, 82, echoing the sentiments of many of his comrades. “I wanted a homeland for the Jewish people. And I wanted to help create a state.”
Medicks, a Kenya native, came to Israel just a month after the war began. He brought experience from World War II as a captain in the British infantry who fought in the King’s African Rifles in battles in Ethiopia and North Africa.
In Latrun, near the famous Burma Road, which some of the volunteer fighters helped secure to break the Arab siege on Jerusalem in 1948, stands a stone memorial for the Machal soldiers who were killed in the fighting.
During Wednesday’s ceremony their names were read aloud – men and women from countries as diverse as Canada, Chile and Switzerland. Volunteer fighters came from 43 countries.
Derek Bowden, a non-Jew who served with the British army in Palestine in the late 1930s, made many Jewish friends during his time here. So after fighting in Germany and Syria during World War II, and even serving time in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as a prisoner of war, he returned to Palestine to help the Jews found their state.
“I heard the Arab speeches about what they were going to do, so I decided to come,” says Bowden, 86. “Once a soldier, always a solider, I suppose,” he adds with a shrug.
A member of the airborne infantry in the British army, Bowden conducted the first parachute jump of the Jewish fighting forces in Palestine, established its first paratrooper regiment and eventually wrote the Israeli army’s first paratrooper manual.
Looking around the forested landscape of Latrun, he recalls fighting here 60 years ago commanding a platoon of Holocaust survivors from Poland, straight off the boats from Haifa, still wearing heavy clothes despite the sweltering Middle Eastern heat.
Bowden spoke no Polish, they spoke no English, so he instructed them in how to use their weapons with physical gestures.
“It was chaos,” he says with a rolling laugh.
Bowden says the battle for the Burma Road was mayhem.
“There was no water. There was supposed to be, but there was no organization to get supplies,” he says.
Lee Silverstein, 80, originally from Los Angeles, didn’t know what to expect when he left his studies at UCLA to join the fighting effort in the newborn state in August 1948.
Silverstein made his way on a ship with more than 400 Jewish refugees from Europe and North Africa, and worked in intelligence for the new air force.
It was the air force in which the volunteers perhaps made the greatest impact: About 95 percent of the pilots and airmen were volunteers, mostly veterans of the American, British, Canadian and South African air forces.
Silverstein, who made aliyah after retiring, vividly remembers the first anniversary of Jewish statehood in May, 1949.
“The streets were full of people, the feeling was wonderful, a real esprit de corps,” he says at the reunion.
For Dan Samuels, 83, coming to fight for Israel was, in a way, a homecoming. He was born in Jerusalem, the grandson of Sir Herbert Samuel, the first high commissioner of British Mandate Palestine. At the time, his father was serving in the British mandate government.
Although he was an officer in the tank brigades of the British army, he was not allowed to serve in Palestine during World War II because he was a Jew.
After he was demobilized, he came to Israel in 1948 and helped operate a pair of British Cromwell tanks that were “taken,” he says – looking for a polite word – by two British army deserters and handed over to the Jewish fighting forces for a tidy fee.
One of his more vivid memories is fighting a battle in one of those tanks in Rafah along the Gaza-Egypt border. He fought with a Canadian commander, a Chilean who served as the wireless radio operator and the gun loader, and a Czech driver.
The times were heady, he says. “So many things were happening.”