Jonathan Feldstein Jun 13, 2021
This week, I was drawn to do something I have thought about a lot, but never done until now. I visited the MACHAL memorial and Burma Road. What’s that and why today, you ask? June 10 is the anniversary of the death of Mickey Marcus who, as a foreign volunteer (from where the Hebrew acronym MACHAL comes), became the first modern general in the Israeli Army. He died a hero in an accidental friendly fire shooting during the War of Independence, less than a month after he had the privilege of witnessing Israel becoming a state.
Mickey Marcus made such a big contribution, and his death creating such a big void, that his legend was recalled in a 1962 book appropriately titled, Cast A Giant Shadow. My first edition copy is one of my most cherished possessions. If you don’t have time for the book, don’t worry, the story came out as a movie by the same name in 1966 starring Kirk Douglas, Senta Berger, Yul Brynner, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Angie Dickinson. This was in a day that Hollywood celebrated Israel and understood the righteousness of its existence and Hollywood stars lined up to be associated with Israeli heroism.
I have wanted to come to this memorial, not far from where Marcus died, because although he was married, he never had children. We all owe him a huge debt of thanks for the commitment he made to Israel’s existence that I feel that in a sense we are all Mickey Marcus orphans. We have certainly inherited his legacy.
He was born David Daniel Marcus, but went by Mickey.
The story goes that in 1947, Israeli leader and future Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, asked Marcus to help recruit an American officer to serve as military advisor to Israel’s emerging army. Marcus volunteered. Using the pseudonym "Michael Stone" so as not to tip off the British who controlled the Land at the time that an American colonel was in their midst, Marcus arrived in January 1948.
Hostilities had already begun as Arab armies surrounded the Land, and Arab irregular fighters within the Land tried to prevent Israel’s birth altogether. Marcus is credited with establishing a structure for the Haganah, what would become the IDF, by adapting his U.S. military experience to its unique conditions.
Recognizing his seniority and vast contribution that he had already made, Marcus was appointed as Israel’s first general, and given command of the Jerusalem front, on May 28, 1948, two weeks after Israel declared independence.
He planned various operations against the Jordanian-held Latrun fortress, a key strategic point from which the Arab Legion blocked the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. These operations failed, but Marcus innovated, ordering the building of the "Burma Road," a makeshift unpaved road carved out of, and winding through, a rocky terrain beginning at the footsteps of the mountains leading up to Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been under blockade by the Arabs and bringing in supplies and reinforcements was critical. It was important to establish facts on the ground. The "Burma Road" was opened to vehicles the day Marcus died, breaking the Arab siege of Jerusalem and providing badly needed reinforcements, weapons and food, just one day before a UN ceasefire.
Just before the ceasefire was to begin, Marcus returned to his headquarters near Abu Gosh. In the middle of the night, he went outside. A young and relatively inexperienced soldier saw him in the dark and asked for the password. Marcus didn’t know much Hebrew and so didn’t respond correctly, causing the soldier to open fire, as it seems did other soldiers in a nearby guard post. Marcus was found dead, wrapped in a white blanket.
Marcus’ body was returned to the United States and buried, accompanied by Moshe Dayan. He was buried with full military honors at the West Point cemetery, attended by NY Governor Thomas Dewey, former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, and General Maxwell Taylor, then Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Mickey Marcus is the only American killed fighting for another country to be buried in the West Point cemetery.
In 1951, Ben-Gurion paid his respects and placed a wreath at Marcus’ grave. In 2015, Israeli President Rivlin continued the tradition of Israeli leaders paying respect to Mickey Marcus. At Marcus’ grave he said, "For me, he was the first general of the IDF in every sense of the word. He had a sense of purpose and mission, in the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces, he taught us how to act as an army in our early days, and was one of Ben-Gurion’s greatest military advisors. There is no one who better illustrates the strong bond between Israel and the United States."
I am far from an Israeli leader and never went to West Point to pay my respects. But this week I visited one of the places in Israel where Mickey Marcus, along with many other foreign volunteers who gave their lives for Israel, is memorialized. And at a place, fittingly, at which his fingerprints are still so visible in the defense of Jerusalem. His name is inscribed along with other overseas volunteers, Jews and non-Jews, who came to help defend Israel at its foundation, and gave their lives.
If he were alive today, Mickey Marcus would be 120, the age we invoke when blessing people for a long life. I think he’d be pleased with what Israel has become, and proud of his role making Israel’s birth possible 73 years ago. We certainly owe him a debt of gratitude.
Maybe next year, we’ll mark this anniversary and pay our respects to Mickey Marcus with hundreds of people hiking the Burma Road up the mountains into Jerusalem, literally following his footsteps.