After the Altalena episode, Les came to the realization that he received more than he had bargained for when initially agreeing to sail to Palestine. He went to the American embassy (at that time functioning in the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv), to probe if and how he could return to America. The embassy official, while off the record sympathetic to Les' plight, made it understood that if Les openly admitted that he had arrived on the Altalena, he would be arrested for his actions. The official did hint that Les could escape arrest by reaching Jerusalem. This is because in 1948, Jerusalem was declared an "open" city, meaning it was not yet part of any country in any of the political solutions proposed to that point. Jerusalem was to be under international control, whatever that meant. Les returned to the Irgun and was given a Bren (British-made) machine gun, a Webley 44 caliber pistol, two banana cartridge clips, two grenades, and a bowey knife and started his trek to Jerusalem by first walking to Rechovot.
When one studies the siege of Jerusalem during those eventful days in 1948, and the efforts of the brave men and women who fought to break through, one encounters certain places that are indelibly etched in the nation's memory, such as Latrun, the Kastel and The Burma Road. Les' exploits in Israel in 1948 took him to all these places.
On the way to Rehovot, Les boarded an armored Egged bus heading to the Burma Road. Originally a goat trail, The Burma Road was hastily widened by bulldozers, in an attempt to circumvent the main road to Jerusalem, which was under constant fire from Arabs in the hills above. The idea behind The Burma Road was to deliver supplies and reinforcements to the beleaguered Jewish population of Jerusalem, thereby breaking the siege. The Burma Road was not paved nor was it easily passable.
Near Latrun (a former British army base handed over to the Jordanians when the Brits evacuated Palestine), shots were fired from the guard tower in the direction of the bus. Les was sent to fire on the Latrun guard tower, to provide cover for the bus to continue towards the Burma Road. The bus continued its journey and Les was left to fend for himself.
Meanwhile a jeep approached driven by fighters of the Stern Gang, heading for the Kastel. The jeep, which Les boarded, was then hit by an armor piercing PIAT shell, fired by an Arab patrol. The engine blew. The jeep hit the wall of a hill and overturned. Whether pinned in the jeep or simply waiting for the coast to clear, Les etched his name on the dashboard of the jeep. (Fifty-odd years later Les was on an organized tour of Israel with his wife Marlene. The tour guide took them to the Burma Road, which is now an outdoor museum, strewn with rusty overturned vehicles, much like the jeep mentioned above. Les recognized the hole in one of the deserted vehicles as the very same one made by the PIAT gun. He mischievously told Marlene to go to the jeep, bend down and look at the dashboard. (Sure enough, she saw the name of her husband; Les Solomon carved in the dashboard, from fifty years earlier.)
Les met up with a weapons carrier and he was driven to the Kastel. The Kastel was the strategic high point, which controlled the narrow Jerusalem corridor. From the Kastel, Les walked the rest of the way to Jerusalem, arriving at 5:00 in the morning. Witnessing the sunrise over Jerusalem while approaching the city on foot, Les calls a miracle, a sight that stirred him with deep emotion. In Jerusalem, Les met some Haganah fighters who directed him to Irgun headquarters on Mt. Zion, near the Old City. Les later fought with other English speaking foreign volunteers in the Negev against the Egyptian Army and at the Allenby Bridge near Jericho, against Transjordanian forces. From Les' narrative, it appears that he and his English-speaking buddies, freelanced their way, fighting in various parts of the country. Les confirmed as much but did point out that they were always under the command of the Irgun.
Les still speaks glowingly of the camaraderie that developed both on theAltalena and on the battlefield. He remembered how the Arabs, especially the Transjordanian troops were greater in number and much better armed. But Les and his fellow volunteers more than made up for this disadvantage by their inventive use of explosives and by their ferocious fighting spirit. He also spoke about wiping out Colonel Anders' Polish Brigade and the Borstal Boys, the latter composed of anti-Semitic, Nazi-sympathizing prisoners from Borstal Prison in England, recruited to fight in the British 6th Airborne alongside the Arabs against the Jews. Les takes great pleasure in recounting how both were routed. They simply did not expect to encounter Jews who not only were willing to fight but who fought with great courage and skill. After the war when a U.N. official interviewed Les and his friends, the official asked how the Polish Brigade and the British 6th Airborne were whipped, considering the apparent mismatch in manpower and supplies. Les replied that the other side lost due to "terminal anti-Semitism."
Les was also quick to point out that not all the English speaking volunteer soldiers were Jewish. There were a number of gentiles who fought alongside Les. He told me about Vinny Pomarano, a Brooklyn boy of Italian descent, who wore a crucifix around his neck. Les asked him why he was in Israel, fighting a war that wasn't his. Vinny replied that his "boss" was Jewish and that he wanted to score some points with him.
I asked Les to identify a common thread that characterized the foreigners, who volunteered and fought for Israel's independence. He couldn't do it. He was at a loss to explain why all of them went to fight. Les couldn't explain what brought even him to Palestine. He hadn't belonged to any Jewish organizations, nor did he embark on this adventure as a devout Zionist. I proposed the theory that perhaps these were ex-G.I.s, who knew soldiering above all else and who after World War II, weren't through fighting. Les categorically rejected this theory.
In my view, what Les did share with the Israelis fighting for independence, besides his Jewish soul, was the strong belief that the Jew must defend himself and fight fearlessly for what he believes, in this case, the establishment of the State of Israel.
Not surprisingly, the story of how Les was able to return home (remember he had no passport and no money) is also filled with intrigue. After the War of Independence, while in Haifa, Les met Adolph Sachs Occo, a Jewish captain of the boat "Atlante." For reasons not entirely clear to me, Mr. Occo was going to sail to Split, Yugoslavia. Les was offered $500 by Mr. Occo to operate the ship's radio, navigate the boat, and watch for mines. Since Yugoslavia was already in the communist bloc and the Cold War had already begun, the U.S. offered to arrange a passport for Les to return to America, if Les would come back from Yugoslavia with information about the e-boat, a new Russian torpedo boat. Les never saw any e-boats but once back in Israel, he was issued a 23-day passport allowing him to return home to the U.S. to finally start the next chapter of his unusual life.
Next Article - David Schifman - Halutz at thirteen
Michael Rosenbloom is a member of Congregation Ohav Sholom. He can be reached at email@example.com.