‘The smell etches into my memory’ — my 71-year-old account of an operation with the IDF

This week’s 71st anniversary of Israeli independence prompted Tom Tugend, now based in California, to look through his archives. He uncovered his account of an operation he recorded in a journal in 1948, while serving as an American IDF volunteer


Shortly before 10 at night the first men leave their sandbagged bunkers and amble up to the main tent. Informally, they fall into three lines of five men each. A lieutenant leisurely checks their equipment.

Beside me, an Israeli soldier translates in whispers: “Bayonet? Two handgrenades? 100 rounds of rifle ammunition? Ken, ken, ken, b’seder [yes, yes, yes, ok].”

The sergeant hands out hard fruit  candies from a tin can. Pushing two from one cheek to another, we move out by a narrow trail through the mountain-ringed circular valley across the Faluja-Hebron road, and past the last Israeli guard.

“Good luck, boys.” [Final remarks always sound artificial in books or movies, but in our mood of slightly heroic renunciation the words feel singularly appropriate]

We turn left, cutting through our minefield. It is a cool night with a half moon. Some 1,200 yards in front of us looms the trapezoid-shaped hill which marks the village of Iraq el Manshiya, protecting the western approaches to Faluja.

We are through the minefield and cut to the left, walking along the side of the wadi. In the centre of the file, immediately behind the lieutenant, the radio operator listens intensely to the instructions coming over his walkie-talkie. Once in a while, he moves forward a few steps and whispers to the lieutenant.

The man in front of me drops suddenly and before he hits the ground I am down too. The lieutenant crouches forward and checks the file. We wait ten minutes. Then we slowly move forward again.

I am intensely alive and aware of everything around me. Every movement or noise makes a sharp impression on my senses. Everything I see, hear and smell etches itself into my memory.

800 yards ahead of us, our searchlights play their beams on the top of the hill. Suddenly they are turned off and the file of men is etched sharply against the skyline. As with so many experiences in the last months, the scene reminds me of screen shots from various bad war films.

The man behind me silently passes up a box of machine-gun ammunition. I shift my rifle to the left shoulder and recover the distance.

Some 140 yards from the bottom of the hill, we walk around a clump of prickly pears. This is the landmark. I look at my watch: It’s 10:45, so we’ve covered 1,200 yards in three-quarters of an hour.

The lieutenant whispers to me in English. He lies down, beside him the radio operator and the first-aid man. Two riflemen ten yards to his right, two riflemen two yards to his left.

We are fifty yards from the Egyptian bunker. We can hear the voices of the Egyptian guards across a slight rise to our left.

Four of our men detach themselves and slowly crawl forward.

The sergeant with a PIAT anti-tank rifle, two machine gunners and one man with wire cutters. 40 yards form the bunker, a sharp click and they are through the wire inching forward.

Suddenly, a flash, and a shell explodes. A few rifle shots from across the rise, but no fire from the bunkers.

Either the enemy guards are dead or too clever to give away their position. Our Spandau machine gun opens up. Silence. One more round from the PIAT.

The four men crawl back. The sergeant whispers and we move back too. 50 yards further, a red flare goes up. We drop to the ground. A few rifle shots. The flare dies, we jump up and immediately down again as a green flare rises above us, curves and drops beside me.

We are walking very fast now. After a few hundred years my stomach muscles loosen, the tension slowy drains from my body and in its place creeps a profound tiredness.

The senses are dulled, the box of ammunition gets heavier with every step.

I put one foot in front of the other automatically.

We are challenged by our first guard: “How was it, did you hit anything?” he asks.

“Nothing much,” we say depreciatingly, and a bit contemptuous, as soldiers talk to those who stayed in the rear.

There is lukewarm tea in the tent. No jubilation or self-congratulations. It is part of the daily job. Only the talk, a little too intense, and the laughter, a little too loud, hint at the tension of the last two hours.

There will be another patrol tomorrow night, and another a day after that, and so on.

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