Itzik

After a year of traveling through much of Europe and North America I returned to Israel in late September 1975. Upon my return I was promptly assigned to my reservist unit, a tank battalion of captured T-55 Soviet tanks, converted for use by the IDF.  Soviet 100 mm tank guns were replaced by NATO issue 105 mm canons, and the Soviet PKT machine guns were switched over to .50 Cal Browning machine guns atop the turret and .30 Cal Browning machine guns operated from within the turret.

I first met Itzik as a newly minted tank commander. More than a year prior to our meeting I had completed a rushed tank commanders’ course, learning to operate those very same Soviet tanks the Syrians and Egyptians had deployed against us in 1973.  I had seen war and battles, fighting in Syria with my Golani Brigade brothers of the 13th Battalion.

I had no idea, but Itzik was also a veteran of the Yom Kippur War, fighting on Israel’s southern front, in a T-55.  He was trained as a tank driver.  Not only was Itzik a capable tank driver, he was the best of the very best.  We quickly became friends, realizing also that we were neighbors, Itzik from Ashkelon and I from Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz just north of the Gaza Strip and thus a few miles south of Ashkelon.  His parents, Persian or Iranian Jews, had a small clothing store in the bustling market of Migdal, the name of the old city of Ashkelon.

As we trained together my respect and admiration for Itzik grew more and more.  Itzik could fix anything and everything having to do with the T-55.  No task was too big, no job too dirty – and believe me when I tell you that being a part of a tank crew is nothing but dirty work.  Oil, grease, sweat, sand..

While I carried two 105 mm shells, one on each shoulder, Itzik would grab them while standing atop the tank and hand them to our loader or gunner, and back I would go to fill a never ending supply of shells into the turret.

We were called to duty once again, and this time it was not a call for military maneuvers.  My new battalion was to patrol the sandy dunes of the northern Sinai Peninsula just prior to the 1979 Peace Agreement with Egypt.  To the north, Lake Bardawil, and to the south, huge sand dunes.  Itzik drove the jeep, I rode shotgun.  Our bond grew stronger.

Beyond our military bond, I visited Itzik and met his brother and his parents.  He visited me.  We compared notes on life in a small Israeli town and life on a socialist commune, the Kibbutz.

Years went by.  Another call up to reserve duty, and this time in the vast proving grounds of Tze’elim.  Burned shells of old tanks served as targets.  Empty fuel barrels served the same purpose for the machine guns.  The heat was oppressive and our Nomex uniforms would stand up by themselves at the end of the day’s training maneuvers, caked with so much of our body’s salt.  We spread butter on the fender and fried eggs.

Itzik drove.  I stood, in typical IDF tank commander fashion, with half my body inside the turret, the other half exposed, binoculars to my eyes.  Speeding along I flipped a switch to keep the gunner on target, when I felt a tug.  Itzik going left and the turret automatically on target, swinging to the right, my leg was suddenly caught in the large gear circle that allowed the turret to turn independently of the tank’s chassis.

The first shot of pain as my left leg was crushed in the gear.  “Itzik. Stop!” I commanded quietly in the tank’s intercom communication unit.  Our tank came to a full stop. “My leg. It’s caught in the gear. Please. Get me loose.” Calm. Collected.  Itzik leaned his driver’s seat all the way back and as he lay flat on his back he could see where my pant leg had caught on an ammunition hook inside the turret.  “Try to get me loose using the manual turning mechanism, Itzik.”

There was a small wheel with a handle to turn the turret one way or the other, manually.  Itzik started turning the wheel.  “Turn it the other way, please!”, as the pressure worsened.  And so he did, and my leg was freed, and Itzik jumped out of his driver’s compartment, ran to the side of the tank, up the treads, to the commander’s hatch and pulling on the Nomex suit’s rear strap pulled me out of the tank, onto the stretcher.

Our loader and our gunner had already radioed for a field ambulance.  A short time later the attending doctor told me that I was very fortunate.  “…you could have lost your leg.  Nothing broken, but some bad crush and puncture scars…they’ll heal.  Stay off the leg, and stay on the crutches.  Oh, and thank your driver.  He saved your life and kept you from bleeding out, if your leg had been amputated by that gear.”

I spent three months on crutches, and returned to my unit ready for the next call to reservist duty.  Oh, and Itzik?  Well, he and I remain brothers to this very day, his jet black hair now snowy white, both of us grandfathers, both of us with many more memories of shared military duty, both of us friends and brothers, grateful for our initial meeting so many years ago.

About the Author
Born in Israel, Yuval emigrated as a baby to Austria and then Canada. He returned to live in Israel in '71 until '91. His military service was in Golani Brigade's 13th Battalion (including Yom Kippur War) with reserve duty as a tank commander and later a liaison officer in the IDF Liaison Unit. He now resides in Pennsylvania, USA.
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