Philip Handleman

Lessons for the Ukraine war from a volunteer in the Yom Kippur War 

October 6th marks the 50th anniversary of the surprise multi-front attack on Israel. Masterminded by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the attack was coordinated with Syria, backed by the Soviet Union, and carried out on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The early successes of the invading armies sent shock waves through the global Jewish community and sowed doubt about Israel’s continued existence.

Back then, as a recent college graduate and an American Jew watching news reports in Michigan of the Bar-Lev Line in the Sinai being breached and of Syrian tank columns advancing across the Golan Heights, doing nothing in the face of a possible modern Holocaust was not an option.

Beyond the powerful moral argument against the wholesale slaughter of an entire class of people, in my view, Israel stood in inhospitable surroundings as a symbol of the democratic paradigm, a beacon of light at a geostrategic crossroads, and as such its survival was in America’s vital national security interests. Also, in the attack’s first phases, even as ground was lost, Israelis were proving that they would fight to the finish to preserve their independence and pluralistic way of life.

Within a few days of the onset of what came to be known as the Yom Kippur War, I landed in Israel. Soon I found myself attached to an eclectic and colorful cadre of volunteers in the coastal resort town of Netanya, north of Tel Aviv.

Like the neck of an hourglass, Netanya is situated at Israel’s narrow waist. Sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and the West Bank, it’s a natural target for enemies seeking a chokepoint to split the country in two. However, instead of being issued rifles to guard a portion of this slender space, our job was to assemble bed frames at an entrepreneurial business in town.

We had been psyched for military duty, so the assignment to the bed factory was a profound letdown, especially for some of my fellow volunteers, who were seasoned combat veterans. The locals told us that we were taking the place of reservists called to fight and that the bed frames were needed urgently because of a continuing influx of Soviet Jews. So, for the time being we accepted that our mundane work was for the good and perhaps if things went from bad to worse on the battlefield, as then seemed possible, we would end up closer to the real action after all.

At the factory, I was paired with an existing employee who, amid the backdrop of Soviet Jews streaming in as refugees, had recently emigrated from Romania. Already middle-aged, my coworker’s demeanor evoked a sense of resignation and gloom. Hunched and sullen, his eyes contained an irremediable anguish as if his aliyah – the move to Israel – may have occurred too late.

No matter what I said to cheer his spirits, he remained all but despondent, his mental state a palpably impenetrable vault of grim, unshakable memories. Even his arrival in a free society where his choice of worship was no longer constricted or ridiculed was not enough, at least yet, to retrieve the soul that had been cruelly crushed in his prior life.

The daily melancholia that filled the workroom was exacerbated by the overhanging reality that much of the world at the time either manifested overt hostility towards Israel or indifference to the brazen and proximal attempt to annihilate it. How could I find hope for the future of Israel and its people?

Something I had read as part of an orientation at the start of my sophomore year in college came to mind. In the writings of Primo Levi, the Auschwitz survivor, there is a reaffirmation of life from the depths of despair, a statement of faith that humanity can rise above itself. Levi attributed his survival to something more basic than the material aid that had been rendered by his rescuer, a non-Jew named Lorenzo Perrone. It was the awareness of his rescuer’s presence that gave Levi reason to believe, as he described it, “that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole . . . for which it was worth surviving.”

I thought also of the Avenue and the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, Israel’s world-renowned Holocaust memorial center, which I had visited on an earlier trip in better times. Each tree planted in and around these magnificent sites honors a gentile who at great peril, and under no obligation other than the dictates of conscience, saved Jews during the Holocaust. With its trees as eloquent testimony to individual acts of courage, the hallowed ground speaks to the best of humankind and serves as a reminder that it is possible in the absolute worst of circumstances for people to care enough to come to the aid of those in need even if it involves grave personal risk.

The volunteers in my group came to help and I liked to think then as I continue to today that we shared the resolve of the righteous as well as of many Israelis I saw outside the factory. My fellow volunteers represented faraway corners of the world and varied walks of life, Jewish and gentile. Though we were a ragtag bunch, in our inimitable way with our mix of quirks and attributes we were, I believe, an extension of the citizens’ army that had been mobilized for this war of survival. If the invaders punched through the remaining defenses, I envisaged my group remaining stalwart, giving our all.

Yet, in this lopsided contest in which the Arab armies were abetted by the Goliath of the Soviet Union, a small and isolated Israel would need more than handfuls of volunteers, no matter how motivated. Even Israel’s famous Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, upon observing the early Syrian advances firsthand, had acknowledged Israel’s vulnerability by remarking that the fall of the Third Temple was possible. A miracle on the order of David’s slingshot was required to be able to push back and live for another day.

At the end of the first week of the war, Washington answered the call. President Nixon ordered a massive, once-in-a-generation airlift to resupply Israel’s severely depleted stocks of ammunition and topline equipment. Israel was to get nearly everything it wanted and as quickly as possible. Called Operation Nickel Grass, the hastily prepared stream of C-5 Galaxies and C-141 Starlifters (along with a corresponding sealift) represented a lifeline that arguably made the difference between life and death for the Jewish state.

It was a remarkable decision given all that was on President Nixon’s plate. He was mired in the Watergate scandal, the protracted intervention in Vietnam had long since soured, the oil lobby vehemently opposed helping Israel and America’s allies almost uniformly refused to lift a finger on behalf of Israel for fear of having their Arab oil supplies cut off in retaliation. In fact, no European country except Portugal would grant landing or overflight rights to the American cargo planes. An air base in the Portuguese-administered Azores was the only available waypoint (though some American C-130 Hercules transports in Germany were transferred directly to Israel). From the Azores, airlifters had to fly a razor-thin route across the Mediterranean with tag-team fighter escorts, the last leg covered by Israeli Air Force fighters.

Details about this largely forgotten operation are still coming out. Just weeks ago, the Air Force Museum Foundation published reminiscences of Air Force pilots who participated in the airlift. Captain William Hartsell, then an instructor pilot on C-5s, was destined to fly the first resupply mission to Israel. While on a domestic training flight in October 1973 he was suddenly ordered to land at his home base in California with no reason given. Additional crew members quickly boarded and without delay the aircraft was dispatched to Georgia. It was the hurried start of an airbridge no less significant than the historic Berlin Airlift, an honest-to-goodness case of pulling out all the stops to get the job done.

At Warner Robins Air Force Base near Atlanta, Captain Hartsell’s C-5 loaded two tanks with ammunition, causing it to exceed the normally permitted takeoff weight by almost two tons.

Standing rules were waived under emergency war orders. Using every inch of 14,000 feet of runway and overrun, the plane struggled to get off the ground and scarcely cleared surrounding trees.

The C-5’s crew didn’t know their ultimate destination until they reached the waypoint. When they landed at Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion International Airport) outside Tel Aviv, the tanks were offloaded in a blindingly fast 15 minutes and rushed into combat. The American air crew had been on the go around-the-clock for an intense day-and-a-half.

To Captain Hartsell’s astonishment, Israel’s Prime Minister, Golda Meir, came to the airport to personally say thanks. He told Prime Minister Meir that she reminded him of his grandmother. She laughed and then hugged him. Though release of information on the flight was withheld for over a month due to security concerns, Golda Meir’s warm embrace evinced the eternal gratitude of everybody who was standing fast in Israel, including my fellow volunteers and I.

Within a couple weeks, when the tide had swung in Israel’s favor and the Soviet Union began a rapid buildup of its troops for an invasion of its own to avenge the embarrassing reversal of fortune suffered by its Arab surrogates, the Nixon administration took the drastic step of elevating the U.S. nuclear alert status to Defcon 3. President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry

Kissinger were not afraid to ratchet up tensions another notch, and the Kremlin soon stood down.

Today the American-aligned democracy under heavy siege is Ukraine, and President Biden’s approach to providing military aid has been emphatically different – a slow drip rather than a fire hydrant. To cite one example: US tanks were not promised to Ukraine until nearly a year into the war and the first delivery occurred only recently, after approximately another eight months had elapsed. One can only imagine how the campaign to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the flame of democracy in eastern Europe would have played out to this point if the provision of US military assistance had resembled Operation Nickel Grass.

Yes, there are differences between Israel in 1973 and Ukraine now. Israel was already operating some of America’s sophisticated fighters, the F-4s and A-4s, so when those types were rapidly resupplied there was no downtime for training. But this only supports hastening the transfer of advanced weapons systems like F-16s to Ukraine in view of the downtime for training Ukrainian Air Force pilots who lack stick time on the type.

And when it comes to fears of provoking an escalation with Russia, it should be remembered that in 1973 the US faced down the far more imposing Soviet Union, even as Western support for Israel had otherwise shriveled to virtually nil. Today, Russia is but a piece of the old Soviet Union. And, unlike with Israel in 1973, now America’s allies in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific perceive that they have a vested interest in Ukraine prevailing.

On the campaign trail former president Trump has chimed in distressingly but predictably, declaring that he will pull the plug on Ukraine as soon as he is returned to the White House. The pledge gives sustenance to Russia’s President Putin and his motley crew of enablers in Belarus, China, Iran, Syria and North Korea. Domestically, it has ginned up opposition to the aid being given to Ukraine, complicating the next moves of an already tepid President Biden and heightening worries about future funding for the indispensable lifeline.

While it is up for debate as to how much benefit volunteers from abroad were to Israel during the roughly three weeks of fighting in 1973, I think our presence served at minimum as a meaningful token that showed there were people living abroad who cared enough to pitch in. Unquestionably, foreign volunteers in Ukraine have made incalculable contributions over the last year-and-a-half as the war has dragged on. Rather than publicly discouraging Americans from volunteering in Ukraine as it has done during the war, the Biden administration would be wise to quietly support specialized volunteers from assorted countries focused on specific tasks.

Just think how quickly the long-delayed F-16s could be deployed in Ukrainian skies with an international volunteer group of retired fighter pilots who bring experience on the type. With F-16s having been in service since the 1970s and with 25 countries currently flying them, there is surely a virtually limitless reservoir of capable pilots and maintainers willing to bolster the depleted ranks of the Ukrainian Air Force. Plus, with those additional qualified personnel the number of donated F-16s could be increased beyond the 50 or so currently contemplated.

What Ukraine really needs, though, is a qualitative edge to compensate for its glaring quantitative disadvantage. This could be achieved in part through the introduction of a 5th generation fighter. A couple dozen F-35Bs donated from the inventories of the U.S. Marines and international operators would be gamechangers.

To be flown initially by American and British volunteers who would resign their commissions with the guarantee of being reinstated after the war (in keeping with the example of the famed Flying Tigers) would catapult Ukraine’s warfighting prowess to a new level. Moreover, the problem of runway cratering that may hamper Ukraine’s eventual F-16 operations would be obviated by the F-35Bs, which have a short takeoff and vertical landing capability permitting widespread dispersal with servicing and flight possible from parking lots.

With Ukraine’s counteroffensive having been slowed and time working against Ukrainian forces as winter approaches and with the misguided rants of the leading Republican candidate for President eroding public support for the embattled democracy, the future of freedom teeters in the balance. A half-century ago Israel was on the brink of disaster and the US responded decisively. Today, before it is too late, the US should do the same for Ukraine.

About the Author
Philip Handleman, a Michigan-based aviation historian whose latest book is Soaring to Glory, served as a civilian volunteer in Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.