A lone soldier on a mission in Syrian territory during the Yom Kippur War

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The Yom Kippur War was characterized by ferocious firepower that cost our country 2,656 soldiers, at a time when our population was less than three million.

The author next to a downed Egyptian helicopter during the Yom Kippur War. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The author next to a downed Egyptian helicopter during the Yom Kippur War.

(photo credit: Courtesy)

This year we are observing the 47th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This was a war characterized by ferocious firepower that we had never witnessed before, endangering the existence of the State of Israel. Our country sacrificed 2,656 soldiers, at a time when our population was less than three million.

Two years prior to the war, after weeks of grueling tryouts, I was accepted with a small group of mainly outstanding kibbutzniks into the paratroop recon (sayeret) unit of the 35th Brigade.

Nehemia Tamari, commander of the unit, took a personal interest in me and was amazed that a 22-year-old lone soldier who had completed his undergraduate studies at Columbia University in New York City and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem would be serving in his unit. It was a first for the sayeret. Many years later, Maj.-Gen. Tamari, then OC Central Command, would be killed in a helicopter crash. He was an officer and a gentleman, with true Zionist values which included a deep sensitivity to new immigrants such as myself.

On October 13, 1973, one week into the war, Israel was already suffering an immense number of casualties on all fronts, and we understood that the existence of the state was in grave danger, as we received daily information about friends being killed in action.

On that same day, 40 of us in the unit were hurriedly gathered by the commander of the sayeret, Capt. Shaul Mofaz, for 40 minutes to perform an urgent behind-the-lines operation in Syria.

The night before, October 12, the unit had performed a similar mission, Operation Kutonet (Gown). Our new mission was called Operation Davidka. We looked at the map and aerial reconnaissance photos and realized this was going to be a most daring and dangerous mission.

Our orders were to sabotage reinforcement efforts of the Iraqis, who were moving tanks, rockets and missiles on the Iraqi-Damascus highway. The enemy was moving in a westward direction, in order to join forces with the Syrians. The order was to ambush convoys by blowing up a bridge, and inflict any other damage we could.

We would have to move clandestinely by helicopter to our destination, and transport no less than 400 kg. of TNT in order to implement the order. More than the quantitative impact alone, there was also the idea that we would surprise the Syrians, deep in their territory, cause havoc and lower their morale.

Each of us had only a few hours to prepare himself individually, in order to be in top shape. My personal weapon at the time was an AK-47 Kalashnikov, weighing 4 kg., along with nine Kalashnikov magazines weighing 1 kg. each. Add to that two canteens of water, and a 20-kg. pack of TNT to be carried on the back. We were each carrying over 40 kg., which in most cases was more than half of our actual weight. That is something that stands out in my mind so many years later, but at the time we trained to do even more than this, and it did not pose a problem for us.

One fourth of the force was carrying heavier MAG weapons, some LAW rockets, mortars and RPGs.

I recall the operational security officer speaking to us for a few minutes during the orders, telling us that if captured, we need to “keep our mouths shut for at least six hours.”

I also recall being divided into groups of three, should we need to make a quick getaway if something goes wrong and if the chopper cannot return to pick us up. They informed us that in such a situation we should hide during the day and move quietly at night.

Of course, returning to Israel by foot, over 100 kilometers from home, seemed most unrealistic. This operation was a last-minute attempt, while the country was in danger.

We were focused on the mission and were trained for such a mission.

ON THE evening of October 13, we boarded a Sikorsky helicopter of the 118th Airborne Helicopter Squadron. Our home base was at Tel Nof, a major air force base near Rehovot. The pilot was the squadron commander, Yuval Efrat. The commander of the paratroop recon unit leading the mission was Mofaz, many years later to become IDF chief of staff and defense minister.

We flew north out of Tel Nof along the Mediterranean coast, adjacent to Tel Aviv, Haifa, until we were north of Beirut. I remember seeing the lights of Beirut from the helicopter. We turned eastward north of Beirut over Zahle, north of Damascus, and into the Syrian desert.

We landed at 9:30 in the evening. The helicopter, according to procedure, flew back to Tel Nof. Little did we know that the helicopter had made a navigational error due to cloud cover on an alternate route, and we had landed 8 km. from our intended destination.

After we discovered the navigational error, it was decided by GHQ that we should set out by foot toward the bridge which was the destination of our mission.

At the beginning of our journey by foot, through a valley, shots were fired at us from a house about 100 meters away, but the fire was inaccurate and we continued on our mission for a number of minutes. We quietly crossed a road, which was adjacent to the valley we were walking in.

All of a sudden on the road appeared a number of jeeps, including a truck with its lights out. We heard Arabic being spoken, and they began firing on us, as the tracer bullets came in our direction. We immediately answered with fierce fire, with MAG weapons, AK-47s, mortars, RPGs, and LAW projectiles. We appeared to have neutralized the danger, but now we realized we had been discovered deep in Syrian territory and were in grave danger.

Mofaz kept his cool and kept all of us calm. We immediately began our retreat by climbing to the top of a hill, in the mountainous terrain of the Syrian desert. We had been fired on at 1,430 meters above sea level and reached a mountaintop that was 1,640 meters above sea level. Each of us now had to ferociously climb more than 200 meters straight up, including all we were carrying. Mofaz led us to the top and had us lying quietly in a circle, ready to engage the enemy.

Suddenly, Syrian MIGs appeared and began lighting up the sky with flares in pursuit of us. We heard Syrian vehicles and half-tracks driving by the bottom of the hill. They did not fire on us, because I do not believe they could locate us. They were probably going to wait until dawn, which was only a couple of hours away, in order to identify our location, and for hundreds of them to surround us, capture us or neutralize us.

From the mountaintop, Mofaz was speaking to GHQ in Tel Aviv. They told us to sit tight and that they would do all in their power to send a helicopter to our rescue.

The “sandwich” radio transmitter, weighing around 50 kg, was carried by the strongest warrior in the unit, Shmuel Rosenberg of Moshav Kerem Ben-Zimra, in the Galilee. Later in the war, on the Egyptian front, Shmulik would tell me how his father survived the Holocaust but lost his wife and all of his children, and married again and had six children, including Shmulik.

In the meantime, we were lying on the mountaintop and wondering what our final fate would be. Perhaps we had too much time to think.

In my operational-security-created group of three, for the “emergency getaway” back to Israel, were Shmari of Kibbutz Hagoshrim and Giora of Kibbutz Givat Haim, together with me, the 24-year-old lone soldier with the BA.

Shmari was always quite entrepreneurial and with a good sense of humor. He was 1.65 meters tall, but the best basketball player in the unit and a born “survivor.” He suggested that if all hell breaks loose, there is no way we were going to be captured alive by the Syrians. He suggested we carjack a vehicle on the road below and head north to the Turkish border, where in my “good English” we would request political immunity from the Turkish government. He emphasized that the two kibbutzniks would take care of the situation, and me, the city boy, would just need to be the spokesman! He was speaking in jest, but there was something to what he was saying.

In retrospect, this may have been one of the only solutions at the time, albeit highly improbable. We were young, lying on a mountaintop deep in Syrian territory, and wanted to live for as long as we could, and had to be entrepreneurial and original.

LESS THAN one hour from dawn, we heard the engine of what seemed to be a helicopter, and lo and behold it was an Israeli Sikorsky helicopter trying to establish contact with us, to get us out of there as quickly as possible.

We had an electronic gadget called a “Miri,” which was able to give the chopper a general direction of where we were but not an exact one. There was cloud cover and fog on that mountaintop, and we were not on a completely flat surface.

Mofaz, with his low-tech flashlight, pointed in the direction of where he heard the helicopter. The pilot, none other than Efrat, who had flown us there seven hours earlier, managed to identify the low-tech light through the fog. He had flown through the valleys in order to come to our rescue. He had already been a couple of days without sleep but insisted on coming personally to fetch us, since he had brought us there.

The helicopter landed against all odds, not taking into consideration the regulations we had been used to in training. This was not a good time for being conventional, though. He landed in a relatively crooked fashion, and we piled into that helicopter faster than I can remember in any previous exercise.

As the helicopter took off, one of our soldiers caught a bullet in his backside, but was not seriously wounded. As the helicopter began to take altitude, hundreds of tracer bullets of green and red colors were being fired toward the helicopter. We saw them through the windows of the helicopter.

Now we had a two-hour flight back to Tel Nof, of which many kilometers would be in enemy territory, and it appeared the helicopter had been hit and we did not know for sure if we were going to make it back or not. Efrat flew the chopper brilliantly, and we finally saw the lights of Beirut beneath us once again and headed south along the Mediterranean, but the pilot ditched the idea of Tel Nof and made sure to land as soon as possible in the Ramat David air force base in the north of Israel. There was silence upon landing and a great feeling to be home.

After landing I saw, from the corner of my eye, Efrat counting the hits on the helicopter on the rotor, and then he showed Mofaz the fuel leaking from the gas tank, which was hit by bullets, and a small puddle on the tarmac. Later, we found out it was very low-grade fuel, which does not explode as easily, but it sure can, on the other hand.

Efrat received a medal of bravery for his actions, after the war. His rescue is still considered one of the most daring in the history of the 118 Squadron.

Five years ago, we all gathered on the lawn at Mofaz’s home in Kochav Yair, some with children and grandchildren, to hear him discuss the mission, together with Efrat. So many years later, to hear together, in person, how he had identified the flashlight through the fog was one of the most inspiring gatherings of my life.

Last year the 118 Squadron invited all participants of the mission, from the flight crew and members of our paratroop recon unit, to come for a reunion gathering of this classic rescue of the 118th, in order to educate the new generation of pilots on the history and pride of this helicopter unit. We all received commendations of excellence from the 118th, and they are proudly hanging on a wall outside my office.

The writer is vice president for external relations and head of the Raphael Recanati International School.

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