Bay Area vets recall battles to save Israel

Infused with battlefield adrenaline, Avi Cohen spent the Six-Day War searching for enemy soldiers, dynamite and booby traps inside just-abandoned buildings in newly reunited Jerusalem.

The speed and intensity of the June '67 war still reverberates for this Marin County man. Then a 20-year-old sergeant in the reserves, he recalls entering an Arab embassy in eastern Jerusalem that had been occupied just a half-hour earlier.

"We saw the food still cooking on the stove. The TV was on. The radio was on," said Cohen, who was born and raised in Jerusalem.

On June 5, Israel will mark the 30th anniversary of the Six-Day War. The drama of the times for both war veterans and supporters is easy to recall.

"Everyone was brave. Everything was amazing. Everything was so fast," said Yacov Golan, a veteran of the war who now lives in San Rafael.

In just six days, Israel changed its destiny. The tiny country, which had just celebrated its 19th anniversary, managed to overwhelm hundreds of thousands of Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi soldiers.

These enemies had promised to annihilate Israel. Instead, the Jewish state captured the Sinai, Gaza Strip, West Bank and Golan Heights.

Eight hundred Israelis were killed. Tens of thousands of Arab soldiers died.

No one, including the Israelis, expected such a victory. The underdog shocked the world. David had once again defeated Goliath.

Now 90 years old, Edward Bransten was then the chairman of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

"Now people more or less take Israel for granted. We didn't take it for granted. We knew it could be destroyed," he said this week.

"There was a threat of absolute annihilation of Israel. God knows what the Arabs would have done if they would have gotten in there…The defeat of the Arab armies was like a miracle."

To those on the battlefield, however, "miracle" isn't exactly the right word.

"There was no gift from God. It was pure circumstance. It was strategic operations. It was well-fought," Golan said.

Cohen was similarly pragmatic. "I didn't look at it as a miracle but something we accomplished…It's something the Israeli army had to do. If it was a miracle, we wouldn't have lost any soldiers."

Despite such sentiments, war veterans have never lost their awe over Israel's military feats.

Golan, for example, wasn't always Yacov Golan. Born Jack Goldman, he had made aliyah from Uruguay in 1957. He was so impressed with his new country's victory and his fellow soldiers that he changed his name that summer.

"I felt Goldman was a Jewish name, but not an Israeli name. Golan — I respected."

In contrast to such euphoria, the veterans also recall that the weeks preceding the war were filled with anxiety.

"We were waiting and waiting and waiting. That was worse than actually being in the war," said Avi Weil, a Tel Aviv native who now lives in Mill Valley.

Then, in the early morning of June 5, Israel declared war and launched a pre-emptive strike in Egypt. Within a few hours, Israel wiped out Egypt's air force, which was still on the ground. Israel took control of the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.

By the third day of the war, Jerusalem was reunited after nearly 20 years of Jordanian occupation. The Old City, including the Western Wall, returned to Jewish hands.

Cohen has not forgotten the sight of Israeli jets flying over the capital in a slightly cloudy sky. He has not forgotten the sound of flares or bombs dropping on Jerusalem — noises similar to the ones he recalled as a young child during the 1948 War of Independence. He has not forgotten the smoke rising from rubble or the scared Arab children running in the streets.

Yet the significance of Jerusalem's recapture took time to sink in. After a week or so, Cohen was able to walk into the Mount of Olives where his grandparents were buried. He found that Arabs had destroyed headstones to build bunkers, roads and buildings.

"It was really sickening to see all the broken stones."

Though he sometimes has wished he was in Jerusalem as well, Golan was based farther north. He was part of a support unit that fired newly purchased anti-aircraft guns in the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

Then a 28-year-old sergeant in the reserves, Golan knows that little things can help win a war. When the anti-aircraft guns arrived, the instructions were in English.

"Thank God, I spoke English," said Golan, who lived on Kibbutz Kfar Glickson.

Another time a soldier got onto the Syrians' radio wavelength and used his Russian to offer wrong components to enemy gunners. Golan himself used his native Spanish over the radio with a Chilean native to circumvent enemies who knew Hebrew.

No one in Golan's unit of 18 men died during the war. But during reserve duty over the next two years, several of them were killed sweeping border roads for mines.

"That was the harshest part for me," he said.

Golan also cannot forget the fact that he killed soldiers.

"You're not proud to have killed people. But it's a matter of you or them," said Golan, now a retired park ranger. "Today I can't shoot an ant."

Cohen didn't kill anyone in the war. But unlike Golan, he lost about 25 comrades.

"I regret losing friends," he said. "I regret losing innocent people on both sides."

Then a 19-year-old corporal, Weil had been in the Israeli army for less than a year when the war started.

Stationed in central Israel, his job was to train newly drafted soldiers. Because they were so green, the newest recruits didn't actually fight. Instead, their duty was to race into West Bank and Jerusalem battlefields within minutes of occupation and salvage any enemy ammunition.

They loaded the ammunition onto Egged buses and took it back to camp.

Weil fondly remembers the unity within Israel at that time. "When it comes to war, Israelis put anything aside."

Strangers would offer soldiers rides, for example.

"I needed to go home to Tel Aviv. A car just stopped and drove me home," said Weil, who is now vice president of a real estate brokerage.

None of these veterans believe they did anything particularly heroic. But Cohen heard stories about others, such as the soldier who threw himself onto a live grenade to save the lives of three friends.

Such acts are heroic, but also part of the Israeli mentality.

"When you grow up there, they teach you: `One for all and all for one.' You learn how to live that way. It's a good way to think," said Cohen, who now runs a San Rafael catering business.

In the years after the war, these three left Israel.

Both Cohen and Golan met women in Israel who happened to be from the Bay Area. They married and eventually moved here with their wives. Weil came to Berkeley to attend college and stayed.

While Weil said he doesn't tend to think back to those war days, Golan finds himself reminiscing at least once a year. He'll leaf through his unit's memorial book and photographs he took during the war.

"It's something that never leaves your memory."