I knew, we all knew, what we had to do, says local activist: Collecting guns, underwear and money

Back in the '40s, Irving Hamlin was a high-powered news editor for NBC in Los Angeles with a baby on the way and precious little spare time.

That didn't stop the current Novato resident from diving headfirst into an all-consuming two-year effort to help the Jews of Palestine defend the land they hoped would become a viable Jewish state.

As head of the West Coast branch for the grassroots, nonprofit organization Materials for Palestine Inc., Hamlin helped raise funds and procure military supplies for Israel's 1948 War of Independence — a battle that had not yet erupted but one many viewed as inevitable.

"I knew, we all knew, what we had to do," Hamlin says as the Jewish state prepares to mark its 50th birthday at sundown Wednesday.

What they had to do was serve as matchmakers between Israel and American surplus dealers who could secure everything from firearms to aircraft parts to steel helmets.

Participating in covert and often elaborate operations, some picked up weapons at railway stations, lugging them to warehouses for sorting, packing and shipping.

The effort to recruit American Jewish support for a desert strip 5,000 miles away began in 1945 with David Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, and Rudolf Sonneborn, a corporate executive from an affluent German-Jewish family in Baltimore.

Certain that a Jewish state would mean armed conflict with the region's Arabs, the pair of ardent Zionists hatched a plan to approach wealthy American Jews for aid in fortifying the Haganah, the underground Jewish defense force in Palestine. Among those they targeted with great success was the late San Francisco hotelier Ben Swig.

It was early 1947 when a representative from Palestine asked Hamlin to join the growing nationwide network of American Jews and others dedicated to the cause of a Jewish homeland. The supporters came from all walks of life — millionaires, rabbinical students, merchants.

For Hamlin, who was raised reading Yiddish newspapers in an unwavering Labor Zionist home in Boston, jumping into the fray was the most natural thing in the world.

"Los Angeles was the greatest place in the world to start," says Hamlin, a fast-talking 79-year-old with a crackerjack memory for details. "We had a committee comprised of some very wealthy, powerful people who understood immediately what had to be done."

First came impassioned meetings where fund-raisers were offered not only copious sums of money but guns and pistols brought home by American soldiers. The offers, whispered at first, grew more brazen as headlines about Palestine warned of the increasing threat of armed conflict.

The money was immediately put to use. The new army, it became clear, would need everything from walkie-talkies to underwear.

Palestine, Hamlin recalls, would send lists of needed supplies to its representatives in New York. The representatives, including former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, conducted business from the top floor of the Hotel Fourteen on East 60th Street.

Employees of Materials for Palestine offices around the country would scan the typewritten, carbon-copied lists, locating local surplus dealers who could meet the demand for supplies.

According to the 1970 book "The Pledge," by Leonard Slater, which chronicles the American gun-smuggling network, Philadelphia sent a mobile hospital unit to Palestine.

Detroit contributed generators, motors and searchlights. Kansas City sent trench shovels, bedrolls and nurses' uniforms.

Omaha sent utensils.

"It was from the West Coast that Israelis got their first steel helmets, their first copper telephone wire, their first pup tents, their first camouflage netting," Hamlin says.

Israel also benefited from the West Coast's formidable aircraft industry.

"Uncle Sam left behind untold millions of dollars worth of material in the Philippines and in Hawaii," Hamlin says. "It was there that our junk men went to get the surplus."

For Hamlin and his cohorts, the often complicated effort to secure supplies proved nerve-wracking at times, as "sometimes the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing."

It was also exhausting, an "all day, all night," effort, Hamlin recalls. "It dominated us, ate us alive."

But more often, the effort was exhilarating. "We were doing something and we saw results," he says. "I was meeting people out of history. I was part of history."

Now, with Israel about to turn 50, Hamlin recalls his fellow players in the effort for Palestine as if he had just spoken with them yesterday.

He recalls vaudevillian Eddie Cantor, who volunteered his home for fundraising parlor meetings. And he recalls Harry Weinsaft, a young Viennese refugee who had been a sailor on the famous refugee ship Exodus. At meetings in such cities as Portland, Seattle and Salt Lake City, Weinsaft would give passionate fund-raising pleas.

"He would stand up before these groups and he'd tell them the truth," Hamlin says. Weinsaft would, for example, describe the smells of the crowded ship. And he'd describe dehumanized and debilitated refugees desperately seeking haven in a new land.

"We used people like Harry to arouse people," says Hamlin, who is now retired from 47 years in the travel industry.

Another popular and effective speaker on the West Coast circuit was John Stanley Grauel, a flamboyant minister and member of the American Christian Committee for Palestine. "The Jews loved him," Hamlin recalls.

The place where Hamlin encountered the most resistance in arranging fund-raising meetings was San Francisco, which local Jewish leaders recall as one of the least Zionist of the major Jewish communities at the time.

While many area Jews supported the burgeoning Jewish forces in Palestine — some even volunteered to fight in the War of Independence — the Jewish Welfare Fund, which preceded the Jewish Community Federation, did not want to take part in the effort.

Hamlin recalls the federation refusing to serve as a site for fund-raising meetings. "I was told: `Don't attempt to have those meetings here. It will interfere with fund-raising for the welfare fund.'"

Money-collecting efforts, and the sending of needed materials, thrived in spite of any resistance. Many Jews look upon the American arms-smuggling efforts as a heroic chapter.

History, of course, took a turn in mid-1948, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation closed down Materials for Palestine for violating the arms embargo on the shipment of war goods to Palestine.

Hamlin vividly remembers an FBI agent showing up at the door of his Hollywood office and flashing his badge.

"That was it," Hamlin says. He pauses. "But we had done the job."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.