Yom Kippur War — 25 years later: Local vets recall brutal 1973 battles

After he was shot in the leg during the Yom Kippur War, Israeli Shlomi Ravid was sent to the hospital in an ambulance with another soldier who wasn't as lucky.

The unknown soldier was completely covered by a blanket except for his blood-stained boots, recalled Ravid, now the director of San Francisco's Israel Center.

"I found out later that he was someone who was with me for six weeks in officers' course, a kid from Beersheva," Ravid said this week, the 25th anniversary of Israel's goriest war, which followed simultaneous invasions from Syria and Egypt.

The invasions took place Oct. 6, 1973 on the secular calendar and lasted 22 days. Israel ultimately prevailed in driving back its attackers, but not before some 2,500 Israelis, 3,500 Syrians and unknown thousands of Egyptians died.

Ravid is one of many local Israelis who on the holiest day of the year cannot help but reflect on the war that, like Vietnam for American baby boomers, forever changed a generation.

"After the 1967 [Six-Day] War, Israelis were drunk with victory and power. The Yom Kippur War was a total shock to those beliefs that Israel was safe, strong and eternal," Ravid said.

On Yom Kippur, "I think in terms of Israeli society, because the war was a turning point in reassessing where we are and where we are going."

He added that becoming a father has made him even more sensitive to the human losses of the war.

"I know of a really talented flutist who would have made it to the [Israel] Philharmonic [had he lived]. There were writers and artists lost. I was a few inches from not coming out alive. It made me realize how precious life is."

While his four Israel-raised children have been shaped by the intifada, exploding buses and gas-mask memories of the Persian Gulf War, Ravid's world view has been deeply influenced by the Yom Kippur War.

After the war, he decided to strive for his beliefs — "I became more committed to peace."

Today, he works full time to connect Bay Area Jews to Israel.

Israeli Ori Nir of San Francisco was 12 during the Yom Kippur War. Though he was too young to fight, he and others his age did their part by patrolling the streets of Jerusalem with flashlights and whistles to signal residents who didn't adequately black out their windows.

He also filled in at a local bakery because all the men who worked there had been called to war.

"It was a real coup for me to stand by the furnaces and take out hot fresh bread. It made me feel like I was really getting involved for the sake of the community," said Nir, who today is a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.

"In Israel, there is always a very strong sense of solidarity during wars. Everyone pitches in."

Nir recalled his confusion on Yom Kippur 1973 when ambulances and military vehicles barreled through streets that usually were dead quiet on the holy day. While there were no national broadcasts during the Day of Atonement, he later heard of the invasions from a British transmission on a friend's short-wave radio.

He ran home to find his father dressed in military fatigues. The elder Nir broke his fast early, hurriedly slurping soup before he dashed off to war.

"We didn't know the enormity of the attack…until the reports started coming in. We started understanding how many were dying and it became kind of scary," Nir said.

Jerry Sanders, now a San Francisco businessman, didn't see anything to be frightened about as his reconnaissance unit started up the northern Mediterranean coast in helicopters.

He and others in his unit thought the attacks were a brilliant plot of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to lure the enemy across the border, surround and cut them off. But as Sanders approached the battle zones where he saw so many downed Israelis, he had the sickening realization that Israel was on the defensive.

"From the numbers in the waters, we knew we were in big trouble. This was some disaster," Sanders said.

"It was clear from the confusion on the front lines that Israel was taken by surprise."

The element of surprise was part of former commando Tzahi Ohel's specialty. The Palo Alto Israeli in 1973 was a 29-year-old reservist and leader of a paratrooper brigade. The unit was part of the famous battalion that had liberated Jerusalem in 1967.

During the Yom Kippur War, Ohel's men launched an effort to cross the Suez Canal. After being helicoptered to the other side, they parachuted in with designs of joining an Israeli armored unit on a mission to cut off the Egyptian army.

The paratroopers managed to steal several troop carriers to transport themselves. They began to move south following the armored unit and fighting the retreating Egyptians along the way.

As they reached Suez at the southern tip of the canal, Ohel received orders to capture the city.

"It wasn't clear how heavily defended the town was. As it turned out, it was filled with Egyptian military," he said.

The paratroopers' carriers were fired upon as they approached. It wasn't long before Ohel's vehicle took a direct hit, wounding six of the eight men aboard.

Unharmed, Ohel and the driver continued moving until the carrier reached a nearby police station. Still under fire, they kicked out the policemen and, together with other Israeli soldiers in the area, transported the wounded inside.

Ohel quickly organized a perimeter defense as the Egyptian soldiers in the town continued efforts to capture the building. The Egyptians gave up after a few hours.

Though they were safe temporarily, Ohel knew the 30 soldiers in the police station had to escape before Egyptian reinforcements showed up. Word from higher command, however, was that the holed-up soldiers were on their own; Israeli troops were too busy with the enemy to organize a rescue mission.

It was night by then. With ammunition and water running low and no food, Ohel decided to make a move before daybreak.

"We always thought the Egyptians were not good night soldiers. They feel uncomfortable in the dark," he said.

Ohel organized his men in teams: those who carried the wounded and those who would return fire if detected.

After joining groups of Israelis holed up in nearby houses, the group moved on foot through Suez to rejoin Israeli troops stationed outside the town.

"There were a couple scary moments when we passed in front of Egyptians' barracks. We heard them and they heard us but they were too scared to come out," Ohel recalled.

The group made its way safely back to Israeli lines and those who weren't wounded returned to the fray.

"I don't spend a lot of time thinking about what it all meant," Ohel said. However, "I think Israel was overconfident before that war. There is no such thing as a Superman nation. After the big shock [of the unexpected invasions], all Israelis realized that it was a false view of the world."

Ohel joined many war veterans and citizens who grew disenchanted with Israeli leadership after the war. They gathered to discuss forming a new party and there was talk of revolution, he said.

"The common basis for doing that was the disappointment from what happened. But we didn't know what we wanted to achieve."

In the end, no new parties resulted from those meetings, and the reins of government eventually shifted from the Labor Zionists to the more hawkish Likudniks, who took to heart the political and military lessons of 1973.

But for veterans of the Yom Kippur War like Ohel, Sanders and Ravid, no other event so dramatically impressed upon a generation the vulnerability of human life.

Last spring in Palo Alto, Ohel found himself in an auditorium full of Israelis attending a Yom HaZikaron observance. As part of the ceremony, candles were lit for fallen Israeli soldiers who had local relatives. As the candles were lit, the names of the soldiers were called out.

During the ceremony, Ohel said, he heard the name of a comrade from his unit called out across the auditorium, and his mind wandered back to that precarious day in Suez.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.