Through their eyes

Crisp blue arrows.

Forty years after bullets began flying on June 5, 1967, that’s how the outcome of those six world-turning days is depicted on a military map. The thousands of Arab soldiers who died or fled, shoeless, have usually been reduced to red x’s. The Israeli dead receive no designation at all.

But wars are not fought by arrows on maps. They are fought by living, breathing men. Men who do not sleep or bathe for weeks on end. Men who, far after the six days have lapsed a thousand times over, carry scars both physical and mental.

This is the story of four such men. All of them now live in the Bay Area, but 40 years ago they were in Israel on the front lines of history. It was June 5, 1967, and they were entering the primes of their lives. Here, they look back on those days.

David Dror

On one side of the street it was Jordan. On the other, it was Israel. The guns were loaded and pointing out the window. Young men were ready to massacre each other at a moment’s notice.

David Dror remembers it well. He was on the roof.

Then a 24-year-old artilleryman in the Israeli army, Dror stared across the dusty Jerusalem street at his Jordanian counterparts.

“I’m up there with a gun,” Dror recalls. “And I’m watching and I see this Jordanian on the roof going back and forth … with a cup of tea in his hand and he starts calling, in Arabic, ‘Come here, we’ll give you tea to drink. Join us.'”

The 64-year-old, whose soft accent reveals that he’s a native Arabic speaker, was born and raised in Baghdad. With his dark skin and white beard, the semi-retired Daly City electrician would resemble an aging Bollywood matinee idol — if not for the big glasses he has worn his whole life.

On that long ago night, Dror looked away and didn’t respond to the taunts. But then a jagged rock zipped past his ear. Not even 24 hours later, the stones turned into bombs and the war was under way.

When the sun came up, Dror was in Talpiyot, in the south of Jerusalem and within sight of the border. He was hunkered down in a small hole with his mortar poking out above the ground and a huge ring of shells surrounding him. “My fear was, if one bomb lands here, they will not find anything of me. Maybe my glasses.”

There were puffs of smoke in the distance and the faint whistle grew to a banshee’s wail before the shells burst in unison around the Israeli positions. Soldiers ran this way and that, diving for cover and grabbing shovels to dig makeshift trenches. One soldier — Dror points out his smiling, bearded face in a black and white group photo — cracked under the pressure and wandered out in the open. His arms were spread wide and he screeched, repeatedly, “Please stop this! Please stop this bombing!” He was dragged to safety, but no one could quiet him down.

Life had always been a struggle for Dror. His entire family was expelled from Iraq with little more than the clothes on their backs. His parents could not support their eight children, and he spent much of his life in an orphanage. He’d been working odd jobs since age 13. And now people were trying to kill him.

The Jordanian rounds fell continuously. And still there was no Israeli response. The group leader had made it clear there was to be no reprisal without his word, and the men obeyed — and obeyed, and obeyed. Finally they found him, staring at the sky, a bullet hole between his eyes.

“Pretty handsome guy,” Dror says matter-of-factly. “I think he just got married.”

It was at this point Dror witnessed “the most exciting thing I ever saw in my life.”

A small Israeli plane droned, low and inviting, over Jordanian territory, lazily zigzagging, almost begging to be knocked from the sky. Every flash from a Jordanian gun revealed an enemy hideout. It was a jaw-dropping sight — every Israeli soldier knew that pilot was undertaking “a suicide mission” — and it seemed to last forever. But when the order came to fire, Dror knew exactly where to point his mortar.

His results were deadly. Buildings collapsed onto the cobblestone streets below and black smoke choked the air as East Jerusalem burned.

The Israelis advanced and took what the Jordanians left. The Arabs had conveniently abandoned four “tolarim” — Jeep-mounted artillery cannons Dror specialized in. So that night he received a new assignment — kill a pair of rampaging Jordanian tanks slaughtering Israeli troops.

Today the Israeli army is equipped with the most cutting-edge military technology. Not so for Dror and his brethren. Virtually everything was second-hand and archaic by today’s standard.

The tolarim were no exception. They were lethal weapons, but cumbersome to fire and tricky to load. An unsuccessful shot at a tank blew your cover and was likely fatal. Finally, it was easy to flip over the Jeep; this happened to Dror twice.

So Dror knew what was at stake when he cranked the vertical and horizontal wheels to align his barrel with the flashes bursting from the tank. His entire life would come down to whether he could aim a tube about the width of a beer can at a massive killing machine less than a mile away. He made his geometric calculations, said his prayers and fired. The ground shook, and a blinding plume of fire billowed skyward. A voice crackled over Dror’s radio: “The tank is gone!” One minute later Dror turned night to day again. He had destroyed both tanks.

When the sun rose on the third day of the war, Dror was in a convoy, occasionally napping with his head cradled on the barrel of his cannon. The company’s new commander took his men and machines off the beaten path and headed for Bethlehem. It was supposed to be a shortcut.

And then Dror was awake: The Jeep in front of him exploded; broken, limp bodies soared through the air and thudded onto the hot sand. The Jeep in front of that one, fearing an assault, backed up. It exploded as well. Twisted, burning hunks of metal and body parts thunked onto the desert ground.

Dror later discovered his commander had led them across Israeli minefields.

The broken convoy reached Bethlehem and was greeted with a sea of white flags fluttering over the walled city.

The town was taken without a shot being fired.

A throng of Arabs asked Dror when the Israelis would get there. When he replied that these were the Israelis, the crowd didn’t believe him. How could these be the Israelis? These people looked like them. The Arabs thought of the Israelis as something other than human, “monsters,” in Dror’s words. Forty years later, he still feels this is how Mideast adversaries view each other.

He is also still pained by the fact that he killed many men, men he didn’t even know. Men he didn’t even see. “I always felt that the men who were killed and wounded, it wasn’t their fault. They also had their orders.

“We are living in a very cruel world.”

Avi Cohen

When Avi Cohen was a toddler, he remembers Arabs and Jews firing at each other — literally through his family’s Jerusalem flat — during the Israeli War of Independence.

Two decades later, it was Cohen who was bursting into hastily evacuated East Jerusalem flats, rifle in hand. Pots of food still sat on the burners. As the soldiers stalked through the eerily empty homes, radios blared and flickering televisions projected the imposing silhouettes of the young men and their guns on the walls. And children’s books and toys — there were plenty of those, too.

“You know this house has some little kids there. And you feel, ‘Oh my God, they have to go through this, too,'” recalled Cohen, a tall man with a slow Israeli drawl, soft brown eyes and a mop of black hair that belies his 61 years.

The third-generation Jerusalemite knew war was imminent when so many Israelis were called into service that his neighborhood began looking “like a ghost town.” By May he was in military training and, weeks later, was charging through the Mandlebaum Gate and into East Jerusalem with a machine gun, hunting for booby traps.

When Cohen closes his eyes, the image of Jerusalem at night, illuminated in rapid staccato bursts of anti-aircraft fire, still burns in his mind’s eye. He remembers the Israeli jets roaring low overhead and dive-bombing Jordanian forces on Mount Scopus.

“I saw all the jets diving into that mountain and bullets in the air, bullets flying everywhere,” said the Novato chef and caterer. “And you could see smoke from all over the city.”

Two days into the war, Cohen was sleeping in the back of a bus headed for the north of Israel. The transport stopped briefly in Tiberias, then crossed into the Golan Heights, which was Syrian territory at the time. And when Cohen stepped off of that bus he was confronted with an image that will never leave him.

It was a vast desert field pockmarked with the

charred and smoldering aftermath of a massive tank battle. The gargantuan, blackened hulks sat,

burning, where they had been felled by planes, shells or minefields. Plumes of thick black smoke meandered out of the dead tanks’ open hatches; the acrid scent of burning oil and human flesh singed Cohen’s nostrils and stung his eyes.

“When you get closer you can smell the flesh. You smell death. It’s there. You know soldiers didn’t make it out. You see it, feel it. But you keep going.”

A few days later, the war was over. A few weeks later, Cohen was out of the reserves, another 21-year-old trying to figure out what to do with his life. He’d lost some friends and seen horrible things, but it had been that way since he was 2, waiting in line for food and water. That’s what it was to be an Israeli.

“Every six or seven years, there was a war. You know that in a matter of years, you’ll have another. You live with that.”

Six years later there was another war. At that time, Cohen was living in America; he would later marry an American he met in Israel. But it was his reserve unit that was guarding the Suez Canal when the Egyptians launched their overwhelming surprise assault, initiating the Yom Kippur War. Dozens of men Cohen considered friends — he still remembers their nicknames, their voices — died on the Sinai Peninsula.

“Forty years ago — it seems like a lifetime, you know? A month ago, my daughter and I went to Israel. I went to the Old City just to walk around, and we went to the Wailing Wall, the Lion’s Gate. I was just telling her what was here 40 years earlier and how we came in. And we walked into the Old City.

“I showed her where my parents used to live.”

Uzi Cohen

When Uzi Cohen was 20, he made the worst decision of his life.

“Do you mind?” he asks, smiling sheepishly and lighting a cigarette in his Alameda home, 40 years later. In his native Tunisia, Jewish parents traditionally buy their sons packs of smokes on their bar mitzvah so they can offer them to guests and puff along like adults. He’s been at it ever since.

Cohen, who is not related to Avi Cohen, is dark-skinned with a trim mustache and a rapid-fire, Arabic-accented cadence.

At the outbreak of the war, he was a military policeman. He picked up soldiers who neglected to wear their uniforms properly and supervised groups of Israeli military prisoners building defensive emplacements around kibbutzes. And he smoked a lot of cigarettes.

It’s likely that one was dangling out of his mouth when the shells began raining down on Kibbutz Ein Gev on June 6, 1967 — day two of the war. Cohen ordered his prisoners into a nearby trench and joined them as mortar rounds fell, fired by Syrians across the border in the Golan Heights, only a few hundred yards away. When the bombardment ceased, Cohen poked his head out of the trench. He lit another cigarette. And he ordered his men back to work.

When the shelling started again 15 minutes later, Cohen directed his prisoners back to the trench. And that was his big mistake — the Syrians had guessed where the Israelis would go. And adjusted their mortars accordingly.

“I was so scared, so scared. You hear that hiss and you know it’s coming and the explosions are so close and you smell the fire and the powder. [The earth] shakes and it’s black, everything in front of you is black. The dirt is black, the gunpowder is black. Everything.”

When the shelling subsided, five of Cohen’s prisoners were shrieking, punctured by shrapnel wounds. One young recruit had foolishly poked his head over the top of the trench to see if a shell was coming. It was.

Half his skull had been torn off and his blood flowed into the ruined earth.

Cohen yanked himself out of the ground and bellowed an order to run, like there was no tomorrow, to the kibbutz bomb shelter — 400 yards away, across open desert land and under a renewed and vicious bombardment.

Cohen exhales a lungful of smoke, crushes his spent butt in the ashtray and glances up through the cloud with moist, red eyes. He shuts them tightly and shakes his head. “That,” he says in a weary and measured tone, “was a long run, man.”

Fire belched from the earth and deadly hunks of shrapnel ripped through the air as Cohen sprinted the seemingly interminable distance to the middle of the kibbutz. The homely, sunken shelter was now the most important place in the world, and Cohen felt an increasing mix of terror and euphoria as the gaping black tunnel of its open entrance drew closer and closer.

The Syrians were targeting the bunker, and, the nearer Cohen drew to safety, the more danger he was in. Explosions peppered the area like rain on a tin roof.

After several agonizing minutes, Cohen found himself at the mouth of the shelter. His heart rattled in his ears and his lungs were wracked with pain. He was 10 yards away, then five, then three then two. “I am there! I am there!” he thought.

If Cohen had been one meter closer to the door, the mortar would have landed directly on top of his head. Had he been a meter slower, the shrapnel would have severed his midsection. As it was, his feet and ankles were riddled with dozens of hunks of metal, each about the size of the filter on one of his ubiquitous cigarettes. Dozens remain; trips through the airport metal detector are not pleasant.

Cohen stood stiff, like a toy soldier. He looked down and noticed blood oozing out of the rivets of his boots. He fell backward into a sitting position and stared at his blood soaking into the dust.

He remembers seeing hands. Hands and arms emerged from the void of the shelter door and dragged him by his shredded boots into safety. He never saw any of his prisoners again.

Cohen has put together a good life in Alameda, where he runs a termite inspection service. He has found the economic prosperity he left Israel to seek. Cohen and his wife dote on their daughter’s baby son. The Cohen’s son was decorated for bravery in Israel’s 2006 war.

But the scars of June 6, 1967 are deeper than the shrapnel embedded in Cohen’s feet. “I realized later that they adjusted the mortars to hit us where we were,” he says.

And the tears come.

“One dead and five wounded and me, the sixth, right on top of the shelter.”

Yacov Golan

The light peeked through the leaves and branches, awakening Yacov Golan after a fitful night of sleep on the floor of an Israeli forest. And, just like that, the light was gone, blotted out by a sky filled with roaring Israeli jets returning from pre-dawn bombing runs in Syria.

It was June 5, 1967, the first morning of the Six-Day War, and Golan’s 29th birthday.

Hundreds of Israeli troops stared grimly ahead and methodically chewed their breakfasts before clambering onto their “half-tracks” — hulking, pickup-like transports with wheels in the front and tank treads in the rear. If that sounds like the troop carriers in a World War II movie, Golan notes that may well have been the vintage. “Cuban Chevrolets,” he calls them.

Golan is a big man with short white hair, a friendly smile and a deep, booming voice that bears hints of the German he spoke at home growing up in Uruguay before making aliyah 50 years ago. He ended up in California serendipitously in the 1970s, when his incredibly detailed complaints about the condition of the plants inside the Marin Civic Center led administrators to offer him a naturalist’s job on the spot.

In 1967 Golan was a sergeant — “the smallest of the big shots” — who, along with two fellow gunners, manned a Spanish-built artillery cannon, mounted in the rear of a half-track that resembled a fire hose protruding from an oil drum. The rotating drum was loaded with six artillery shells, each the size of the cardboard tube in the middle of a roll of paper towels.

With the din of tank treads and heavy steel, Golan’s convoy slowly crossed the Green Line and rolled into the West Bank. On that first night, the Israelis engaged in a fierce battle with Jordanian soldiers and armed citizens. Golan’s shells would have been of little use in the close-proximity melee, so all he could do was stand with his hands on the trigger, all night long, surrounded by the cacophony of endless machine gun fire and bathed in the glow of distant explosions.

As the sun rose, Golan’s unit mounted a West Bank ridge and was caught off-guard by the sight of a large, ungainly bomber lumbering overhead at tree level. Before he could squeeze off a round somebody shouted, “No! It’s the U.N.” By the time Golan realized that it wasn’t the U.N., there was nothing he could do (his cannon didn’t swivel very well).

It turned out to be an Iraqi jet. It bombed portions of a kibbutz before being destroyed by the Israeli Air Force.

A few hours later, the convoy snaked south to Nablus. Golan was uneasy about traveling, exposed, through a rocky gulch, and his worst nightmares came to pass when mortar shells began bursting on all sides. He squeezed off a couple of futile rounds before quickly giving the order for his gunners and drivers to take cover among the rocks.

But one of the gunners wanted no part of it. He wanted to be a hero, and stayed on the truck. In Golan’s mind, it plays as if in slow motion. He remembers the flames and dust as the shells hit, closer.

He remembers the young man’s panicked expression when he realized he had made a horrible mistake. He can still close his eyes and recall his comrade sprinting the 30-odd yards to cover as they frantically screamed and beckoned for him. And he can still remember the awkward, unnatural position of the young soldier’s body after the mortar found its mark. Golan pulled the Israeli behind the rocks and the medics were there in a matter of minutes. But the wounds proved fatal.

“Everything happens so fast. You don’t think. There’s nothing you can do,” he says, shaking his head.

Golan appears tired. “That’s life. Today, I don’t feel it. It’s too long ago. But I still see it.”

The air force arrived and cleaned up the problem, posthaste. The convoy pressed on.

After being greeted with white flags in Nablus, the Israelis turned north. Gleeful, shouting citizens ran alongside the half-trucks in Tiberias. Golan told them to call his kibbutz’s one phone and tell them he was all right.

They passed through Kiryat Shmona and into the Galilee. As the long convoy line pressed on, Syrian rockets and mortars began to rain down; tanks exploded and men burned and died. Russian crackled over the Israelis’ walkie-talkies — it was the Syrian’s Soviet advisers supplying coordinates to the artillery. A Russian-Israeli soldier began feeding bogus numbers to the gunners. The Syrians bought it. And, once again, the Israeli Air Force came in and cleaned everything up.

But it was on day five of the war that Golan’s life changed forever.

His half-track was removed from the convoy and sent deep into Syrian territory, along with an antiquated Israeli tank and two half-tracks full of troops. They passed abandoned towns covered in white flags, many with huge artillery emplacements callously planted by the Syrian army in civilians’ front lawns.

Bullets always change the mood. And so they did with Golan. He could see them. He could see them ricocheting off the tank. He could see them bursting into the scorched soil. It was an ambush, and a platoon of Syrian soldiers sprayed machine gun fire from a hill overlooking the road.

Before he even realized what he was doing, Golan’s cannon was recoiling repeatedly as he fired round after round at the Syrians. His wet, trembling fingers finally slipped off the trigger, the adrenaline coursing, almost audibly, through his veins. Multiple armor-piercing shells designed to rip through the steel hulls of aircraft had detonated virtually atop young men of flesh and bone.

They were dead. They were all dead.

Golan did not fire his weapon again for the rest of the war. He even helped free a group of would-be Syrian deserters who had been chained by their superiors to the walls of a cave.

The retired park ranger stares at the lush, green hills of Marin he has made his home — but he still sees the bodies of those four or five young men who chose to shoot at a tank in the dying days of a lost war.

“I have a hell of a time with that. When you are in a battle, it is your whole system, your whole body. It comes as a surprise to you, but when you are being shot at, you shoot back. Immediately.”

Later, as a ranger, Golan found he could not even bring himself to euthanize dying animals. “There was a time I thought that, over the years, it would go away. But every once in a while, you sit there and the thought comes back. And nothing makes it easier. Because I saw them dead.”

Six days — and 40 years later

PBS ‘Six Days’ show is wonderfully detailed — but conclusions are questionable

Book claims Soviets plotted ’67 conflict to stop Israel’s nuclear program

Relive the days of the war — online

Israel’s victory was Jews’ misfortune in neighboring states

To see the ‘other Jerusalem,’ just look to the east

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.