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By David T. Zabecki
On a warm July day in 1948, a funeral was held at the U.S. Military Academy in New York for David Daniel Marcus, class of 1924. In many ways it was a typical West Point funeral, with a bugler, a firing party and a number of distinguished mourners. In one respect, however, the ceremony was unique. Although an American flag covered his coffin, Marcus was the first soldier buried at West Point who had died fighting under another nation’s flag. Only two weeks before his death, he had been appointed the first divisional level field commander in the army of the fledgling state of Israel.
Marcus was born on New York’s Lower East Side on February 22, 1902. He was the fifth child of Mordecai and Leah Marcus, who had emigrated from Romania to escape the waves of antisemitism sweeping Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. Mordecai Marcus sold vegetables from a pushcart and eventually worked his way up to owning his own stall in the Washington Market. That enabled the family to move to Brooklyn, but then Mordecai died suddenly in 1910.
Antisemitism was also very much alive in early-20th-century America. Michael, the oldest of the Marcus children, formed a self-defense group that protected elderly Jews from neighborhood street gangs. ’Big Mike,’ as he was called, worked out daily. When young David started following his older brother around, and even sparring with him at the local gym, people started calling him ’Little Mike,’ which soon was shortened to ’Mickey.’
Mickey Marcus excelled in high school both as a student and an athlete. To his family’s chagrin, he decided somewhere along the line that he wanted to go to the U.S. Military Academy. Marcus entered the academy in 1920, when Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was superintendent. He became a standout athlete, winning letters in boxing and football, and graduated in 1924 as a second lieutenant of infantry. During his first assignment, on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor, Marcus studied law at night school in the city and in 1927 married Emma Hertzenberg. His next duty assignment was to be Puerto Rico, but the newlyweds decided that they really did not want to live there. Marcus resigned his Regular commission and went to work as a law clerk in New York.
A year after he resigned from the Regular Army, he received a doctorate from Brooklyn Law School. Between 1930 and 1934, Marcus was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. One of his closest associates was future presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey.
When Fiorello La Guardia became mayor of New York on a reform ticket in 1934, he appointed Marcus deputy commissioner of corrections. One of Marcus’ first actions was to personally lead a special police raid on the corruption-ridden and prisoner-controlled penitentiary on Welfare Island. In 1936, La Guardia appointed Marcus a temporary magistrate to help relieve the case backlog in the crowded Manhattan courts. That summer Marcus worked closely with Dewey in an operation that eventually led to the shutdown of Lucky Luciano’s crime ring.
Marcus had actually been running the department for five years when La Guardia finally appointed him commissioner of corrections in April 1940. Meanwhile, he had maintained a Reserve commission as a field artillery officer. In 1939, because of his legal experience, he was persuaded to transfer to the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
In 1940, Lt. Col. Marcus’ National Guard unit, the 27th Infantry Division, was federalized and sent to Alabama. Marcus was then the unit’s judge advocate. Although legal officers were not supposed to command troops in the field, Marcus managed to lead a unit of special troops during maneuvers in Louisiana in 1941. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, the 27th Division deployed to Hawaii. There, Marcus organized and commanded a Ranger school, training some 8,000 men during the next year.
Using his training experience as justification, Marcus tried to talk the Army into giving him a field command with a Ranger unit, but he was unsuccessful. In the spring of 1943, Marcus was posted back to the Pentagon to become chief of planning for the War Department’s Civil Affairs Division (CAD), headed by Maj. Gen. John H. Hilldring. For most of the rest of the war, Marcus, now a full colonel, found himself on a whirlwind tour of the corridors of power.
While at CAD, Marcus served as a legal and military government adviser at some of the war’s most important Allied conferences. Those included Cairo in November 1943; Dumbarton Oaks, where the United Nations was born; and Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam, where the postwar world order was forged. According to the citation for his Distinguished Service Medal (an unusually high service decoration for a colonel), Marcus played a key role in the ’negotiation and drafting of the Italian Surrender Instrument, the Instrument of Unconditional Surrender of Germany, and the international machinery to be used for the control of Germany after her total defeat.’
Although locked into a general staff job, Marcus did figure out a way to make one trip to the front lines. In early May 1944, he convinced Hilldring to send him to London on temporary duty ’to provide liaison and act as observer in the implementation of military government policies for France.’ At first Hilldring was pleased because Marcus managed to answer on the spot most of the civil affairs questions that usually wound up at the Pentagon. Then, in the second week of June, Hilldring realized that he had not heard from Marcus since the end of May. After a few transatlantic phone calls, Hilldring learned from Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith that Marcus was’somewhere in France,’ having jumped on D-Day, June 6, with the 101st Airborne Division.
Marcus used a very elastic interpretation of his orders from Hilldring, combined with the fact that he had been a fellow cadet at West Point with the 101st’s commander, Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor (class of 1922), to get himself on a Curtiss C-46 in the first wave. Of all the soldiers who jumped with the 101st that day, only Marcus and one other had never jumped before.
Once on the ground in Normandy, Marcus collected groups of the widely scattered paratroopers and organized them into patrols. He led several of those patrols himself, engaging in firefights with German units and, on one occasion, freeing a group of captured U.S. paratroopers. As the 101st regrouped over the next few days, Marcus finally bumped into Taylor, who asked him, ’What the hell are you doing here?’ Marcus characteristically replied, ’Oh, just looking around.’ Back in Washington, a frustrated Hilldring finally had to issue the order: ’Find Marcus. Arrest him if you have to–but send him back!’ Shortly after that, Marcus was on a plane to the United States, still in his dirty field uniform.
Immediately after the end of the fighting in Europe, General Lucius D. Clay, commander of U.S. occupation forces in Germany, requested that Marcus be assigned to his staff. Clay’s standing instructions at the time were that all senior officers in Germany were to visit the recently liberated Dachau concentration camp. As a civil affairs officer, Marcus was well-acquainted with Nazi wartime atrocities. But even that knowledge did not prepare him for the horrors he saw at Dachau. He had never been a Zionist, but now he started to rethink his position on a future Jewish state.
During his tour in Germany, Marcus served as executive for internal affairs of the U.S. Group Control Council, then its acting chief of staff, and then the U.S. secretary general in occupied Berlin. Much of his time and energy was devoted to improving conditions for the vast numbers of displaced persons in Europe. Despite his anger over Nazi treatment of the Jews, at a White House conference Marcus argued strongly against adopting the drastic Morganthau Plan, which would have reduced postwar Germany to an agricultural state–one vast farmland.
In early 1946, Hilldring managed to get Marcus back from General Clay, this time to head the Pentagon’s War Crimes Division. Marcus was responsible for selecting the judges, prosecutors and lawyers for the major war crimes trials in Germany and Japan. He attended the Nuremberg Trials, where one of his main concerns was the complete documentation of Nazi atrocities for future generations.
In 1946, the British government made Marcus an honorary officer of the Order of the British Empire, ’in recognition of the distinguished service performed…in cooperation with British armed forces during the war.’ By then, he had been nominated for the rank of brigadier general five times. Nomination No. 6 came in early 1947, along with the offer of a coveted assignment as the military attach at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He elected instead to return to civilian life and his law practice–but his respite from military service would be short.
That December, Marcus was approached in New York by Major Shlomo Shamir, representing the ’Provisional Jewish Government.’ Shamir had been sent to America to recruit a military expert to help organize and train the army of the soon-to-be-born state. At first Marcus agreed to help Shamir find such an individual, but it quickly became apparent that Marcus himself was the prime candidate. His wife vigorously opposed any such adventure, but Marcus argued that what he would be doing would be no different than what the Marquis de Lafayette, Friedrich von Steuben or Tadeusz Kosciuszko had done during the American Revolution.
Under the nom de guerre ’Michael Stone,’ Marcus flew to Palestine in January 1948. The United Nations had voted to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states effective October 1, 1948. The British were to remain in control of the mandate until then. Since 1945, both sides had engaged in constant guerrilla warfare against each other and against the British. Many of the Arab countries were determined that the state of Israel would never come into existence.
The Jewish situation was desperate. The surrounding Arab states comprised about 100 times the territory and 60 times the population of the would-be Jewish state. As soon as the Jews declared their independence, the forces of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Trans-Jordan (later Jordan) were poised to invade. The Arab forces, however, were a mixed lot, ranging from the Arab Liberation Army–a ragged collection of poorly trained volunteers–to the 6,000-strong Trans-Jordan Arab Legion, a modern, elite fighting force with British officers and commanded by the legendary British Maj. Gen. John Bagot Glubb.
Opposing the Arabs, the Jews had the clandestine Haganah, with a mobilization strength of about 30,000, commanded by Israel Galili. The crack 2,500-man Palmach, under Colonel Yigael Allon, was the only full-time force within the Haganah. The Haganah was short on weapons and had only a few light observation aircraft and no artillery. What passed for its armored force consisted of locally fabricated armored cars made by bolting steel plates onto trucks.
The situation was made worse by the fact that the British maintained a strict arms embargo while they still controlled Palestine. The embargo hurt the Jews but did not affect the Arab forces outside the country. The Jews had just two things going for them. First, although the Arabs were set to attack from all sides, there was no unity of command or synchronization of effort. Second, with the exception of the Legion, the Arab forces were notoriously poor night fighters.
Reporting directly to future Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Marcus toured the country, visiting Haganah bases, examining troop dispositions and evaluating training programs. He made recommendations that he believed were necessary to transform the largely underground organization into a modern, effective strike force.
Marcus recommended that the Haganah adopt the self-contained brigade as its basic combat formation. He also accurately predicted to Ben-Gurion that the southern Negev Desert would be Israel’s first theater of war. To assist the Haganah training program, Marcus tried to have U.S. Army field manuals smuggled into the country. When that failed, he attacked the problem in characteristic fashion by sitting down and drafting his own manuals from memory, specifically tailored to the needs of the fledgling Jewish army. Marcus stressed taking initiative and decisive action. He also emphasized solid staff work at higher levels and the importance of logistics.
In April, Marcus returned briefly to the United States when his wife fell ill. The British, meanwhile, tired of being caught in the middle of a no-win situation, decided to withdraw their troops from Palestine early, on May 15. The British officer corps in the region, however, remained with the Trans-Jordan Arab Legion.
Marcus returned to Palestine in early May. Israel declared its independence at 4:30 p.m. on May 14. Within hours, as Marcus had predicted, two Egyptian brigades, supported by tanks and artillery, advanced into the Negev. On Marcus’ recommendation, Ben-Gurion sent a small element of 30 radio- and machine-gun-equipped jeeps and a company of halftrack-mounted infantry south to reinforce the Haganah defensive outposts and to act as a raiding and harassing force. Marcus accompanied the force as an adviser.
Hindered by a daring combination of hit-and-run attacks and night raids against its flanks and long supply lines, the Egyptian advance slowed to a crawl and eventually halted. In the north of the country, Palmach units under Moshe Dayan checked the Syrian advance toward the Jordan River valley. By the end of May the main crisis point had shifted to Jerusalem. The Arab Legion already held the ancient Holy City, and they were trying to cut off the remainder of the new city before any United Nations-brokered cease-fire took effect.
The key to Jerusalem was a series of hill fortifications and a massively fortified police station at Latrun that dominated the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Road. So long as the Arab Legion held those positions, Jerusalem was effectively cut off. On May 25, the Jewish forces mounted an attack on Latrun but were driven back with heavy casualties. On close examination of the failure, the Israeli leadership realized that the attack had suffered from the lack of a single unified command.
After consulting with his cabinet, Ben-Gurion decided on a bold and unorthodox move. On May 28, the provisional government issued the following order: ’Brigadier General Stone is hereby appointed Commander of the Jerusalem front, with command over the Etzioni, Har-El and 7th Brigades.’ Mickey Marcus finally had his combat command. Up until that time, brigades were the highest level of field command in the Israeli army. Now Marcus was the equivalent of a division commander. His rank title in Hebrew was aluf, and he was the first Jewish soldier to hold that rank since Judas Maccabeus, 2,100 years before.
Marcus immediately organized another attack on Latrun for May 30. When that attack also failed, he started looking for another way to break the ring around Jerusalem. After a brainstorming session with his staff and a personal ground reconnaissance, Marcus became convinced it would be possible to improve a series of goat trails running through the rocky and tortuous terrain sufficiently to handle truck traffic. Bypassing the dominating, enemy-held heights, the new road would connect with the main highway on either side of Latrun.
Marcus then convinced Ben-Gurion it could be done, and the prime minister committed the bulldozers, manpower and other necessary resources. The crews worked day and night on what Marcus wryly called ’The Burma Road.’ In some sectors they had to work within 500 meters of the Arab positions. To protect the construction, and to keep the Arabs from figuring out what the Israelis were doing, Marcus deployed his fighting forces in an aggressive screen between the new road and the Latrun positions. Marcus also ordered another assault on Latrun, but it was more of a spoiling attack to keep the legion off-guard and to divert attention away from the construction. In planning that third attack, Marcus was assisted by the Palmach’s chief of operations, Yitzhak Rabin–who later became Israel’s prime minister and was tragically assassinated on November 4, 1995.
By June 7, one week after construction began, the road was open and the first truck convoys made the slow, hazardous passage. United Nations mediator Count Folke Bernadotte, meanwhile, had negotiated the cease-fire time for 10:00 a.m. on June 11, 1948. The siege of Jerusalem had been broken, however, and the Israelis had a credible claim on their land link with the city.
The night before the cease-fire took effect, Marcus and his staff held a celebration in the ancient village of Abu Ghosh, some eight miles east of Jerusalem. In the early morning hours, Marcus found himself unable to sleep and went for a walk.
On his way out, he was recognized by the sentry, who waved to him. Shortly after, the relief sentry showed up–25 minutes early. Not knowing that his commander was out walking around, the new sentry challenged the blanket-clad figure as soon as he saw him. Marcus replied in English, which confused the sentry, a recent immigrant. The sentry fired a shot in the air, but the figure in the dark kept coming. The sentry lowered his rifle and fired again. Mickey Marcus fell dead at 3:50 a.m. with a bullet through his heart–the last casualty before the cease-fire.
Marcus’ troops brought him back to Tel Aviv in a coffin strapped to the hood of a jeep. Robert Capa, the internationally famous war photographer, accompanied the body. When they returned him to New York City, Marcus was escorted by Moshe Dayan and Yosef Hamburger, the Haganah commander of the blockade-running ship Exodus. After a funeral service at Union Temple, they took Marcus back to West Point, where he was buried on July 2, 1948–28 years to the day after he first reported there as a plebe. Among the mourners were Thomas E. Dewey, then governor of New York, and Maxwell Taylor, the superintendent of West Point.
In 1962, author Ted Berkman wrote Marcus’ story in ‘Cast a Giant Shadow’. Four years later, the book was made into a movie, starring Kirk Douglas. Although the film’s story line typified Hollywood’s general lack of respect for historical fact, Douglas’ portrayal of the irrepressible Marcus vividly captured the fiery spirit of the man.
David Ben-Gurion later said of Marcus: ’He was the best man we had.’ His gravestone at West Point reads: ’Colonel David Marcus – A Soldier for All Humanity.’
This article was written by David T. Zabecki and originally published in the April 1998 issue of Military History magazine.
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