In December 1945, when I arrived home after World War II, I was determined to normalize my life, and enrolled in the University of Cincinnati. It was there that I met an electrical engineering student, Hugo Schwartz. A Zionist, Hugo was connected to Aliyah Bet in New York. When he was called up he informed them about my experience in the army. It was just four weeks after arriving home that I received a call from Arieh Lashner, radio operator of the “Haganah,” inviting me to participate in the rescue of our people. The next day I was on a train to New York.
I presented myself to Captain Arieh Friedman, an Israeli, on board “S.S. Norsyd,” which was moored alongside the “S.S. Beauharnois” in Brewer’s Drydock on Staten Island. These sister ships were Canadian corvettes and the first ships from America to enter the Aliyah Bet “trade.” In fact, this situation was so new that we actually picked up bunker oil in British Gibraltar.
We departed Staten Island together in the afternoon on an early February day – the “Beauharnois” (“Wedgwood”) bound for Italy and the “Norsyd” (“Haganah”) bound for Marseilles, France. It was here that our Scandinavian captain disembarked and we all moved up a notch. Arieh became captain, Larry Silverstein became first mate, and I became second mate.
I will spare you the “blood, sweat, toil and tears” we went through preparing our vessel to carry passengers. Needless to say, we picked up 1,200 survivors in Port Du Bouc and set sail eastward, followed by a small Turkish “tub,” the “Akbel,” renamed “Beria.” The ruse was that we were to pretend that we were disabled and signal our distress to “Akbel,” and when she came to our rescue, take her by force. We would then install “cargo” on her and the shoo-shoo would force her to sail to Haifa, while we returned to Europe for another load. It was to protect the Turkish crew, but I don’t think the limeys bought it.
We had two well-made power life-boats that could carry about 30 or more people at a time. Larry Silverstein worked one while I handled the other on a very calm and beautiful Mediterranean day. It took many hours to complete the ferrying job, but we did it without mishap. Ours was the only ship that I know of that made a transfer at sea.
Just as we got all the people over to the “Akbel” and started to transfer their belongings, rucksacks, a heavy cruiser appeared on the horizon. At first we thought she was British, but thankfully she turned out to be French. Larry and I wanted to retrieve our power life-boats but the shoo-shoo wanted us to skedaddle, so we departed at top speed, leaving our life-boats adrift.
Our next destination was the Greek Island of Milos, where we rendezvoused with some Greek sailing vessels, Mediterranean dhows, bearing bunker oil in barrels. We had to build a trough to funnel the oil into that small dock opening, unloading it barrel by barrel. It took about a week.
I would like to go back a bit. I.F. Stone sailed with us on the first leg of our journey and relates in his book “Underground to Palestine” the misery endured on that little “rust bucket.” The “Akbel” was supposed to make it to Haifa in one day, but it took three, and there was food and water for only 24 hours. As the “Haganah” and the “Akbel” parted company, I watched with my heart in my mouth as she made her way with a ten or fifteen-degree list, as she was so overloaded with people. I thought she would flounder, and I prayed that the weather would remain fair, which it did.
Our next port of call was Bakar, a little fishing village nestled in a beautiful valley in Yugoslavia (now Croatia), where we had to pick up over 2,500 people. As on all the ten ships, we had many trials and tribulations bringing our passengers safely to Haifa from Bakar. The Yugoslavian pilot who guided the ship down the Dalmatian coast from Bakar to Split remarked that he didn’t think we were going to make it because we were so top-heavy and overloaded. The shoo-shoo thought that because we had handled 1,200 people so easily on the first leg, we could double the number on this trip. Overloading was an Aliyah Bet virus.
When we got to Haifa, the crew wore refugee clothing so that the British could not tell who the Americans were. I was then smuggled out of Palestine by the Haganah on a Greek ship, unknown to the British.
I would like to note that out of the small crew on the “Haganah,” two men were killed in the War of Independence – Arieh Lashner (radio operator) and Harold “Foxy” Monash (deckhand).
After a few months at home in Cincinnati, I received a telephone call from Captain Ash of the Weston Trading Co., which was a front for the Jewish Agency. I was asked to ship out on the “S.S. President Warfield,” later “Exodus 1947” which was berthed in Baltimore.
I remember coming aboard in December 1946 and running into the smiling face of Adrian Phillips, first engineer. I will not relate any of the “Exodus 1947” odyssey since so much has been written and said about it. I will note that I was chief mate and spent nine months in that capacity working ship and crew.
In 1948 I took a U.S. Navy patrol craft from Vera Cruz in Mexico to Marseilles, where we turned her over to an Israeli crew. The ship was called the “Yucatan” and was later renamed the “Noga.” Along with the ice-breaker “Northland” (“Jewish State”), “Hanagah,” “Wedgwood” and “Noga” formed the nucleus of the Israel Navy.
From Marseilles I traveled to the new State of Israel as a passenger on the “Mala.” I reunited with my friend Ben Foreman, who was in the fledgling Israel Air Force. Ben had been in the American 82nd Airborne division and had just returned from Czechoslovakia where he trained as a staff officer with their airborne. Most of our crews came out of the various services in World War II.
Ben talked me into joining his outfit although I knew nothing about soldiering. And I in turn talked Al Ellis, from the arms ship “Kefalos,” into joining. As it turned out, the truce was on and all we did was sit around. Ben and I made a jump together after I received about an hour’s instruction. Ben called it Israel’s first mass jump. I soon grew tired of this and sailed on a number of ships after the blockade was lifted.
Source: Written by Bernie Marks for the American Veterans of Israel Newsletter, October 1996.