Operation Velveta 1 — Part 16

Part 16  –  We sail to Israel on the immigrant ship “Atsmaut”.

We parted from Geda near the gangplank of the “Atsmaut” and boarded ship. The first question we asked the crew was about a shower. Could you ever imagine how happy we were when we found a modern shower with unlimited hot water. And then we were pampered by the food. An Italian professional cook prepared immediately for us a tasty and balanced lunch. The problem which could not be solved was sleeping quarters. The sleeping quarters of the crew on the upper deck were minimal and almost all the cabins were densely occupied by the ship’s crew. Finally Joe and I got a small cabin which contained a single bed which we had to share. The bed was too narrow to contain both of us together so we adopted the “warm bed” system. Since Joe was my senior by many years I suggested that he use the bed during regular night hours and I will use it when he gets up. Joe was very considerate and used to wake up well before dawn. The ship’s belly which originally contained cargo was arranged to accommodate the immigrants: Wooden shelves upon shelves in very cramped space. The air conditioning down there was very bad. This place was not meant originally to be inhabited by human beings.

In the afternoon we were asked by the Captain to help board the immigrants. It was suggested that we take the outer and top part of the ship and the ship’s crew will take the lower part and scatter the immigrants among the shelves which were in the ship’s cargo stores.Joe and I were instructed to stand at the bottom of the gangplank and check the identity of the arriving immigrants before they go up the gangplank. As far as I can remember they had sort of coupons which identified them as immigrants. As the sun sunk below the horizon – the first train arrived. The railway line passed along the length of the quay so that the train stopped exactly next to the ship and the immigrants started pouring out and hurrying towards the gangplank, forming a long line where they stood quietly and patiently.

For me this was a very deep emotional experience. I was very excited and my hands shook all that night. I do not remember the number of trains which kept arriving one after the other. They brought 5500 immigrants altogether. 5000 came from Bulgaria and 500 from Hungary. There were no old people. Almost all of them were youngsters or middle-aged people. The number of single men and women was far more than the number of families. There were no small children and only a few babies. The immigrants from Hungary were all youngsters 15-20 years old and seemed to be a united group. The slow boarding of the immigrants lasted all that night from sunset to sunrise the next day. Once the last one boarded – the gangplank was raised. Joe and I were dead-tired and went to sleep. I fell asleep lying on the wooden floor of the small cabin. The “Atsmaut” sailed away that very morning. The Captain was Ike Aharonovitz.

These were the first days of the month of December 1948.The  sea was sometimes very stormy and strong winds blew almost throughout our journey which  lasted five days. Every day I used to go down to the ship’s belly to see how the immigrants were getting along. The air was very compressed and the stench was intolerable. Many suffered from sea-sickness and were vomiting. There were not many toilets and they were quite primitive. But despite everything life went on here quietly and orderly, with a lot of patience. These were not pampered people, these were people who knew hardship.

Early on the 8th of December the ship moored next to the immigration quay at Haifa harbor. The seven of us were the first to disembark and since we were not immigrants we were asked to enter the customs-hall. The Customs Director was a Jew called Dostrovsky who was the brother of the Commander-In-Chief of the IDF at that time, Yaakov Dory. There were several UN Officers in the customs-hall which checked the personal belongings of the arriving passengers (in order to prevent the import of arms, ammunition and military equipment to Israel). Our American mechanics, Fred and Shorty, had each a tool-box as well as personal effects like we all had. I did not want the UN Officers to see these tools. I did not want them to start asking questions and finally, maybe confiscate the tools. Dostrovsky was present in the hall. I approached him and showed him the letter which I had. I told him that we were Air-Force personnel returning from a mission abroad. Dostrovsky pushed me away without reading the letter and was adamant that we be checked by the UN Officers. His opacity made me angry. I told him that if he will not content himself with our passing the Israeli customs-officers and make us pass the UN Officers check as well  I will personally see to it that he be punished for it and be removed from his job. Dostrovsky reconsidered my warning and read the letter. My name was the first on the list and he knew who I was and “to whom I belonged” (family-wise) and agreed to let us pass without being checked by the UN. Beyond the customs-hall there was some sort of an IDF office occupied by  a Sergeant. I showed him the letter and he immediately gave us vouchers for the “Egged” bus which drove from Haifa to Tel-Aviv. When we arrived at the central bus-station of Tel-Aviv I asked the men to walk to Air Force Headquarters which was based at the “Hayarkon” hotel, I handed the letter to Joe and asked him to report that I went to my parents home at 57 Balfour Street and will report at our Flight next morning.

My mother opened the door and almost fainted. My parents who did not hear from me since I took leave from them towards the end of September and were very worried, asked my cousin-in-law Azriel Zilberman (Arad) who served as Officer at Air-Force HQ, to try and find out if I was OK. He did and was told that I had an accident in Yugoslavia: The airplane crashed and I was missing. Since he could not get detailed and more optimistic information he told my parents what he was told without any interpretation! The joy at my parents house when I arrived was great. I remained with them all day.

The next day, the 9th of December 1948, I left my parents house very early and went to Tel-Noff (Ekron) airbase and found the CO of Flight 35, Ted Gibson, having breakfast at the mess hall. He was glad to see me and told me that from what he already heard from Maurice Bensimon, the Count and Joe Sunderland he concluded that it was sheer stupidity on the part of the men who planned “Velveta 1” to send us to our mission the way they did, without proper navigation equipment and without clear and detailed briefing and yet hope that we will carry out these flights successfully and all he has to say to Joe and me is that although he appreciates very much our devotion to our mission – we should not have flown an airplane that had only a Magnesyn compass, without a magnetic compass, and he can not understand how Phil Marmelstein let us fly like that and did not see to it that a magnetic compass be installed in our airplane.

                                                                                                                     THE  END.

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