In the early morning hours of Monday, June 5, 1967, the sun was already heating up everything around the Tel Nof airbase.
In central Israel, as some of us were making our way to the mess hall of the base, Jordanian artillery shells shook the earth, fragments reaching our barracks, puncturing the outer walls with significant holes.
The airbase, in central Israel, was located just a few miles away from a Jordanian base. In the preceding few weeks, it was the IAF (Israel Air Force) that carried the brunt of the preparation for a war no one wished for. The war however appeared to be imminent as Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian dictator, ordered the UN forces to vacate the Sinai and then moved over 100,000 Egyptian troops into the Sinai in early May, while at the same time closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli navigation, in breach of international agreements.
All ground and aircrews were restricted to the base, and all leaves were canceled already in early May. Our base was on alert, and the work assigned to every squadron was feverish. We were on a 24 hour work shift, with most of us getting a mere two hours of sleep in those numbing weeks, restocking, testing systems, receiving instruction on emergency procedures. Maj. General Motti Hod, the commander of the IAF was busy with the top brass reactivating shelved plans. The IAF alone could save Israel, and in briefings we received from the commander of our airbase we were left with that indelible impression.
The bombs exploding in our airbase in the early morning hours of June 5th were a fearful reminder that war broke out. We were confident that we have done all we could in the sleepless weeks, and hoped for the best. According to news reports on the Voice of Israel, the government of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had appealed to King Hussein of Jordan not to attack Israel, and assured the King that Israel would not attack his kingdom unless attacked first.
Nasser assured the diminutive king, whom he despised, that the Egyptian forces are on the their way to Tel Aviv, and promised him a part of the war spoils. In solidarity with his Arab brethrens, Hussein decided to join Egypt and Syria in the attack on Israel. Jordan received military contingents from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Algeria, including an Iraqi armor brigade. A top Egyptian general was dispatched to Amman to coordinate the war effort against Israel.
The commotion in our airbase was visible as squadrons of French made Mirage and Mystere fighter-bombers took off and landed with great rapidity, breaking a world record in refueling and rearming and thus committing the largest number of sorties on record per pilot. At our rescue squadron we stood on alert to pick up pilots who parachuted into sea or land.
We felt in our bones that our efforts meant life or death to our nation.
Just before lunchtime on that historical Monday June 5th, we received orders to assemble at the parade ground of the base. The mood was tense and we were filled with a great deal of apprehension. The Voice of Israel news reports were sketchy, a fact that added to our anxieties. The Voice of the Arabs radio transmitting from Cairo boasted the destruction of the IAF and reported Egyptian forces on their way to Tel Aviv. “The IDF (Israel Defense Forces), “ Cairo reported, “had suffered many casualties, and were retreating…”
The next few moments were probably the most memorable to those of us at the parade ground that day. The airbase commander began slowly, but with an excitement in his voice, “Soldiers and airman of the IDF, as of this moment the Arab air-forces no longer exist.” The relief and joy that followed was indescribable, we threw our berets up to the sky embracing each other in a manly dance, we hugged and kissed, and one could sense the relief on these young faces. We worked hard, we prayed for salvation, albeit, secretly in our hearts, and we were now victorious. It was not however so much the joy of victory as the answer to our prayers that we celebrated. Israel had survived the onslaught of three Arab armies, and large contingents from additional Arab states all determined to “wipe the Jewish State off the map” and as Nasser promised, “to drown the Jews in the sea.”
The IAF was first to mobilize for the war and last to demobilize, and we did not receive a pass to go home on much needed leave until several weeks after the war ended. The nation of Israel transformed overnight and euphoria pervaded everywhere. Hitching a ride home, we were met at various intersections by high school girls and mothers, handing out sandwiches and cold drinks to us, along with smiles and kisses. Even the lowliest of soldiers felt like a heroes in that miraculous month of June 1967.
On the outskirts of Tel Aviv, graves had been dug for thousands of would be casualties. The somberness of May 1967, and the early days of June had turned to celebration and joy. A second Holocaust had been averted, and the world recognized that Jews can and will fight for their freedom, dignity, and self-determination. The epithet “Masada shall not fall again,” became a reality reinforced by the dedication of thousands of young soldiers and reservists, and the blood of 800 IDF soldiers killed in action.
June 7, 1967, the third day of the war, was a day no one in Israel will ever forget. It was on that day that the magical, yet laconic, voice of the paratrooper brigade commander Motta Gur announced, “Temple Mount is in our hand.” The battle-hardened soldiers that captured the Old City of Jerusalem and reached the Western Wall cried the cry of generations of Jews who dreamed of their returned to Zion. Even in the hell of Auschwitz, or under the torturer’s hand of the Inquisition, Jerusalem was on their mind.
This was the most solemn moment of the war and its most glorious as well. As the Blue and White flag with the Star of David was hoisted near the Wall, the Jews the world over cried together with those young paratroopers.