Yom Hazikaron

The Yom Kippur War: An American Volunteer Remembers

It was Yom Kippur, October 6th, 1973, when we first heard the news:  Egypt and Syria had attacked Israel, unprovoked and without warning.  Before we even broke our fast, we tuned in to the news on TV that night.  We learned that Egypt had crossed the Suez Canal on makeshift bridges and had attacked the Bar-Lev lines.  Syria had pushed into the Golan Heights with masses of tanks, and both forces were taking a fierce toll in Israeli lives.  Planes had flown over the Sinai and Golan Heights and had met no resistance.

Many Israeli generals had warned that the Arabs were planning an attack, recommending that the country mobilize for war and not to permit soldiers to return home for the holidays.  Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan were not convinced, saying that Cairo and Damascus “saber rattle” to aggravate Israel, and that an invasion was unlikely; and their opinion prevailed.

Accordingly, many Israeli soldiers, pilots and other essential military personnel were permitted home for Yom Tov.  Only a skeleton crew was left manning the Bar-Lev line along the Suez Canal, and only a few tank crews were left on the Golan Heights.  A great number of these soldiers were hesder boys — yeshivah students who volunteer to serve in the army for five years instead of three, combining army service with Talmud study.  Because of their religious dedication, many had volunteered to stay “in the field” on Yom Kippur to conduct services for their comrades.  When the attack occurred, this small defense force was rapidly overrun and killed. 

That night all soldiers were mobilized, the hospitals were emptied of all but critically ill patients, all trucks were requisitioned and all Israelis abroad were asked to return to Israel as soon as possible to rejoin their units.

I was a practicing doctor, living in Forest Hills, New York, at the time.  My decision was made quickly.  I told my family and two medical partners that I would try to go to Israel to help take care of the wounded.  When word came that a seat on a 707 to Israel had been reserved for me, I went to Mt. Sinai Hospital.  As chief of pediatric surgery at that facility, I received permission to take surgical needs with me to Israel.  I gathered a few dermatomes (for skin grafts), cantor tubes, gallons of betadine solution, scrub brushes and ointment, as well as a few boxes of cadaver skin and pigskin sent from Walter Reed Army Hospital.

The scene at JFK Airport was bedlam.  Young Israeli men waving $100 bills begged for seats on the last plane to Israel, to be able to join their units.  I thought, “What a difference from the scenes Americans witnessed, of people rushing to get on the last helicopter leaving Saigon, to leave a country at war.  Here, our boys are begging to be allowed to return to their country at war.”  Even as they clamored, deep-down everyone knew that not all those who would leave on that 707 would ever return.  And yet they begged to go.

The plane was full and there wasn’t much conversation, just quiet and deep thought.  What would the country look like when we arrived?  Will the center of the country be bombed?  Would the civilian population be spared?

As it turned out, all the casualties were at the northern and southern fronts, and the civilian populations of all three countries were spared.  On the plane, I met Dr. Chaim Boichus, a senior pediatric nephrologist of Tel Hashomer Hospital, the main military (and civilian) hospital in the Tel Aviv area.  It is comprised of Quonset huts of a pre-1948 British military camp.  Not knowing where I would volunteer, he suggested that I go with him to Tel Hashomer, where they would surely be able to put my surgical talents to good use.

The hospital director went over my resume, saw that I served in the U.S. Air Force in 1956-1958 during the Sinai War, and decided that I was a trained military surgeon.  After receiving a chaluk [white coat], a pair of scrubs, a military ID, a meal ticket and a dormitory room assignment, I started working in the operating room.  The chief of plastic surgery was Dr. Borenstein, a Bellevue-trained surgeon, who joined the hospital as a plastic surgeon in 1948.  His second-in-command was Dr. Haggai Tzur, a superb Israeli, trained locally, and a very organized person.  Two other plastic surgeons, from Tel Aviv and Netanya, were drafted to the unit.  All male interns and residents were gone, at the front with their combat units. Batya, a Russian intern, and Miki, an Israeli, served with us.  Both women worked day and night without complaining.

In truth, I had never before worked as a physician during war time.  I had to adjust to war casualties, massive burns, dying young men, helicopters coming in hourly and busloads of non-critical wounded.  Most of the burns were tank casualties.  It became rapidly apparent that the lubricants used in the Israeli and American tanks were flammable, and everyone in a tank hit by a missile would be immediately incinerated.

It was very hot in the Middle East during October 1973, and the Israeli soldiers in the tanks stripped down to their undershorts and goggles.  The flash after the tank was hit was rapid and burnt off all the skin of the exposed areas.  The eyes and shorts areas were protected from the immediate flash.  If they got out of that tank rapidly, they would sustain first and second degree burns.  If they did not, they sustained pulmonary burns and third degree burns.  The tank battles in the Sinai were described as the biggest tank battles in the history of war.  From seeing the Israeli casualties, I can believe that.

All the wounded received first aid in the field or in a MASH unit in the Sinai or in the Golan Heights.  When they arrived at the hospital, they were triaged in the large receiving units, run by Trauma Chief Dr. Wolfstein, who had relinquished his additional position as chief of pediatric surgery since my arrival.  Many who were sent to us were terminal — advanced total body third degree burns.  These boys were sent to a private room in a special building, with IVs and respirators, to spend their last hours with their families.

Four young burn patients, and two of the nurses.

Those considered operable would all arrive in the operating room with chest x-rays, extremity x-rays (if indicated), and a tag describing the injuries and what needed to be done.  There was no second-guessing nor detailed physicals:  since there were so many casualties, we had to work fast.  There were only ten ORs, and the patients sometimes were lined up for hours.  We took them in the order that they were triaged.  Of all the casualties that arrived at Tel Hashomer and were treated, I would say that over 90% survived.  Many survived with severe handicaps and severe scarring and disfigurement, but unlike so many others, they lived.

I was in charge of one of five surgical teams.  Dr. Borenstein, Dr. Tzur, two plastic surgeons from private practice and I were each in charge of an operating room.  We were assisted by Batya and Miki, one surgical resident and some nurses.  We would bring the soldiers into the operating room, cut off their burned uniforms or underwear, catheterize them, start another IV and, using betadine scrub brushes, scrub off all dead and burnt tissue.  If the burns were extensive, we would cover them with pigskin, or vaseline gauze for the smaller areas.  We would estimate their body surface area burned, for fluid calculations, and send them to the recovery room.  From there, they would go to the plastic surgery Quonset hut.  We never did skin grafts on the first trip to the OR because the incoming casualties needed the room for surgery.  We would often operate 12-24 hours without let up; then make rounds, and sleep for a few hours, until we heard the helicopters arriving again.

The lady who was in charge of the dormitory building gave up her room for a volunteer doctor and slept on a blanket in the hall.  She would knock on my door at all hours of the night and say, “Professor, there are new wounded.”  I would go to the operating room and set up.  When it was quiet for a few hours, we would electively take the patients back to the ORs for redressing of wounds or skin grafts.

The first week was very hectic, with new casualties coming in three to four times a day.  Ninety percent of the casualties were burns, with a few bullet wounds or orthopedic wounds. 

The spirit in the wards was serious, with parents or wives always at the bedside.  Dr. Borenstein (the chief) would speak to each family himself.  We had a young pilot whose jet had been hit by a Russian SAM III, and he ejected while his uniform was in flames.  He had many extensive burns over his entire torso.  Although his face was spared, his body would have extensive scarring.  His wife never left his side.

When the soldiers awoke and were told that pigskin covered their burns, they all wanted to know if the Chief Rabbinate had approved the use of pigskin, since it is not permitted to raise pigs in Israel.  We assured them that use of the pigs was absolutely approved in this case.

Israel was losing the war after the first seven to ten days.  Hundreds of tanks were lost, the Egyptian army was nearing Eilat and the Syrian army was recapturing the Golan Heights.  Supplies were diminishing and things looked very bad.  One morning while looking out of my window in my room toward Ben Gurion airport, I saw the largest plane I had ever seen land at Ben Gurion.  It was an American Galaxy jet, loaded with tanks and bombs.  Five minutes later, another one with an American flag landed, and they kept on coming for the next two days.  Secretary of State Kissinger and President Nixon had come through.  Everyone in Israel, and especially at Tel Hashomer, was elated; and the war did indeed turn around after the resupplying of war material.  I will never forget the airlifts that came from the U.S. that prevented Israel from being overrun.

When you are having a cup of coffee at midnight in the ward, and you hear an adult male voice cry  “Imma” — that is a voice that lives with you forever.

After about ten days, we had more time to do reconstruction on our patients.  We used mesh grafts for most grafting because most wounds were extensive.  These were lengthy, bloody procedures, and tiring to perform.  We usually had two or three sessions a day, and often worked in the wee hours of the morning, if new casualties arrived.

The chief of surgery decided to place all the volunteers on eight-hour shifts.  My name can be spelled many different ways in Hebrew, and when the roster was made up, I saw my name on three daily shifts; as Krasna, Krafna and Krasner.  I took all three shifts.

I was the only pediatric surgeon in the hospital.  Dr. Borenstein called me one day to see a child with abdominal pain who had been brought in.  I told the parents that the boy had appendicitis and the parents were upset with him for “doing this in the middle of the war.”  Another child was brought in with a puncture wound of the abdomen, inflicted by a playmate.  They were playing “war” and he was the “bad Syrian.”  As I was operating on him, I heard the nurse say to another nurse, in Hebrew, “These American surgeons are all so slow,” not knowing that I understood the language.  I told her, in Hebrew, that I am not slow, I am careful.  Sheepishly she apologized for what she said.

Although I had a meal ticket for three meals a day, I used it only a few times.  The OR always had coffee, cookies, salami and soup, because most of the surgeons did not have the leisure to leave the operating room for a quiet meal.

I did not have any opportunity to attend services during Sukkot or to rest in a sukkah during the entire holiday.  Children sent get well cards to all the soldiers, with pictures of sukkot, lulavim and etrogim.  These cards were hung next to the beds, and the soldiers were very proud of them.  I had an opportunity to make the brachah on the lulav and etrog once, because Lubavitch young men went around to the wards, to enable everyone to make this special blessing.  Except for this one occasion, and the get well cards from the school children, there was no evidence to me that it was Yom Tov.  To this day, I always have an uncomfortable feeling on Sukkot as I remember the one that I “lost” in 1973.

Towards the end of my stay, I went to all the patients to say goodbye and wish them well.  They asked me to remember them and I photographed as many as I could, along with photos of the nurses and other doctors.

As a cease fire was declared, reporters and television crews appeared at the hospital.  How they got there is a mystery to me, but these brave people do find a way to get into the midst of trouble all the time.  Dr. Borenstein called me into his office and asked me to show a reporter around the wards and let her speak to the wounded.  She was a reporter from New York magazine and when she heard I was a New Yorker, she wanted to interview me.  Her name was Nora Efron, and I did not know at that time that she would someday be very successful and famous.

They also permitted a TV crew into the OR suite and x-ray area, and since I spoke English and was a U.S. volunteer, I was interviewed.  The segment appeared in New York on a Friday night so my family did not see it; but others did, and said I looked tired and skinny, but it was definitely me on screen.

The Burn Unit Staff, after the hostilities ended. Seated: Dr. Krasna; Batya, the intern; Professor Borenstein; Dr. Haggai Tzur. Back Row: Third from left: Danny Katznelson, Chief of Pediatrics A; sixth from left (with glasses): Chaim Boichus, Chief of Pediatrics B; second from right: volunteer physician from Australia; the remainder are housestaff and one private plastic surgeon (middle in back row).

I left after 16 days, when civilian El Al flights resumed.  Some friends picked me up the afternoon before the flight, and while driving, we stopped at a red light.  In front of us, an army gasoline truck made a rapid left turn, and turned on its side.  Everyone who saw it happen was momentarily immobilized in shock.  Before I knew it, I was out of the car, climbing on the truck and pulling the driver out to safety.  When I had him safely away, I realized that the ignition was still on.  I ran to the truck again and shut off the ignition, while my friends were yelling for me to “get out of there!”  I was still in a “high-action” mode.

Any man in Israel in his 40s or 50s who has visible burn scars can safely be assumed to be a Yom Kippur War veteran: know, when you look at him, and remember what he contributed to Israel’s survival.  Even those of us who volunteered felt humbled at the time by these self-sacrificing citizens.  What do you say to the Israeli patients and doctors when you leave to go back to your safe, quiet country?  How do you overcome the feeling of guilt — that these young men almost died protecting the Jewish state for us all, while you returned to the safety of your home?

When I arrived at Ben Gurion airport on Friday morning, there were no civilian planes on the tarmac.  All I saw were Galaxy jets and hospital planes, and I met many of the young men whom I had met on the way to Israel, who were now returning to the States.  Needless to say, not everyone was returning.  “You remember the heavy guy who sat near the window?  He was killed at the Suez Canal…  The red-headed, skinny guy – he’s still in the hospital…”  Others not returning were kept in their units for many months — and missed their schooling or lost their jobs.

I considered myself fortunate to have been in a position where I was able to contribute something during this crisis in Israel’s history.  Imagine my pride in 1982 when my son, Mark, was one of the few interns in Tel Hashomer Hospital during the Lebanon war, since the other interns, Israeli citizens, had been drafted to serve in the infantry.

The dark days of October, 1973, are long gone.  Yet the latent, eternal valor of the Jewish nation is a resource and uniting force for Jews the world over.  We have a tendency to view our history on a grand scale, yet it is the personal experiences that fuel our resolve.  Why are all these memories so fresh to me?  The experiences of war become an unforgettable fact of your being.  When you are having a cup of coffee at midnight in the ward, and you hear an adult male voice cry  “Imma” — that is a voice that lives with you forever.

This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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