Chances are you have never heard of David Daniel “Mickey” Marcus. I know I hadn’t until a few days ago. Who was he? Glad you asked. Read on and be prepared to be both inspired and saddened.
Mickey Marcus led a short but significant life. He was a US Army colonel who served in WWII, with distinction. Following the war he became a central figure in the fight for Israeli independence. His story is inspiring, poignant, and tragic.
Marcus was born on February 22, 1901 in New York City to parents who had emigrated from Rumania. He was raised in Brooklyn in a tough neighborhood where he continually had to defend himself against bullies and anti-Semitism. As a result, he became a proficient boxer. In high school he excelled both academically and athletically, which enabled him to be accepted at West Point. After graduating and completing his Army service he went to law school. He became an Assistant US Attorney in NY. One of his notable cases was the prosecution of the gangster, “Lucky” Luciano. He did such an outstanding job that Mayor La Guardia appointed him Commissioner of Corrections for NYC.
In 1940 even though the US was not yet at war, Marcus anticipated that the US would be drawn in eventually, so he re-enlisted in the Army even before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. During the war he held several key posts. For example:
1. He served as executive officer to the Governor of Hawaii.
2. He was appointed commandant of the newly formed Ranger school where he helped develop tactics for jungle warfare, which were applied successfully against the Japanese.
3. He volunteered to parachute into Normandy on D-Day even though he did not have any paratrooper training.
4. At the conclusion of the war, he helped compose the terms of surrender for both Italy and Germany.
5. He became part of the post-war occupational government in Germany.
6. He was appointed chief of the War Crimes Division. As such, he planned legal and security procedures for the Nuremberg Trials.
7. A key point in his life came when he was put in charge of caring for the millions of starving and displaced refugees from liberated areas. This included concentration camp survivors. It was probably during this time that he became more cognizant of his own Jewish heritage as well as the deep and unrelenting anti-Semitism in the world. He concluded that it was critical for the Jews’ survival to have their own homeland.
After the war, he returned to civilian life, but not for long. In 1947 David Ben Gurion requested that he recommend an American army officer to advise the fledgling Jewish army. Marcus decided that he was the best choice, so he volunteered himself. In order not to offend the British, the US required Mickey to use a pseudonym.
Thus, “Michael Stone” arrived in Palestine in January 1948. The military situation appeared to be hopeless. The manner in which the British had partitioned Palestine had set the Jews up to fail and, possibly, be annihilated. The Jewish army was ill-equipped and severely outnumbered. However, Mickey did his job, drawing upon his considerable military experience and expertise. He designed a command and control structure; he wrote training manuals; and he identified and shored up weaknesses in the Jewish army’s defenses. He was appointed Commander of the Jerusalem Front with the equivalent rank of Brigadier General. Thus, he became the first general in the Jewish army since biblical times and the first ever in the Israeli army.
When the Arabs attacked, his military tactics were invaluable. Perhaps, his most significant feat was planning and executing a daring operation to break the siege of Jerusalem. When the Arabs kept repelling all attempts to resupply Jerusalem, Mickey conceived the idea of bypassing the Arab troops by building a road through the mountains, a task that was widely considered to be impossible. This route became known as the “Burma Road,” named after the real Burma Road that had been built from Burma to China during WWII to enable the Allies to transport supplies to China. The Arab blockade was broken just before the UN cease-fire went into effect on June 11, 1948.
Unfortunately, this story had a tragic ending. Mickey was killed by friendly fire. One night, unable to sleep, he went for a walk wrapped in a white robe. A Jewish sentry challenged him. Mickey did not know any Hebrew and the sentry did not know any English. Due to this unfortunate circumstance the sentry mistook him for an Arab and shot him. Ben Gurion thought that the incident was suspicious. There were conflicting reports regarding the number of shots fired, who fired them and the number of Mickey’s wounds. Furthermore, the Palmach did have various factions, one of which could have had a motive to kill Mickey. However, the investigation concluded the sentry had shot Mickey in the line of duty. (For those of you that are conspiracy buffs, the investigation was not as thorough as it could have and should have been and the resultant report was never made public.)
Mickey is buried in the West Point Cemetery. His is the only grave of an American killed while fighting under the flag of another country. His gravestone reads “Colonel David Marcus – a Soldier for All Humanity.” In 1951 David Ben Gurion, himself, journeyed to his gravesite to lay a wreath on it. In addition, there is a memorial plaque in his honor in the Union Temple of Brooklyn where his memorial service was held. It reads, in part: “Killed in action in the hills of Zion while leading Israeli forces as their supreme commander in the struggle for Israel’s freedom…” In 1966 Mickey was immortalized by Hollywood in a movie, “Cast a Giant Shadow,” starring Kirk Douglas and an all-star cast.
Mickey was one of those rare people who truly made a difference. In his short life, he made a significant positive impact on the history of two countries – the US and Israel. That cannot be said about too many people.