On Sunday, April 17, (the 9th day of Nisan 5776), an overflowing crowd gathered at the Jewish Chapel of the United States Military Academy at West Point to mark the 68th Yahrzeit of David “Mickey” Marcus, of blessed memory.
We were welcomed to West Point by Lt. General Robert L. Caslen, the Superintendent of USMA. As befitted the occasion, he wore his dress uniform, with a full array of medals and ribbons, as well as a yarmulke. He spoke about Mickey Marcus’s life and service to this country and Israel.
Born David Marcus, he acquired the nickname as a result of tagging along with his older brother, Mike, who he sparred with in the boxing ring. He was known as “Little Mike” and later “Mickey.” He was accepted to West Point because of his academic excellence and athletic achievement as a boxer in high school. He won the Intercollegiate Welterweight title while at West Point.
After graduating West Point (Class of 1924), he served in the US Army. When he completed his army service, he went on to study law at Brooklyn Law School. He eventually became an Assistant US Attorney and then a Municipal Judge. In 1940, Mayor LaGuardia appointed him the Commissioner of the NYC Department of Corrections. During this period, he had continued his army service as a reserve officer, eventually joining the JAG Corp. and becoming the Judge Advocate of his National Guard unit.
With America’s entry into World War II, Mickey Marcus returned to active duty. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he was stationed in Hawaii. There he organized and commanded a combat training school for Rangers. In 1943, Marcus was sent to Washington, DC and assigned to the Civil Affairs Division. In that capacity, he was involved in the conferences of heads of state in Cairo, Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam. He nevertheless did manage to jump, with the 101rst Airborne Division, on D-Day into Normandy and participate in combat.
After V-E Day in 1945, he served on the staff of General Lucius Clay, who was in charge of the post-war occupation of Germany. He led the efforts to provide for the millions of displaced persons in Germany. In 1946, he was named chief of the Army War Crimes Division that handled the planning for the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, as well as the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. After the Nuremberg trials, he was offered a promotion to Brigadier General, but he declined. At age 46, Colonel Marcus wanted to return to civilian life and the practice of law.
But world events intervened. In 1947, the UN adopted the Partition Declaration that ushered in the creation of the new State of Israel. However, its Arab neighbors immediately threatened its existence and they promptly deployed armies seeking its destruction. The nascent Provisional Jewish Government of Israel reached out to Marcus to aid in recruiting retired generals of the US Army. The concept was to enlist their organizational and training expertise to transform individuals into the large and cohesive fighting forces of an army. There was an urgent need for these skills to meet the immediate and overwhelming challenge of defending Israel from the invading professional armies of the existing Arab States surrounding it.
Mickey contacted a number of retired generals, but he discovered that they were unwilling to serve in the IDF without assurances that their army status, careers and citizenship would not be jeopardized. Mickey, though, had seen the results of Nazi atrocities in Dachau. He knew, first hand, the suffering of the Jewish Displaced Persons. He understood the urgent need of Holocaust survivors to be in a homeland of their own. It would appear he followed Hillel’s adage (in Pirke Avot 2:5), “B’Mokom Sh’Eyn Ish, Hishtadel L’Hiyot Ish” (In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man). Mickey Marcus, therefore, determined to do the job himself. He reportedly said that he may not be the best man for the job, but he was the only one willing to go.
He left for Israel at the beginning of 1948, as part of a tacit understanding with the US War Department, which informally acquiesced, provided he disguised his name and rank, and in order to avoid problems with the British. Marcus, using the nom de guerre Mickey Stone, began by inspecting the various fighting groups within the Haganah, including the Palmach. He found there was a need to unify the forces into one integrated command. He also stressed the need to feed and clothe soldiers properly. He said that an army walks on its stomach. Efficient organization and training were also critical elements in creating a modern army. Not having access to printed training manuals, he created his own from memory.
Mickey is credited with building the so-called “Burma Road.” It is named after the World War II supply route from India to China through the mountains. The main road to Jerusalem was blocked by the Arab forces besieging Jerusalem. To relieve the siege, a makeshift, winding road, known as the Burma Road, was created. It ran through the hills of Jerusalem and bypassed the main road. This effort is depicted in the 1966 Hollywood movie about Mickey, titled Cast a Giant Shadow.
Mickey held the rank of Aluf (brigadier general) in the Israeli army when he met his untimely death in a friendly fire incident. His earthly remains are interred in the USMA-West Point Cemetery. He is the only one buried there who died fighting under the flag of another country. His gravestone reads: “Colonel David Marcus…A Soldier for All Humanity.”
The memorial ceremony also included a tribute to the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Hon. Jana Trnovocova, Consul General of Slovokia and Hon. Martin Dvorak, Consul General of the Czech Republic, were presented with Proclamations by the Hon. Amir Sagie, Deputy Consul General of Israel. This was in recognition of the critical role played by Czechoslovakia in providing urgently needed arms to Israel at the inception of the State. Israel was struggling to defend itself from the invading armies while suffering from the ill effects of an arms embargo that included the US at the time. The shipments of arms from Czechoslovakia were a Godsend that helped Israel turn the tide and defend its sovereignty from those who sought to destroy it at its very inception.
The ceremony featured the lighting of memorial candles. The participants included US veterans who served in the Israeli army, as well as a young Lone Soldier, presently serving in the IDF. A candle was lit for those who perished in the Holocaust. Taylor Force, who was recently struck down in his prime by a Palestinian terrorist, was also remembered. He was a USMA graduate who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The SAR Choir performed a medley of songs. Seeing the melding of young and old and people from all walks of life, in tribute to the memory of Mickey Marcus and Israel, was thrilling. Present was a contingent from Teaneck and other parts of Bergen County that did us proud. A young USMA cadet who was at the ceremony remarked to Chanie, my wife, how much he appreciated those who came to be a part of the event.
After the service in the Jewish Chapel at West Point, we proceeded to the gravesite. The formal graveside service included an homage to all the fallen, with surviving veterans recalling their names. Im Eshkacech Yerushalayim was sung by the Shapiro Family Choir, including our own David Shapiro. A Ke’l Maleh Rachamim was chanted and then Kaddish was recited by retired Chaplain, Colonel Rabbi Jacob Goldstein. A 21-Gun Salute was performed by the USMAPS Honor Guard and Taps was blown by a USMA Band bugler. It was a beautiful event.
The atmosphere at West Point and demeanor of the cadets and others I met and spoke to at USMA were refreshing. It harked back to an earlier time, when American power and confidence were translated into a kind of civility we yearn for today. Freedom of thought and expression is best served when accompanied by virtues like self-discipline and respect for others. The individuals I met at USMA, both in dress uniform at the event, or casually walking the grounds of West Point, embodied these virtues. It was a genuine privilege and pleasure to spend time with them.
As a child of Holocaust survivors, it was particularly thrilling to hear leaders of the US Military and representatives of governments united in their praise and support of Israel and those who served both in the US Armed Forces and IDF. We live in troubling times, with terrorist threat and actions seemingly a part of the new normal. The brave heroes we honored did not take these kinds of perils lying down. The courageous acts of Mickey Marcus and other members of the great generation of the World War II era are worthy of emulation. Giving our support and respect to those who served or are currently serving is the least we can do. Thank you; we are profoundly grateful for your service.
By Leonard Grunstein