March 17, 1948 – Israel Establishes Its Fledgling Naval Services with a U.S. Commander

On this day in history, David Ben-Gurion established his so-called “Bathtub Corps” with a fleet initially made up of three derelict warships impounded by British authorities. As head of the Corps, he named U.S. Navy Lt. Junior Grade Paul Shulman.

Paul Shulman

Paul Shulman

Shulman served in the U.S.Navy in World War II, and was released from active duty in 1947. He then joined Haganah (“The Defense”), a Jewish paramilitary organization operating in New York, where Shulman lived with his young family. Ben-Gurion knew that when the British Mandate ended, the new state would be in danger from the surrounding Arab states, and sent a cable to New York asking: “Can you send two or three shipping experts? Can Paul Shulman come at once?” Ben-Gurion knew Shulman through his parents, who were active Zionists.

Shulman arrived in Palestine in April 1948 and reported to naval headquarters in an outbuilding of a monastery on top of Mount Carmel. He was given a rank equivalent to a U.S. navy commander, but no ships. There was not even yet a Hebrew military term for “navy.” Shulman’s assignment was to create a naval fighting force. He went back to New York, purchased three decommissioned ships, recruited crews, and found a shipbuilder to refit the ships and make more. Among the 65 to 95 crew members of each of the warships, about three dozen were “Machalniks,” most from the U.S. and Canada.

Shulman with Ben-Gurion, at left

Shulman with Ben-Gurion, at left

Machal (the Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Chutz L’Aretz — “volunteers from outside Israel”) or Machalnik was the name given to those like Shulman who came to serve in the Israeli armed forces during the War of Independence. About 1,000 men and women, Jewish and Christian, from the U.S. and Canada served in the Israeli army, navy and air force.  The Machal volunteers were a small percentage of the Israeli fighting forces, but were assigned to virtually every unit in the Israeli army, navy and air force, in fact dominating the flying personnel in the air force.

Israel was formally declared a state on May 14, 1948. The next day it was invaded by the armies of five neighboring Arab countries. By July, the small Israeli navy was ready to join the fight.

Meanwhile, Ben-Gurion’s rival, Menachem Begin and his party, the Irgun, began assembling his own fighting force and an Irgun navy, purchasing a former U.S. Navy tank landing ship, renamed the Altalena. Ben-Gurion ordered Shulman to intercept it and a firefight resulted between a ship of Shulman’s, the Wedgwood, and the Altalena, with Americans participating on both sides. Sixteen Irgun fighters and two soldiers died, upsetting many of the Americans and Shulman himself.

On the night of June 20, 1948, the Irgun cargo ship, Altalena, was attacked by Israeli Navy gunboats off the coast of Kfar Vitkin

On the night of June 20, 1948, the Irgun cargo ship, Altalena, was attacked by Israeli Navy gunboats off the coast of Kfar Vitkin

Several Americans serving with Shulman submitted complaints (with which Shulman quietly agreed) about the constant turf battles among senior leaders of the new state. But a truce wasn’t far in coming – October, 1948, and then an armistice signed in July 1949 formally ended the Arab-Israeli war.

Shulman retired from the Israeli Navy in 1949 and, with a partner, formed an engineering firm in Haifa to help build the new country. He and his wife remained in Israel for forty years. In 1988 the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel honored him and other Israeli service volunteers. He died on May 16, 1944, a month after Israel’s 46th anniversary of independence.

Naval historian J. Wandres discusses his book, Ablest Navigator: Lieutenant Paul N. Shulman USN, Israel’s Volunteer Admiral in 2012

Naval historian J. Wandres discusses his book, Ablest Navigator: Lieutenant Paul N. Shulman USN, Israel’s Volunteer Admiral in 2012

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