After Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, it was attacked by the Jordanian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian, and Iraqi armies augmented by troops from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. In the first two weeks of fighting, Israel’s losses were very heavy, and its future was grim.
Despite the problems on every front, the newly declared prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, instructed Yigal Yadin, the Israeli army’s chief of operations, to free Jerusalem which had been under Arab siege since the UN vote for Partition on November 29, 1947. Lacking natural resources and industry, Jerusalem was reliant upon supplies from the outside. To simply subsist, Jerusalem required at least 30 trucks a day brimming with provisions to keep it nourished. By the end of May 1948, Jerusalem’s nearly 100,000 Jews were on the brink of starvation. Their ammunition was also exhausted.
Ben-Gurion was asking the impossible, and Yadin told him as much. On the high ground dominating the road to Jerusalem was an impenetrable Arab garrison located at Latrun, and Israel had neither the troops nor the weaponry to launch an uphill battle. Still Ben-Gurion refused to bow to reality and give up on Jerusalem. He also realized that the morale of the country rested on the fate of Holy City. Indeed, he said, “If the Land of Israel is the heart of the Jewish nation, then Jerusalem is its heart of hearts.”
Accordingly, Ben-Gurion ordered that Latrun be taken even though this meant composing a force of ragtag fighters, primarily concentration camp survivors right off the boats from the DP camps, with the most nominal military training and without adequate weaponry. As Yadin predicted, the attack on May 24, 1948 was ineffective, and the Israeli losses were high. Nonetheless, Ben-Gurion ordered a second assault, and the results were equally devastating.
Far too many slain fighters had demonstrated that Jerusalem could not be resupplied by road. The lilliputian Israeli Air Force (which was increasing almost geometrically every week) was too trifling to challenge the Arab air forces in aerial combat, and likewise too small and frail to deliver anywhere near the tonnage necessary to stave off starvation in Jerusalem. There was no apparent solution, and failure to devise one would result in catastrophe.
Nascent Israel’s military leaders convened to see how they could overcome an insurmountable impasse to save Jerusalem’s Jewry. Whatever the proposal would be to supply Jerusalem, it would have to circumvent the Latrun fortress equipped with Jordanian artillery that peered over the single artery into the city. The motherhood of necessity was deeply challenged by Jerusalem’s existential predicament.
Southwest of Latrun, on May 30, 1948, under the scant light of the moon, three Palmach (Israel’s elite fighting force) soldiers – Amos Chorev, legendary American Colonel David “Mickey” Marcus of Hollywood’s Cast a Giant Shadow fame, and Vivian Herzog – followed a shepherd footpath that crawled up the steep side of a ravine. (At least one source notes that the three were Chorev, Gabrielle Rapaport, and Shlomo Shamir.) They could not get their jeep up the final few yards and had to get out and push it over the ridge. Before collapsing from exhaustion, they gazed forward at the dark range of mountains and Chorev mused, “If only we could find a way though there, we’d have another way of getting to Jerusalem.”
“Could it be done?” Herzog asked.
“Why not?” Mickey Marcus opined. “We got across the Red Sea, didn’t we?”
The threesome was too drained from pushing the jeep out of the ravine to resume their reconnaissance mission and dropped asleep. A few hours later, the growl of an approaching vehicle awoke the soldiers who quickly grabbed their rifles and crouched into a defensive position. It was still pre-dawn, but Chorev recognized the driver of the oncoming jeep as a comrade from the Palmach.
The five men were agog as to how Providence had coordinated their rendezvous on a desolate Judean ridge in the dark. Chorev, Marcus, and Herzog had departed from Tel Aviv; the other two had set out in the jeep from Jerusalem. Without saying a word, they spontaneously grinned like drunken pirates turning their heads heavenward in gratitude at their grand revelation. Unwittingly, they had discovered a clandestine route to Jerusalem that was sheltered from Latrun gun fire.
Feverish work began that very morning – filling dips, cutting through granite outcroppings, and widening the roadbed. Scores of stonecutters gathered from all over Israel and worked around the clock banging and clanking. They were unable to blast as that would have revealed their location, so the bypass was hewn by hand as in the days of yore. Colonel Mickey Marcus oversaw the conversion of the winding and steep animal trail that traversed narrow and steep ravines and was pockmarked with rocks and pits.
Those under siege could not wait for a highway to be officially inaugurated, so at first trucks loaded with supplies from Tel-Aviv went as far as the steep slope that disrupted the path to Jerusalem. The cargo was offloaded and carried by porters composed of some 240 men in their 50s who had just arrived in Israel from the detention camps in Cyprus. These volunteers hauled heavy loads over rough terrain, two round-trips a night – for five nights – until the path was flattened and widened enough to be passable for a truck.
Improvements enabled the first convoy to depart on the morning of June 1, 1948. Seventeen jeeps loaded with food and water, military, medical, and other supplies brought parched and starving Jerusalem a taste of relief.
The clandestine alternate route to Jerusalem was nicknamed the Burma Road, an anomaly in Israel where everything is awarded a biblical name. The sobriquet was taken from the road built by the Allies during World War II that traverses 700 miles of perilous mountainous switchbacks that connect Burma to Southwest China to avoid the Japanese blockade of the Chinese coast. Because of the similarity of circumstances, the Israelis adopted the moniker of the contested ridge route to China.
By June 10, Israel’s miracle Burma Road had been enhanced to enable full-size trucks to climb to Jerusalem, without requiring assistance from men, donkeys, or tractors. A water and fuel pipeline were also laid alongside it. The flow of supplies was increased from 12 tons to 100 tons a night by month’s end.
The Arab Legion at Latrun ultimately understood what was happening beyond the ridge blocked from their view. They tried shelling the road crews, but they could not hit what they could not see.
Unfortunately, the Burma Road, which was a turning point for Jerusalem and nascent Israel, was unable to save the Jews of the Old City who were led off to captivity.
One very obvious takeaway lesson from Israel’s miraculous Burma Road is that when lives are at stake and logic dictates that there is no way to save them, this is not an acceptable reaction.