Egypt Memories

The closest I came to Egypt was the Sinai Peninsula which was under Israeli control following the Six-Day War before it reverted back in 1979 to Egypt’s jurisdiction under the Sadat-Begin accord stewarded by then President Carter. From 1970-71, during my service in the Israel Air Force as a physician, I would rotate for duty at Rephidim Air Base which was the Hebrew re-name of Bir Gifgafa, which was the Egyptian name for the isolated air strip 90 km east of the Suez Canal. It would be my home for three days every month to make sure our advance station pilots had round the clock medical access. They literally sat in their Mirage interceptors for hours on end. I and the other doctors were there to care for them and the crews that serviced their planes. The mosquitoes at night were terrible and I recall looking at the blood speckled wall, where I had successfully swatted my nemesis. No matter how often the screens were repaired they always managed to enter my Spartan room, my nose and ears and every part of my skin even though I slept, despite the heat, covered from head to toe by blankets.

From Rephidim we performed helicopter evacuations all along the Bar Lev line. This was the first line of defense on the Suez Canal. We also covered the armor and infantry bases spread around the Sinai as part of the defense against Egypt with whom during the period of my service, the War of Attrition: in essence an air, artillery and missile war took place. Sometimes a mission required the helicopter evacuation crew to move closer to the Canal Zone if we were in a situation in which forces might cross the Canal and might need to be evacuated from enemy territory.

Serving as an Israeli Air Force base doctor

I recall one such mission where our base for over-night readiness was a Hawk anti-aircraft missile encampment. I watched mesmerized: the battery of Hawk missiles rotated rapidly and whiningly every time an Egyptian plane took off from beyond the Canal and headed towards Israel even for only a few moments before it veered in a different direction. I had a vivid nightmare of having crossed the Canal to extricate a soldier and being pursued by Egyptian soldiers to whom I was trying to explain that I was a doctor from Brooklyn and would not be much of a prisoner pleading my case while brandishing my Beretta side arm which I had learned to use months earlier during my officer’s training course. When I awoke in the morning, having slept fully clothed in my khaki multi-zippered flight suit, the sun was rising, the Hawks were quiet and the helicopter captain was giving orders to my medics and paratrooper crew to pack our things as we were “going home” (“ha beita”) -- a phrase I mastered early in my quest to learn Hebrew, literally “on the job” during my air force service.

During my last six weeks of military service, by then as a reservist, after having completed my regular military duties and just prior to my leaving Israel for post-graduate training in Montreal, our helicopter got a call to evacuate a Bedouin boy with measles and severe dehydration from the Sinai Peninsula in the region of Santa Katarina. This was the site of an ancient monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai where according to the Old Testament; Moses received the Ten Commandments from God.


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