The Yom Kippur War in 1973 is considered an Israeli military victory. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t leave scars.
Dr. Aitan Melamud, a retired urologist on the Peninsula, was 31 and living in Haifa when he was called up for service. Like most Israeli soldiers, it wasn’t his first time in a uniform — at age 18 he joined the air force, serving four years in a non-combat role and finishing as a lieutenant.
Melamud, now 77, sat at his kitchen table in Hillsborough recently with dozens of old photographs spread out in front of him. With the approach of the war’s 46th anniversary, he opened up about his time as a field doctor during the bloody three-week-long conflict, one of the most pivotal moments in Israeli history.
He was in his surgical residency at Rambam Hospital in Haifa when Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise attack on Israel’s northern and southern fronts on the holiest day of the Jewish year. It was Oct. 6, 1973, and he had just finished six weeks of reserve duty in the Gaza Strip. Less than a week later, Israel was at war. It all came as a shock.
“I thought it was probably a computer error,” Melamud said about being called to battle. “I couldn’t believe it initially.”
But he didn’t have a choice.
Melamud volunteered to join a paratrooper unit headed for the Sinai Desert — the same unit he had served with in Gaza just weeks before. Unlike the close-cropped soldiers in the U.S. military, many of the Israelis in the field wore thick, dark sideburns and mustaches, and some had long, wild hair.
“They were fighters,” he said.
Melamud flew in a military cargo plane from Tel Aviv to an air base in the Sinai Desert, about 90 kilometers east of the Suez Canal. Israel was incurring heavy losses at the southern front. In the aggressive attack on Yom Kippur, the Egyptians crossed into the Israeli-controlled Sinai Peninsula and captured a number of military outposts. On the northern front, the Syrian army attacked the Golan Heights.
As Melamud’s unit moved through the desert, “the mood was somber,” he said. “We knew we were exposed to attack all the time.”
The troops inched along in military vehicles, pausing frequently behind the Israeli forces commanded by Ariel Sharon who were fighting to gain control of the canal. Melamud’s unit traveled along what was code-named the Spider Route — a dirt thoroughfare leading to a strategic crossing near Bitter Lake.
The troops were anxious. Enemy fighter jets were in the area. About a half-mile away, three soldiers were killed by missiles from Soviet-made MiG planes.
“They didn’t attack the huge caravan, surprisingly, which was very fortunate,” he recalled. “Otherwise it could have killed all of us, easy. But that’s the way it was.”
After several days of slow, painstaking travel, Melamud’s unit arrived in the vicinity of the canal about eight days into the war. When the crossing site was cleared, “we were called to rush in,” he said. Two days later, he and five medics were pushed into an inflatable motorboat and crossed over to Egypt.
It was around 5:30 a.m., very quiet and peaceful in the early morning light. “It was beautiful,” he said of the fertile region, with palm trees and other greenery on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal. “I thought it looked like paradise.”
But as the motorboat neared the Egyptian bank, the men were hit with machine-gun fire. It was the first time Melamud had ever been shot at directly. He was armed with an Uzi and a revolver but could not see where the bullets were coming from. The boat was destroyed and the troops waded across the waterway.
“We lost everything, he said. “But nobody was hurt.”
Melamud and his medical unit set up camp with stretchers and tents in a protected area on the Egyptian side. Israeli troops earlier had captured a whitewashed mosque with a tall minaret, where Melamud and his unit stored supplies.
They began treating wounded soldiers, both Egyptian and Israeli. “We hoped they would do the same for us,” he said.
He recalled one enemy pilot who had been shot down near their camp. His face was bloodied and he was struggling to breathe. Shells kept falling as Melamud treated the man, who fought to stay alive. “It was getting dark, and I had difficulty deciding what to do,” he said.
There was neither enough time nor light to perform a complicated procedure. So Melamud gave the man morphine, took out pliers and removed four of his teeth. He inserted a breathing tube into his windpipe and placed him in an ambulance for transport to a helicopter that would take him to an Israeli hospital.
“I don’t know if he survived. I don’t know his name,” Melamud said. “But I managed to keep him alive and get him to the other side.”
The camp endured frequent attack by Soviet-made Katyusha rockets at all hours of the day and night. Enemy vehicles carried exactly 16 rockets and would fire them in succession, then speed away.
“You could hear it whistling,” Melamud said of each incoming bomb, mimicking the whirring sound. “You never know where it’s coming from.”
“You could not go to the bathroom because you might get caught with your pants down,” he said. “You would have to run, take your weapon with you and just go somewhere and hide — in the orchard, or in another area.”
One night, the ground shook with heavy, constant rocket fire. A sergeant major, a driver and a medic in his unit took cover in a foxhole about 10 yards away from Melamud. A shell hit a nearby tree, and shrapnel rained down on the soldiers. “They didn’t scream. They didn’t say a word. They were killed instantly,” Melamud said.
But there were moments of grace, too.
One day an Egyptian woman displaced by war arrived at Melamud’s camp. She had “a very beautiful face” and wore a long, once-white tunic. Her hair was covered. She came with all of her possessions strapped to a cart pulled by two oxen.
“She was not frightened,” Melamud recalled. “She came to us and asked if we could help her.”
Speaking Arabic, as Jewish soldiers from Arab countries interpreted, she said she had a sore throat and fever. Melamud’s medical unit gave her antibiotics and sent her on her way. “She was very grateful,” he said.
All told, an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 Israelis were killed and roughly 8,000 injured. There were many more casualties on the Egyptian side.
Under pressure from the U.S. and the Soviet Union, a cease-fire was signed on Oct. 25. Israel had successfully beaten back enemy forces along two fronts. The outcome of the war would shape history.
“If we had failed to succeed in that war, the Soviets and the Muslim world would have controlled the Middle East completely,” he stated matter-of-factly.
Complicated peace negotiations followed, eventually leading to the Camp David Accords, a historic 1978 deal between Israel and Egypt brokered by President Jimmy Carter.
Melamud’s deployment “deep in Egypt” lasted six more months, after much of the fighting had ceased. Some of it was spent “wasting time,” he confessed, but “we celebrated. We were happy to be alive.”
When a shower with hot water finally was installed in the camp, soldiers were able to wash and put on clean clothes, use the bathroom without fear of attack and read the Israeli newspaper. “There’s nothing better than that,” Melamud said with his arms stretched out, taking a deep breath.
He eventually moved his family to the United States, where he opened a urology practice in the Bay Area after a fellowship at UCLA. His son, Ori, also became a urologist and they worked together for many years.
His decision to leave Israel says little about his patriotism, however. “I was ready to give my life for the country, without hesitation,” he said.
Retired since 2017, the memories of the Yom Kippur War have never left him.
“It’s beyond description,” he said. “I still think about it a little bit every day.” n