Pipeline to Palestine

A group of Jews ran gunpowder and TNT through Denver's streets. And they never blew their cover.

Sam Sterling's brief transformation from mild-mannered Denver lawyer to international arms smuggler started with a wisecrack that was meant to be taken seriously.

It was the spring of 1947. Screams from the Holocaust were still echoing in the hearts of American Jews, and hundreds of thousands of European Jews were crammed into displaced-persons' camps, itching for a chance to get the hell out. The British had announced that they were pulling out of Palestine, and the Arabs were vowing to fight any attempt by Zionist Jews to create a nation there. The nascent United Nations was trying to figure out what to do--partition Palestine or make the Arabs and Jews live in a federated state.

Jews and Arabs were killing each other, just as they are today. But back in '47, both the Jews and Arabs were also fighting the often harsh British military command in Palestine. Ships loaded with Jews bound for the Holy Land were being captured by the British and the refugees sent to internment camps in Cyprus or, to their horror, Germany. Jewish leaders in this country had announced a fundraising goal of $170 million, most of it targeted at helping the Jews in Europe and Palestine.

At a Denver meeting of the Allied Jewish Council, as at similar meetings around the country, people were expected to stand and announce how much they were giving.

Sterling, forty and successful, got up. "I'll pledge $250--and a case of rifles for Palestine," he said.

The money was a respectable amount for those days, but that bit about the rifles got a laugh out of the audience. Except from one person: Rabbi Herb Friedman of Temple Emmanuel.

The next day, Sterling got a call from Friedman.
"Were you serious about the rifles?" the rabbi asked.
"Why, yes, I was," Sterling replied.

And then Friedman laid it on the line. The Haganah, the underground Jewish army in Palestine, was setting up a clandestine arms-procurement ring in the United States, headquartered in New York City. The country was split into four regions, and money for the operation was no problem. Would Sterling be interested in heading up the mountain region, which stretched from Montana to Texas?

At the time, Sterling was on crutches, recovering from the latest of many battles with gouty arthritis in his legs. Since he'd returned from the Army Air Corps, he had spent eleven months in a military hospital in Texas while surgeons debated cutting off his legs. He finally made it back to Denver with his legs intact and rented an office in the Equitable Building, an office that happened to be next to the men's bathroom. Too much noise to suit him. His law practice, which steered clear of any courtroom work, didn't excite him.

Sterling was looking for adventure. And he was a Jew. Some relatives had been killed in Europe. Others had decided to leave their homes in Montevideo, Uruguay, and build new lives in Palestine. He wanted Jews to have a home where they would be safe, and the U.S. was letting in only a trickle of Jewish immigrants. Palestine was the answer. So Sterling didn't hesitate. He said yes.

Now ninety and living in a well-appointed retirement home off I-25, Sam Sterling smiles as he recalls his conversation with Friedman about becoming a secret agent.

"He mentioned the fact that it involved breaking some laws," says Sterling. "He told me the minuses. What went through my mind was how to get around the minuses. And he said I would have to feel my way. There would be no supervision.

"I couldn't call on past experiences, because I was a good boy until then."

The late-night phone calls from guys named "Yitzhak" and "Schmulik," the scramble over a quarter of a million pounds of TNT, the handoffs of cash, the flights to Mexico and Dallas--all that came later. First came the page of code from the Haganah's secret headquarters atop the Copacabana nightclub in New York. The Haganah very much wanted to acquire some "wheat," by which it meant gunpowder.

What better way to accomplish that mission than to take the family on vacation?

Sterling loaded his wife, Mildred, and sons Harry, twelve, and Sherwood, eight, into their big Plymouth sedan and headed out on a scenic tour. Along the way, he stopped at every sporting goods store in every little town and bought five-pound tins of gunpowder and small arms. He filled the old Plymouth with the stuff, cramming it into the trunk and onto the backseat. The boys had to sit on a carpet atop the gunpowder as the Sterling family cruised to Durango, then to Las Vegas, then on to Salt Lake City. Harry Sterling knew what was going on. But his father told him to keep quiet; it was a "family matter."

If Sterling ran into Jewish store owners, they more or less had an idea why he was collecting guns and ammo, although he never told them. If the question came up with non-Jewish store owners, Sterling would pull out a card from one of several gun clubs he had incorporated in Denver. Gun clubs needed guns and ammo. But these "clubs" never fired a shot in Denver. All the shooting was done by Jews in Palestine.

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