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.
Back in Denver, Sterling lined up a handful of trusted Jews, including his good friend Bill Saxon and young Bernie Springer, who had been an MP stationed in Denver, to help him acquire and pack the goods for shipment to New York and then overseas. Pre-LoDo Larimer Street was lined with pawnshops, many operated by Jews; Sterling didn't have to say a word as he continued to collect more guns and ammo. He leaned on the Bernstone brothers, clerks at Cook's sporting goods store, for a goodly--and constant--supply of powder. It was legal for a "gun club" to buy the stuff, but it was highly illegal--a violation of the federal Neutrality Act--to ship the materiel overseas.
That, of course, was a big problem: How did you get the stuff to New York and then out of the country? Sterling's brain struck oil.
He and his father-in-law, builder Sam Reed, a prominent Jew in town, both lived in an apartment building at 1210 Harrison. It had a spacious basement. So Sam and his boys rounded up some 55-gallon oil drums and volunteers from Post 242 of the Jewish War Veterans and got to work. They started off with a layer of newspaper. Then came the tins of gunpowder, mixed in with pistols. Figuring out what a barrel of oil would feel like, they added pieces of lead (good for making bullets) to equalize the weight. About a foot below the top of the drum, they laid down some more newspaper and created a thick plaster of Paris seal over the guns and ammo. Then they poured in about six inches of oil.
The barrels were moved to one of Sam Reed's warehouses at Alameda and Leetsdale. Sterling made arrangements with a trucking company--and a special deal with a Jewish guy who was a night watchman at the company's yard. The gang, using a delivery truck from a Jewish market on West Colfax, would haul the barrels to the trucking company by 4 a.m., and the night watchman would spray-paint them and make them look like new barrels of oil.
The barrels were then shipped to a coffee-and-doughnut shop in Brooklyn, under which a secret shipping operation was in full swing. From there they were sent to the docks and loaded on ships to Palestine. In all, Sterling estimates, his crew shipped forty to fifty barrels.
But that was only one of his tasks. A more explosive situation was developing.
In Palestine, Jews and Arabs were throwing everything they had at each other. It wasn't full-scale war but rather a continuing series of terrorist attacks for control of roads and villages. Haganah officials had a plan to up the ante. Cigar-smoking Jews carrying one-pound bricks of TNT would run up to Arab houses, jam short fuses into the bricks, light them, hurl them through a window and run like hell. They had the cigars; all they needed was the TNT.
And the Haganah was moderate compared with two other Zionist groups, the Irgun and the Stern Gang. These organizations were even more heavily into terrorist activities--like blowing up hotels--and the three groups fought among themselves as well. The Haganah kept an uneasy truce with British authorities, but the two other groups were berserk. The Irgun, led by Menachem Begin (later Israel's prime minister), blew up people, and so did the Stern Gang. Both groups were violently anti-British, and both had arms-collecting operations in the U.S.
Arms poured into the hands of the American Zionists. Jewish GIs sent along souvenir guns they'd brought home from overseas. Italian mobsters like Lucky Luciano and Jewish mobsters like Mickey Cohen chipped in. Playwright Ben Hecht, one of the most radical Zionists, staged huge fundraising shows featuring chorus girls cavorting with papier-mache tommy guns.
Amid all this hubbub, a front company for the Haganah made an above-board purchase of 250,000 pounds of TNT from an East Coast firm. But the Jews couldn't ship it directly to Palestine, so they decided to send it to Sam Sterling. His job was to get it to Mexico, which had no ban on shipping guns and ammo, and send it out from there.
Sterling's pal Bill Saxon found two abandoned mines in Gold Hill, just west of Boulder. Sterling, meanwhile, incorporated a supposed mining concern called the Boulder Company. The TNT was hauled to the mines for storage, and Sterling went to work.
He flew to Mexico City and met with members of the Jewish community there. He needed one of them to set up a mining company that could receive the TNT. But among 100,000 Mexican Jews, many of them recent immigrants, he could find no likely candidate. He even made a side trip to Veracruz to scout out the possibilities there. No luck.
By the fall of 1947, a man named Teddy Kollek had come to the U.S. to take over the Haganah's American operations. Kollek later would become the mayor of Jerusalem. At this point, though, he was simply a clever operations man, adept at making deals and arrangements. And there were constant deals: Kollek curried favor with all kinds of people, including dictator Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. Throughout the U.S., operatives like Sterling were carrying out the Haganah's wishes. The Zionists had purchased ships through front companies and then used them to try to haul Jewish refugees to Palestine. Hank Greenspun, later famous as a crusading newspaper editor in Las Vegas, was in charge of the Haganah's Pacific region, and he delivered numerous planes and other materiel to the Zionists. Greenspun, however, was caught and convicted of violating the Neutrality Act, a fact that didn't go unnoticed by Sterling.
"That was all the more reason to keep quiet about what I was doing," he says. There was no coffee-shop banter in Denver among the Jewish smugglers. They didn't even talk about their work among themselves.
But there was plenty of talk between New York and Denver, and Haganah operatives would steal into town to meet with Sterling. He would get evening phone calls from emissaries whom he knew only by their first names--people like "Yitzhak" and "Schmulik." They would meet at a nearby drugstore to hatch plans. And Sterling was in direct contact with New York, too. Kollek, who was Sterling's immediate boss, told him about a wealthy Dallas Jew who needed a little persuasion to make a big donation to the Zionists. The goal was to buy an airplane. The Jews desperately needed planes, but they had no standing as an underground army, and no government would sell war materiel to them. And that was too bad for them, because the U.S. and its arms manufacturers were selling off all kinds of equipment now that the war was over.
On one of his trips to Mexico, Sterling stopped off in Dallas. It was a Saturday, and the Dallas businessman's daughter was to be married the next day. Why not make a donation to the Zionists in honor of her wedding? Sterling asked. Why not, indeed? The deal was made: $100,000. And an airplane soon was winging its way to Palestine. Sterling flew back to Denver to round up more arms and pack more barrels. And then it was time to ship out some human beings as well.
One arm of the Haganah was the Land and Labor Movement; Sterling set up a local branch. This group was not clandestine, but it received little publicity. He gathered doctors and psychiatrists and businessmen to screen prospective non-Jewish workers needed in Palestine. Ostensibly, the idea was to round up farmers and workers. In reality, the Denver group found a handful of tank and airplane mechanics, gave them each a $50,000 life-insurance policy and $1,000 a month and sent them off to Italy, from where they would be taken to Palestine.
In the meantime, Sterling and his cohorts kept a close eye on surplus sales around town. They wound up purchasing an ammo-loading machine from a Remington plant and spent some time taking it apart, bolt by bolt, and shipping it out as agricultural equipment.
Sterling was having a blast. But he was still sitting on all of that TNT.
It was clear by now that the plan to ship the TNT through Mexico wouldn't work. And the stuff was making Sam Sterling nervous. He had let the Boulder County sheriff in on the fact that he had explosives stored at the Gold Hill mines, and the sheriff was pressuring him to get rid of it. After all, the TNT could have leveled Boulder and half of Denver.
Trying to salvage something out of the operation, Sterling found a buyer, a munitions plant on the East Coast. The TNT had been purchased at 25 cents a pound; the new buyer would pay 35 cents. Now all he had to do was get it to Baltimore while creating as little attention as possible. By law, explosives had to be clearly marked when being trucked, but Sterling arranged with some drivers to take the fifteen truckloads unmarked and covered by tarps by doubling their rates.
The deal was done, the transfer was made and Sterling wound up with $60,000. Kollek told him to convert it to cash, take a red-eye flight to New York and look at the terminal gate for a fellow in a green suit, smoking a cigar and reading the Yiddish newspaper The Daily Forward. Sure enough, there he was. "I'm your man," the guy told Sterling and took the briefcase filled with cash. With barely time for a cup of coffee, Sterling took the next flight back to Denver.
And just like that, Sam Sterling's career as a secret agent ended. By this time, it was the spring of 1948, and Israel was proclaimed a nation. The Haganah became the Israel Defense Force, an official army. The new nation could now buy arms from other countries, and it did, in huge quantities. Czechoslovakia, in particular, supplied the TNT, and things got blown up real good. Sam Sterling returned to being a mild-mannered Denver lawyer.
"I didn't feel a letdown," Sterling says. "I felt exhilarated."
As the years passed, Sterling kept his mouth shut. Inside, though, he felt a glow of satisfaction. "I made my contribution," he says. "Actually, I was more interested in Israel and its growth as a state than I was about anything else. And even though what I was doing may sound rather warlike, it was necessary at the time. It was historically Jewish land--if one could make that claim after 2,000 years. And my main interest was in what could be done to take care of the Jews who had suffered during the war. I knew it was breaking the law, but it was justified."
A short time after Sterling's adventure ended, he and his cohorts received a blue plate from Israel with a card that said simply, "Thank you." In the early Fifties, Sterling visited Israel for the first time, and Kollek arranged for him to get together with some of his contacts from the smuggling days.
He maintains a fatherly attitude toward Israel. But when Sterling dips back into his memories of fifty years ago, he often stumbles upon one dark moment. His friend Bill Saxon was a casualty of Denver's secret war, killed in a car wreck in New Mexico on the way to El Paso to check out a sale of machine guns. "He was the most active of the fellows," Sterling says, his eyes clouding with tears. "And he was a good guy."
But even this mournful tale was not the kind of war story you talked about. The statute of limitations didn't run out for quite some time, and the story of American Jews' arms-smuggling didn't really surface until author Leonard Slater wrote The Pledge in 1970. In it, he devoted a short section to Sterling's cadre, admiringly referring to it as the Rocky Mountain Lavender Hill Mob, after the British movie that celebrated a band of unlikely robbers.
Now that he can talk about it, Bernie Springer, 76 and a retired insurance man, recalls his anger in 1947 at the plight of his fellow Jews.
"We heard stories of the Holocaust," he says. "I tell you, man, it would drive you nuts. Are we a lambie-pie or are we tough? We were lambie-pies up to a point. From the time of the Inquisition, Jews were picked on and were subservient. In Europe, they would crawl into a hole. But it became different. You want to play hardball? We'll play hardball."
Tough talk like that isn't Sam Sterling's style. "I can't say it was anger," he says. "And I don't think I did it for the sake of adventure. On the other hand, the adventure appealed to me."
That spirit was in his blood.
His father, Harry Sterlin, was drafted into the Russian army when he was nineteen years old for a 25-year stint; in 1904, during the Russo-Japanese war, he was sent to Vladivostok. "One day," says Sam Sterling, "they were having a parade. He was in the cavalry, and he was walking his mount over to the parade grounds when the mount happened to step into a muddy stretch of land. When he got to the parade grounds, the troop officer saw the mud and hit my father in the face with a leather quirt.
"He decided he had had enough of the Russian Army. That night he deserted and went over to the port, went to a cargo boat and signed up for the trip--wherever it was going. It happened to be San Francisco."
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Harry Sterlin jumped ship in San Francisco and was admitted to the country--after officials added a "g" to his name. The Hebrew Immigration Aid Society sent him to Pueblo, where he opened a little store and got married. Sam Sterling was born in 1907. But his mother died during the nationwide influenza epidemic of 1918, and his father died two and a half years later, so he and his two younger brothers were farmed out to his mother's sisters. Sam wound up in Fort Morgan, where he graduated from high school, and then went on to the University of Denver and DU law school.
While a student, he joined the National Guard cavalry--he loved horses--and stayed in until his gout forced him out. During World War II he switched over to the Army Air Corps.
Sterling is too self-effacing to call himself an adventurer, but his son Harry attests to it. "My dad is a romantic man in the true sense of the word," he says. And the years haven't dimmed that. A few years ago Harry suggested they take a trip. He figured his dad would settle for someplace like the Broadmoor or Sun City, Arizona. No, Sam Sterling picked Alaska. "It was a natural continuation of his sense of adventure," says Harry.
Harry's dad just can't admit to his need for it.
"I was very happy to do it," he says of his days as a secret agent. "I was glad to get out of the office, anyway.