The following review appears in the April 2011 issues of the Federation Star (published by the Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida) and L’Chayim (published by the Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties, Florida). It also appears in the August 2011 issue of The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).
The Ablest Navigator: Lieutenant Paul Shulman, USN, Israel’s Volunteer Admiral, by J. Wandres. Naval Institute Press. 198 pages. $32.95.
J. Wandres has written a fast-paced and carefully researched study of one young American’s significant contributions to Israel’s War of Independence. The story of this unsung hero, Paul Shulman, is at once unique and at the same time representative of the efforts of many volunteer warriors whose exploits are largely unknown and certainly insufficiently appreciated.
Paul Shulman’s father, Herman, was a prosperous corporate lawyer in New York and an ardent Zionist. His mother, Rebecca, became a senior Hadassah executive. Thus, young Paul’s love for Israel was family-based, though the family’s Jewish life otherwise centered on observance of major Holy Days. Paul attended New York’s famed DeWitt Clinton High School, then the Cheshire Academy – one of the few prestigious prep schools open to Jewish enrollment in the late 1930s.
Paul entered the University of Virginia because of its Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps preparatory program. He hoped NROTC would help him achieve his goal of being accepted at the United States Naval Academy. He did get accepted, but it is not clear what mix of congressional recommendations and scholarly achievements opened the door. By the summer of 1941, Paul Shulman was an Annapolis midshipman. His was in one of the accelerated wartime classes that underwent a compressed 3-year program.
Author Wandres traces Paul’s undistinguished Annapolis sojourn and then his duties as a junior officer on the USS Hunt in late 1944 and into 1945. He served in the Pacific Theater with some measure of distinction, returned home at war’s end, and resumed his naval duties with the rank of lieutenant j.g. (junior grade). Early in 1947, he was separated from active duty.
The heart of Wandres’s book is about how Paul Shulman was recruited by the Jewish Agency and the Haganah to put together a training school for what would become Israel’s navy. Paul’s own enthusiasm, and a chance meeting – through his mother’s influence – with David Ben-Gurion, led to this surprising appointment for the 25 year-old.
Paul’s initial activities involved working on the purchase and refitting of surplus warships that would bring Holocaust survivors to Palestine. Mr. Wandres reviews these arrangements – and the consequent uses of the ships – in compelling detail. Soon after, Paul was urgently busy developing the naval training academy in Haifa under the provisional government. In less than three months, Paul Shulman’s efforts led to the deployment of an Israeli squadron that performed successfully against enemy ships. It was a remarkable achievement performed under high pressure and with negligible resources. These encounters were an important part of the miracle of 1948.
Unlike most of the approximately 1,200 American and Canadian volunteers who fought for Israel’s independence, Paul Shulman stayed on to build a life in Israel. However, like the contributions of many others , Paul Shulman’s were buried by Israeli political maneuverings, which favored accolades for Sabras and those who had influence in the new political establishment. More than ten years after his death in 1994, Paul Shulman received recognition from his alma mater: a window was dedicated in his memory at the U. S. Naval Academy’s Uriah P. Levy Center when the building opened in 2005.
The main narrative of The Ablest Navigator is followed by two appendages that connect somewhat uneasily. The first such section, Chapter 13, is called “The Pages of History.” Here Mr. Wandres provides an overview of the Zionist dream and its implementation through and beyond 1948. This section sometimes seems ambiguous in its point of view about the validity of the Jewish State. Useful in providing the larger context for Paul Shulman’s story, this material may enhance the experience for some readers if read before Chapter 1.
An appendix, “From Argosy to Abril,” traces the strange, fascinating history of a particular vessel on its way to becoming part of the Israeli navy.
The extensive notes that J. Wandres provides are wisely saved for the back matter of the book rather than allowed to interfere with the flow of the narrative. Black and white photos, maps, and an index add to the interest and utility of this most readable and necessary slice of Israel’s history.