The Story of Dromit (Kefalos)

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Introduction: Arms Procurement In the USA

An extensive procurement activity of arms and machinery to produce arms was going on in the USA, on behalf of the Yishuv – the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine – and the State of Israel fighting for its Independence. Even prior to the end of WW-2 in the Pacific front, in July 1945, David Ben-Gurion – Chairman of the Jewish Agency, and Eliezer Kaplan – its CFO, travelled to the US; high on their agenda was to kick-start the arms procurement activity there.

Ben-Gurion called a secret meeting with a group of American and Canadian Jewish millionaires. During the meeting in New York, attended by 18 people and with Rudolph Sonneborn the most prominent among them, Ben-Gurion explained his viewpoint that the Arabs of Palestine were expected to attack the Yishuv with the help of the armies of neighboring Arab countries, whether the political decision regarding the future of Palestine would be in their favor, and definitely if it would be in favor of the Jews. He implored them to assist the Yishuv in any possible way, and they were quick to respond, founding a clandestine organization nicknamed the Sonneborn Institute. The Institute helped in funds and connections, and as of 1948 in actual shipments of goods under a subsidiary named “Materials for Eretz Israel” (the name was changed to "Materials for Israel" after Israel became an independent state). The firm was active until 1955 and its activity evolved around aid for the new immigrants of the Mass Migration.

At the end of WW-II, the USA sold its surplus military equipment from the war, including heavy weapons to countries around the world, including Arab countries. Anybody could buy weapons in the US, which was “handled” in order to render it inoperable, but could easily be fixed or taken apart to reconstruct it, replacing defective components. The Hagana saw the potential in this new source, and assembled a delegation of some 40 people, who handled procurement and transportation of arms, funded and aided by the Sonneborn Institute. Shipments of arms and machinery for the Military Industry Industries were disguised as general cargo (to avoid confiscation by the British). They also recruited volunteers and procured vessels for Aliya Bet.

Legally, most of this activity was proper until the beginning of December 1947, when President Trumann signed the Neutrality Act, forbidding any arms shipment to either side of the fighting parties in Palestine. As of that moment, export of arms or machinery to manufacture arms became strictly illegal. A violation of the Neutrality Act was considered a felony, subject to punishment by imprisonment.

Hopes were high when Yehuda Arazi – a prominent figure in the Hagana with glorified experience in Aliya Bet and arms procurement operations in Europe – travelled to the US in December 1947, to procure arms in “the land of unlimited opportunities”. He soon discovered that there were some limitations there, getting involved in a failed attempt to procure the aircraft carrier USS Attu (CVE-102). His plan was to convert the carrier to an arms carrier, which would reach Israel in time for the declaration of the State. The grandiose plan collapsed, and Arazi had to leave the US after just few months, following the fiasco. However, during his stay in the US, he managed to develop close relationship with the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, which would become helpful in arms deals in Europe, disguised as procured by Nicaragua (see the stories of the ships Rex and Borea).

Despite the Neutrality Act, smuggling arms out of the US continued, with Teddy Kollek (later, the legendary mayor of Jerusalem) in charge of the arms procurement in the USA, Al Schwimmer – a flight engineer in charge of procurement and rendering airplanes able to fly (he was convicted of violating the Neutrality Act; moved to Israel where he founded and headed the Israeli Aerospace Industry; pardoned by President Clinton in 2001), and Elie Schalit – in charge of transportation to Israel (later, a businessman and philanthropist).

Most of the arms and equipment for the Military Industry smuggled out of the US made its way to Israel camouflaged as innocent civilian cargo in commercial vessels (e.g., five Mustang planes, dismantled, were smuggled in crates declared to have carried combine tractors; two of them carried out military missions during the Independence War).

A well known story of the Procurement Enterprise is that of 10 cargo planes, all but one C-46 Commandos, and three B-17 ("Flying Fortress") bombers, that were smuggled out of the USA and eventually reached Israel (more planes were acquired, but they failed to either leave the USA or reach Israel). The cargo planes, operating under the guise of LAPSA (Panama’s National Airline) airplanes until September of 1948, played a crucial role in flying weapons from Czechoslovakia to Israel in Operation Balak, and later, in military cargo flights within Israel, flying provisions to the besieged Negev area during Operation Avak (Dust) and carrying air bombardment missions in Operation Yoav to free Beer-Sheba and drive the Egyptian army out of the Negev.

The Ship Dromit

In the early spring of 1948 the leaders of the arms procurement enterprise in the USA found out about a new source of surplus military equipment that became available in Hawaii. Herman (Hank) Greenspun – a tough operative with a military background as a company commander in General Paton’s Army during WW-II – was sent to Hawaii, where he arranged a large shipment of airplane engines and stolen heavy machine guns to California. From Los Angeles he managed to smuggle the machine guns (the FBI put its hand on the engines) to Acapulco, Mexico, in a brazen voyage on board a small yacht named ‘Idalia’ (Greenspun was convicted in 1950 for his role in moving arms to Israel, in violation of the Neutrality Act; he was fined and stripped of civil rights; became a successful businessman in Las Vegas; pardoned by JFK in 1961).

In parallel, a big arms deal with the Mexican government was shaping up. It included 36 old 75mm cannons and big amounts of ammunition, air bombs and machine guns. The negotiations moved slowly, partially because the media uncovered them and made them public, prompting the powerful Syrian Arabs community in Mexico to raise objections. Teddy Kolek (who became famous many years later as a legendary mayor of Jerusalem) - the chief coordinator of the arms procurement operation in the USA - asked Greenspun to oversee the conclusion of the deal in Mexico. Greenspun supplied the Mexican authorities with a “legal cover” in the form of a falsified document stating that the arms are for Cina’s Nationalist Army, and after Al Schwimmer personally handled a huge sum of money to top Mexican officials the deal was concluded.

All the arms mentioned above were sent to the port of Tampico, Mexico, in preparation for shipping to Israel. The ship designated to smuggle the arms to Israel was a 3,800 tons dead weight cargo ship named S/S Kefalos and flying the Panamanian flag. It had been purchased in April 1948 by Elie Schalit.

Because the ship was scheduled to depart from Mexico, she got the code name Dromit (meaning Southern; Dromit would become her official name later on after joining the Israeli merchant marine). Command of the ship was given to a Jewish American Captain named Adulf Oko. Five Jewish volunteers escorted the ship (two of them, Arie Kesselman and Jack Roteman are fallen soldiers of the Independence War). Upon leaving NY on her way to Tampico, the captain got special instructions on how to communicate over the Gid’on network (the clandestine radio network used for oversea communication, including communication with Aliya Bet and the arms ships). After it became clear that there was still room for more cargo, the ship was loaded with barrels of airplane fuel that were expediently sent to Tampico from California. A cargo of sugar was loaded on top of the arms to conceal the real cargo. In the beginning of August Dromit left Tampico and started her long voyage to the port of Tel Aviv. While sailing the high seas her name was repainted to Pinzon in order to fool the British Navy that was feared to be active in enforcing the U.N. embargo.

Shaul Avigur was fearfull that because of the media attention that the ship had received the British Navy would make special efforts to catch her. He weighed the possibility of sending her to Yugoslavia and dividing the cargo up among three smaller vessels. In order to carry out such a plan the Dromit had to be communicated with, but the ship was observing a strict and unexplained radio silence. On September 1st Shaul, radioed to all the Mossad radio stations that he “was very worried regarding the fate of the Dromit”. He ordered them, if they were to establish contact with the ship, to direct her to sail to Yoram (Yugoslavia).

Despite Shaul’s fears, the ship showed up at the port of Tel Aviv on September 8th 1948, which coincided with the second cease-fire. The old Mexican cannons were delivered to the I.D.F (Tzahal), where they got the nickname “Cucaracha” for their origin (they were quickly decommissioned after found to be ineffective and even dangerous to their operators). In addition to arms, the ship carried a significant load of airplane fuel in barrels. The fuel was of critical importance, as the Israeli air force was running on its “last drops” of fuel at its disposal. It enabled Operation Avak (Dust) – the supply of provisions to the besieged Negev – to continue, and actually provided the IAF with enough fuel to continue its operations for few months (according to Eli Shalit, there may have been another ship that brought fuel from Mexico, but no record was found to support this claim).

Once unloaded, Dromit sailed to Napoli, Italy, where it was converted to carry immigrants. During the months of Nov. - Dec. 1948, and while still under the captaincy of Captain Oko, she made two runs from Yugoslavia to Israel with a total of 7,737 passengers, as part of a special effort to bring new immigrants to serve in the I.D.F.

In 1949 Dromit finished her special military-related tasks and went back to carrying civilian cargo. In 1950 the Panamanian flag came down, the Israeli flag went up, and Dromit became part of the Israeli merchant marine, belonging to Zim. In 1962 she was taken off the list of active vessels and sold for scrap.

Written by Tzvi Ben-tzur
English translation: Nava Goren & Tzvi Ben-tzur

volunteers on board Dromit
Some of the Jewish volunteers who escorted the Dromit on board the ship

Israeli merchant marine ship Dromit
Dromit (as an Israeli merchant marine ship)

Kefalos news
The media reports about the Kefalos

Greenspun's pardon story
The news about Greenspun's pardon by President JFK, 1961

The latest, and probably the last, piece of news related to the illegal smuggling of arms to Israel during her war for independence:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 23, 2008 – Before leaving for the holidays, President Bush on Tuesday ... granted 19 pardons, including one to a man who helped the Jewish resistance in the 1940s.

Included in the latest list is Charles Winters, who is considered a hero in Israel. Winters, who died in the 1980s in Florida, was in the airplane business after World War II. He bought up former military cargo planes and used them to transport fruit and other products. He later started helping his Jewish friends who were shipping arms to Jews trying to found their own state in the Middle East. Winters, a Protestant from Boston, could fly his planes in and out of the region without interference from authorities. In 1948, three of his planes left Miami, picked up weapons in Azores and Czechoslovakia and then left the planes and arms in Palestine.

Winters was convicted of violating the Neutrality Act, fined $5,000 and sentenced to serve 18 months in prison. The act is designed to ensure that financial assistance and arms are not provided to parties in foreign conflicts where the U.S. has not taken sides. Two others, Herman Greenspun and Al Schwimmer, also were convicted of violating the act, but they did not serve time. President Kennedy pardoned Greenspun in 1961. President Clinton pardoned Schwimmer in 2000.

Reginald Brown, an attorney who worked on the Winters pardon, said Bush's pardon "rights a historical wrong and honors Charlie's belief that the creation of the Jewish state was a moral imperative of his time. ... Charlie Winters helped shape human history for the better."

Film director Steven Spielberg wrote a letter to Bush appealing for a pardon for Winters. "There are probably many unsung heroes of America and of Israel, but Charlie Winters is surely one of them," wrote the director of "Schindler's List" and other Oscar-winning movies. "While a pardon cannot make Charlie Winters whole, and regrettably he did not live to see it, it would be a fitting tribute to his memory and a great blessing to his family if this pardon is granted."


Renato Barahona
A new book (2014) about Kefalos/Dromit; The author Prof. Renato Barahona is an
American historian (he is a Basque in origin; his father served on the ship).
Click here for a short video in which Prof. Renato Barahona presents his book

The Arms Ships

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