After months of sporadic clashes between the Jordanian Arab Army and the fedayeen, the inevitable showdown was hastened by the Popular Front for Palestine (PFLP) hijacking the aircraft and flying into Dawson Field which was promptly renamed the al Thawra (revolutionary) airfield by the Fedayeen (6 September 1970) the Palestinians, by holding the hostages, had control of the airfield with the Jordan Arab Army (JAA) forming an outer circle around the airfield. Ambassador Brown arrived at the embassy and we were instructed to gather there.
The Defense Attache Office was in an outlying building about 100 yards away and the area was controlled by the fedayeen. Eventually one by one we sprinted from the DAO building to the Embassy and remained there throughout the siege crisis. At the embassy we had a squad of Bedouin soldiers from the Ministry of Interior. They were stalwart loyal troops. When they heard the Jordanian National anthem played on the radio they got to their feet and stood at attention. They were continually shot at by snipers in addition to occasional mortar rounds. One was hit in the leg and we brought him inside the embassy. Amidst his loud lamentations and prayers, the Embassy Security Officer patched him up, and later an an armored personnel carrier got through to pick him up and he was transported to the army hospital.
We had a contingent of Marine guards, but they generally were stationed inside the embassy. The marines performed a valuable service giving us a sense of security as well as a myriad of other duties. As our isolated time in the Embassy went on we discovered the problem of water. Food was plentiful. We had plenty of C-rations and canned food but not much water. The water system, which only worked sporadically in the best of times, was supplemented by water trucks that came and filled the water tank on the roof. The water trucks no longer arrived and the water tank on the roof was riddled with bullet holes and fragmentation damage from the mortars that hit the building…thanks to the stone structure did very little damage.
We needed water not just for drinking but also cooking and most of all keeping the commodes working. so the Marines went out at night and foraged through the houses in the neighborhood homes, mostly unoccupied as the people fled the area, to get cans of water. In one case they ran into some fedayeen occupying a house. Oddly there was no confrontation. One marine (We were all in civilian clothing) calmly told them they needed the water, and the Fedayeen said they had no quarrel with Americans only the Jordanian Army. That was only partially true, of course. The PFLP, PDFLP and PFLP-GC targeted Americans.
At this time a curious incident occurred. A deserter from the US Army in Europe showed up at the embassy to renounce his citizenship. He was Palestinian American and wanted to fight for the Fedayeen. I later heard, after the war, he wanted to undo his action but Im not sure he was able to do so.
The problem of sorting out who was who among the Fedayeen was a vital part of staying alive. My driver saved me a number of times by avoiding PFLP or PDFLP checkpoints. They normally flew the flag of their organization at the checkpoints. Both organizations were headed by Christians and were by far the most extreme organizations following a radical marxist line. The Fateh, the main organization within the PLO, was normally semi-disciplined and after some bullshit interrogation, hurling American slang insults…. to impress the girls standing around……normally let us pass. One Sergeant assigned to the embassy was taken by the PFLP and kept in a tiger cage for a few days. He was later released under the terms of one of the umpteen peace pacts between King Hussein and Arafat.
Digression. After the JAA took control Amman it was found that my driver had given the Fedayeen sketches of the DAO office. He was fired but some months after, as I came out of my house, he was literally on his knees begging for his job back. He had a family and lived in a refugee camp totally controlled by the Fedayeen. What would any person have done in his situation? I asked the security folks in the embassy to rehire him but they refused.
On 16 September the JAA moved against the Fedayeen. One can read a number of reasons why the King finally acquiesced to the demands of the army, as for months he had been submitting to the demands of the Fedayeen, even dismissing relatives and favorites in the military to meet Fedayeen ultimatums. I know our CIA chief pushed him to move against the Fedayeen, and the army down to last private were staining at the leash to take on the Fedayeen, making it obvious they were going to move against them with the King or without him.
The CIA chief was receiving very little information or instructions from Langley, and as usual the State was having discussions, conferences, round tables and doing nothing. Finally on the morning of the 16th of September the roar of artillery and explosions were deafening. The JAA went on the offensive shelling the Fedayeen strongholds which were, of course, in the middle of civilian neighborhoods.There were no plans to evacuate the civilians from the Fedayeen neighborhoods and the Fedayeen were happy to keep them there as bait for the journalists seeking cover JAA “atrocities.” To be sure there was bad blood and no doubt neither side paid much attention to the laws of war. My friends in the JAA armor told me that they would pull down the trousers of captured Fedayeen and set them of the rear engines of their tanks. People were killed on the basis of their accent…the bedouin dialect being detectable from the west bank Palestinian. One example of the intense animosity between the PLO and the JAA was the fact that toward the end of the PLO insurrection, surviving Fedayeen. waded across the Jordan River to surrender to the Israelis rather than the JAA
From our perch on Jebel Luweideh we clearly see the advance of the JAA up the Palestinian stronghold on Ashrafiah. They were being stoutly resisted by the Fedayeen and the m-48 tanks were being hit by RPG’s and getting knocked out. Amman is a city of stone and even the 106 Recoilless Rifles rounds were bouncing off the stone houses.
The JAA, composed mostly of East bank Jordanians, were untrained in urban warfare and resorted to indiscriminate shelling and the use of the twin barrel Bofors 40 mm guns mounted in tandem on an APC to pour fire into the refugee camp. However this was not a camp of tents. The camp had been there so long it had evolved into a stone house community, and despite the shelling not a lot of visible damage was apparent. There were considerable civilian casualties however and the journalists hyped the action to a frenzy in news print .”Amman on fire with Bedouin soldiers raping and looting” read Newsweek. Journalists, as usual, were getting most of their information at the bar at the Intercontinental hotel. The JAA and the Government of Jordan (GOJ )was incompetent on press relations and the journalists got all their information from the Fedayeen spokesmen.. some of whom were very slick and Western educated. We, being holed up in the embassy without any phone service, were out of the picture.
The operation lasted 10 days and as the mortaring and sniping at the Embassy went on, we were issued M1A Carbines. Not everyone took them but I must say the feel of the rifle and a pocket full of ammo made me feel more confident. A few days into the siege one of the secretaries and I were looking out the window ( all were shattered by then) when a round hit just a few inches from the ledge, spraying cinders into the secretary’s face and mine. The cinders were in my eyes and a made few small cuts on my face. As I write this I am thinking that had I been in Vietnam I would have received a John Kerry Purple Heart.
On 20 September , The Syrians invaded north Jordan support of the Palestinians using armor with hastily repainted PLO colors and flags. It was aimed at supporting a “free State” created in Irbid. Meanwhile there was an Iraqi Division-size force sitting in the desert east of Amman. It was expected that they too would join the Palestinians. Things were looking very poor for Jordan. At this point, with American support questionable and the British and European governments wimping their way towards an understanding with the Palestinians…..and many Israelis saying “no problem….Jordan can become the Palestinian state they want,” Golda Meier indomitable as always, however refused. She had met the PLK ( Plucky Little King.. as the Brits referred to him) on an Island in the Gulf of Aqaba earlier in 1969. According to Jack O’Connell in his book King’s Counsel, they had a great social gathering.
Among the things us military folks and the Marines were doing in the embassy was destroying all documents. One of the “burn before reading” messages I saw was a message from King Hussein to Golda Meier channeled through American communications asking for support. There was a full paragraph of personal endearments and warm words in the typical Arab florid style. I do not know the response, but as its happened, It seems that King Hussein, rightly or wrongly, was confident of Israeli support and loosed his Air Force on the Syrians, knocking out many tanks (according to Ihsan (Sam) Shordom), a fellow I knew well, and the RJAF top ace. He called it a “Turkey Shoot.” The Syrians did not put up their air force, grounded by fratricidal Syrian politics and a well founded fear that the Israelis would shoot them down. The Syrians retreated in ignominy, and Hafez Assad the Syrian Air Force chief who had disobeyed orders of the Syrian Government to put up their Air Force, used the Syrian humiliation to become the President of Syria.
Note: Despite claims the Jordanians had destroyed up to Syrian 75 armored vehicles when I went up to the Irbid area I couldn’t find any knocked out armor but was told the Jordanians allowed the Syrians to drag them back across the border.
Digression. One can read all sorts of palaver and wringing of hands in the Western capitols on what was to be done to save Jordan or whether it was worth it. The Airborne Bde. was alerted in Italy for deployment to save Americans in Jordan ,: there were shipment of arms to Tel Aviv and Evacuation plans for being discussed for the Americans left in Amman. etc. In fact at that time I knew very little or do not remember much about this.I was getting tons of messages requesting info on topographic features, port facilities, hyway characteristics. I was lucky in that I had been in Jordan a couple of times before and had at least a general idea of what was needed. The recipients of my information were more grateful that they should have been. Actually the intel folks who labored in Arlington Hall, gathering details were in my experience the super Intel people. For example, Little old ladies spent all their time analyzing and putting together detailed info on the hyways in Jordan….no long treatises on the likely future of some obscure Fedayeen organization.
Finally the US got into the act and we were told to ask the GOJ what they needed. The list we receivedcould have outfitted the Soviet army for a decade. What they got was a lot of small and medium arms and tons of ammunition. It had to be flown in of course and the regular Amman airport was still of questionable safety. So the new Air Force MAP ( Military Assistance Program), LTC Ted, a salt of the earth guy, and myself were flown by a RJAF helicopter to several sites in the desert. There colonel Ted using a pocket knife stuck it in the ground to see if the salt flat would support a heavily loaded C-141. Finally he decided the best place would be to use the the Dawson Airfield, renamed the Thawra airfield by the Fedayeen and which we remained the Raja’iyya ( reactionary) airfield.
.Also as it turned out the Iraqis -for much debated reasons – were observed to be withdrawing their troops from Jordan and as the Jordanian army was overrunning Fedayeen bases and units—-and only tepid support from President Nasser of Egypt, forthcoming, Arafat decided to come to terms.. So under the weary eye of President Nasser in Cairo, Hussein and Arafat basically agreed to a pact which ended Palestinian hopes of overthrowing the Hashemite regime. Next day 28 September Nasser died. I had not heard the news but went I went out of the embassy to test the new peaceful atmosphere, I saw all these black flags flying from the homes. Mostly from the homes of Palestinians since most East bank Jordanians had little sadness for his death.
A few weeks later, the “Amman agreement” was signed which ended the Palestinian state within a state. and their arms were to be handed over to the GOJ. As the military attache it was my job and see if this was actually being carried out. That was a spooky job since I was driving alone in a rented Volkswagen…….. thankfully without diplomatic plates. Going into parts of Amman I had been warned by my JAA friends to never enter, was to say the least, stressful.Driving around the urban jungle, such as downtown Amman, known enemy territory and especially when you know you are not welcome, is downright unsettling.. I received quite a few scowls and distasteful grimaces but the armed fedayeen were gone to ground.
But I did actually observe that some arms collection was taking place, although I had doubts that many were collected. In fact the clashes between the JAA and various groups of Fedayeen continued until June 1971 in the Ajlun area. My next mission was to ascertain if in fact the Iraqis were withdrawing. That was easy, as I drove out toward the Iraqi encampments, I could follow the line of their withdrawal by the numerous broken down vehicles pointing eastward for many miles. The withdrawal of the Iraqis took then wind out of the Palestinian sails.
Emerging from the embassy was like emerging from Hitler’s bunker and seeing that the General Walter Wenks XII army had reached Berlin and driven the Russians all the way back to the Caucasus. The fresh air and the smell of musakhan, my favorite Palestinian dish wafted in the breeze. After a year of sporadic violence, in which children were constantly being picked up from school as soon as the shooting began, Amman sprang to life. Jordanians were a people who did not depend on government largesse, and families worked together to set up shop and get on with their lives.
The US army sent in a MASH unit to handle Jordanian, Palestinian, and civilian casualties, and the USAF sent in a surgical unit as well. They set up in. an amazingly short time and was the best thing we did for Jordan. It made me proud what the military can do if freed of political indecision.
The C-141 airlift was coming in the Dawson field, and renamed by us embassy military folks as Rajaiy’ya (reactionary) airfield was given a high tech radio and a frequency to contact the aircraft going in but I was only able to contact one and I realized I had nothing tell him.
After a time families began to return and mine came in from Beirut. Also I received a new boss. Col M was a strait forward armor officer, not quite comfortable as attache in a culture that was mysterious to him. However he was a very professional and a good boss. He listened to what we had to say. He began to inject some order into the Defense Attache Office, after months of free wheeling activity. My own activities were somewhat curtailed, such as several hours day at the cite sportive, swimming, playing squash, a game I loved, and tennis which I did not… and talking and listening to what the word on the street was.
I spent many hours in the desert with Sayil, Mejid, Adil, Nayil, and several other Bedouin and Circassian officers, most of whom were in the armored car regiment that surrounded the palace or were special forces.We went out drank beer, and fired various weapons to argue about their capabilities, the G-3, the M-14, the AK-47. The M-16 had not arrived there yet. Nayil from As Salt loved Tom Jones music and played it constantly in his car. He also enjoyed firing his AK 47 from his balcony sending the war weary citizens scurrying for cover.I never quite used to the Jordanian officers drinking scotch shooting and then replacing their pistols in the holster with the hammer to the rear.. But of course InShAllah.. all will be well.
I finally convinced my boss that an hour in the office is a wasted hour. , An attache has to be out driving around, talking to people, going hunting in the Azraq marshes….. and most beneficial going to parties and giving parties. There seems an American cultural trait that if one has fun in his work he can’t be doing a good job. He finally agreed with some reservations. The colonel who was a bachelor was not comfortable at social occasions and gave me his representational money, which combined with mine, enabled me to put on some really extravaganza parties, made more attractive to the young Jordanian officers by the presence of the winsome Greek girls who were airline hostesses for Jordanian Air Lines. The abundance of beer and scotch, with boxes of American cigarettes were great inducements. Plus we had a fantastic Palestinian cook, Ali, a celebrity cook who once worked for the Belgian Ambassador. He began to mingle with guests as Jordanian ladies tried to hire him away from us. The family loved the guy, who lived in a refugee camp and had eight daughters. He never seemed to hear the cannon announcing the time for Iftar during Ramadan and when he asked my daughters they always assured him they had heard it. Of course half way through his meal it sounded.
The Bedouin officers did not come to these parties, being cautious about drinking alcohol in front of non tribal officers. Most of the officers who attended were Air Force and more sophisticated combat service support types. Sometimes the Junior Pakistani officers from their training team came but they would not touch alcohol. Their commander General Zia al Haq, who later became the president of Pakistan ( and was later assassinated in a plane crash) never attended the parties but I spent quite a bit of time with him. I found him to be more British than the British.; Immaculately groomed, articulate, and a great leader. I use to play (badly) tennis with him and enjoyed his company. I never recognized the man so vilified later in the Western press. At one point in the civil war, Zia took command of a Jordanian division, when the Jordanian commander abandoned his post. (There were a number of Palestinian desertions during the war, but less than anticipated.)
Well after a year, we settled down to a more usual function of embassy personnel. There were lots of parades, conferences,. diplomatic functions to attend. I remember one in particular when the military attaches were taken out to the desert for some exhibition and Tahseen Shordom , a good drinking buddy of mine, and the Circassian commander of the Special Forces invited me to rappel off a cliff. Thanks to my Ranger training I did so but with a typical Arab addition…. Tahseen firing his ak-47 hitting on either side of me as I rappelled down. I was worried about ricochets but tried not to show it.
My fellow military attaches were a mixed lot. The French attache built up my ego by bringing his report, to be sent to Paris , to be vetted by me. The Taiwan attache retired and opened a restaurant. The Russian Attache was a drunk and routinely pinched the rear end of comely Attache wives. His assistant spoke Arabic very well but seemed to suffer from angst that I spoke it better. I didn’t. But the Jordanians always told him I did. The Iraqis were sullen, uncommunicative assholes. It doesn’t pain a bit to know they were probably executed in one of the numerous coups.The Iranian was nice but obviously not happy in his assignment. The Indian was a Colonel Bogie type and like many British educated Indians knew everything about everything. I remember he once dashed triumphantly into my office with a piece of paper detailing the tail numbers of Pakistani F-104’s shot down by the Indians in the 1971 war. They were aircraft we had given to the Jordanians with the stipulation that were not to be conveyed to any other country. Yo Hum so what else is new? The British were …… British. Envious that Glubb Pasha had been replaced by us amateur Americans. I like their style. I’m a bit of an anglophile…despite the disdain in which they seem to view us.
I did enjoy the parties thrown by Princess Muna, the King’s second wife, a very nice British lady in which dodge ball was the primary event, but I did care much for the silly British games. One in particular was the parties thrown by the British air attache ( without Jordanians) in which the wives were standing on chairs and their blindfolded husbands would go down the line feeling the ladies legs to see if they could identify their wife. Generally the American wives were too prudish or sober (or both) to take part.
Well…. all good things come to an end and it came time to go back to the real army. Anyway the routine of diplomatic receptions and attending official functions was a comedown from my previous more exciting experiences, but I did learn a few more things , one from the British military attache. It was always a chore coming up with what to say to the people coming through a reception line, and I learned from the British colonel that it is immaterial to speak anything intelligible when greeting the guests. He just smiled and with a boisterous voice and a hearty and congenial disposition spoke some unknown tongue…HOWHEWAHOWNICEHEWHO.
I cannot to say I added much to the Jordanian triumph although I was able to make the PLO hit list along with Jack O’Connell. In retrospect, I relate my time there to the hilarious story of Malcolm Muggeridge in some obscure African Portuguese colony during WWII as an agent in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Despite his justifiably humble recounting of his service there, he was amused to find in the German intelligence files after the war, how the Germans had him identified as a master spy with agents over all of Africa. I wonder what the Russkies wrote about me? A master linguist and James Bond super spy?
Anyway when I revisited Jordan several times, years later, it was not the same. One old friend had just been released from jail for allegedly having compromising photos of Queen Alia before she became the wife of the King. He looked like a ghost. We had met Alia… Pre-Queen days…. at a picnic one time and she was indeed a vivacious, “forward thinking” and attractive woman. Another friend was in prison for trying to sell information to the Libyans. Amman now had glassy shopping malls, American fast foods, Islamists had replaced the marxists as the primary pain in the ass, and the young gallants had nargillas (water pipes) mounted in their Mercedes. Many of the young ladies in miniskirts common in the seventies, were now pretending to be holier than A’isha the Prophets (PBUN) favorite wife. As Thomas Wolfe wrote, You Can’t go Home Again.
Oh BTW… Why the “legal spy.” At a reception General Sharif Zayd Bin Shaker, Commander of the JAA introducing embassy staff to guests pointed me out and told then I was the “legal spy.”