In Memoriam: Colonel Robert W. Rickert (1912-1995)
By Andrew I Killgore
When U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Robert W. Rickert learned in 1958 that he was being assigned to Jerusalem as deputy chief of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) he looked forward to his new job.
Helping to keep the peace by observing and reporting on truce violations along the cease-fire lines drawn after the 1948-1949 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors seemed a rewarding change of direction to a professional military officer who knew the brutal realities of combat from first-hand experience.
Growing up in the big sky country of western Montana, Bob Rickert had been commissioned a regular officer in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1936 when he also was receiving his B.S. degree from the University of Montana. As a career military officer he had fought in the World War II battles for Guadalcanal and Okinawa in the Pacific and later in the Korean War at Inchon and the Chosin Reservoir. Between wars he served in Japan and North China and at various times on naval ships at sea.
My wife and I became close friends of Bob Rickert and his wife, Doris, in 1958 when I was U.S. consul in Jerusalem. I only learned after his death at age 82, however, that he had been awarded the Silver Star for valor in combat, that he twice received the Bronze Star for wounds suffered in battle, and twice won the Legion of Merit, which is awarded either for valor or for extraordinarily meritorious service. The Republic of China also had awarded him its order of the Cloud and Banner. He also had graduated from the Marine Corps amphibious warfare course, the Armed Forces Staff College and the Naval War College.
Like nearly all officers newly assigned to UNTSO, Bob Rickert arrived in Jerusalem sympathetic to the plight of the Jews and to the State of Israel, and tending to skepticism toward things Arab. After a few months in Jerusalem, however, those same UNTSO officers, whether from Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand or the U.S., generally became critical of Israeli policies and sympathetic to the plight of the Arabs--especially the Palestinians--who always seemed to get a black eye in the Western media, particularly in the United States. Nearly all of those Western military officers, like their diplomatic compatriots, saw things in a totally different light after viewing Arab-Israeli relations at first hand and at close range.
Rickert's personal Gethsemane in Jerusalem came from his many meetings with Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir in her office. The meetings developed a stylized pattern. A U.N. resolution in New York critical of Israeli actions on the truce lines meant he could expect a "summons" by Mrs. Meir.
Most of the firing incidents took place on the Syrian-Israeli truce lines during the colonel's three years in Jerusalem. The Israeli version of the incident, picked up by the American media, always blamed Syria. But UNTSO investigations on the ground nearly always faulted Israel. Based on the ground investigations, the U.N. in New York passed resolutions accordingly.
Colonel Rickert's first meeting with Golda Meir was shocking. Rather than the kindly grandmother he had been led by media reports to expect, he was confronted by a caustic, intimidating figure who seemed to blame him personally not only for the current resolution critical of Israel, but all the previous critical resolutions as well. She more than implied that he and other UNTSO officers were acting from anti-Israel or "anti-Semitic" motives. …