As field director for the U.S. Sinai Support Mission, the 55-year-old ex-Marine lieutenant colonel will preside over a human buffer zone that will try to keep Israel and Egypt from staging a sequel to the Yom Kippur war of 1973.
The Polish-born Thorne (he is a naturalized U.S. citizen) and the 172 Americans under his command will monitor some 125 square miles of Sinai Desert using the most sophisticated electronic sensor devices. "The equipment," says Thorne, "is sensitive enough to be tripped by a rabbit." Whenever anything does activate the sensors, the information will immediately be relayed to the Egyptians, the Israelis and United Nations observers. Thus, it is hoped, there will be little chance of a surprise attack, and tensions in the area eventually may be eased. "I think it can work," says Thorne optimistically. "And I intend to make it work."
But it will be no easy assignment for the 144 technicians who must man the three monitoring stations 24 hours a day. They will have no visitors. ("This," says Thorne crisply, "is not a circus.") They will work two weeks at a stretch, then take a week off either in Israel or Egypt. They will need it. "The Sinai is cold as hell this time of year," Thorne observes, "and 134° Fahrenheit at noon in the summer. Always there is a 15-to 20-knot wind."
To compensate, the monitors will dine on freshly delivered Israeli food and enjoy nightly movies, a library, and facilities for softball, volleyball and pool. Two paramedics will be on duty, a necessity since the nearest hospital is some 45 miles away. To further soften the hardship, some technicians will earn more than Thorne's $37,800 annual salary. How much more is a guarded secret, but the lure of idealism as well as adventure drew 3,000 applications to the State Department, which turned them over to the Texas contractor who is installing the equipment and training the monitors.
No personal weapons will be permitted at the field stations, but there will be rifles, shotguns and revolvers, to be used only at Thome's command. "We don't want any Alamo-type situation," he says.
If one arises, Thorne is well qualified to act. He won a Purple Heart and a Legion of Merit with three Bronze Stars at Okinawa in World War II, served in Korea, and stopped 11 pieces of shrapnel in Vietnam. He had dropped out of Yale in 1942 to join the Marines and finished college at the University of Maryland 20 years later.
Thorne retired from the Corps in 1962, joined the Foreign Service and was posted to Europe, the Far East and Ethiopia. Along the way he acquired fluency in Finnish, French and Mandarin Chinese, as well as a blond, Australian-born second wife, Fay. (He has two children by a former marriage, Lisa, 25, and Nick Jr., 22, both students in Boston.) "We went to Tahiti on our honeymoon," Thorne says of his second wife, "and I have been dragging her around the world ever since."
They now have apartments in both Cairo (overlooking the Pyramids and the Nile) and Tel Aviv. Such impartiality, Thorne believes, must characterize his mission if it is to succeed. But there is one more ingredient. "Here," he says, "a certain amount of idealism is necessary. An individual can make a difference."
Bluff, dashing Nick Thorne of the U.S. State Department arrived this month in the Sinai, armed with 14 pairs of socks, 14 shirts, 14 suits of underwear and an unabridged edition of Tolstoy's War and Peace—a title that seemed peculiarly apt.