American History

Wings Over the Desert

American volunteers were key to the air war. Until late 1947, the Jewish state-in-the-making had few pilots and only a handful of small planes. Al Schwimmer, a Trans-World Airlines flight engineer, got into the act when Yehuda Arazi, a Jewish Agency representative, asked for help procuring aircraft., director Nancy Spielberg shows the American airmen in the air and on the town. American authorities’ suspicions of a Haganah connection caused the route to the Middle East to meander through country upon country before planes touched down in Palestine. Eventually, the United States moved to impound the Service Airways fleet. However, Schindler, using connections in Panama, formed a new airline, and kept flights going. Pilots also flew C-46s to Czechoslovakia, which had an arms deal with Israel. The Czechs had sold the Israelis 25 Avia S-199 fighters, a variant on the German Messerschmitt Bf-109, and, later on, a large quantity of British-made Supermarine Spitfires. Former U.S. Marine aviator Lou Lenart described the S-199 as “the worst piece of crap I have ever flown,” jerry-rigged from wartime parts. Israeli mechanics disassembled the cobbled-together fighters, packed the components into C-46s, and flew them to Palestine to be reconstituted. The rebuilt planes saw action in May 1948. Egyptian forces were 30 miles from Tel Aviv, making their way north until Lenart led a flight of four S-199s on a bombing and strafing run that surprised the Egyptians, who had thought the Israelis had no air power. The next day, American pilot Milton Rubenfeld, who like many of his dual-allegiance compatriots spoke no Hebrew, was flying in tandem with Israeli pilot Ezer Weizmann. When the two attacked an Iraqi column in north-central Israel, unfriendly fire disabled Rubenfeld’s S-199. He had to bail out over the Mediterranean. In the water Rubenfeld extricated himself from his plane and began swimming toward shore. Armed kibbutzniks there, mistaking him for an Arab, opened fire. “Shabbos!” Rubenfeld shouted, exclaiming the Yiddish for Sabbath. “Gefilte fish!” Hearing familiar words, his attackers put down their rifles and rescued him. In time Rubenfeld returned stateside, where his son Paul changed the family name to Reubens, became a comic actor, and achieved fame as Pee-Wee Herman.

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