Louis (Lou) Lenart, an American fighter pilot during World War II who later helped to fend off an Egyptian advance on Tel Aviv during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence passed away on Monday (July 20) at his home in the central Israeli city of Ra’anana.

Lenart is a legend in Israel, where he’s hailed as “The Man who Saved Tel Aviv”.

On May 29, 1948—just two weeks after the fledgling Jewish state was invaded by the armies of five Arab nations—Lenart led the newly-formed Israel Air Force’s (IAF) first combat mission, stopping a massive Egyptian army column less than 30 miles away from Tel Aviv.

In what can only be described as one of the greatest fake-outs in military history, Lenart—who, as the most experienced pilot, led the assault—and his three buddies flew four junk Czech-built German Messerschmitt fighter planes for a country that had no actual airforce. Dropping 70 kilogram bombs on the Egyptian column and attacking them with gunfire, this bit of daring-do managed to convince the Egyptians that there was enough competition in the sky to warrant a retreat.

There can be no doubt that Lenart helped to turn the tide of the war.

Had the Egyptians been able to advance to Latrun they would’ve joined the Jordanian troops. Lenart’s mission pushed back a crucial enemy advance, helping to save the new Jewish state from what would’ve been a near certain defeat during that phase of the war.

Lou Lenart Israel Air Force

As reported in several obituaries, one of Lenart’s future business partners commented that:

In many ways Lou was what Lafayette and Nathan Hale were to the American Revolution. If it hadn’t been for Lou and his three comrades, Tel Avivians would be speaking Arabic today”.

According to The Times of Israel, Lenart later told an Israeli Air Force magazine that “It was the most important event in my life. I survived World War II so I could lead this mission”.

In a previous LI post, I describe this and other feats of high-flying chutzpah during the second phase of the 1948 war, when the Arab states aimed to overrun and cripple the Jewish state and “throw the Jews into the sea”.

These heroic exploits were accomplished by no more than a handful of quickly trained young Israeli pilots, including Ezer Weizman—who would go on to become Israel’s President—and a gutsy team of volunteer Jewish American World War II vets who gave up their comfortable post-war lives in America to answer Israel’s call for help.

Their little-known true stories and the 1948 beginnings of the scrappy Israeli Air Force have now inspired three films—two feature-length documentaries and a major motion picture.

Lou Lenart: American Marine, Savior of Tel Aviv

Lenart was born in 1921 in a small Hungarian village near the Czech border.

To escape anti-Semitism, his family moved to America when he was 10 years old and settled in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

As described in a Jewish Journal obituary, Lenart grew up experiencing the anti-Semitism of 1930s America, when “the kid with the funny accent again was the target of anti-Jewish taunts”.

Lenart enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17 and talked his way into flight school, where he nearly died after a midair collision during training. He saw action during the Battle of Okinawa and elsewhere in the Pacific theater.

Discharged after the war with the rank of captain, he learned that 14 of his Hungarian relatives had been murdered in Auschwitz.

As I discuss in my previous LI post, Lenart joined Al Schwimmer, who worked for TWA and had been a flight engineer for the U.S. Transport Command in World War II, in a clandestine effort to smuggle surplus planes into the fledgling state of Israel in early 1948.

Following the 1948 war, Lenart participated in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah which brought Iraqi Jews to Israel, and worked as a pilot for the El Al airline. Subsequently, he became a Hollywood producer. In recent years, he divided his time living in Los Angeles and Israel and became a Hollywood producer.

According to YNet, a restaurant near LAX airport has put a Messerschmitt plane on display in his honor.

Lenart was 94 when he died of heart and kidney failures. He is survived by his wife, Rachel Nir, daughter Michal Lenart—who also joined the Israel Air Force—and a six year old grandson.

He will be laid to rest on Wednesday (July 22) at the Kfar Nachman Cemetery in Ra’anana. Expected to attend the funeral are high-ranking officers of the U.S. Marine Corps and Israel Air Force.

Lou Lenart is a true American and Israeli hero.

May his memory be for a blessing.

Lou Lenart Film

Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University