In a previous post, I noted that the U.S.-Israel military relationship remains solid. But back in 1948, America failed to support Israel militarily when the fledgling Jewish state needed it most.

In fact, as former Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross writes in his important new book, the U.S. government was downright hostile to Israel in its early years.

Ross, who now serves as the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and as Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, notes that nearly all of President Harry S. Truman’s major foreign policy advisors saw the emergence of Israel as “doom and gloom for the United States.”

At the time, this was also the predominant view within America’s national security establishment.

Support for the Jewish state was considered of “no strategic benefit.” The fear (totally unfounded, as Ross points out) was that it would come “at enormous cost to our relations with the Arabs.”

In a chapter devoted to the Truman presidency, Ross describes how most leading U.S. national security officials at the time were on a “mission against the Jewish state.” Then senior members of the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA maintained a “hostile posture toward the Jewish state and continued to see only risks associated with U.S. support for it.”

Most also thought it highly “improbable that the Jewish state would survive over any considerable period of time.” So the consensus was that siding with the Arabs was the safer bet.

To be sure, as Ross rightly remarks, “Truman was a good friend of Israel.” But the “actual support he provided was limited.”

Dennis Ross book

Arms Embargo

Especially calamitous for the fledgling Jewish state was the embargo that the Truman administration imposed on all U.S. weapons going to the warring groups in the last months of the British Mandate for Palestine.

The embargo went into effect in December 1947—just a few weeks after the UN General Assembly adopted the plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. It was maintained even after Israel was invaded by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in May 1948, following Israel’s declaration of statehood.

The embargo stayed in force throughout Truman’s tenure.

Ross remarks that the arms embargo was ostensibly meant “to limit the scope of the violence.” But in reality it “effectively penalized only the Jews, as the British continued to provide weapons to Arab armies and these leaked to Arab forces in Palestine.”

The strictly-enforced U.S. embargo left Israel with next to nothing to meet the Arab state onslaught.

Israel had no tanks, no air force, and only a meager amount of weapons.

But it had Al Schwimmer and his band of brothers—a group of former WWII aviators, most of whom had seen combat in the Pacific theater.

Together they agreed to support the Jews, even if it meant defying U.S. law.

Individual American Veterans to the Rescue

Schwimmer and his buddies knew that any American caught assisting the Jewish fighting forces in Palestine ran the risk of fines, imprisonment, and even loss of citizenship.

But they didn’t care. The stakes were too high to worry about personal costs.

A new documentary, released a few months ago and airing on PBS stations and community events nationwide, recounts the exploits of these amazing American flyboys and their secret mission to save the Jewish state from assured destruction.

A Wing and A Prayer, One Sheet

Below I discuss who these remarkable Americans were, and review the new film that documents their heroism. Exclusive footage and images for Legal Insurrection are also included.

The Americans Who Flew For Israel in 1948

Last week Leon Frankel, a World War II torpedo bomber pilot who traveled to Palestine in 1948 and flew 25 missions for the fledgling Israeli Air Force, died at the age of 92 in his native Minnesota.

According to his obituaries, Frankel flew in the first U.S. Navy raid on Tokyo in February 1945. In subsequent raids he helped sink a Japanese cruiser and protected his squadron commander, whose plane had been badly damaged. For these and other heroic actions during the war, Frankel received the Navy Cross, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Air Medals and two Presidential Citations.

After the war, instead of settling down to civilian life, Frankel volunteered for a clandestine and illegal mission to transport former Nazi surplus weapons and the famed Czech version of Nazi Germany’s Messerschmitt-109s to Israel.

Leon Frankel

Leon Frankel

Frankel explained his motivation to help in a letter published last year in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

“I could not stand idly by, with my experience, while a second Holocaust loomed, with the Arab nations telling the world they were going to destroy the Jewish state.”

In a previous post, I wrote about another American WWII fighter pilot—Marine Lou Lenart—who also joined this secret mission to give the newborn Jewish state a fighting chance to survive.

Lou Lenart, U.S. Marine

Lou Lenart, U.S. Marine

Lenart eventually helped to fend off an Egyptian advance on Tel Aviv during Israel’s War of Independence. I described it as “one of the greatest fake-outs in military history” in this previous post:

Lou Lenart in Tel Aviv

Lou Lenart in Tel Aviv

Lenart died this past July at his home in the central Israeli city of Ra’anana.

Lou Lenart, 2

Other members of this courageous band of brothers have also passed in recent years. Very few are left.

Eddie Styrak died in 2011 after living for some time in a California nursing home. Styrak was a Christian radio operator during WWII who broke out of a British prison in Palestine where he was serving time for illegally transporting Holocaust survivors to the country. He also decided to join the group of volunteer aviators.

Adolph (Al) Schwimmer, the operation’s legendary commander, passed away back in 2011 at age 94. Schwimmer, who worked for TWA after the war, had been a flight engineer for the U.S. Transport Command in World War II. There, he saw no combat. Back in the U.S. he led a quiet life before he single-handedly helped to arm the Jews of Palestine, earning him a place on the FBI’s most-wanted list.

The operation supplied $12 million in surplus weaponry to the Jewish state. This included decommissioned U.S. transport planes (mainly Curtiss C-46 Commandos), old Messerschmitt Me-109s (the mainstay of the German Luftwaffe!), crate loads of tens of thousands of Mauser rifles, and even a few surplus B-17 bombers.

Schwimmer and his team also recruited most of the trained pilots for the embryonic Israeli Air Force, which celebrated its 65th anniversary this past May.

There can be no doubt that Schwimmer and his men helped to turn the tide of the 1948 war and reshaped history. David Ben-Gurion himself said that Al Schwimmer was the “greatest gift that America gave Israel.”

Al Schwimmer with David Ben-Gurion

Al Schwimmer with David Ben-Gurion

Yet, few people know that in 1948 a bunch of gutsy American World War II vets who were determined to “save a people” raced against the clock and around the globe to evade detection by US state authorities, who were hot on their tail and determined to shut them down.

Now a new hour-long documentary, A Wing And A Prayer, distributed by American Public Television to over 150 stations across the country—including all top 30 markets—at long last recounts how a group of American World War II aviators risked their lives and freedom in 1948 to come to Israel’s help.

The film, which has become a hit on PBS with viewers describing it as “riveting”, “moving” and “powerful”, includes over 20 interviews with the mission’s key members, their surviving family members, and historians. Exclusive interviews are filmed in the U.S., Canada, Israel, and the Czech Republic. The documentary also archives the only known interview that exists of the operation’s mastermind, Al Schwimmer.

A Wing And A Prayer is written, directed, and produced by award-winning filmmaker Boaz Dvir (Jessie’s Dad, Discovering Gloria). He’s an Israeli who graduated from the University of Florida and now teaches journalism and film at Penn State. The film can be purchased from PBS for a tax-deductible contribution of $20 (call 1-800-222-9728).

When Israel Stood Alone

On May 14, 1948 David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues announced the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, which was to be open to all Jews and which pledged to ensure the rights of all its citizens regardless of race or religion.

The new state was proclaimed at 6:00pm (EST). U.S. President Truman’s recognition followed 11 minutes later.

Many people assume that because Truman issued an immediate recognition of the Jewish state that the U.S. was firmly committed to the country’s survival. But as A Wing And A Prayer makes clear, the truth is that America was actively hostile to the new Jewish state.

As noted by Prof. Ralph Lowenstein, dean emeritus of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, who’s featured several times in A Wing And A Prayer, it wasn’t until 1962 that President Kennedy authorized the first arms shipments to Israel. Before then, and especially during the run up to the 1948 war, the fledgling state faced opposition from nearly every arm of the U.S. government—including the State Department, the Treasury, the CIA, and the FBI.

During 1947-1948—those critical months when Israel’s survival hung in the balance—U.S. authorities took active measures to foil Jewish statehood. America enforced an international arms embargo and also revived its Neutrality Act. The U.S. government threatened to revoke the citizenship of any American who tried to join the Jewish defense forces. American Jews could legally donate funds to the Jews of Palestine through the Jewish Agency, but all weapons shipments destined for Palestine were routinely confiscated at the N.Y. harbor.

It’s hard to picture all this given the extent to which Israel today and for the foreseeable future is considered an American “strategic security asset.” Israel is the only secure naval port in the eastern Mediterranean for American ships, provides a secure storage base for America’s forward placement of arms, is indispensable as an intelligence resource for U.S. security, and is “an incubator for military advancements” that help save American lives.

But back in 1948, Israel was viewed as a security liability.

Practically speaking, what this meant was that most of the rifles and other Nazi-surplus weapons, including ammunition and fighter planes, that Jews ended up using came from German war factories behind the Iron Curtain.

Everything had to be transported to Israel from Czechoslovakia, which was 1000 miles away. To airlift the weapons, Jewish and Christian aviators from around the world (primarily from the U.S., but also from Canada and South Africa) had to outfox the U.S. State Department, the FBI, and even the CIA and MI5.

Al Schwimmer's Global Route

Al Schwimmer’s Global Route

Without giving away too much of this daredevil story, the team concocted elaborate hoaxes to always stay one step ahead of the authorities. These ruses included creating a bogus Panamanian airline, complete with brochures and a fake office. A lot of bribing along the way also enabled them to hopscotch their planes and smuggled weapons from airstrips in Burbank, CA, Miami, and Melville, New Jersey around the planet en route to Israel.

Panama Airlines Plane

Panama Airlines Plane

Spoiler alert: one trip landed them in Sicily. There, a couple of Jewish American high-flying twenty-year olds and a prominent Italian mafia boss had a brief run-in, which worked out well: the group wound up with a box of brand new submachine guns. This story, recounted by a bunch of still cocky nonagenarians, is simply priceless.

Israel’s 1948 War Heroes Return Home to America

A Wing And A Prayer includes plenty of archived footage of Schwimmer and his fellow pilots’ high-flying daring-do. The team never lost a single dog fight.

Early on, they were instrumental in driving away Egyptian Spitfires and bombers that were wreaking havoc on Tel Aviv. Later, the group gained crucial aerial control over the Jewish state and went on strafing runs of Cairo and Damascus—“not to destroy the cities,” as one of the airmen says in the film, “but to let them know we could reach them.”

Tel Aviv, 1948

Tel Aviv, 1948

But the film’s best parts are the interviews—finding out how these clever guys outsmarted feckless U.S. government officials, and what happened when they returned home.

As it happened, the FBI never did manage to catch up to Schwimmer and his team. At the end of the war, the group turned themselves in.

Branded as communists and traitors to their country, they sat in a Los Angeles jail for two days awaiting trial but never served any additional time (the story of how they managed to get themselves out of stiff prison sentences is the epitome of coincidences, although believers will no doubt see it as divine intervention).

The only one who went to prison was Charlie Winters, a non-Jewish Miami resident who sold Schwimmer two of the B-17 bombers that he smuggled out of Florida. Winters was sentenced to 18 months in a federal penitentiary for violating the U.S. Neutrality Act.

Schwimmer ended up a convicted felon and lost his civil rights. He was also required to pay a $10,000 fine, which the Jewish Agency covered. Told that he could regain his rights only if he admitted to wrongdoing, Schwimmer refused and spent much of the remainder of his life in Israel, where he went on to create and run Israel Aircraft (now Aerospace) Industries.

Fifty years later Schwimmer’s rights were restored by President Bill Clinton along with a full pardon. Winters too was pardoned by President George Bush.

Clinton pardon to Schwimmer

The American people always supported Israel. It just took time for the U.S. government to finally come to its senses.

A Wing And A Prayer: Exclusive Footage and Images for Legal Insurrection

I had the pleasure of speaking with talented Penn State senior lecturer Boaz Dvir last week, when I hosted two screenings of his outstanding new film in my hometown of Dewitt, NY and at Syracuse University.

Dvir told me that he spent nearly two decades completing all the interviews for A Wing And A Prayer. Actual production, along with editing and securing funding, took seven years. Some support came from private donations and university grants. But Dvir mentioned that he bore most of the costs himself—some $70,000 of his own money went into financing the project.

Boaz Dvir, A Wing And A Prayer

Boaz Dvir, A Wing And A Prayer

Dvir has accumulated over 140 hours of footage. He hopes to turn the material into a book, an interactive website for schools, and eventually archive it at a university library so that other artists, historians, and students can mine it.

Dvir graciously agreed to share the following video clip and images exclusive to Legal Insurrection:

Five planes | Courtesy: Boaz Dvir

Five planes | Courtesy: Boaz Dvir

The Constellations in Burbank, CA

The Constellations in Burbank, CA

Fixing the Constellation, 1948

Fixing the Constellation, 1948

The Story Teller’s Story

A Wing And A Prayer, released in April by PBS and winning rave reviews (see this one in Stars and Stripes) at sold-out screenings, began with the filmmaker Boaz Dvir’s “search for an answer to a personal question.”

Boaz Dvir, Senior Lecturer, Penn State University

Boaz Dvir, Senior Lecturer, Penn State University

As related by Dvir himself in a moving op-ed, the search began nearly twenty-five years ago when he had the opportunity to spend some quality time with his grandfather, Ozer Grundman, a Hasidic Holocaust survivor living in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, Israel.

The year was 1991. Dvir had just received his first military leave from the IDF, where he was assigned the task of “gathering real-time information” about Saddam’s Scud missile assaults for then IDF Spokesman, Nachman Shai.

In fact, while he doesn’t say so in the op-ed, Dvir told me that he didn’t have to serve. Having moved with his family to the U.S. at the age of 13, he wasn’t required to return to Israel for army service.

Dvir volunteered for his IDF post—during the first Gulf War, no less.

Then, he could’ve partied on his vacation with friends on a reef dive in Eilat, or bodysurfing in Caesarea’s famous beach. Instead, he opted to spend the week in his grandfather’s Talmud-filled apartment, determined to document his “grandpa’s story”—whether he liked it or not.

Many Holocaust survivors don’t speak about their past. But Dvir persisted, and over the course of the week, Ozer Grundman slowly opened up and started talking—“a harrowing memory here, a gut-wrenching snippet there.”

He told Dvir about his childhood in Poland, his days at a Warsaw yeshiva, futile attempts to escape Nazi Stormtoopers, years of starvation and terror in Nazi concentration camps, and liberation from Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia.

From a displaced persons camp, where he married, Ozer Grundman traveled with his new bride to Israel. He was immediately sent off to war.

Ozer and Rivka Grundman, Dvir's Grandparents

Ozer and Rivka Grundman, Dvir’s Grandparents

Tasked with warding off the Egyptians in the Negev desert, his battalion had no machine guns, no artillery, and just one rifle and a few bullets for every four soldiers.

Then, one day, “like manna from heaven”, weapons arrived. When his sergeant handed him a rifle, IDF Private Grundman noticed that on the metal was—unbelievably—an engraved German eagle.

“Did seeing the German insignia upset you?” Dvir asked his grandfather.

“Nah,” said his grandpa. “I was just happy to finally be able to protect myself and my people…[but] do you know how Israel secured those rifles?”

Some ten years later, newly-minted filmmaker Boaz Dvir would visit his grandpa again, at the tail end of his life, to tell him exactly how a Holocaust survivor turned Jewish freedom fighter ended up with a discarded German gun in his hands.

Conclusion

Only a few years after paying their dues fighting for America in World War II, a group of young veteran aviators and radio operators—most of them still in their early twenties—risked their lives and their freedom in another war to save the Jewish state.

Yet most Americans—and even many Israelis—have never heard of them.

A Wing and A Prayer

“It’s incredible what these men did,” says filmmaker Boaz Dvir, who has expertly captured their stories in a new documentary. “I truly think that they were made of a different substance. They had another spiritual DNA from us. People like them don’t exist anymore…I feel lucky and honored to have had the opportunity to tell their incredible stories.”

Featured Image: Al Schwimmer’s Gang in Front of a C-46 with Panama Markings | Courtesy: Boaz Dvir

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Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University where she also serves as a Research Director in its Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration.