His story has inspired thousands and is retold in the corridors of the Israel Air Force’s training school with deep admiration.

But despite the 64 years that have passed, Lou Lenart has no doubt that everything comes down to destiny. Touted as the “man who saved Tel Aviv,” the 91-year-old Lenart recalls the fateful events of May 29, 1948 with great emotion and down to the smallest of details.

A few weeks ago, the IAF held a ceremony to honor Lenart, one of the last living pilots from the original group that founded it.

Few people actually remember the IAF’s first battle – yet it was so decisive for Israel that it is believed to have saved Tel Aviv from capture by Egyptian forces. On Thursday, Lenart will speak at a conference at Tel Aviv University about the mission.

Lenart, who today divides his time between Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, was born in 1921 in Hungary and immigrated to the United States with his family nine years later. A regular target for anti-Semitic beatings and taunts in a small town in Pennsylvania, Lenart said he learned early in life that he needed to be strong to survive. Accordingly, just weeks after graduating from high school, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps.

By the end of his seven-year service in the Marines, Lenart fought in the Pacific and became a fighter pilot, flying missions in the Battle for Okinawa as well as attacks on the Japanese mainland. After the war, he learned that his relatives who had remained in Hungary had been killed in Auschwitz. Lenart returned to Los Angeles and began thinking about Israel, or as it was then known – Palestine.

“I knew that my people were being killed and my family had been killed in Auschwitz, and I felt that the remnants of the Holocaust had a right to life and some happiness – and no one wanted them except their own people in Israel,” he said.

Lenart joined forces with Al Schwimmer, the founder of Israel Aerospace Industries, who was then running a clandestine operation to smuggle aircraft to Israel. As a war veteran, he was eligible to buy surplus aircraft – and one day he was given $5,000, which he took into the California desert to buy a C-46 transport aircraft.

His next mission was in April 1948, to fly to Italy where the Hagana had located an abandoned airfield in the southern part of the country, from where they planned to take off towards Israel. The problem was that the planes had enough fuel for a 500 mile flight and the distance to Israel was 1,300 miles.

“We took out two of the seats and put in a rubber gas tank and connected it to the wing tank,” he said. “I sat in the cockpit for 11.5 hours watching the single engine spin in front of me, in what was the most dangerous and risky thing I ever did. We finally made it to Tel Aviv with Arabs firing on us from Jaffa.”

The planes immediately began dropping off supplies and evacuating the wounded from across the country.

A week later, Lenart was flown to Switzerland and then to Czechoslovakia where Schwimmer was disassembling Avia S-199 Mule combat aircraft that were supposed to be shipped to Israel. The dismantled planes arrived in Israel in late April and Lenart, together with a small group of pilots and mechanics, got to work putting them back together.

On May 29, 1948 after the planes had finally been assembled but before they had been flown, a jeep showed up at the hangar at the Tel Nof Air Force Base where Lenart and the crew were working.

“It was 4 p.m. and a jeep rushes in with Shimon Avidan, commander of the Givati Brigade,” Lenart said. “He heard we had airplanes and said that six miles from where we were near Ashdod, there were 15,000 Egyptian soldiers and 500 vehicles and tanks stopped because Givati had blown up a bridge. But if we didn’t stop them that night they would fix the bridge and be in Tel Aviv the next morning – and there would be no Israel.”

Lenart did not waste any time. He gathered the small group of three other pilots – Ezer Weizman, Eddie Cohen and Modi Alon – and explained they would be heading out for their first mission to stop the Egyptian advance on Tel Aviv.

As the leader, Lenart flew in first, diving down over a group of vehicles, dropping his bombs and luckily hitting a fuel truck, setting off a number of secondary explosions. The other pilots followed suit and then began strafing the ground troops with machine gun fire.

Later that day, the Egyptians gave up trying to reach Tel Aviv and turned east to join the Jordanians near Jerusalem. The bridge where the Egyptians were stopped would later be called “Ad Halom,” Hebrew for “Until Here.”

“It was the most important moment of my life and I was born to be there that precise moment in history,” Lenart said. “I am the luckiest man in the world that my destiny brought me to that precise moment, to be able to contribute to Israel’s survival.”

Looking at what he refers to as the IAF’s “humble beginnings” and where it is today, Lenart claimed Israel has the best air force in the world.

“We cannot afford to be less than the best, and the other reason is that we have been fighting wars practically every day and we are fighting for our lives,” he said.

Lt.-Col. (res.) Danny Grossman, who like Lenart flew in the US military and made aliya to fly in the IAF, said that Lenart served as a personal example not only for American Jews but for Jews everywhere.

“He symbolizes the spirit of volunteerism, combined with dedication to the mission and the sense of higher purpose that gives meaning to our existence in the reborn State of Israel,” Grossman said.

For more information about the conference where Lenart will speak on Thursday, click here.

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