It's never too late to honor a hero

"It’s not just the people we brought. It’s their descendants, and I’m glad to have been a part of it."

March 11, 2018 19:48
It's never too late to honor a hero

JEWISH AGENCY representatives meet Yemenite immigrants arriving at Lod Airport in 1949. (Wikimedia Commons). (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Biblical prophecy gives rise to the belief that the descendants of those exiled from the Land of Israel will return home on eagle’s wings.

In fact, that was the name of the operation that in 1949 brought 1,800 Yemenite Jews to Israel. What had started out as a commercial venture on the part of an Alaska Airlines crew, quickly developed into a humanitarian mission about which one of the crew members, navigator Capt. Elgen Long, wrote the book On Eagles’ Wings.

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In 1949, the Alaska Airlines crew had flown to Israel from Shanghai with a passenger-load of European Holocaust survivors. It was night and it was war time and Lydda Airport, as Ben-Gurion Airport was called then, was in total darkness. An attempt to make radio contact with air traffic control yielded no result. There was simply no answer. Somehow, the pilot found the tarmac, and made a safe landing.

A few minutes later, a vehicle filled with soldiers rolled up. The crew thought that the vehicle had come to lead them into a hangar. But then they saw that the soldiers all had their guns pointing at them. The pilot opened a window in the cockpit and yelled out that they had brought European refugees who were Holocaust survivors to Israel. One of the officers entered the plane, and once satisfied that the pilot was telling the truth, arranged for the passengers to be off-loaded and turning back before he exited the plane said: “It’s a good thing that you have done.”

Those words remained permanently etched in Long’s memory.

When the crew reached their hotel there a message was waiting for them. They were instructed to have a brief rest and then to continue on to Aden, Yemen where a British commanding officer would give them further instructions.

In Aden, the commanding officer told them that there were several hundred refugees in the desert and that there were insufficient facilities to take care of them. It was a matter of life and death to get them out.

There were 48 seats in the plane, but children under the age of 2 could sit in their parents’ laps. The people waiting to be transported to Israel were very thin and very hungry. The captain asked how much they weighed and was told that on average no one weighed more than 80 pounds. The plane could carry 12,000 pounds and had enough fuel to get to Israel. Because there were so many people in a desperate plight, the crew decided to take the seats out of the plane in order to accommodate more passengers. Understanding the urgency of the situation, they managed to squeeze in 150 people.

They made twelve such non-stop trips, including on the Sabbath, for which the passengers received special rabbinic dispensation because of the life and death nature of the flight.

The whole operation was totally secret, known only to those who needed to know.

After the crew returned to the US, its members were penalized and not permitted to fly abroad for several years.

In 2013, Shahar Azani, a former Israeli diplomat and current director of the northeast chapter of StandWithUs, went to Anchorage, Alaska where the Jewish museum held an exhibition based on Long’s book, titled “On the Wings of Eagles: Alaska’s Contribution to Operation Magic Carpet.”

Azani was excited. His grandparents and other relatives were on one of those 12 flights. He subsequently arranged for Long and people from the museum in Alaska to come to New York to tell the story at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

He also got in touch with Dr. Yigal Ben-Shalom, the president of the Association for Yemenite Society, Culture, Research and Documentation, who arranged to have Long suitably recognized and rewarded in Israel.

Ben-Shalom contacted the president’s office and was able to get President Reuven Rivlin to present a citation to Long in the presence of members from the association.

Among those present was Ely Dromi, who now lives in Los Angeles. He came to Israel on the last of the 12 flights and has the documentation to prove it. He was six months old at the time. “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here,” he told Long.

Also present were some of the latest arrivals from Yemen, an elderly woman in traditional Yemenite dress – albeit sporting a smart phone – and Reuven, a reed-thin young man who came alone three years ago. His family is still in Yemen because his brother was arrested and imprisoned for trying to take out a Torah scroll, which he intended to bring to Israel. Reuven talks to his family on the phone and is waiting for the day that his brother will be released.

According to Ben-Shalom, the Yemenite Jewish population living outside Yemen today numbers around 750,000 people.
Rivlin, in expressing appreciation to Long, said that two of those people were his grandchildren as he has a Yemenite daughter-in-law. It’s quite possible that her forebears were on one of those planeloads from Aden, he surmised.

Long, who had not been back to Israel for 69 years, was amazed when he landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. He was also impressed by what Israel has accomplished in general in such a short period. In Beersheba he was feted by four generations of Yemenites which caused him to say in Jerusalem on Sunday: “It’s not just the people we brought. It’s their descendants, and I’m glad to have been a part of it.”

During his stay in Israel, Long also paid an emotional visit to Haifa.

Among the volunteer fighter pilots in the Israeli air force was Wayne Peake, an American who had flown many combat missions over Germany during World War II.

Peake made many friends in Israel, and maintained those friendships long after the War of Independence and his return home. While dying of cancer in January, 1979, Peake told Smoky Simon, another legendary volunteer pilot from South Africa who had been living in Israel for many years, that he wanted to be buried in Israel.

Simon arranged for Peake to be interred in the small non-Jewish section of the Carmel Military Cemetery in Haifa.

Because Peake had been a personal friend and colleague of Long’s, Ben-Shalom took him to the cemetery to pay his respects. For Long, it was a very moving experience.

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