Shimshon Rozen: One of Israel's finest airmen

Tribute: Despite its tragic ending, Shimshon’s story is an uplifting one. He exemplified though his actions what Israelis should strive to achieve.

By DANNY GROSSMAN, SPECIAL TO THE JERUSALEM POST
December 22, 2011 22:33
Shimshon Rozen with former commander Ezer Weizman

SHIMSHON ROZEN with former IAF commander Ezer Weizman 311. (photo credit: Courtesy Or Rozen)

 
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“Today we lost a veteran warrior and an outstanding human being. Shimshon Rozen was killed in a light aircraft accident over Modi’in.”

Like many of my colleagues, I read the terse email from the commander of the Bat squadron with disbelief. Most of us had seen the breaking news online, but nothing could prepare us for the loss of one of the finest airmen and greatest friends that we had ever known.

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The accident took place last Friday. After a difficult weekend, hundreds of IAF men and women escorted Shimshon as he was laid to rest in Moshav Timorim and the sun set over the northern Negev.

Dudi, a longtime squadron mate and neighbor from nearby Nir Banim, expressed everyone’s feelings with pathos and precision: “They asked if Shimshon was my best friend, and without hesitation, I answered yes. On second thought, as I look around, I know many of you feel the same. That was Shimshon – a best friend to everyone here.”

IAF F-15s over Auschwitz (IAF Spokesman)Despite its tragic ending, Shimshon’s story is an uplifting one. He exemplified though his actions what Israelis should strive to achieve.

“Everything about Shimshon was positive,” said Avi, who flew with him in two squadrons and was crewed with him on one of Israel’s most symbolic missions: the 2003 flight over Auschwitz.

Born in September 1952 and raised in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood, Shimshon joined the air force in 1970. After earning his wings as the outstanding cadet in the fighter-navigator course, he joined the Bat squadron, which had just received Israel’s most sophisticated fighter to date, the F-4 Phantom. It is impossible to appreciate the role that Shimshon played without understanding the revolutionary effect that the Phantom had on the IAF’s aircrew community.



Until then, the IAF had operated a predominately single-seat fighter force.

Many of its first Phantom pilots were elite Mirage veterans of the Six Day War, who had just a few years earlier vanquished Israel’s combined enemies. Shimshon, a bright, energetic but very young navigator was thrown into the back seat of men who had changed the face of the Middle East in the opening hours of the June 1967 conflict.

However, far from being daunted, Shimshon immediately gained the trust of all those around him. He combined professionalism with a fighting spirit that made experienced pilots seek to have him fly in their cockpits.

In the words of Gideon Sheffer (who retired as a major-general and headed Israel’s National Security Council before assuming his current position as executive vice president at Elbit Systems), “In the hardest battles of Yom Kippur he was one of the navigators you wanted... because he was the one to see things first... because he was a full partner in every mission and faced danger with you... because the chance of success was greater with him aboard... because he would tell you if you were wrong – and you would accept it... because he packed an extra .45 and would protect you if necessary, even on the ground.”

Shimshon was one of those selected for a mission still seen as a landmark operation of the 1973 war (and in IAF history): striking the Syrian headquarters in downtown Damascus. Following stinging setbacks over the first days of battle and with Jordan threatening to enter the fray, Israel sent its premier squadrons to attack the most highly protected enclave in the enemy’s capital. Eight crews were chosen, seven reached the target and only six returned, with one aircraft downed in Syria, its pilot killed and its navigator taken prisoner.

Among those who made it home, Shimshon helped his pilot, Joel, escort their wingman’s badly damaged Phantom back into Israeli territory and then to a successful landing. The mission sent its strategic message and King Hussein never opened a third front.

Shimshon had exceptional situational awareness. His pulse beat to the rhythm of the mission, be it attacking ground targets or engaging enemy aircraft (and Shimshon’s credits include a coveted aerial victory against a Syrian MIG in a dogfight over Lebanon). Yet perhaps his greatest love was aerial reconnaissance.

The Bat squadron was known as the No. 1 supplier of photographic intelligence for the IDF. Unlike other air forces, the IAF did not have a “recce” fighter squadron.

The six aircraft that were designed to take cameras were integrated into the regular squadron framework and the aircrews vied with each other to qualify for a variety of specialized missions.

These included flying at high altitude wearing an astronaut’s suit that was custom- fit for the crews. And when it came to photography, Shimshon was the authority.

Over the years he flew to places no one could have imagined, all without fanfare and all with his business-like approach.

It was only natural that when the air force needed to add a new recce capability for its F-15 squadron, Shimshon was picked to show how it’s done. He began flying complex operational missions in two squadrons (while most of us had our hands full trying to stay current in the Phantom, with its multiple missions demanding a constant 100 percent effort).

Shimshon, who earned an engineering degree at Ben- Gurion University, was also selected to fly with the IAF Flight Test Center. His professionalism was so profound that he was given the assignment without sending him first to the US Flight Test Training School at Edwards Air Force Base.

My acquaintance with Shimshon began on my very first weekend in Israel. I had just made aliya and had moved onto the base with my family. In those days, Friday was a work day. When I told my squadron commander that I wanted to spend my inaugural Shabbat in Jerusalem but had no way of getting there, he smiled and called Shimshon into his office. “Jerusalem? No problem!” Shimshon said with a twinkle in his eye. So, after flying was done, we drove to the housing area and proceeded to load five people (Shimshon, me, my wife and our two daughters) into his Autobianchi (Italian for “car the size of a postage stamp”). We also found room for Grizzly, Shimshon’s playful German shepherd.

My first impression morphed into a lasting appreciation for a man who loved people and would do anything to help. Former Tel Nof commander Ran Ronen called Shimshon the glue who connected generations of fighters and enabled younger pilots to learn from their predecessors.

Shimshon sent out mailings for every social get-together and for memorial days of every fallen airman. Shimshon personified what Ran termed to be one of the secret strengths of the IAF.

When we keep up contact with the bereaved families, at first we think we are doing something good on their behalf. Yet we soon realize that we reap a thousand-fold return on our investment of time and energy and our interactions imbue us with a sense of purpose.

Shimshon was the hub of so many concentric circles who never hesitated to call him for any activity or request for information. A friend dubbed him “1-800- Shimshon.”

His loving wife, Anat, and his three wonderful sons understood this need to help. He always found time for squadron friends or for people from any other area of his many interests, be it diving, photography or leading his community’s fight against the creation of a gas-generated power plant near populated areas. Of course it was Shimshon who created a convincing Power- Point presentation and gave forceful testimony at a Knesset hearing just last year.

“The IAF is more careful about preventing possible loss of life when it goes after terrorists in Gaza than our authorities are when they grant permission for this new power plant,” he argued eloquently. He called on his expertise as an engineer and his experience as head of the IAF Missile Test Unit and as a base commander in saying that eventually people make mistakes... and we need built-in safety measures to allow for our humanity.

Yet perhaps the crowning achievement, one that displayed the essence of Shimshon’s humanity, was that one unforgettable minute above the monument to man’s inhumanity: Auschwitz. The image of Israeli F-15s flying along the precise route that brought hundreds of thousands to their death is perhaps the most powerful testimony to how far we have come as a people in so short a time.

IAF F-15s flying over Auschwitz (IAF Spokesman)

In his moving eulogy to Shimshon, Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, who as base commander led the formation, reminded those gathered how Shimshon approached this mission with the same intense professionalism that marked his career of intricately planned operations – and yet with an added sense of reverence.

Just like Avi, Shimshon’s pilot on that mission, Eshel was in awe of Shimshon’s ability to think positively and overcome a seemingly impossible set of circumstances (civil aviation restrictions, bad weather etc.), which threatened the mission. This mission would be memorialized – like so many of Shimshon’s cross-border sorties – by the click of the camera.

“We returned from this mission changed... After landing, Shimshon took off to bring this story to thousands of students and as a tribute to those who survived.

"One thousand feet above Auschwitz, I can see the blue and white Star of David on the wing of your and Avi’s F-15. Not a yellow badge, but a blue star, the same color as your eyes: hypnotizing, filled with warmth and optimism.

“We will miss your spirit. We will miss you.”

More information and personal accounts of pilots' experiences in their missions to Auschwitz can be found in the IAF Magazine.

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