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(photo credit: AP)
The last words Charles Winters spoke to his son nearly 25 years ago - "Keep the faith" - guided the Miami businessman as he sought a rare presidential pardon for his late father's crime: aiding Israel in 1948 as it fought to survive.
Charles Winters, a Protestant from Boston, was convicted in 1949 for violating the Neutrality Act when he conspired to export aircraft to a foreign country. He was fined $5,000 and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Winters' son, Jim, found out about his father's daring missions and imprisonment only after his death in 1984.
On Tuesday, President George W. Bush officially forgave Charles Winters, issuing a pardon posthumously to a man considered a hero in Israel.
"I'm overwhelmed," said Jim Winters, 44, a Miami maker of artistic neon signs. "It happened 16 years before I was born. He went to jail and he didn't want his kids to know. He was old-school and proud."
Charles Winters was one of 19 people to receive pardons - one other person had his sentence commuted - as Bush left Washington to spend the Christmas holiday at Camp David in Maryland. No high-profile lawbreakers were on the list.
In the summer of 1948, Charles Winters, a produce exporter in Miami, worked with others to transfer two converted B-17 "Flying Fortresses" to Israel's defense forces. He personally flew one of the aircraft from Miami to Czechoslovakia, where that plane and a third B-17 were retrofitted for use as bombers.
"He and other volunteers from around the world defied weapons embargoes to supply the newly established Israel with critical supplies to defend itself against mounting attacks from all sides," New York Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Gary Ackerman, Jose Serrano and Brian Higgins wrote in a Dec. 15 letter urging Bush to pardon Charles Winters.
"Without the actions of individuals like Mr. Winters, this fledgling democracy in the Middle East almost certainly would not have survived as the surrounding nations closed in on Israel's borders," the lawmakers wrote.
The three B-17s were the only heavy bombers in the Israeli Air Force, and historians say counterattacks with the bombers helped turned the war in Israel's favor. In March 1961, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir issued a letter of commendation to Charles Winters to recognize his contributions to the Jewish state's survival.
Two men charged with Winters, Herman Greenspun and Al Schwimmer, also were convicted of violating the Neutrality Act, but they did not serve time. President John F. Kennedy pardoned Greenspun in 1961, and President Bill Clinton pardoned Schwimmer in 2000.
"Rules are rules, but it's interesting that my dad was the low man on the totem pole in the operation, but he's the only one who had to serve time," said Jim Winters.
Reginald Brown, an attorney who worked on the pardon, said Bush's action "rights a historical wrong and honors Charlie's belief that the creation of the Jewish state was a moral imperative of his time."
Film director Steven Spielberg also wrote a letter to Bush appealing for a pardon for Charles Winters.
"There are probably many unsung heroes of America and of Israel, but Charlie Winters is surely one of them," wrote the director of "Schindler's List," the Oscar-winning movie about the Holocaust. "While a pardon cannot make Charlie Winters whole, and regrettably he did not live to see it, it would be a fitting tribute to his memory and a great blessing to his family if this pardon is granted."
After Charles Winters died on Oct. 30, 1984, half his ashes were buried in a Christian cemetery near the Jewish cemetery of the Knights Templar in Jerusalem. The rest were scattered from the top of Mount Tabor in Israel.
The only other pardon granted posthumously in recent years was given to Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Flipper was drummed out of the Army after white officers accused him of embezzling about $3,800 from commissary funds. Flipper initially discovered the funds missing from his custody and concealed their disappearance from superiors, hoping the money would return. Clinton gave Flipper a full pardon in 1999.
Bush has granted 190 pardons and nine commutations during his two terms. That's fewer than half as many as Presidents Clinton or Ronald Reagan issued during their eight years in office.
Well-known names were rare on Bush's holiday pardon list. There have been efforts to get Bush to pardon former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, who was convicted in 2000 with four others in a scheme to rig riverboat casino licensing; disgraced track star Marion Jones, who lied about using steroids; Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, former U.S. Border Patrol agents who were convicted of shooting a drug smuggler in 2005 and trying to cover it up; and Michael Milken, the junk bond king convicted of securities fraud.
In his most high-profile official act of forgiveness, Bush saved Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, from serving prison time in the case of the 2003 leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity.
Libby was convicted of perjury and obstructing justice. Bush could still grant him a full pardon, although Libby has not applied for one.