Flying under three flags

Gino Narboni, 90, revisits the Tel Nof air base where he once landed aircraft in defiance of international embargoes.

Free French Air Force Sergeant Narboni after his first solo flight aboard a PT-17 trainer aircraft, Orangeburg, South Carolina, November 1944 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Free French Air Force Sergeant Narboni after his first solo flight aboard a PT-17 trainer aircraft, Orangeburg, South Carolina, November 1944
(photo credit: Courtesy)
GINO ROGER Narboni’s first flight into Israel in July 1948 was at the controls of a Norseman light-transport airplane; not much, but better than nothing for bringing supplies to isolated Israeli army positions and kibbutzim during the War of Independence.
At the time, embargoes imposed by the UN and US prohibited the supply of any military equipment to the warring Middle East nations.
Since the Arabs already had standing armies, it was the newborn Jewish state that was most seriously affected by the bans.
Pilots with Israeli passports were under heavy scrutiny to prevent them from smuggling aircraft and weaponry into Israel, so men like Narboni, a Jewish veteran of the French Air Force trained to fly twinengined bombers, were asked to take delivery of aircraft purchased abroad by the pre-state Hagana underground movement.
They flew the planes in complex circuits between foreign airports to throw off suspicion, ultimately landing at the remote Zatec airfield in Czechoslovakia, before the final flight to Israel.
Although then under communist rule, Czechoslovakia was secretly supplying arms to Israel and covering the tracks of aircraft that left the country for the Jewish state.
Prague’s “big brother,” the Soviet Union, encouraged such action, presumably to subvert British power in the Middle East.
Sixty-six years have gone by and the atmosphere in Israel is far different from that which Narboni knew during his ferrying flights, or later when he interrupted his medical studies to serve as an Israel Air Force (IAF) officer. “Everyone I met at Tel Nof air base was extremely friendly,” he tells The Jerusalem Report in Paris, shortly after visiting Israel in late April.
“But my memories of the base in 1948- 1949 are pretty different from what I saw now. Since it was then wartime, everything was tense, and the base was hyperactive and full of aircraft, including four-engined planes. I remember flying down to Eilat virtually every day, sometimes twice a day, to pick up wounded from the Negev campaign,” he explains.
“Many of those nice people I saw on the base now were really very young. When I flew from Ekron (the name of the base in 1948), I was 25 years old and many others were that age, or older, since most were veterans of World War II, which had ended shortly before.”
Born into the Jewish community of French Algeria on November 11, 1923, Narboni was the son of a prominent physician in the city of Constantine and intended to become a doctor himself. But wars got in the way for a long time. In June 1948, after having been trained as a B-26 bomber pilot in the US in 1944- 1945, Narboni had resigned from the French Air Force, and was a student at Paris University’s School of Medicine.
The State of Israel was only weeks old and had its back against the sea trying to ward off advancing columns from neighboring Arab states, all of whom had standing armies equipped with aircraft, tanks and artillery.
Israel only had civilian-soldiers with experience in guerilla warfare against Palestinian irregulars, but not a single combat aircraft and only a handful of tanks and artillery pieces.
Just as bad was that Israel had almost no one who could fly combat planes, drive tanks or fire cannons, since pre-State underground Jewish groups, especially the Hagana, which gave birth to the Israel Defense Forces, did not possess such equipment.
Recruiters, therefore, went around Western capitals seeking Jewish veterans who had fought in WW II, could smuggle in the weaponry and knew how to use it.
About 4,000 volunteers answered the call in the framework of the Mahal (Volunteers from Abroad) program. They came from the US, Canada, South Africa, Britain, France, Scandinavia, and some 20 other countries.
A few hundred non-Jewish volunteers joined them for ideological reasons or out of a thirst to renew their wartime adventures.
“Why did I come to Israel in 1948? I was not brought up in a religious atmosphere, but my family and I felt strongly about our Jewish heritage. I had a skill that Israel could use, so I decided to volunteer. Today, I am still attached to Israel,” says Narboni.
The role of Mahal volunteers was especially crucial in the IAF where they made up the near-totality of flying personnel during the War of Independence. After his ferry flights to Israel, Narboni volunteered to serve as a transport pilot, and flew supplies and paratroopers for the IAF until 1950. “In those days, there were few formalities. I don’t remember signing any papers or being sworn in, but I was given a commission and reported to duty as Captain Narboni.
He then moved over to the newly created Arkia, and later El Al Airlines, as a civilian pilot on twin-engine C-46 aircraft, and as co-pilot on four-engine Skymasters and Constellations for flights to Europe and Africa.
But finding Israel “overcrowded and where one had to queue a lot,” Narboni returned to Paris in 1951 to resume his medical studies.
He should have started those studies a decade earlier when he lived in his native Algeria, which had a Jewish minority of close to 100,000 people.
But, from the fall of France in June 1940 until US and British forces landed there and in adjacent Morocco in November 1942, Algerian Jews lived uneasily under the Vichy French government, which deprived them of their French citizenship. Nonetheless, with no Germans present in the territory, conditions for Jews were immeasurably better than for co-religionists in occupied Europe.
The local Vichy authorities quickly switched sides after the Allied landings, and Jews were again conscripted into the French Army ahead of the coming campaigns to free Europe. Narboni was drafted and found himself in an almost wholly Jewish service battalion intended for support duties only – before the former Vichy men were weeded out of high command positions, they had decided Jews in the army should be segregated and given menial tasks.
Like many other Algerian Jews, Narboni was itching to fight the Nazis. So, in May 1943, he deserted to enlist in General Charles de Gaulle’s rival Tunisia-based Free French forces, which included many other young Jews serving on equal terms with other Frenchmen.
ASKED IN which branch of the forces he wished to serve, Narboni said he wanted to be a pilot. “Now that I think about it, I find it remarkable that I was taken seriously. Generally, armed forces are more interested in filling spaces than indulging the whims of 20-yearold boys,” he recalled in “When I grow up I want to be…”, a book of memoirs he wrote last year with his American wife, Charlotte.
Narboni was sent to Rayak Air Base in French-controlled Syria to wait until a large enough contingent could be formed to be sent for pilot training in the US. But, as he wrote in his memoirs, “as with armies everywhere, it was hurry up and wait.” “Was it my Jewish heritage that made me want to see Jerusalem and the ancient lands? I just had to go. I must not have thought about the consequences. When you’re young you can do anything,” he wrote. Narboni, therefore, just left for a week without authorization to visit Jerusalem, Haifa, Bethlehem, and other places in British-ruled Palestine. His absence did not go unnoticed and, upon his return, he was thrown into the base prison.
Finally, his flight training orders came through and he landed in Boston in September 1944. Narboni loved flying and graduated to pilot twin-engine bombers, but the war ended as he was completing his training. So, when he returned to France in early 1946, it was to be demobilized and begin his medical studies in Paris.
Ultimately, and after the Israel interlude, Narboni completed medical school. But, finding post-war France a depressing place, he immigrated to the US in 1960, where he joined the US Air Force as a physician, finally becoming a chief flight surgeon and reaching the rank of colonel. He served for a full year in Vietnam during the war there, mostly as a flight surgeon on medical-evacuation missions.
Narboni retired from the USAF in 1981 and joined an oncology clinic in San Antonio, Texas, his last base in the air force, and his home today. He continued working as a civilian doctor for another 22 years before finally retiring.
Narboni now likes to indulge in sea cruises with Charlotte. He’s visited Israel twice recently.
“I was flabbergasted by the growth of everything – trees, shrubbery, flowers, the density of architecture, the population, the traffic. This is a major country compared to what I knew,” he says.
Narboni was pleasantly surprised that people he now met in Israel, not only IDF officers, knew about Mahal and its role in the War of Independence. For a long time, the subject was taboo in Israel. During the 1948- 1949 war, it was kept a military secret.
Founding father David Ben-Gurion was said to have been particularly irked during a visit to a major air base in 1948 when he realized that the mostly Jewish American crews of B-17 bombers were “ready to die for Israel but not ready to live here.”
Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, however, fully appreciated the contribution of the Mahal volunteers. Rabin’s son married the daughter of Boris Senior, a former South African fighter pilot who was one of the creators of the IAF.
Inaugurating a monument to Mahal near the highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in 1993, Rabin said, “You came to us when we needed you most, during those hard and uncertain days in our War of Independence.
You gave us not only your experience, but your lives as well.