Memory on a wing

Pilots taking off from the Air Force base of Ramat David have no idea that every day they fly over the nearby grave of a fallen airman in the valley below.

In the middle of the Jezreel Valley, surrounded by extensive fields of seasonal crops, four tall cypress trees gently rustle in the afternoon breeze. With most of the fruit orchards in the valley nowadays replaced by cotton, wheat and corn, there aren't too many trees in the valley floor area, and the cypress trees stand out between the fields of kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek. The trees shade a solitary grave nestled between the four natural sentries planted in a square at the side of a track used by local farmers driving tractors, combine harvesters and jeeps. Buried in the grave is a 21-year-old Israeli pilot who crashed at that spot in 1951, son of Holocaust survivors who fled Poland for Palestine. According to locals, Lt. Shalom Rakir lost control of his plane when flying low over orchards and fields where they were working. The impact of the crash was so forceful that a large part of the small plane and its pilot were embedded deep in the soft and fertile valley soil. A decision was made to leave the remains where they were, and so an area that had 30 years before been swamp, became the burial ground of the young pilot. Rakir's parents visited the grave of their son from time to time until the l970s, but have not been seen by valley farmers at the grave since then. Always invited by kibbutz farmers to enter their community to rest and have something to eat, the bereaved parents only agreed once to do so. When kibbutznik Yosef (Yup) Leshner saw the couple at the graveside he was amazed to recognize them as the same couple that, together with a young boy, had stayed overnight years before in his family home in Germany. Leshner, who died in recent years in his 80s, reminded the couple of the night they stayed in his former home in Germany, and told them that his elderly mother was at that time residing in the kibbutz. The couple paid a short visit to his elderly mother but never returned again. A few kilometers from the lone grave is the Ramat David Israel Air Force (IAF) base, where these days multi-million dollar solid metal birds take-off and land, screeching over the relatively anonymous grave among the cypress trees alongside a dirt track dividing fields of wheat. Often planes circle the valley as new pilots are trained or the veterans keep their wings in trim. During times of war, the planes zoom off on missions targeting areas in neighboring countries only a few minutes away as a metal crow flies. Present day pilots are probably unaware of the pilot who died in the early fifties and is buried alone in the valley far down below. However, they are very aware of the fact that they are overflying the grave of Colonel Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut and today one of Israel's most famous pilots, who is buried in the nearby cemetery of Nahalal. The most famous and probably one of the most anonymous of Israel's pilots, who rest in peace in close proximity to each other in the peaceful valley, and are among the painfully high number of winged warriors who have fallen while serving their country. Even though the young man who perished so many years ago now seemingly has no family visiting his grave, he is definitely part of the collective memory of those in the IAF's extended family and those of the kibbutz farmers who drive by on an early morn on their way to plough, sow and eventually reap the rewards of their labor. In the undulating, tree covered Judean Hills near Jerusalem, a memorial park for all the fallen airmen fills to capacity with relatives, friends and fellow IAF personnel every year on Remembrance Day. The journey to Pilot's Hill takes one along twisting narrow tree-lined mountain roads, where breaks in the trees reveal breathtaking vistas. The first monument on Pilot's Hill is in memory of six airmen who were flying a mission on May 10, l948. Their single-engine Norseman bush plane had left Sde Dov airbase in Tel Aviv in the morning hours on a bombing mission over the Arab village of Mahsir, visible down below in the Jerusalem Corridor. For reasons that were never made clear, the plane crashed south of what is today Kiryat Ye'arim and all six airmen perished. A monument was created from the airplane's burnt remains, and a short walk from there stand five stone pillars with the names of all IAF personnel who fell in the line of duty since the foundation of the state. Six of the pilots listed on the pillars hailed from the Jezreel Valley kibbutz of Mishmar HaEmek, in whose fields the young low-flying pilot who crashed in l951 is buried. The names of the kibbutz airmen are also engraved on a large monument standing on an extinct volcano above the community on the slopes of the Menashe Hills overlooking the valley. Here on Remembrance Day, kibbutz elders, their children and grandchildren gather on the volcanic rock-strewn hill for a memorial service. The Golan Heights is clearly visible from this vantage point, as is the Gilead range of mountains in Jordan. Two of the kibbutznik pilots, Hannan Aitan and Shaul Gilboa, were shot down and killed while flying over those areas so close to their home. Gilboa was brought down by Jordanian fire when on a patrol flight over the Jordan Valley in l968, and Aitan became one of the first casualties of the l973 Yom Kippur war when he was shot down over the Golan. That morning Aitan had left his wife, young son and baby daughter in order to work in the kibbutz cotton fields that run almost to the fence surrounding the airbase. He would have driven past the lone grave surrounded by the only trees in that part of the valley, between the fields he was due to plow. A short time after beginning to plow, he was called to the other side of the fence where he exchanged his blue kibbutz work clothes for a pilot's flight suit. A very short time later he was shot down over the Golan, a casualty of war that the majority of his valley community was still unaware had broken out. The names of the scores of men, women and children who died in wars or in accidents during military service are etched not only in the stone, but also in the hearts and minds of members of their community.