Late last month, American aviation legend, pilot and author, Capt. Ret. Elgen Marion Long passed away. Elgen was the last surviving crew member of the Alaska Airlines’ Iron Men, who brought thousands of Yemenite Jews to Israel during the first days of the newly reborn Jewish state.
Israeli music icon, Shlomo Artzi, asks in his famous song:
“Where else can be found one such as he, who was as the weeping willows?”
One sultry 2017 afternoon, I received a phone call from a good friend, Dr. Andy David, then Israel’s consul general in San Francisco. Andy shared his joy of a recent visit to Anchorage, Alaska. During the visit, Andy got to see the wonderful Alaska Jewish Museum and its main exhibit at the time, showcasing the arrival of Yemenite Jews to the newly reestablished State of Israel.
A few months later, I visited the museum as part of the pro-Israel education organization StandWithUs, where the fabulous curator Leslie Fried showed me a book. On the Wings of Eagles, announced its cover, after the name of the operation which brought so many members of the Yemenite Jewish community to Israel. The author’s name was Elgen Long.
That was the first I ever heard of this one-of-a-kind modern hero, and that’s when I decided to reach out to Elgen. I immediately felt a deep sense of gratitude to this man, who – along with his friends – risked their own lives to save people they did not know.
In our first phone call, I expressed that gratitude to Elgen and told him we would like to honor him in an event in New York, to which he was quick to reply: “I did not do anything special, Shahar. Anyone would have done the same in that situation. These people were in need!”
His humility knew no bounds, as did his humanity, which shone like a star in the dark skies on the world. When Elgen finally arrived in New York, I spent a few precious days with him and got to know him.
He was a real-life hero. A man who stood tall above all else, a true member of the Greatest Generation, who cheated on his forms to be able to get into the US Navy and fight for his country during World War II. A man who acted with courage and bravery without seeking respect or admiration. One who flew from Yemen to Israel in times of a great war in the Middle East, only to come back home to the US and carry on with his life just as if he went on a work trip and came back.
It was obvious to him that humanity must prevail, that there is a great value to life, and that our commitment to each other as human beings should supersede everything else.
IN 2018 I had the immense privilege to accompany Elgen on his trip to Israel, made possible through StandWithUs and Dr. Yigal Ben-Shalom, head of the Yemenite Jewish Cultural Association in Israel – his first visit since he took part in the heroic endeavor.
Before embarking on this life-changing trip, I asked Elgen what he would like to see most in Israel. His answer surprised me. He did not mention tourist or holy sites. “I would like to see ‘them,’” he said. “Who is ‘them?’” I inquired. “I would love to see the people who came with me on those planes to Israel,” Elgen replied, “to see their families and children, to see what they have done with the opportunity given to them.”
And saw he did. During several community gatherings in the center and south of Israel, organized by Dr. Ben-Shalom, many hundreds of people showed up to thank Elgen for his heroism. Many arrived with their children and grandchildren to show their gratitude for a man such-as-he, and Elgen stood humbled in front of them, almost embarrassed against the outpour of love showering him from all over.
“Would you like to sit down, Elgen, or maybe take a break?” I asked, worryingly, as many came up to him after each event, to shake a hand, to exchange hugs. “Not at all,” Elgen said with glowing eyes, excited and blushing with embarrassment at all the attention. “I am here now. Let them come to me.” Tears started rolling down my cheeks as I witnessed history in the making before my very eyes.
Elgen was tall, noble-like, handsome and strong. During his visit, many would ask him for his secret. To all, he told the same story: “I remember once, as the last of the newcomers to Israel got off the plane, a young Israeli IDF commander came on board to speak with my friends and me.
“Before leaving us, he looked back and said: ‘You know, it was a good thing that you have done’ and that act of kindness is my secret,” he said with a grin from ear to ear.
When visiting the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, then-president Rivlin praised Elgen for his great deeds for Israel and the Jewish people. Elgen’s reply during that auspicious event inspired me: “It is not just me standing here today, but alongside me are all members of the Iron Men Crew, who were fortunate enough to take part in this crucial endeavor and are no longer with us.”
Elgen was the epitome of a mensch, reminding me – and us all – what we could be if only we manifested the best of us. I miss him already, one-such-as-he. May his memory be for a blessing and his soul bound in the bond of life.
Goodbye, my friend. Now the heavens are your home, and among the angels, you continue to fly.
The writer is a former spokesperson of Israel’s Consulate General in NY, a strategic consultant and senior vice president at JBS-Jewish Broadcasting Service.