Gutsy warriors: Eager Americans who joined Israel in the fight for its life

There were many tragic losses and times when things looked bleak.

American pilots who volunteered for Israel during the 1948 War of Independence. (photo credit: JNS)
American pilots who volunteered for Israel during the 1948 War of Independence.
(photo credit: JNS)
The now 78-year-old Robert Gandt has been writing books on military themes for decades. He spent eight years flying for the United States Navy and was a weapons test pilot, until he decided to work as an airline pilot so he would have time to write – something he has been doing successfully for years.
He grew up in Kansas, the son of a father who ran a local flying business, and Gandt himself was flying planes solo by the time he was 16.
It is Gandt’s assuredness that makes his new book, Angels in the Sky: How a Band of Volunteer Airmen Saved the New State of Israel, so compellingly readable. It is filled with wondrous stories of a group of men who literally saved Israel in its earliest years, men whom Gandt describes with passion as gutsy warriors who weren’t afraid to break the rules when the situation called for it, men like Gandt himself.
He recreates the early battles of the War of Independence with an unbridled enthusiasm that captures the reader’s heart. These were dangerous and uncertain times, and Israel’s future lay in the balance.
We meet Lou Lenart, a 27-year-old World War II veteran from Pennsylvania who joined the US Marines at 17 determined to kill as many Nazis as he could. He was a crucial part of Israel’s new fighter squadron, whose initial mission was to destroy the Egyptian air base at El Arish.
But when word arrived that the Egyptian Army had advanced to just south of Tel Aviv, the attack on El Arish was aborted, and Lenart was sent to attack the advancing Egyptian brigade. The mission succeeded and buoyed spirits among the Jews.
Lenart, who survived the war, said afterward that he would psyche himself into battle by reminding himself that “there is no making light of this moment. Behind us is Israel, the Jewish people hanging by a thread. Ahead of us is the enemy, advancing to destroy everything we love.”
We are introduced to Al Schwimmer, a 30-year-old American who felt compelled to help the fledging Israeli state after visiting a German concentration camp after World War II and finding among the list of the dead the names of his mother’s parents, who had lived in Hungary. Schwimmer became a pivotal player in buying airplanes for what would eventually become the Israel Air Force.
Mike Flint was only 25 when he was living in Berkeley, California, after the war, taking classes, when he felt a calling to go to Israel to help. He thought “about the images that had emerged from the Holocaust. He knew that if his parents hadn’t emigrated from Austria-Hungary, they would have been in the death camps.”
Gordon Lichtman, from New Jersey, sat enraged in synagogue listening to the horrific story of how British troops had boarded the Exodus 1947 ship filled with Holocaust survivors that was headed for Palestine and forced it to return to Germany to detention camps. He knew his experience as a fighter pilot could help the emerging Jewish state and left to offer his services.
Trygve Maseng was 26, a non-Jewish Norwegian-American and a former air force captain who was studying at Columbia University after the war. Gandt explains his motivation for helping the Israelis: “The truth was that Tryg was one of those rare birds – a pure idealist. In the plight of the Palestinian Jews, Maseng had found his own righteous cause.”
Gandt captures the spirit that animated these fighter pilots. They were young and strong and filled with a sense of daring. They believed the impossible was possible and seemed to make it so. They were on their own, not only in fighting their many enemies, but in finding countries that would sell them planes, and mechanics to repair them, and airfields that were hidden where they could train on equipment that was often faulty and secondhand.
There were many tragic losses and times when things looked bleak. David Ben-Gurion later wrote that Israel’s troops were exhausted. They were short on supplies, food, munitions, vehicles, and even shoes and uniforms. Israeli forces had been defeated three times at Latrun. They had lost Jerusalem. They were at a stalemate with the Iraqis, and the Egyptians were still 40 km. south of Tel Aviv and solidly encamped. Ben-Gurion struggled thinking about how he could get more time, time to build the air force he knew was their only chance of success.
There seemed to be times when the new Israelis benefited from incredible luck, but most of the time, Gandt shows us, from the amazing ingenuity of the fighter pilots and their planners. Jews now brought to fighting what they had always brought to everything they touched – an incredible savvy and smarts, coupled with courage and a dire sense of the sacredness of their mission.
After the war, the men scattered in different directions. Lenart airlifted thousands of Jewish refugees from Iraq to Israel and flew for El Al, dabbled in show business and worked as a manager for the San Diego Clippers. He died at 94 at his home in Israel. Lichtman returned to America and came back to Israel to serve as a test pilot. He eventually returned to the United States and taught high school and settled in Miami. Schwimmer was persuaded by Ben-Gurion to return to Israel in 1951, where he founded Israel Aircraft Industries, the developer of Israel’s hi-tech military hardware. He died at 94 in Israel. Flint returned to California and worked as an engineer for Lockheed and eventually became a lawyer.
The surviving fighter pilots arranged reunions for decades to celebrate what they had accomplished, often meeting in Israel and marveling at what it had become. Gandt describes their unbreakable bond aptly: "They were brothers in a righteous cause."