Jack Gottlieb
Founder of World Jewish Travel

In the Skies Together, Again: American and Israeli Pilots Defend Against Threats

Celebrating Jewish American and Israeli Heroes in Honor of Jewish American Heritage Month and Israel Independence Day

Insignia of Squadron 101 of the Israeli Air Force. Wikimedia Commons Licence

April 13, 2024 marked a significant moment in the longstanding partnership between the United States and Israel, as American and Israeli pilots once again took to the skies in joint defense of Israel. ‘Once again’ because this collaboration evokes memories of a pivotal chapter in history when American and Israeli pilots flew side by side as part of Squadron 101 during the War of Independence in 1948. As we are approaching Jewish American Heritage Month in May and Israel Independence Day on May 14, this is an opportune time to commemorate and remember both these memories.

This story does not begin in May of 1948 when Israel gained its independence but in July of 2015 when my neighbor, an American diplomat, came home from a funeral in Kfar Nachman Cemetery, Raanana of a 94 year old American pilot named Lew Lenart. Lenart was a Marine pilot who, after completing multiple missions in the Pacific theater during WWII, volunteered to serve in the then non-existent Israel Air Force. He and other volunteer pilots made their way to Zatec, Czechoslovakia to get flight training on converted Messerschmitts sold to the clandestine Hagana. Unlike the slick airplanes like the F35’s used against the missile attack from Iran, these planes were, as Lenart would charitably call them, “junk”, poorly assembled and barely flight worthy.

Lew Lenart. Creative Commons

In mid-May of 1948 Lenart and the other pilots hearing about the urgent situation in Palestine suddenly interrupted their training and rushed to Palestine from Czechoslovakia. War clouds were looming ahead as the British had previously announced right after the UN Partition plan of 29th of November, 1947 that they were vacating Palestine on May 15, 1948; It was desperation time in Palestine as during this interim period, the well armed Arabs were already attacking defenseless convoys and creating mayhem.

On May 14,1948, Israel declared its independence, to take effect at midnight. Next day the Arab armies of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan invaded Israel, and Israel found itself without tanks, a few guns and no fighter planes. Recognizing the dire straits, a week after the war started, 4 Messerschmitts were quickly disassembled in Czechoslovakia, delivered and reassembled In Israel, just in the nick of time. By May 28, an Egyptian army 3,000 strong was camped out in Ashdod, just an hour away from Tel Aviv.

Left to right: Lou Lenart, Ezer Weizman, Modi Alon and Eddie Cohen, the four pilots who carried out the Israeli Air Force’s first-ever strike mission. (Courtesy; Israel Defense Forces)

On May 29, 1948 Lenart led a mission consisting of the entire fleet, just 4 fighter aircraft newly assembled but unflown and untested. It was a “do or die” moment for Israel, Lennart recalled, as he muttered a ‘Shema Israel’ and nose-dived his rickety Messerschmitt onto the Egyptian army. He and his fellow pilots, Modi Alon, Eddie Cohen, and Ezer Weizman bombed and strafed the advancing Egyptian Army column. Although the attack did minimal damage, it had a profound psychological effect causing the Egyptian to halt and retreat.

Ad Halom Monument for the Egyptian casualties in 1948 in Ashdod.
Bukvoed, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The impact was psychological because the Egyptians believed the notion that perhaps, Squadron 101, as it was later named, was one of a hundred squadrons, hence the reason for the name. In fact, the mission was a far cry from being a success. Two planes were lost and one pilot, Eddie Cohen, a South African, was killed, effectively losing 50% of its entire fleet, and 25% of all of its pilots. This was a much different scenario from the Iranian attack of last week when Squadron 101 as well as other Israeli squadrons did not lose a single plane. The Egyptians also suffered losses and, amazingly enough, the Israelis were compelled by the Camp David Accords of 1978 to set up a monument in Ad Halom, Ashdod for the casualties of the Egyptian army.

There was one constant between both these battles of 1948 and 2024. Still painted on the planes of Squadron 101 that participated in the defense of Israel against Iran is the same insignia used by Squadron 101 during the War of Independence, that is, ‘the Angel of Death’. In fact, two volunteer US pilots, Stan Andrew’s and Bob Vickman, both of them art students, designed the squadron’s famous logo on a napkin late one night in 1948 in a Tel Aviv bar. This logo, the Winged Skull in a Flight Helmet (see above) adorns all planes belonging to this unit. 

Tragically, both of these pilots were killed in action during the War of Independence. Modi Alon, the only born and bred Israeli of the original unit and nominally the head of the Air Force also did not survive a crash landing upon returning from a mission. Ezer Weizman became the President of Israel. After the war, Lenart participated in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, the airlift of Iraqi Jews to Israel in the early 1950s.

CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The riveting story of the beginnings of the Israeli Air Force was immortalized in Nancy Spielberg’s movie Above and Beyond. In the movie, credit was given to how an impromptu organization called Machal coordinated recruiting pilots, navigators, bombardiers, air gunners, radio operators and flight engineers just to name a few of 607 volunteers to fight in a war which until now was the longest( 9 months) in the history of Israel. It’s important to note that 30% were American and close to 25% of the overall total were not even Jewish. All of the pilots interviewed in Above and Beyond have by this date passed on, with Harold Livingston being the last of the group to go, dying at the age of 97 in 2022.

The recent operations against Iran are imbued with the same spirit that fueled those daring efforts during Israel’s quest for independence. American and Israeli pilots made history and defended Israel from an Iranian attack of a combination of 300 ballistic missiles, UAV’s, and cruise missiles, the largest missile attack in the history of Israel. One Israeli pilot, identified only as ‘Major G,’ likened the experience of shooting these projectiles out of the sky as ‘like Top Gun meets Star Wars’, a moment for which ‘he had trained his whole 25 year career’. 

Insignia of the 494th Squadron. Air Force Historical Research Agency, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Israeli and American pilots returned to their respective bases jubilant and unscathed, with the Squadron 101 planes landing in their home base in Ramat David and the American 494th Squadron, the Panthers, landing eventually in their home base in Lakenheath, England. Remarkably, the American pilots and the allies shot down 40% of the incoming barrage of missiles and were commended afterwards by Biden for their bravery.

Unfortunately, the pilots of the original Squadron 101 of 1948 were not so lucky; all told, eight of the initial cohort of pilots in Squadron 101 were killed because of either mechanical failures or enemy fire. Landings and takeoffs proved to be especially difficult and dangerous.

Picture by Oren Plus, CC BY 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

In a few weeks, on May 14, Israeli Independence Day, Squadron 101 will be flying along the coast of Israel as part of the yearly air show. Given the backdrop of the current war against Israel’s enemies, and the recent successful defense of the Iranian attack, this air show will hold more meaning than the usual air shows held in peacetime. As Israel displays its array of F16s and F35s combat planes and other attack aircraft, the spirit of those pilots, like Lew Lenart, who have passed on and pilots, like Modi Alon, who were killed in action, will live on during the air show.

Monument donated to Czech Military Museum in Prague by Haganah Veterans. Wikimedia Commons

During  Jewish American Heritage Month and Israel Independence Day, it’s important to honor and remember the courageous American and Israeli pilots who made the ultimate sacrifice during World War II and the Israeli War of Independence. It’s also important to remember those who survived and contributed to Israel’s survival then and now. 

Jews in America and Israelis are both going through especially difficult times right now. This is a great time to celebrate Jewish American and Israeli heroes. Their sacrifice serves as a testament that the enduring bonds between the United States and Israel are as powerful now as they were back then. 

About the Author
Jack Gottlieb, founder and president of the World Jewish Travel, is an American businessman highly involved in philanthropic causes, who spends most of his time in Israel these days.
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