Lou Lenard entered eternity and slipped the surly bonds of earth at the age of 94 this week. He was part of the “Greatest Generation” of founding fighters of Israel. Lou Lenart, speaks extensively in the film “Above and Beyond” which was released last year. Having watched the film and read extensively on the subject, I am filled with tremendous gratitude for the protagonists, “those magnificent men in their flying machines.” The film recounts the personal stories of Lou and his brothers in arms, the young pilots who fought in Israel’s War of Independence. Almost all of the men in Israel’s nascent Air Force came from abroad and their experiences in Israel were life altering.
They were part of a group known by the acronym “Machal” (volunteers from outside the land). They had expertise gained from combat in WWII. Psychologically their presence had a massive positive impact on the native Sabras, who realised that they were not alone. There were 3,500 volunteers in Machal in 1948. 180 served in the air force (pilots and ground crew) who, as the website of the film states:
“Through their stories (they) reveal how under-equipped and isolated the Israelis were, how desperately they needed planes and pilots and how critical the actions of these young (mostly) American men were for the country’s survival.”
IAF Spitfire. (Photo: (c) T. Book 2015)
One of the best-known anecdotes deals with the first combat mission of the IAF in which Lou was one of the pilots. It consisted of four Czechoslovakian Messerschmitts that had been hastily reassembled in hangers in Israel and, without even having time to test them properly, flown in a desperate attempt to halt the Egyptian advance. As one of the pilots laconically observed:
“Our flight clothing had Luftwaffe wings on which I took off. Jewish boys flying in Nazi planes with Nazi uniforms. The irony of it did not escape any of us…Part of my family, my grandmother and cousins, ended up in Auschwitz. I felt that the remnants had a right to life…”
Shimon Avidan the Brigade commander of Givati desperately appealed for air support. He said, “if you don’t stop them (the Egyptians) now, they will be in Tel Aviv in the morning.”
The pilots; American volunteer Lou Lenart, South African volunteer Eddie Cohen and two Israelis, Moddy Alon and Ezer Weitzman, who later become the head of the IAF and later still become the President of Israel, flew over the massive Egyptian convoy, who were startled at the sight of fighter planes emblazoned with the Star of David. Their intelligence had reported that the Jews didn’t have planes. Yet here were these same non-existent planes strafing and bombing them! The Egyptian convoy halted in panic just outside Ashdod at “Gesher Ad Halom,” barely twenty miles from their objective, and never advanced any further. An intercepted Egyptian military cable stated: “We are being heavily attacked by enemy aircraft and are scattering.”
Tragically the plane of Eddie Cohen crashed or was shot down. Even though the IAF lost a quarter of its planes on its maiden combat sortie, according to the film, it was, “the single most important battle in the whole IAF. They stopped the Egyptians cold.” This was to set the tone for the future: achieving the mission despite personal sacrifice.
Decades later these magnificent Machal volunteers, now in the twilight of their lives, still recall with deep emotion these momentous events in the history of the Jewish people. Lou Lenart z”l said,
“I was born to be here at that moment of history. It was the greatest moment in my life. It was beshert.”