Sept. 2, which marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, serves as a reminder that our days of gleaming wisdom directly from the Greatest Generation are numbered.
In recent years, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with WWII veterans as part of producing A Wing and a Prayer. This PBS documentary tells the little-known story of WWII aviators who, in 1948, risked their lives and freedom to prevent what they viewed as an imminent second Holocaust.
Here are seven of the lessons I learned from members of this operation who have died since I interviewed them — arms airlift pilot Shelly Eichel, fighter pilot Lou Lenart, crew leader/radio operator Eddie Styrak, and their leader, Al Schwimmer, who went on to create and run Israel Aerospace Industries:
Handle reality like a double-edged sword
Schwimmer’s yin-yang mindset — simultaneously respecting and resisting reality — allowed him to convince his recruits that they could overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
In 1948, the consensus among military pundits around the world was that newborn Israel — which had one rifle for every four soldiers and barely enough bullets to last a couple of days of fighting — faced annihilation by five Western-equipped-and-trained armies. Schwimmer was well aware of this when he launched his secret, illegal operation to arm the Jewish state. In fact, this foreboding forecast fueled his mission. But he also believed that, if he did his part, Israel stood a chance to survive and possibly win its first war.
“[The Israelis] knew how to handle weapons,” Schwimmer said in his 12th-floor balcony overlooking North Tel Aviv a year before he died at the age of 94. “We didn’t have to train them. We just had to bring ’em to them.”
Be a rebel with a right cause
Schwimmer and his men never set out to become rebels. They served the United States and Canada honorably during the Second World War. Even when they had an excuse to act out, they stayed on the straight and narrow.
Take Lenart. Born and raised in Hungary — where he still had grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins during WWII — he desperately wished to serve in the European Theatre. But the US Marine fighter pilot never complained to his superiors about sending him to the Pacific.
It was only after WWII — when he discovered that most of his extended family perished in Nazi concentration camps — that Lenart became defiant. He vowed to do everything he could to help give Holocaust survivors a place to call home. That put him at odds with the US government, which aimed to keep Americans from providing any military assistance to the burgeoning Jewish state.
“Page one in my family album is a picture of my grandmother, who at the age of 70 was shoved into the ovens at Auschwitz,” Lenart said, in his Santa Monica condo overlooking the Pacific Ocean, three years before he died at the age of 94. “I felt that the remnants of the Holocaust had a right to life and some chance of happiness.”
Find your own activist voice
Few of the operation members were Zionist. Until 1948, Schwimmer cared little about the Jews returning to their biblical homeland. Styrak, meanwhile, grew up in an anti-Semitic home in Detroit. But after liberating Holocaust survivors, he charted his own course and joined the operation.
Over the years, people often asked Styrak why he did it. “I don’t know,” Styrak said in a San Francisco nursing home a few months before he died at the age of 88. “I can’t explain it. I just did it.”
Work with people who can deliver
After serving as a bomber pilot on the European Theatre during WWII, Eichel wanted to help the 300,000 survivors of Hitler’s Final Solution. But he wanted to make sure he teamed up with doers, not talkers.
“I made a vow that, if I had the opportunity to truly fight for them, I would take it,” he said in his Hollywood, Fla., studio apartment a couple of years before he died at the age of 90.
Eichel waited two years for this opportunity. When he met Schwimmer and his men, he immediately felt he’d be joining a group of difference-makers.
Staying a step ahead takes discipline
As the operation heated up, Schwimmer never slept in the same place twice. In the middle of one night, when staying on the 20th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper, he received word that FBI agents were riding the elevator to arrest him. He raced down the stairs in his pajamas and disappeared.
Schwimmer was too busy to run around this much. But for him, urgency trumped efficiency any day or night.
“We stayed a step ahead of all the authorities all the time,” said Schwimmer, who gave himself up after the 1948 Arab-Israel war to stand trail in LA. “They tried to catch us, but couldn’t. When they were there, we were here. When they were here, we were there. We were always unavailable.”
There’s always a way, you just have to find it — or make it up
All seemed lost when the US State Department grounded the operation’s transport planes in Burbank, Calif., and Millville, NJ.
This happened just as Israel finally found a government willing to break the UN arms embargo and sell it weapons. But only Schwimmer’s now-grounded planes could deliver these arms from landlocked Czechoslovakia to Israel.
Schwimmer could find no traditional way to get his planes out of the US, so he made it up. He proposed making them part of the Panamanian National Airlines.
All he had to do was create this entity.
Although the Panamanians had just built an international airport, they had no airline to call their own.
Schwimmer pitched the idea of letting him launch and run such an airline to the Panamanians.
They bought it on the spot.
This allowed the operation members to fly the planes out of America and, after hopscotching across the globe, into Czechoslovakia. There, they picked up Nazi-surplus rifles, bullets, machine guns and fighter planes. They delivered the war instruments to the Israelis at the eleventh hour.
“They took them off before we shut the engines down,” recalled Schwimmer, pardoned in 2001 by President Clinton.
Use obstacles as opportunities to innovate
Schwimmer and his men knew that the fighter planes they bought — second-rate Messerschmitts — had no chance of making it from Czechoslovakia to Israel. So they took them apart and fit the bodies in one C-46 and the wings in another.
They put the Messerschmitts back together after landing in Israel.
They reassembled the first four Messerschmitts just in time to stop 10,000 Egyptian troops and dozens of tanks from overrunning Tel Aviv and bringing the war — and the creation of a Jewish state — to an abrupt end.
“That night,” said Lenart, who led the air assault, “our intelligence people intercepted an [Egyptian] message that said, ‘We are heavily attacked by enemy aircraft and we are scattering.’ They never moved one inch forward.”
These are just some of the lessons I learned from the operation members, may they rest in peace. I wonder how much collective wisdom we have gleamed from the Greatest Generation? And how much more we can pick up while some of them are still with us?