Sunday, July 26, 2015

Lou Lenart - USMC Veteran and IAF Volunteer - 1921-2015

Capt. Lou Lenart in his USMC uniform
in 1945.  (courtesy photo)
Lou Lenart, a World War II American war veteran who volunteered to fly for Israel during the 1948-49 War of Independence, passed away this past week.  He was 94.

Born as Layos Lenovitz in a small Hungarian village in 1921, his family moved to the United States when he was 10.  His family settled in the Pennsylvania town of Wilkes-Barre, where he became the target of anti-Jewish taunts and beatings.  Toughened by his youthful experiences, Lou would go on to enlist with the U.S. Marines, because "I heard they were 'first to fight' and I wanted to kill as many Nazis as I could."  Lenart became a fighter pilot, flying the F4U Corsair in the battle for Okinawa.  Discharged at the end of the war, and facing continued anti-Semitism in the U.S., Lou volunteered to become a pilot for the newly established Israeli Air Force in early 1948.

At the time, Israel was facing an invasion by five Arab armies, while the Western allies - the United States, United Kingdom and France - were enforcing an arms embargo on the new Jewish State.  Whereas the Arab armies of Egypt and Jordan were being supplied and trained by the British army, and the armies of Syria and Lebanon were being supplied and trained by the French, Israel's army relied on clandestine arms deals to equip its new armed forces.

Thus it was that in May 1948, with Egyptian troops marching through on their way to Tel Aviv, that the only fighter planes available to the  Israeli Air Force were a handful of German-designed Me 109 fighters, equipped with engines borrowed from Stuka dive-bombers - newly arrived in crates from Czechoslovakia.  Four fighter planes was all that the Israeli Air Force had at the time.

The original plan had been to use the four airplanes to stage a surprise attack on the Egyptian airfield at El Arish.  However, on May 29 they received an urgent plea for air support from the Israeli defenders south of Tel Aviv, where the Egyptian army had captured the town of Ashdod, just 17 miles from Tel Aviv and 10 miles from the Tel Nof airfield.

As the most experienced pilot of the new Air Force, Lou Lenart was chosen to lead the first sortie of Israel's first fighter squadron.  Making multiple passes in the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire, the attack succeeded in halting the Egyptian advance.  Unaware of the truly meager number of fighters that the Israelis had at their disposal, the Egyptian officers ordered their troops to dig in while they waited for direction from their headquarters in Cairo.  Lou Lenart had led the mission that saved Tel Aviv.  As he would later testify, "It was the most important moment of my life, and I was born to be there at that precise moment in history."

Lou Lenart's passing this week comes as a sad reminder that we are fast losing the last survivors from that bitter era.  World War II, the Holocaust, and Israel's War of Independence, is fast becoming the exclusive reserve of history books, and legend, as the last individuals with first-hand memories of that era are lost to us.

Four rag-tag fighters, cobbled together from parts in different factories.  An assorted crew of volunteer pilots: Lou Lenart, the former U.S. Marine; Ezer Weizman and Modi Alon, who had been trained in the RAF but had never seen combat; and Eddie Cohen, a South African volunteer.  We often forget by what a razor thin margin Israel's independence was established.  Eddie Cohen's fighter would be shot down on that sortie, and Ezer Weizman's would be damaged on landing.  Too often we take for granted the survival of the free society in which we live - in Israel and the United States, both then and now.

Lou Lenart would go on after the war to participate in the covert evacuation of Jewish refugees from Iraq to Israel, and later became an airline pilot in Israel's national airline, El Al.

I cannot help but feel that we are today, a little poorer for his passing.  As if part of our collective memory was being lost.  Rest in peace, Lou.  May we never forget all that you, and so many others gave.


Chawkins, Steve. "Lou Lenart Dies at 94; War Hero was 'The Man who Saved Tel Aviv.'" Los Angles Times, July 22, 5015.
Dolsten, Josefin. "Lou Lenart, US Pilot 'Who Saved Tel Aviv,' Dies at 94." The Times of Israel, July 21, 2015.
Pressfield, Steven. The Lion's Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War. New York: Penguin Group, 2014.

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