- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2001

TEL AVIV Al Schwimmer refused for 50 years to seek a presidential pardon because he didn't want to apologize for his crimes. He got one anyway a week ago, in the final hours of President Clinton's term in office.

The 83-year-old American Jew, who flew U.S. Air Force planes in Europe during World War II, had been deemed a delinquent in the United States for more than half a century, permanently stripped of his civil rights.

Mr. Schwimmer smuggled planes to Israel. In the year leading up to the Jewish state's 1948 war for independence, he ran a secret network in the United States, under the noses of federal investigators and export authorities.

He also recruited dozens of other retired U.S. Air Force pilots to fly the planes to Israel and pilot them in the war, in an undertaking that gave Israel an edge over its Arab neighbors.

"I was never prepared to say I did something wrong," Mr. Schwimmer said last week in his penthouse apartment in Tel Aviv, where pictures of the planes he piloted adorn the walls. "That's why I refused to ask to be pardoned for things I did back then."

Mr. Schwimmer was approached by Jews from Palestine in 1947 and asked to join a mission to secretly ferry refugees from the war in Europe to Israel. By the time the operation was in place, Jewish leaders were more worried about the upcoming war.

Instead of a refugee mission, they asked Mr. Schwimmer to help the Jews of Palestine bypass an American embargo on the sale of arms and planes to the Middle East.

Mr. Schwimmer was 30 at the time, single and working as a flight engineer for Trans World Airlines. Immediately, he called on his war buddies, U.S. Air Force pilots who had served with him in Europe.

"It wasn't difficult to recruit people," he said. "There were plenty of Jews in the Air Force and many of them were single, like myself, people who could get up and go on a moment's notice."

With help from his friends, Mr. Schwimmer established two phony airline companies, secured flight routes to Europe and bought a few dozen transport planes. Some came from the postwar stockpiles of the U.S. Air Force.

He and the other pilots took turns flying the planes to Czechoslovakia, where the Jewish community of Palestine had close allies. In Prague, the planes were refitted to carry bombs and flown to Palestine.

"On one of our flights from Prague, we actually flew over Egypt and dropped a couple of the bombs," Mr. Schwimmer said.

Back in the United States, the FBI had started an investigation, nearly catching up to Mr. Schwimmer several times. At one point, he said, authorities raided a Florida airport just hours after his planes took off.

On another occasion, in 1948, Mr. Schwimmer was holding meetings in New York's Henry Hudson hotel when he got word that FBI agents were looking for him in the lobby. As they made their way up the elevator, he dashed down 20 flights of stairs, got into a car with friends and headed for the Canadian border.

"They were on my tail. It was clear that we could no longer conduct the operation," he said.

Mr. Schwimmer flew from Canada to Israel and fought alongside other volunteer pilots during the war. When it ended, he returned to the United States to face trial for breaking the U.S. arms embargo, exporting planes illegally, violating the Neutrality Act and other charges.

A federal court in Los Angeles convicted Mr. Schwimmer and a half-dozen other airmen. Most were spared jail sentences but were stripped for life of many civil rights.

"I could no longer vote, I was barred from holding any federal job, I was kicked out of the Air Force reserve. It was quite stiff," he said.

Mr. Schwimmer lived with the penalties for decades, largely unaffected since he had moved to Israel. A year after his trial, he was lured back to the Jewish state by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to establish Israel Aircraft Industries, a government-owned weapons firm that Mr. Schwimmer headed for years.

Three weeks ago, Mr. Schwimmer said, he was contacted by the son of the late Hank Greenspun, a Las Vegas newspaper publisher who had served in Israel with Mr. Schwimmer as an air force volunteer.

The son, Brian Greenspun, had attended law school with Mr. Clinton. He told Mr. Schwimmer that he had petitioned Mr. Clinton for the pardon and that no apology was necessary.

"I said that was OK with me, so long as I didn't have to express regret," Mr. Schwimmer said.

Eight days ago, Mr. Greenspun called again, this time to say the pardon had been granted.

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