Israel has one of the world’s most advanced and lethal air forces. In November 1947, however, when the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition historical Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, thereby ending the British Mandate in Palestine, the Jewish community’s defense forces had ground troops but no air force.
With the hostile neighboring Arab states possessing their own air forces, however limited, the leaders of the nascent Jewish state were concerned that as their better militarily-equipped adversaries were preparing to invade it on the ground and in the air they were vulnerable to overwhelming defeat without their own air force to defend their newly independent country.
In one of Israel’s War of Independence’s most incredible stories (and there were many of them), Al Schwimmer, an American Air Force veteran of World War II, feared that the new Jewish State’s lack of an air force would bring about a repeat of the Holocaust against the Jews of Palestine.
Only 29 years old in 1947, he possessed an entrepreneurial drive (that would later transform him into a legend in Israel) as he single-handedly proceeded to convince the arms procurement representative of the Jewish state in New York City that he could create a fictitious airline to purchase decommissioned airplanes from the U.S. War Asset Administration, fix them at airfields in California and New Jersey, and deploy his not-yet-recruited pilots and mechanics to pick up rifles and ammunition and transport them on board his commercial and fighter aircraft to Israel.
How this seemingly preposterous proposal would end up saving Israel from military defeat by its Arab adversaries forms the narrative of this dramatic, extensively detailed account. It draws on the author’s interviews with some of the remaining members of this group of enterprising and brave aviators who covertly flew their smuggled aircraft from America to Israel via far-off intermediary destinations such as Mexico, Panama, Czechoslovakia, and Sicily.
These covert smuggling operations were necessary because despite the Truman administration’s voting in the United Nations General Assembly in 1947 in favor of the partition of Palestine, President Truman at the time was influenced by Secretary of State George Marshall to oppose providing military assistance to the newly independent Israeli state to prevent alienating America’s Arab allies. In response, Mr. Schwimmer and his team had to engage in countless subterfuges to evade the nation-wide surveillance of their activities by the FBI, including FBI agent Pat Ptacek, who appears throughout this account.
Named Operation OZ (for Operation Zebra), the author recreates in vivid detail how this overarching effort included the covert purchasing, fixing and maintenance of a variety of surplus aircraft, such as Messerschmitt fighters and B-17 bombers, as well as firearms, in the United States, and the recruitment, training, and deployment of the mostly American pilots to fly them on what turned out to be dangerous long-distance missions to Israel.
Out of necessity, Schwimmer and his team also dealt with criminal elements who supported the establishment of the Jewish State to assist in these smuggling efforts. These included, as an intermediary, a young Frank Sinatra, who at the time was a headliner singer in The Copacabana night club (situated in the same Manhattan hotel building as the covert Jewish weapons procurement office).
In the type of dramatic scene that runs throughout the book, Schwimmer stopped by the Copacabana to talk to a dancer friend when he ran into Sinatra. When he mentioned he was off to Los Angeles to “start an airline,” Sinatra “suggests he look up Mickey Cohen. Mickey likes to help people,” and concluded by “sending his best regards to the notorious [Jewish] mobster.” Other prominent Jewish mobsters, such as Meyer Lansky, also helped Schwimmer’s arms smuggling operation in numerous ways, such as gaining the cooperation of mob-led port longshoremen’s unions to help smuggle arms shipments to Israel.
Eventually, as the American-origin aircraft and weapons made their way to Israel, Schwimmer’s operation grew in scope. A major base was established in post-war communist Czechoslovakia, where the Zionist movement had friendly ties, and where Schwimmer’s team was able to purchase surplus German aircraft, armaments and uniforms — many of which still retained their Nazi insignia.
Once this massive aircraft and weapons supply effort reached Israel, the account shifts to the operation’s new role in forming the country’s new air force and in defending it, particularly in aggressively striking against the Egyptian air force.
As a side story, for their “crime” of arming Israel by breaking the Neutrality Act’s arms embargo, Schwimmer and several members of his team were indicted by U.S. authorities once they returned to America. With most of them receiving relatively light sentences, Schwimmer and two others, were pardoned by American presidents years later.
In the early 1950s, Schwimmer was invited by Israel’s leaders to return to the country, where he was instrumental in establishing Israel Aircraft Industries, which grew into a technologically innovative multi-billion dollar corporation.
Complementing the book’s extensively detailed account is the author’s documentary film “A Wing and a Prayer,” which is available on Amazon Prime.
• Joshua Sinai is a Washington, DC-based consultant on counterterrorism issues.
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SAVING ISRAEL: THE UNKNOWN STORY OF SMUGGLING WEAPONS AND WINNING A NATION’S INDEPENDENCE
By Boaz Dvir
Stackpole Books, $29.95, 320 pages