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Jewish Journal

World War II, Israel Independence Pilot Honored

by Tom Tugend

June 30, 2010 | 12:23 am

Lou Lenart in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1945. Photo courtesy U.S. Marine Corps

Lou Lenart in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1945. Photo courtesy U.S. Marine Corps

As the sun slowly sets over the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial grounds outside Washington, D.C., on July 6, Lou Lenart, ex-Marine and Israeli Air Force (IAF) fighter pilot, will be on the reviewing stand, flanked by generals and taking the salute as the precision marching drill teams and bands pass by.

The coming scene seems like a fantasy to 89-year-old Lenart, resident of Tel Aviv and Santa Monica, particularly as he looks back to his arrival in the United States as Layos Lenovitz, a 10-year-old farm boy from a small Hungarian village near the Czech border.

His family settled in the Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Wilkes-Barre, where the Jewish kid with the funny accent was the regular target of anti-Semitic taunts.

In 1940, at 18, Lenart joined the U.S. Marines. After 18 months of infantry training, he talked his way into flight school, then was almost given up for dead after a midair collision. Despite the doctors’ dire predictions, Lenart came back, flew an F4U Corsair in the Battle of Okinawa and took part in numerous attackson the Japanese mainland.

When the war ended, he learned that 14 relatives in Hungary had been killed in Auschwitz. It took little additional incentive for the ex-Marine Corps captain to clandestinely join the effort to smuggle warplanes into pre-state Israel in anticipation of its struggle for independence.

The job of flying salvaged World War II fighter planes while evading the British blockade was harrowing enough. But when Lenart landed at a makeshift airfield in May 1948, the State of Israel was one week old and invading Egyptian forces were moving up the coast to Tel Aviv.

On May 29, some 10,000 Egyptians with tanks and artillery were 16 miles south of Tel Aviv, and, in a desperate move, Israel unleashed its entire air force. It consisted of four Czech-made planes — the Avia S-199, a bastardized version of the German Messerschmitt Bf109g whose 20mm canons fired through its rotating propeller blades in World War I fashion.

The Egyptian troops had been assured that the Israelis had no aircraft, and the surprise of the attack so unnerved the Egyptians that they halted their advance on Tel Aviv.

Among the four pilots manning the planes, subsequently enshrined as the pioneer fathers of the IAF, were Ezer Weizman, later Israel’s seventh president, and Lenart, the only living survivor among the four.

“I think it was for this precise moment in history that I was born,” Lenart remarked in an interview.

After the war, Lenart participated in the airlift of Iraqi Jews to Israel, flew for El Al Airlines and became a movie producer (“Iron Eagle” and “Iron Eagle II,” among others).

He has left Israel another legacy in daughter Michal, who followed in her father’s footsteps by serving in the IAF.

Lenart has never retired, and his continuing mission is to pass his experiences to future generations as a lecturer, writer and consultant to movie projects.

Currently, he is working with Dan Gordon, a Hollywood writer, who has completed the screenplay for “On Eagles’ Wings,” a feature film on the birth of the IAF.

Gordon recalls that an Israeli newspaper recently headlined a story about Lenart as “The Man Who Saved Tel Aviv,” and he thinks the headline is no exaggeration.

“In many ways, Lou was what Lafayette and Nathan Hale were to the American Revolution,” Gordon said. “If it hadn’t been for Lou and his three comrades, Tel Avivians would be speaking Arabic today.

“Or, perhaps better, is to paraphrase Winston Churchill: ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ ”

The stirring, hour-long Sunset Parade on July 6 will start at 7 p.m., against the background of the bronze Marine War Memorial, adjacent to the Arlington National Cemetery, of five marines and a navy corpsman raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

Before the parade, Brig. Gen. Michael M. Brogan, commander of the Marine Corps Systems Command, will briefly recount Lenart’s service to the United States and Israel. The ceremony is open and free to the public.

For Lenart, the hour on the reviewing stand will be a highlight of a very full life. “I owe so much to the United States and the Marine Corps, which gave a young Jewish immigrant sanctuary and an opportunity to excel,” he said. “This climax is beyond my wildest fantasies.”

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