Lou Lenart as an Israeli fighter pilot in 1948, when he helped gain independence for Israel and Tel Aviv. (Tom Tugend)
LOS ANGELES (JTA) -- As the sun slowly sets over the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial grounds outside Washington on July 6, ex-U.S. Marine and Israel Air Force fighter pilot Lou Lenart will be on the reviewing stand flanked by generals and saluting as the precision marching drill teams and bands pass by.
No doubt the scene will seem like a fantasy for Lenart, 89, looking back at his arrival in the United States as Layos Lenovitz, a 10-year-old farmboy from a small Hungarian village near the Czech border who came with his family to live in the Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Wilkes-Barre and was mocked for his odd accent.
That farmboy, the regular target of anti-Semitic taunts, would go on to fly missions in Okinawa and on the Japanese mainland for the United States, clandestinely join the effort to smuggle war planes into prestate Israel in anticipation of its struggle for independence and fly salvaged World War II fighter planes while evading the British blockade.
One Israeli newspaper in a headline dubbed Lenart "The Man Who Saved Tel Aviv” for his exploits fighting against a superior Egyptian force in May 1948.
The hourlong Sunset Parade will start against the background of the 32-foot high 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 Brogan, commander of the Marine Corps Systems Command, will briefly recount Lenart’s services to the United States and Israel. (The ceremony is open and free to the public.)
Lenart says 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.”
Lenart joined the U.S. Marines in 1940 at the age of 18, and after a year-and-a-half of infantry training he talked his way into flight school. A midair collision nearly cost Lenart his life, but despite doctors predictions he was back in the cockpit. Lenart flew an F4U Corsair in the battle of Okinawa and took part in numerous attacks on the Japanese mainland.
After World War II Lenart learned that 14 relatives in Hungary had been killed in Auschwitz, so it took little added incentive for the ex-captain to clandestinely join the effort to smuggle war planes into prestate 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 a week old and invading Egyptian forces were moving up the coast to Tel Aviv.
On May 29 of that year, 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: four Czech-made planes -- the Avia S-199, a bastardized version of the German Messerschmitt Me-109, whose 20 mm canons fired through the rotating propeller blades in World War I fashion.
The Egyptian troops, who had been assured that the Israelis had no aircraft, were so surprised and unnerved by the attack that they halted their advance on Tel Aviv.
Among the four pilots manning the planes, subsequently enshrined as the pioneer fathers of the Israel Air Force, were Ezer Weizman, later president of the state, and Lenart, the only living survivor among the four.
“I think it was for this precise moment in history that I was born,” Lenart said in an 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), dividing his time between his homes in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles.
He has left Israel another legacy in his daughter Michal, who followed in her father’s footsteps by serving in the Israel Air Force.
Lenart is continuing mission is to pass on 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 Israel Air Force.
Gordon says the headline about “The Man Who Saved Tel Aviv” 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.’ ”