How I saved Tel Aviv, and made a movie about it
It was one of the most critical moments in the war of 1948: the Egyptian army was in Ashdod waiting to charge Tel Aviv. Four faltering planes went out on the mission and managed to block the Egyptians against all odds. 58 years later, Lou Lenart, who was a pilot in that attack in 1948 and is now a Hollywood producer, is working on a book and movie depicting the heroic battle
Almost 60 years have passed since that fateful day, but Lou Lenart still remembers every minute of it, as though it was yesterday. Those were trying times for the budding Jewish nation, and Lenart was faced with a task of great importance.
It was May 29, 1948, only two weeks after the declaration of independence. The Egyptian army was camped outside Ashdod, and its commanders were hard at work preparing the attack on Tel Aviv. Israel needed to defend itself in an absolute way. This historical move was Lenart’s responsibility: the IDF’s first aerial attack.
Lenart is now 85 years old. In his home in north Tel Aviv he finds it hard to stop the flow of words when remembering that day. For him, he says, that was the shining moment of his life. He came to Israel as a decorated US Air Force pilot, with a record of dozens of flights and attacks against Japanese forces. Despite that, the war for Israel’s existence held a heavier, crucial meaning for him.
Lenart, who had the most expansive operational flying experience in the new air force, led the four pilots. The other three were Ezer Weizmann, Mudy Alon and Eddie Cohen. The four Messerschmitt aircrafts were gathered from leftovers of the Nazi Luftwaffe in the Czech Republic which were reassembled in Israel, and were each equipped with a machine gun and 4 70 kg bombs. This was a far cry from the standards Lenart was used to in the USAF.
“We didn’t know if we could use the planes. We didn’t even know if they would start,” he remembers. “But Air Force Commander Aharon Remez told us we had to do everything possible to stop the Egyptians. I knew they were in the Ashdod area, but we didn’t have up to date maps or radios. Mudy Alon had to give me direction with hand signals. We headed south until we saw the Egyptian forces from above. There were thousands of troops, tanks and hundreds of trucks. We flew lower, dropped the bombs, and started shooting at anything we could spot. The Egyptians tried to shoot at us, but they were stunned. They didn’t even know Israel had an air force. The Arabs had everything, we had nothing. And we still won. When I’m asked how we did it, I say: we just didn’t have a choice. That was our secret weapon.”
The mission was a success: the Egyptian forces were blocked and main command in Tel Aviv could breath a sigh of relief. Eddie Cohen was killed in the attack, and Mudy Alon, who was killed later, lost his plane. “In one battle we lost 25 percent of our pilots, and 50 percent of our aircrafts,” he says.
Following that historic attack, Lenart decided it is time for the world to hear the story of that day’s events. A book and a documentary film based on the story are already in production, and negotiations are underway to turn the story of the Israeli Air Force’s debut performance into a high budget Hollywood film.
The miracle of the oil
Lenart was born in Hungary, and emigrated to the USA with his parents when he was 10 years old. After he graduated from high school, in the summer of 1940, he joined the Marine Corps with one target: “killing as many Nazis as possible.” He was the only Jew in boot camp. He served as a foot-soldier for a while before being accepted to flight school. He had a bad training accident, but recovered and took part in the battles against the Japanese kamikaze pilots in the Pacific Ocean front. He was discharged as a captain after the war, and came home to discover that 14 members of his family, including his grandmother, who stayed back in Hungary were murdered by the Nazis.
In early 1948 he attended a lecture on the importance of the Zionist cause. At the end of the lecture he approached the speaker and asked to join the Hagana. A few weeks later he received a phone call with his first assignment: fly a freight plane from Italy to Israel. In Rome he met a mysterious beautiful woman named Carolina, who introduced him to members of the Italian mafia. The mafia, it turned out, was hired by Israel to assist in the purchase of freight planes for Israel. A few days later Lenart was already on a Pressman aircraft. The only problem was that the distance between Brindisi, the departure point, and his destination in Israel was 1300 miles. The planes maximum flight distance was 350 miles.
“Our solution was to turn the plane into a flying fuel tank,” Lenart tell us. “We took out all the seats in the back of the plane, and replaced them with a giant rubber tank full of fuel, which was connected directly to the plane’s fuel tank. I could barely take off due to the added weight. In addition, I didn’t have any maps, parachutes or radios. I was facing a strong cross wind, and I was afraid I would run out of fuel before we reached Tel Aviv. Finally, after a harrowing 11 hour flight, we, me and my co-pilot Cooly Goldstein, arrived. The landing was good, but as I got off the plane I told myself I would never fly another flight like that one. To this day I have no idea how we didn’t run out of engine oil. It was our miracle of the oil.”
After the dangerous mission was done, he decided to stay in Israel. Later on in the war he became one of the pillars of the Israeli air force. After the war, he took part in an operation to bring 100,000 Jews from Iraq to Israel. He tells us that throughout the service he formed a strong friendship with Ezer Weizmann. “Ezer was a savage, but a very brave pilot. I remember that in 1951 I cam to Ben Gurion’s office to report on a top secret mission I took part in. Before the meeting Shimon Peres told me that I would be asked for my recommendation for Commander of the Air Force at the meeting. When Ben Gurion asked me I had my answer prepared. I told him I thought it was very important for young pilots to have a commander who is a fighter and will be an inspiration to them, and that that man is Ezer.”
Was the friendship maintained once he was elected president?
“We had a very close and warm relationship all through the years, to the very end. His son Shauli stayed with me for a few months when he visited the USA. When he was president I used to joke around with him: ‘Remember you were my number 3.’ To this day I am close to his wife and grandchildren. I think he was one of the best men Israel ever had.”
In the late 70s Lenart decided to try his luck in the film industry. He was involved in several Hollywood productions filmed in Israel, including “Thunderball”, “Cherbourg Feries” and the “Iron Eagle” series. He also took part in the production of “Entebbe: Operation Thunderbolt”, Menahem Golan’s movie about the Entebbe operation. He would rather forget those memories. “Golan is the type of person you only work with once,” he says. “It wasn’t easy taking the money from him for that production, even though Rabin only approved the IDF’s cooperation because of mt involvement with the movie. When Golan and Globus came to Hollywood and held a press conference, the headline in ‘Variety’ quoted them: ‘Golan and Globus will teach Hollywood how to make movies.’ I just couldn’t believe it.”
While working on the project about his Independence War heroics, Lenart is also busy producing a movie based on Shlomo Nakdimon’s book about the bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981. One of the pilots in the operation was Ilan Ramon, whom Lenart knew well. “Ilan even invited me as his guest to attend the mission departure, but I was in the USA at the time and told him, ‘I’ll see you on television.’ I dedicate this movie to his memory.”
Who will portray you in the Independence War movie?
I don’t care. The book and documentary are more important to me, so the real information will be out there. But if so, I hope it’s not Brad Pitt. I’d prefer someone with a more Jewish look.”