NARRATION: After World War II, thousands of Europe’s Jewish refugees found a new home in the Middle East where the United Nations had agreed to split British-controlled Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs.
ARCHIVAL (BRITISH PATHÉ NEWSREEL, 1947):
NEWS REEL: Transfer of power in Palestine will bring bloodshed.
ARCHIVAL (BRITISH PATHÉ NEWSREEL, 1947):
NEWS REEL: The call for the holy war against the Jews went out from Cairo.
NARRATION: Arab nations opposed the U.N. plan. And the leader of what was about to become the state of Israel knew what was coming.
DENNIS ROSS (FORMER U.S. ENVOY TO THE MIDDLE EAST): David Ben-Gurion understood. If Israel declared itself a state it was going to have a war. None of the neighbors would accept it and it would have to fight for its existence. So Israel was in desperate need of arms.
NARRATION: But the U.S. imposed an arms embargo on the entire region, hoping to stave off a full-fledged conflict.
DENNIS ROSS: Now the problem is, the British were providing the Egyptian army. The British are providing the Iraqis. So the only one who is not getting anything through official channels are the Jews in Palestine.
NARRATION: So, Israel turned to sympathetic Americans.
AL SCHWIMMER (WORLD WAR II VETERAN): The cause to me was clear. We had to do it. We don’t have a choice.
NARRATION: Al Schwimmer, then a 30-year-old TWA flight engineer, volunteered to launch a secret operation to smuggle arms to Israel. With money raised from American Jews, he bought decommissioned military transport aircraft – from the U.S. government.
AL SCHWIMMER: The war was over, they didn’t need them anymore. So they put ‘em up for sale and we bought ‘em.
NARRATION: Schwimmer gathered up 13 cargo planes at airports in California and New Jersey, and enlisted dozens of American World War II veteran aviators.
HAROLD LIVINGSTON (RADIO OPERATOR): One day I got a letter. Do you want to fly munitions to Palestine? If so, call this number and ask for Swifty. I didn’t waste a second. It was the idea of getting back into action.
AL SCHWIMMER: They weren’t all Jews. There were many who agreed to fly with us because they knew me personally. We’d flown together in World War II. I trusted them.
NARRATION: Many of the men who joined the operation were moved by scenes from the Nazi death camps.
LOU LENART (FIGHTER PILOT): My page one in my family album is a picture of my grandmother, who at the age of 70 was shoved into the ovens of Auschwitz. I felt that the remnants of the Holocaust had a right to life and some chance of happiness.
EDDIE STYRAK (RADIO OPERATOR): I’m not Jewish. I just did it because I saw how they looked in the concentration camps. I just felt that something had to be done.
NARRATION: Others like Leon Frankel, a torpedo bomber pilot, wanted to help create a Jewish state.
LEON FRANKEL (FIGHTER PILOT): When I informed my mother where I was going and what I was doing, she just completely fell apart. She had just gotten her son back from three years of war. All of a sudden I’m taking off again. We came for different reasons. A guy like Leo Nomis, for example, was more or less a soldier of fortune. He fought in the Eagle Squadron in the RAF. Could’ve gone to the other side. But he came to us.
NARRATION: Many of the men involved knew the smuggling operation violated U.S. law.
SANDRA BROWN: (DAUGHTER OF OPERATION PILOT): That was cloak and dagger. There were FBI agents spying on what they were doing.
AL SCHWIMMER: We broke the law. There’s no two ways about it. We broke the law badly.
NARRATION: After Czechoslovakia agreed to sell Israel arms, Schwimmer and his men headed out. Taking a circuitous route to avoid detection, they hopscotched across the globe to pick up the weapons – some of them originally built for the Germans during World War II.
RALPH LOWENSTEIN (AMERICAN VOLUNTEER, ISRAELI FORCES): They were really Nazi weapons. If you look closely into the metal, you will see the German eagle. But you know what, I never saw anybody who complained they were using a German weapon. We were just happy to have weapons, period.
NARRATION: Included in the deal were 25 fighter planes with rickety engines. But Schwimmer’s men volunteered to fly those, too.
GIDEON LICHTMAN (FIGHTER PILOT): I started it up and I figured, ‘Oy vey iz mir! We’re in trouble.’ I was checked out after a 35-minute flight. In the American Air Force, in order to get checked out in an airplane, you get about 100 hours.
NARRATION: Then, in May 1948, as war broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Schwimmer’s crew started delivering the weapons to Israel. But the invading forces appeared unstoppable.
COLLIE GOLDSTEIN (TRANSPORT PILOT): We got information that the Egyptians had an armored column driving up the coast and our people had nothing there to stop them.
LOU LENART: A jeep roars up and he says, “Listen, the whole Egyptian army is six miles from the airbase here. If we don’t stop them tonight, they will be in Tel Aviv tomorrow morning and the war is over; we’re finished.”
NARRATION: That’s when Lenart and three other pilots launched Israel’s first aerial attack.
COLLIE GOLDSTEIN: The most critical thing was surprise. The Egyptians had no idea that we had airplanes.
LOU LENART: I turned the airplane upside down, which is a split S, because when you dive bomb, the closer you get to a 90-degree angle, the better your aim is.
NARRATION: Although the aerial attack caused little physical damage, it spooked the Egyptians into abandoning their march on Tel Aviv.
COLLIE GOLDSTEIN: And the Egyptian column never moved north after that.
NARRATION: Throughout the 9-month war, Schwimmer’s pilots took part in combat missions, bombed Cairo and ferried supplies to besieged Israeli soldiers in the desert. They helped the Jewish state survive its first challenge.
HAROLD LIVINGSTON: It was a feeling of having accomplished something. For once in my life.
NARRATION: But the war was costly, with thousands of lives lost on both sides and more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes on land that became part of Israel. As for the Americans who took part…
AL SCHWIMMER: The United States put an order out to arrest us. But they were never able to catch up to us. Until in the end, when we went ahead and gave ourselves up.
NARRATION: Schwimmer and ten others were charged with arms smuggling and breaking the Neutrality Act. One man went to prison, and others were fined $10,000.
ARCHIVAL (NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF CHRISTIANS AND JEWS, 3-23-82):
RONALD REAGAN: America has never flinched from its commitment to the state of Israel.
ARCHIVAL (WHITE HOUSE PRESS CONFERENCE, 5-12-77):
JIMMY CARTER: It’s a special relationship.
NARRATION: But over the decades, as the U.S. became Israel’s strongest supporter, three American presidents would issue pardons for some of the men, including Al Schwimmer.
AL SCHWIMMER: I have no grudge against the United States. They did what they had to do. I did what I had to do to help create a state of Israel. That was the goal.
ON SCREEN: Al Schwimmer created an arms and aircraft company in Israel.
In the 1980s, he was involved in secretly shipping arms to Tehran in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Schwimmer died in Tel Aviv on his 94th birthday in 2011.