Louis “Lou” Lenart was an American Jewish pilot who played an integral role in the founding of the Israeli Air Force (IAF). Lou was born in Hungary and emigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of 10 to escape from rising antisemitism in Europe. Lenart's parents settled in Pennsylvania. He attended public schools and after high school enlisted in the Marine Corps, where he was the only Jewish person at his training facility.
Shortly after his 18th birthday, Lenart was approved for enlistment in flight school but suffered a bad mid-air collision with another pilot during training that almost left him permanently disabled. After recovering, Lenart went on to fight in the Battle of Okinawa and other air battles over the Pacific ocean. Lou Lenart was discharged at the end of the war after earning the rank of Captain, and upon returning home found out that 14 members of his extended family in Hungary had been rounded up in Auschwitz and killed by the Nazis.
Enchanted by the idea of an independent Jewish homeland, after returning home for a year or so Lenart was easily convinced to aid in smuggling war planes into Israel in 1948. He was instrumental to the training of Israel's first group of air force pilots, who flew in four rickety Czech Avia S-199s that had been pieced together from dismantled and covertly shipped German warplanes. In the months leading up to Israel declaring independence in May 1948, Lou and the other pilots were undergoing flight training in Czechoslovakia to learn to fly these planes. Upon Israel's declaration of independence, the fledgling country was assaulted on all sides by it's Arab neighbors. The Czech planes were quickly taken apart, airlifted to Israel, and then reassembled. Lenart and the other pilots of the first Israeli Air Force flew for the first time on May 29, 1948, in an emergency mission to stop nearly 10,000 Egyptian forces advancing on Tel Aviv during the War of Independence. According to Lenart, they had only flown the planes for two hours prior, and were unsure if they would even be able to lift off the ground. As the most experienced pilot, Lenart led the group of four pilots on their mission. The Egyptian army was taken by surprise because they had no idea the Israeli military had planes, and they ultimately withdrew their forces. During the mission Lenart's guns jammed and were not working properly, and one of the other pilots, Eddie Cohen from South Africa, was shot down and did not survive. Ezer Weizman, future President of Israel, was one of the other pilots. Lenart was subsequently praised by Israeli media as, “the man who saved Tel Aviv.”
In the 1950's Lou Lenart piloted El-Al airlines planes as part of Operation Ezra & Nehemia, the airlifting of over 100,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel over a period of months begining in early 1951. Only about 6,000 Jews were left in Iraq by the time the operation finished in early 1952.
Later in life Lenart flew aeriel mapping missions over Central American Jungles, produced six feature films, served as a coordinator for the Israeli Defense Forces for many movies, and was the General Manager for the Los Angeles Clippers N.B.A. team during the early 1980's. Upon his retirement, Lenart moved to Israel. He was featured in Nancy Spielberg's 2014 documentary “Above and Beyond,” speaking about his work establishing the first iteration of the Israeli Air Force.
Lou Lenart died on July 20, 2015, at age 94 in his home in Ra'anana, Israel. He was survived by his wife, daughter, and grandson.
Sources: Chawkins, Steve. “Lou Lenart dies at 94; war hero was 'the man who saved Tel Aviv',” LA Times, (July 21, 2015)
JTA. “Pilot Louis Lenart, hailed as 'the man who saved Tel Aviv,' dies at 94,” Haaretz, (July 21, 2015)
Berkowitz, Eliyahu. “American Jewish pilot and IAF founder, Lou Lenart, passes away at 94,” JPUpdates, (July 21, 2015)