NEW YORK — Before he launched his decades long investigation into the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, but well after he’d flown over 100 US Navy combat missions during World War II, Ret. Cpt. Elgen M. Long was saving lives in the skies over Yemen.
Now 91, Long is the last surviving Alaska Airlines crewmember who participated in “On Eagle’s Wings,” part of Operation Magic Carpet, the airlift that brought 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel between 1948 and 1950.
Both he and Alaska Airlines were honored Tuesday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage for their work. Alaska Airlines was presented with the StandWithUs Savior of Israel Award. Additionally, the American Sephardic Federation presented Long with its Maimonides Friendship Award.
“Alaska Airlines flew over enemy territory, facing tremendous risks, just to do the right thing. It’s a display of human courage and dignity, which is worthy of our honor and profound respect and for which Israel, and the Yemenite Jewish community, shall forever be grateful for,” said Shahar Azani, executive director of StandWithUs New York.
The story of how Long came to be a navigator on board the historic humanitarian mission is a story of how one young man, at a very early age, had a desire to serve. And like so many veterans and first responders, this former navigator and pilot, who still moves with military bearing, will tell you he simply did what needed to be done.
“It was important for these people. Their lives depended on it. It was life or death and we were doing the best we could. They needed assistance,” Long said.
Long grew up in McMinnville, Oregon, in the Willamette Valley. Soon after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor he knew he wanted to join the war effort. There was just one problem. Long was only 15.
My parents knew I would go in sooner or later. So they signed the oath on my 15th birthday
“I was very precocious. My brother was joining the Navy and I wanted to join the Navy with my brother. My parents knew I would go in sooner or later. So they signed the oath on my 15th birthday,” Long said.
Along the way he completed aviation radio school, aerial gunnery school, advanced aviation radio school, radar bombing and aerial navigation school. He was promoted from Petty Officer Third Class to Petty Officer Second Class and finally Petty Officer First Class. As for his being underage?
“There was a war going on. There were other things to worry about. If you were fit, if you were useful, they looked the other way,” he said.
Soon Long was flying combat missions from a seaplane throughout the South Pacific. During the Battle of the Philippine Sea he was assigned to the flagship of Sen. John McCain’s father, Vice Admiral John McCain, Sr.
Flying patrols 600 miles in all directions, they were the admiral’s eyes and ears.
Long actually spent Christmas 1944 at home with his parents. His crew had returned stateside while the planes underwent an overhaul and got outfitted with new equipment, including new radar.
Then it was back to Okinawa where his new job was radar counter measures. It was so top secret no one on the plane knew what he was doing. He was in Japan for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the August 15, 1945 cease fire, which happened to be just three days after his 18th birthday.
Long found himself home in time for Christmas. He scored 97 percent on the GED and then earned a degree in aeronautics from the College of San Mateo, California.
Of course it wasn’t all books all the time.
Long met Marie Kurlich, the woman who became his wife and later his partner in a 40 year investigation into the disappearance of Earhart over Howland Island. After interviewing over 100 witnesses and examining nearly 25,000 pages of documents and reports they concluded no credible evidence existed to change the Navy’s 1937 conclusion: With her fuel exhausted Earhart ditched her plane into the sea near Howland Island.
But before that, Long had a part to play in history.
After a stint with the Flying Tigers, an airfreight liner that did contract work with the military, he landed a job with Alaska Airlines. The latter was also doing contract work for the military and they needed a navigator and radio operator.
By January 1948 he was assigned to fly across the northern Pacific. Just a few months later he and his crew received a cablegram from Alaskan Airlines president James Wooten.
“We were told to go to Aden but to leave the stewardesses behind,” Long said.
Soon after arriving in Aden they learned their mission: airlift a couple of thousand refugees to Israel. In the years leading up to and immediately following the UN Declaration establishing the State of Israel, life for Yemenite Jews had deteriorated.
“‘They’re sick and we don’t have the people to take care of them. They are hungry, but we don’t have food to feed them. They need clothes, but we have none to give them. We can’t protect them; we don’t have the people to protect them. They are fair game for the local Arabs. The pogrom had been going on; over 80 have been killed already. Get them out of here as quickly as you can,’” Long recalled being told.
Long’s plane didn’t have enough seats for everyone on board. And so at the mechanic’s suggestion they removed all the seats and made space for 150 people.
No one was thinking about seat belts. We were just thinking about getting everyone out, as many as we could at a time
“No one was thinking about seat belts. We were just thinking about getting everyone out, as many as we could at a time,” Long said.
It was one thing to fly through anti-aircraft fire, through chaff, or over Japanese controlled territory. But none of that prepared him for what he saw on the tarmac in Aden.
“They had no luggage. Most of them didn’t even have shoes. They walked from wherever they lived to get there [the base]. They walked barefoot through the desert to get here. Some came from Sana’a,  miles away,” Long said.
They stood before the plane. Their hesitation and trepidation palpable.
“Many had never seen a plane before. Then their rabbi told them: ‘This is your eagle that is going to take you on your Aliyah,’” Long said, referring to the a the passage from Exodus 19:4 “I bear you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto myself.”
There were no stairs leading into the plane. Only a ladder. And so they climbed aboard one by one; passing up babies and small children.
And off they went, flying a carefully plotted course up the middle of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba, over Eilat, then Beersheba and finally to Tel Aviv. No flight plan was filed. Only the British, Americans and Israelis knew where they came from and where they were going.
For next two years, Long, together with Captains Sam Silver and Warren Metzger, and Chief Pilot Robert McGuire, Jr., helped fulfill an oft cited Biblical prophecy that Yemenite Jews would one day return to their homeland — Israel — “on the wings of eagles.”
The work days were 16 to 20 hours long. After unloading passengers in Tel Aviv the crew usually flew on to Cyprus to spend the night. Alaska Airlines couldn’t keep the planes on the ground in Israel because of bombing raids by the neighboring Arab countries.
For Alaska Airlines taking part in the airlift was all about doing the right thing. Its president, James A. Wooten, decided to help shortly after he was contacted by the American Joint Distribution Committee.
“One of our core values and those held closely by our Alaska Airlines employees is to ‘Do the Right Thing.’ Having answered the call to support the humanitarian efforts of Operation Magic Carpet, nearly 70 years ago, we commend the dedication of the men and women who flew ‘On Eagles Wings,’ to do the right thing,” said Tim Thompson, Alaska Airlines’ manager for public affairs.
Alaska Airlines ultimately made 430 flights. Long participated in 12 of them.
Each flight was perilous in its own right. Fuel was scarce and sandstorms were frequent. Landing on Arab soil was to be avoided at all costs. They were told if that happened the passengers would likely be killed.
Indeed, they were advised if they had to force land it would be better to ditch in the sea alongside a European ship, Long said.
“We were told ‘More of you will survive that way than if you land in an Arab country,’” Long said.
Fortunately, that never came to pass. Only once did a plane make a forced crash-landing after engine loss.
Long remembered the first time they landed in Israel.
“They [refugees] climbed down the ladders and were kissing the ground. They knew they had participated in something historic, that perhaps they were fulfilling a prophecy,” he said.
For Azani the chance to meet Long and present him with this award is personal. In 1949 Azani’s paternal grandparents and father, who was then only three, fled Yemen aboard one of those flights.
“I told Elgen ‘Without you I would not be.’ Not what would I be, I simply wouldn’t be here. Knowing what happened to the people in Yemen, there would be no Shahar. We wouldn’t have survived,” Azani said.
Azani spent many afternoons with his grandparents on the balcony of the fourth floor of the government housing in Ramat Gan listening to their stories about Yemen, about arriving in Israel with nothing.
“They would say ‘Nagila, bless our fortune to be back home,’” Azani said. “Every aliyah, every wave of immigrants, has its own difficulties. It wasn’t always an easy encounter between east and west. But they felt so fortunate to live in Israel. To be able to build a life, to have freedom, to live the Israeli dream.”
Last July Azani traveled to Anchorage, Alaska, to say thank you to Alaska Airlines and to see the Alaska Jewish Museum’s permanent exhibit on the airlift: “On the Wings of Eagles; Alaska’s contribution to Operation Magic Carpet.”
Rabbi Joseph Y. Greenberg, president of the Alaska Jewish Museum, was inspired to tell the story after seeing a mention of the airline’s role in the airlift in an in-flight magazine.
The exhibit tells the story of the airlift through photographs, documents and audio-visual aids.
“It highlights the heroic actions of the Alaskan Airline pilots who did this under some pretty difficult flying conditions. But there was another level to it that we wanted to highlight, that these pilots had a special emotional involvement with their mission,” said Leslie Fried, the museum’s curator.
“The other part of the story is the Yemenite Jews themselves. We want people to understand the history of the Yemenite Jews and their relationship to the new state of Israel,” said Fried.
Today more than 750,000 Jews of Yemenite descent live in Israel. That’s 750,000 Jews who, without Operation Magic Carpet, might not be alive.
Long reflected on that for a moment.
“I was lucky enough to have found something I was good at,” Long said. “I happened to be a very good radio operator. I happened to be a very good navigator. I happened to be a very good pilot.”