Lou Lenart, US pilot ‘who saved Tel Aviv,’ dies at 94

War of Independence hero led air force attack that halted major Egyptian assault on Tel Aviv, went on to make movies

Lou Lenart, left, and other fighter pilots in front of the Avia S-199 plane. (Courtesy of Boaz Dvir via JTA)
Lou Lenart, left, and other fighter pilots in front of the Avia S-199 plane. (Courtesy of Boaz Dvir via JTA)

Israeli war hero Lou Lenart, an American fighter pilot who led an Israeli air attack during the War of Independence that fended off an Egyptian raid on Tel Aviv, died Monday at the age of 94.

Lenart, who also fought in World War II and went on to become a Hollywood producer, died of kidney and heart failure at his home in the central Israeli city of Ra’anana.

His funeral will be held Wednesday at the Kfar Nachman Cemetery in Ra’anana. High-ranking officers of the US Marine Corps and Israeli Air Force are expected to attend, according to Lenart’s wife, Rachel Nir.

Lenart was born Layos Lenovitz, the son of Jewish farmers, in 1921, in a small Hungarian village near the Czech border. To escape the prevalent anti-Semitism, the family moved to the United States when Lenart was 10. His parents settled in the Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Wilkes-Barre, where he was the target of anti-Jewish taunts.

Lou Lenart (Courtesy)
Lou Lenart (Courtesy)

At 17, Lenart enlisted in the U.S. Marines and after 18 months of infantry training talked his way into a flight school, where he was almost given up for dead after a midair collision during training.

Lenart saw action in the Battle for Okinawa and other Pacific engagements. Discharged at war’s end with the rank of captain, he learned that 14 relatives in Hungary had been killed in Auschwitz.

It took little additional incentive for the ex-Marine to join the clandestine effort to smuggle war surplus planes into the nascent State of Israel in early 1948.

When Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, the Israeli Air Force consisted of four bastardized Czech versions of the German Messerschmitt. On May 29 of that year, large Egyptian forces had advanced to within 16 miles of Tel Aviv and Israel decided to gamble its entire air force in an attack on the Egyptian advance columns.

As the most experienced pilot, Lenart led the attack, backed by Ezer Weizman, later president of Israel, as one of the other three pilots.

The stunned Egyptian troops, who had been assured that the Israelis had no aircraft, stopped their advance and retreated. Subsequent news reports hailed Lenart as “The Man Who Saved Tel Aviv.”

“It was the most important event in my life,” Lenart later told the Israel Air Force journal. “I survived World War II so I could lead this mission.”

After the war, Lenart participated in the airlift of Iraqi Jews to Israel, was a pilot for El Al Airlines and produced six feature films, including “Iron Eagle” and “Iron Eagle II.”

One of his collaborators was Hollywood screenwriter Dan Gordon, who emphasized that the moniker was 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.”

Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States and now a Knesset member, described Lenert some years ago as “a loving father, loyal friend, champion of Israel. Lou Lenart is an inspiration not only for Jews, but for all people who have suffered oppression and have had to struggle for their liberty and defense.”

Along with his wife, Lenart is survived by a daughter, Michal, who herself joined the Israel Air Force, and a grandson.

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