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US aviator who fought for nascent state of Israel, dies at 92

After WWII, torpedo bomber pilot Leon Frankel traveled to Palestine in 1948 and flew 25 missions in the early years of the Israel Air Force

Still from a video of Leon Frankel discussing his military service in Israel on December 7, 2011. (screen shot: YouTube/Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas)
Still from a video of Leon Frankel discussing his military service in Israel on December 7, 2011. (screen shot: YouTube/Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas)

Leon Frankel, an American aviator whose exploits fighting for the nascent State of Israel were featured in a documentary, has died at age of 92.

Frankel, who died Oct. 7 in his native Minnesota, had his exploits spotlighted in the 2014 film “Above and Beyond,” which describes the beginnings of the Israel Air Force.

Trained as a torpedo bomber pilot during World War II, Frankel took off in February 1945 from the aircraft carrier USS Lexington for the first US Navy raid on Tokyo. In a subsequent raid he was instrumental in sinking a Japanese cruiser and protecting his squadron commander, whose plane was badly damaged.

For his actions, Frankel was recognized with the Navy Cross, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Air Medals and two Presidential Citations.

In 1948, with the Jewish state about to declare its independence, Frankel traveled clandestinely to Israel. He joined the country’s first fighter squadron and flew 25 missions, ironically in the Czech version of Nazi Germany’s famed Messerschmidt-109.

He explained his motivation to fight for Israel in a letter last year to the Minneapolis StarTribune, responding to an Op-Ed column that labeled Frankel and his fellow volunteers as “American jihadists.”

“I could not stand idly by, with my experience, while a second Holocaust loomed, with the Arab nations telling the world they were going to destroy the Jewish state,” Frankel wrote.

Frankel later established a car dealership, married and eventually settled in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

He is survived by Ruth, his wife of 63 years, two children and two grandchildren.

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