Saving Tel Aviv
[“The Book I’ve Been Avoiding Writing” (a.k.a. “Three Years of Writing and 40+ Years of Thinking About The Lion’s Gate“) is a mini-series about the writing of my new book, The Lion’s Gate. Thanks for tuning in as it runs Mondays and Fridays over the next few weeks.]
Okay, here I am with the idea to do a book about the Six Day War of 1967. But that’s all I’ve got.
What comes next? How does a writer start a project?
The first thing I did was phone David Mamet.
NOTE TO READERS: Don’t try this at home. I am friendly with Dave. Otherwise I would never have dared impose on him.
“Dave, do you know anyone in Israel who is connected in military circles?”
“Come to my house this Friday for Shabbat dinner. I’ll introduce you to a guy you’re gonna fall in love with.”
So when Friday came, my friend Kate and I took a bottle of wine and went to Dave’s. Standing in the kitchen as we entered, chatting with Dave’s wife Rebecca, was the gentleman in the photo on the right, taken on Okinawa in 1945:
“Steve, I want you to meet Lou Lenart. Steve, you were a Marine. Lou was a Marine. What else needs to be said?”
SECOND NOTE TO READERS: This is when you know the gods are smiling on you.
Lou and I wound up talking for hours, that night and in the succeeding days at his apartment in Santa Monica. Lou had been a USMC captain in World War II. He flew F4U Corsairs in the battle for Okinawa and against the home islands of Japan.
After the war, in 1948, Lou evaded the FBI (which was trying to prevent any American citizen from bringing aid to the infant state of Israel) and fought as a combat pilot in the Jewish state’s War of Independence.
“Lou led the first fighter mission in Israel Air Force history,” Dave said. “He saved Tel Aviv when the Egyptian army was advancing up the coast road, seventeen miles away.”
“Don’t worry about a thing,” Lou said to me. “I will plug you in with anybody you need to talk to.”
Lou got on the phone to Israel. He introduced me to the two key people—Ran Ronen and Danny Grossman, both IAF aviators—without whose contributions The Lion’s Gate could never have been written.
Lou began telling me stories. We sat in his living room and he took me back to May 14, 1948, the date when the state of Israel was born. “That same day, the armies of five Arab nations—Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon—crossed the border intending to drive the Jews into the sea.”
For two weeks the Israelis fought a desperate holding action against the invaders. But the Arab armies kept advancing. Israel at that time, Lou told me, had no pilots except himself and a few WWII veteran/volunteers from the U.S., Australia, South Africa—with a handful of homegrown Israelis, none of whom had flown in combat. The Egyptians had fifty brand-new Spitfires, a gift from the British. The Israelis had no fighter planes at all except four Messerschmitt 109s, cobbled together from mismatched surplus parts—and as of May 28 these planes had only arrived in Israel hours earlier, in pieces, from Czechoslovakia.
Lou and his pilots are frantic to get into these planes.
Finally the mechanics bolt the Messerschmitts together. The Egyptian Army is twenty miles away, advancing up the coast road. It’s three thirty in the afternoon of Friday, May 29.
Suddenly, onto the base races a jeep carrying Shimon Avidan, the commander of the Jewish troops who are holding off the Egyptians at a half-demolished bridge south of the city.
“Lou, we need your planes now.”
I tell Avidan we can’t fly till tomorrow. “We haven’t tried the bombs or test-fired the guns—we don’t even know if these pieces of shit will fly!”
“Lou, you don’t understand,” Avidan says. “If the Egyptian Army crosses that bridge, they’ll be in Tel Aviv tonight and that’s the end of Israel.”
There’s a phrase in Hebrew, Lou says: En Brera. “No alternative.”
We take off. Four planes. Where’s the bridge? I have no clue. As I’m circling, my number two, Modi Alon, pulls alongside, pointing south.
We fly for only a couple of minutes and suddenly we see ’em. The Egyptian column is miles long, choking the road, jammed up at the dry riverbed with the blocked bridge in the middle.
There is no making light of this moment. Behind us is Israel, the Jewish people hanging on by a thread. Ahead of us is the enemy, advancing to destroy everything we love.
The attack goes awry instantly. Guns jam. Bomb releases balk. Six thousand Egyptian guns are firing at Lou’s four planes. Lou manages to put one 150-pound bomb into the center of the enemy formation. Other than that, the planes inflict minimal damage.
But the shock to the Egyptians is overwhelming. To be attacked from the air by four Me-109s with the Star of David on the side! For all the Egyptians know, we’re just the first of hundreds.
That night the Israeli infantry hits the enemy from the flank. The Egyptians are thrown into disorder. They turn east and pull out.
Tel Aviv is saved, and so is the nation.
Today, Lou says, that bridge is called Ad Halom: “Thus far and no farther.” (Literally “up to here.”)
Lou was 92 when I met him. He’s still around. Just got married, in fact. His wife Rachel is fifty-five. When they got married, Lou moved from Santa Monica to Ra’anana in Israel.
“Sometimes I’m invited to speak to young pilots in the Israel Air Force. You might think that these hotshot kids would be bored or impatient listening to an old-timer like me. But it’s the opposite. They can’t hear enough.
“The event always takes place on an air base, in the pilots’ briefing room. These kids are in their flight overalls; they’ve been training all day. I look out at their faces, these young men, so smart, so dedicated. They will burst their hearts for Israel just like I would and I did. I have to fight back tears every time.
“What do I give to them? I give them my neshama. My soul. I share with them what I saw and who I knew and what we did.
“And that’s what I’m gonna give to you, Steve. You’re part of my family now. What you’re doing is so important. I will help you in any way I can.”
I dedicated The Lion’s Gate to Lou.