As a 22-year-old lieutenant, Giora Romm became the first fighter pilot ace (shooting down five enemy planes) of the Israel Air Force during the Six Day War of 1967. It was my great good fortune and honor to have met Giora and interviewed him (and his wife Miriam) for The Lion’s Gate (Penguin Sentinel 2014). Giora passed away this Saturday after a long battle with cancer. He was 78.
In honor of this great and good man, I’m excerpting below a part of one of “his” chapters in The Lion’s Gate. I cite this specific passage because, although Giora is speaking of the mindset of a fighter pilot, what he’s saying applies equally to you and me as writers and artists.
The passage is Giora speaking:
When I was fifteen, I applied for and was accepted into a new military boarding school associated with the Reali School in Haifa. The Reali School was the elite high school in Israel. The military school was a secondary school version of West Point. We attended classes at Reali in the morning and underwent our military training in the afternoon.
I don’t believe there is an institution in Israel today that can measure up to the standards of that school. Why did I want to go there? I wanted to test myself. At that time in Israel the ideal to which an individual aspired was inclusion as part of a “serving elite.” The best of the best were not motivated by money or fame. Their aim was to serve the nation, to sacrifice their lives if necessary. At the military boarding school, it was assumed that every graduate would volunteer for a fighting unit, the more elite the better. We studied, we played sports, we trekked. We hiked all over Israel. We were unbelievably strong physically. But what was even more powerful were the precepts that the school hammered into our skulls.
First: Complete the mission.
The phrase in Hebrew is Dvekut baMesima.
Mesima is “mission”; dvekut means “glued to.” The mission is everything. At all costs, it must be carried through to completion. I remember running up the Snake Trail at Masada one summer at 110 degrees Fahrenheit with two of my classmates. Each of us would sooner have died than be first to call, “Hey, slow down!”
Second: Whatever you do, do it to your utmost. The way you tie your shoes. The way you navigate at night. Nothing is academic.
Third: En brera. “No alternative.”
We are Jews; we are surrounded by enemies who seek our extinction and the extinction of our people. There is no alternative to victory.
Fourteen months after the Six Day War, over the Nile Delta, an Egyptian missile exploded beneath the tail of Giora’s Mirage IIIC. Within moments, Romm found himself hanging by the straps of his parachute, with a broken arm and a leg shattered in a dozen places, looking down from 10,000 feet. Streams of farmers and field workers converged below onto the spot toward which his chute was descending, with the intention, he was certain, of hacking him to death as soon as his feet touched the earth.
No Israeli pilot had survived capture in Egypt or in any other Arab state. Giora was the first. His book, Solitary, (in Hebrew, “Tulip Four,” for his plane’s call sign), is his story of his imprisonment, torture, interrogation, release, and return to service.
In my mind, Solitary is a classic of the literature of war. It was my privilege, and my publishing partner Shawn Coyne’s, to bring it out in English translation (by Anne Hartstein Pace) in 2014.
But above and beyond Giora’s heroics in the air and in captivity, he was a great guy, funny, charming, not at all impressed with himself. He never hated the enemies outside his country or those of opposing agendas within, but always (he retired as a two-star general, having served as well as military attache to the Israeli consulate in the US) looked for common ground. I salute you, Giora. You were the best of the best.