With Israel’s survival up in the air, pilot Sam Lewis went above and beyond
Risking life and his U.S. citizenship, a Jewish pilot from Los Angeles took to the skies in 1948 to help Israel win its war for independence. As one of several airmen who flew desperately needed aircraft packed with war material to Israel, Sam Lewis helped turn the tide of battle.
Lewis was part of Machal, the thousands of volunteers from around the world who fought with Israel. Those from America broke U.S. law, which eventually led to a trial in federal court in downtown L.A. Even so, Lewis’ contribution to Israel’s fight for independence, celebrated this year on May 2, won him wide acclaim, including special requests from two of Israel’s most prominent prime ministers.
“When [David] Ben-Gurion or Golda Meir would fly anyplace, said Lewis’ daughter Sandra Brown, “they would always want my father to be the pilot.”
Lewis’ involvement in a major war operation to send planes to Israel began at the Burbank Airport. With a proclamation by President Harry S. Truman on March 28, 1948, prohibiting the export of even civilian aircraft, soon to go into effect, Lewis and other pilots flew five two-engine C-46 Commandos to Mexico City, the first stop on a perilous trip that would end in warn-torn partitioned Palestine.
A week later, on the second leg of the journey, from Mexico City to Panama, Lewis’ fully loaded plane barely cleared the field on takeoff. Another plane was not so lucky and crashed, killing its pilot, Bill Gerson, and mechanic, Glen King.
Once in Panama, Lewis helped to better train the pilots. The aircraft flew on to Zatec airport in Czechoslovakia, a nation that sold guns and ammunition to Israel.
During the war, Lewis also flew a large four-engine craft called a Constellation from Zatec into Israel many times with loads of cargo, including one flight that was loaded with Czech machine guns, which arrived just in time to help win a battle. On one of the return landings to Zatec, the hydraulic system gave out — a wheel wouldn’t lock — but Lewis managed to land the plane on its belly.
Lewis also flew bombing runs, his daughter said. The planes did not have bomb bays, so each “had young guys called ‘bomb chuckers’ who would line up the bombs and throw them out the door.”
The 1966 film “Cast a Giant Shadow” had one famous bomb scene wrong, Brown added, the one where an American pilot, played by Frank Sinatra, throws a full seltzer bottle out of the plane as a kind of bomb. According to her father, she said, empty bottles, which made a louder exploding sound, were used. Asked to serve as an informal consultant on the movie, Lewis pointed out the difference, she said, but “they had already shot the scene and did not want to redo it.”
Sam Lewis was born Samuel Rifkin in New York in 1912 and first came to Los Angeles in 1924 on a trip accompanying his uncle, Rabbi Gershon Epstein, and his wife. Sam liked the greenery of L.A. so much that he wanted to stay, and when his parents came out to retrieve him, they decided to stay, too, according to Brown. The family settled in Boyle Heights, and Sam attended Roosevelt High School. After graduation, he married his next-door neighbor and high school sweetheart, Jenny Koph (later, Jean) when he was only 19 and worked at his father’s furrier business.
Though good with his hands, “he hated it,” Brown said. Instead, “he loved anything to do with flying” and was drawn to the small neighborhood airfields that dotted the L.A. landscape at the time. After taking only four flying lessons, he soloed. He got a job as a flight instructor, and to make some extra cash, he took up people on weekends for 5 cents a ride.
“Clover Field [in Santa Monica] was my playground,” Brown recalled.
When Sam finally was able to make enough as a flight instructor, he quit the furrier business.
“My father belonged to a Jewish flying club,” Brown said, and a 1939 photo of the group at Mines Field (now Los Angeles International Airport) shows the group with Sam identified as a “flight instructor.”
In the years before World War II, Sam had signed up to be an instructor for the U.S. Army Air Corps, working out of what today is Ontario Airport. Wanting to fly larger aircraft, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, learning to fly Hudson bombers, eventually flying them in 1941 to England to aid in the war effort.
Now experienced with larger aircraft, he worked as a pilot for Western Airlines, but he believed his not being promoted to captain was due to anti-Semitism. Moving to TWA, he ran into similar problems and was asked by management to change his last name to something less identifiable, which he did, to Lewis, after his father’s first name. During World War II, when TWA became part of the U.S. Air Transport Command, Lewis gained more experience flying multi-engine planes, including C-46s and Constellations loaded with troops and cargo.
After the war, Al Schwimmer, a flight engineer for TWA who dreamed of starting an airline, reached out to Lewis and another L.A.-based pilot, Leo Gardner
Unknown to them at first was that in the final days before the partition of Palestine in 1947, Schwimmer was working with Shlomo Rabinovitch, a former British army major with contacts with the soon-to-be inner circle of the new State of Israel, including Ben-Gurion, according to “The Pledge,” a book by Leonard Slater about the clandestine mission to send aircraft to Israel.
The fragile new nation needed airplanes for battle and transport, and Schwimmer was part of an operation called Yakum Purkan, from the Aramaic prayer Yakum purkam min shemaya (salvation would be forthcoming from heaven).
Though initially not a Zionist, Lewis jumped in — even having a group of young prospective pilots from Israel meet at his apartment.
In 1948, after 10 C-46s and three Constellations had been purchased as war surplus, many of the planes were brought to Burbank Airport. With the U.S. Neutrality Act prohibiting the exportation of military aircraft without a license, FBI agents watched as several hundred workers stripped the airplanes of any military gear. Their cover story was that the planes were part a new Panamanian airline, Lineas Aereas de Panama, Sociedad Anonima, flying out of Tokeman Airport in Panama.
After the war, Lewis and others involved in the operation were put on trial for violating the Neutrality Act. Schwimmer and Gardner were found guilty and fined $10,000 each, but neither served time in prison. Schwimmer, who died in 2011, was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in January 2001. Lewis got off, as one of the jurors supposedly reasoned he was involved only as a pilot.
Soon after, Lewis was hired as one of El Al airline’s first pilots, and he moved to Israel in 1950 with his wife and youngest daughter, Elaine. After retiring from the airline following a distinguished 30-year career, he continued to fly, working for the Schwimmer-run Israel Aerospace Industries.
In 1980, he moved back to L.A. He died the following year.
“He was as straight as an arrow and not one to promote himself,” Brown said.
As we celebrate Israel Independence Day, we can be thankful Sam Lewis let his flying do his talking for him.
Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon J. Rodman at firstname.lastname@example.org.