For Israeli Air Force pioneer Al Schwimmer, WWII never really ended
Today, Wednesday, September 2, marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. For decades, we’ve romanticized the conclusive resolution of a global calamity that killed 30 million more people than the 1918 Spanish flu and 100 times more than COVID-19. With a nostalgic gleam in our eyes (even if most of us were not there), we picture discharged soldiers smooching strangers on the streets, bombs giving way to the mother of all baby booms, and American innovation shifting abruptly yet seamlessly from the battlefield to the marketplace. As we dream about an analogous, decisive defeat of the darned coronavirus — during which we’d rush out to toss our masks into the air and deep-six social distancing — we feel downright envious.
But WWII’s tied-with-a-bow endpoint has proven no more definitive than President George W Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” declaration aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. In reality, offshoots of the Second World War have festered for years and decades. Allied soldiers rampaged through Germany and Japan, raping women, murdering men, and looting the meager property spared by carpet bombing. Poles and other Europeans slayed returning Jewish neighbors. The United States and the Soviet Union swapped an impermanent partnership for a perpetual rivalry. The victors set international law precedents by trying war criminals at Nuremberg, Tokyo, and other tribunals. The CIA-predecessor Office of Strategic Services employed ex-Nazis in its geopolitical chess match against the Russians. The US helped SS officers escape to Latin America through so-called ratlines.
The Allies relocated 12 million Germans and millions of Japanese. The Marshall Plan rescued former foes while ignoring some old friends. Middle Eastern, Latin American and Asian nations broke free of colonial shackles only to face challenges for which they were ill-prepared. A mad dash to potentially even greater devastation (the nuclear arms race) started as WWII wound down and marches on to this day. Gen. Douglas MacArthur fed those not burned alive during America’s multicity reign of napalm-and-nuclear terror. The Allies carved Germany and Korea into antagonistic pieces that, in the latter’s case, remain officially at war. Sen. Joseph McCarthy cooked up the poisonous Red Scare, and many Americans ate it. The capitalists and communists battled to the death in Southeast Asia. The Allies kept many of the 250,000 Jews who survived the Catastrophe or Destruction, as the Holocaust was then known, behind barbed wire in displaced persons (DP) camps — often former Nazi concentration camps.
It was at one of those DP camps that US Air Transport Command flight engineer Adolph “Al” Schwimmer realized the fight was not over. Searching unsuccessfully for living relatives, he learned that Holocaust survivors remained stuck in the Nazi quicksand, which under the Allies had dried but not washed away. The only entity that welcomed the refugees — the Yishuv, the Palestinian Jewish community — was blocked off by the British, who controlled the Holy Land through a 1918 League of Nations mandate.
The Royal Navy, its glory days clearly behind it, intercepted Palestine-bound ships and interned the Holocaust survivors in Cyprus and Germany.
Schwimmer, who had little connection to his Judaic background, paused his post-WWII life to focus on helping the Holocaust survivors. He visited the Yishuv’s “Jaffa Oranges” office in Manhattan to propose a solution: keep the refugees from becoming sitting ducks on the Mediterranean by flying them into Palestine.
Jaffa Oranges, tasked with procuring weapons for an anticipated war of independence, dismissed Schwimmer. He could’ve simply returned to working as a TWA flight engineer and fantasizing about starting his own airline. But once he grasped that the war had not ended, he couldn’t turn back. He showed up at the Yishuv office several times a week; he volunteered to deliver top-secret letters and packages across the globe for the Haganah (the Jewish underground); and he embarked on a new mission: building an air force for the future Jewish state.
An air force was not on the Yishuv’s wish list. It was deemed too out of reach, too pie-in-the-sky for a country-in-the-making struggling to justify and sustain its existence. The Palestinian Jewish leaders never fooled themselves into thinking that their light-airplane Shrut Avir (Air Service) provided any sort of protection, but they felt they had to be “realistic.” Everything changed when a new Haganah operative on whom Leon Uris would later base his “Exodus” protagonist took over Jaffa Oranges. Yehuda Arazi tested Schwimmer on every aspect of his plan, from the cost of decommissioned transport planes to the repair timetable to the anticipated flight routes.
Schwimmer passed with flying colors and received funding to fulfill his goal of launching an airline, albeit merely as a front.
Within a few months, his fake airline — with monikers ranging from Schwimmer Aviation to Lineas Aereas de Panama — became the Israeli Air Force (IAF). Among other breakthroughs, Schwimmer and his men — mostly Americans, Jews and non-Jews — airlifted desperately needed weapons and fighter planes from the only country willing to break the international arms embargo (landlocked communist Czechoslovakia); chucked bombs out the back of their transport planes on enemy positions; recruited, trained, and deployed fighter pilots to wrest aerial control from the Egyptians and Syrians; smuggled in B-17s, bombing Cairo, Damascus, and Amman and providing air cover to Israeli soldiers; supplied besieged troops in the desert; and gave rise to the Jewish state’s national airline, El Al.
So, did the fight finally end for Schwimmer on July 20, 1949, when the Israelis signed the last of four armistices with its neighbors? No. First, he returned to the United States to stand trial, alongside nine other operation members, for breaking the arms embargo and Neutrality Act. He and eight others were found guilty. They lost their civil rights and became convicted felons. Second, he came back to Israel to create and run Israel Aircraft Industries (today, Israel Aerospace Industries), a worldwide leader in aviation innovation. Third, he continued going out of his way to safeguard his new country. Sometimes, it backfired, like when he played a role in providing Iran with American arms as part of the 1980s Iran-Contra Affair. But he kept on.
Did Schwimmer reach at least a symbolic endpoint in 2001, when President Bill Clinton pardoned him?
In the 12 months before he died in 2011 at the age of 94, I interviewed Schwimmer in person and on the phone several times. He told me that the pardon — and the original conviction, for that matter — meant little to him. “I have no grudge against the US,” he said. “They did what they had to do. I did what I had to do.”
The endpoint tends to be a great deal more elusive than we imagine.
Wait, you say, what about the 1918 Spanish flu? Didn’t it end at some point?
No. The Spanish flu is still with us. Its mutations have continued to infect—and kill—millions.
If Schwimmer were here today, he might say: Just focus on what you can do to help.
Boaz Dvir is the author of “Saving Israel: The Unknown Story of Smuggling Weapons and Winning a Nation’s Independence” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020) and the director and producer of “A Wing and a Prayer” (PBS, 2015). He’s an assistant professor of journalism at Penn State University.