Thursday, May 15, 2014
Red Around the Wings
This article is the outcome of a heart to heart talk I conducted with Mitchell (Mitch) Flint, at his offices on Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, about his years as a US Navy Pilot and his remarkable stint as an American Volunteer pilot in Israel's first “101 fighter squadron” during Israel’s War of Independence.
Red Around the Wings
For G-d, after for Country
By Nurit Greenger
It takes only few to make the difference, to turn the tide.
Mitchell (Mitch) Flint is a humble man. I think the people around him identify his heroism much more than he does. Along with his humbleness and perhaps his lawyer’s mind, it is somewhat humorous that when he is telling his story, 66 years later, he is still worried it may be classified information and thus he is reluctant to speak about it in full details.
Mitch was born in 1923 in Kansas City, Missouri USA. His parents were American Jews born in 1900. He remembers that in his parents ID documents it mentioned the fact his father was a “Jew” and his mother” a Jewess”. Their parents came to America from Europe. Mitch’s parents were Jews who kept very little Jewish tradition and culture. For lack of money he was not even given a Bar-Mitzvah celebration.
In June 1942, Mitch volunteered to serve when the USA was fighting the Axis power in Europe and the Pacific. As the events of WWII war were developing, he knew that sooner or later he will be called for duty. Mitch’s father was a Navy pilot in WWI and he wanted to continue the family tradition. Mitch became a Navy Aviator “where they flew the better planes,” he told me that secret. Volunteering early gave him the chance to join the Navy and go through flight training. Mitch fought in the Pacific until the war ended and have earned the rank of Lieutenant. Thereafter he attended the University of California and graduated with a degree in business. During his college studies Mitch became very interested in Israel and Jewish history. He figured out that “Israel was given a bad ticket” and he wanted her to succeed.
In 1948, when Israel entered into a defensive war, her war of Independence, Mitch was contemplating joining the fight and help but he had a dilemma. He was the only son who supported his mother and did not want to leave her alone; on the other hand Israel looked like she needed as much help as possible and he did not want her to lose the battle. After all the nascent State of Israel was now the only place for living Jews to go live and if Israel does not prevail they would be left out and that meant they would be subjected to more danger and perhaps another Holocaust. And then it was the excitement, even though with a possible risk, that finally kicked in and Mitch was raring to go.
Mitch knew that his pilot’s skills could be of great help to Israel. After all Israel did not have an air force therefore, no pilots; the budding state did not even have a proper army.
Mitch knew that his duty is to God and Country. He already served his country [USA], now he is about to go serve G-D for his fellow Jews.
To overcome the problem of leaving his mother alone and not to have a conflict with the law, Mitch told everyone he was off the London, England, to visit the queen and watch the Olympic Games.
Mitch left San Francisco to New York City, where his “contact” gave him a contact number in Amsterdam, Holland. He was told that upon arrival he needs to call that “contact” and say, ”Eliyahu sent me” and they will then tell him where to go next. And that he did. Soon thereafter, Mitch has traveled to Czechoslovakia for flight training on the Czechoslovak-built Messerschmitt produced for the Nazi regime that have been confiscated after Germany surrendered. What an irony. The planes used by the regime that annihilated a third of the Jewish nation, would now be used to defend the Jews’ new homeland. And these planes were not as nearly as good as those the Nazi used. The engines were different and due to lack of good materials, they were substituted with inferior ones.
After twelve days in training and Mitch was off to Israel. Several planes were dismantled and flown into Israel by C64 planes and smuggled inland. Others were modified, so they could hold more fuel, and were clandestinely flown at night time to Israel.
Some of the Messerschmitt still had the Swastika painted on them and when in Israel the David Shield symbol immediately replaced this loathed Nazi emblem.
Upon arrival Mitch felt an immediate camaraderie. He felt elevated as if a magnate lifted him higher. He was driven to Tel Aviv where he met a handful of people, some who would remain friends for life. Among them was a dark skin guy from India, who became a well-known character in the early Tel Aviv scene, named Avraham "Abie" Nathan. Abie turned out to be instrumental in persuading Mitch to later head up Squadron 35.
After his first few days in Israel, perhaps not accustomed to the food and water, Mitch fell ill and was hospitalized. When he got well he was taken to the “Folk House” in Kibbutz Maabarot, located on Highway 4, the old Tel Aviv-Haifa road, in Emek Hefer.
Shortly thereafter Mitch joined the 101 group, Israel's first Fighter Squadron, known as the “Angels of Death.” The name was taken from the Biblical story and apropos, as the Egyptians were part of the enemy. And it was perhaps appropriate for other symbolic reasons. Angels were watching over them in the sky as they were at a 10 to 1 ratio or greater against their enemy.
Mitch flying for Israel
Mitch's first missions were observation and to get familiar with the territory. Then, with his co-pilot, often in the dead of night, they flew supplies destined to the Dead Sea area, which meant they had to fly over Arab territory each time. Then came real action missions. First with 101 and then Squadron 35.
Israel made changes to the Harvard planes, basically flight trainers that needed to be used as bombers. They fitted three bombs, each 170 pounds, on each side of the plane. Mitch participated in a mission in which they bombed Fallujah, where Gamal Abdul Nasser, the future President of Egypt served as a commander of the Egyptian forces that secured the Fallujah pocket.
For those who do not know, five times a ceasefire was declared to end the war and five times the war ended and then continued. Mitch commanded missions of six planes their job was to drop bombs on enemy territory until the war really ended. He flew many reconnaissance missions and one of them, over Damascus, Syria, to take reconnaissance photos was perhaps the most memorable one. It was the closest he came to shooting down or being shot down by his fellow airman. As Mitch retells the story, the enemy flew the same fighter planes the Jews did, the Spitfire. While taking photos, his wingman, the legendary Danny Shapira, technically speaking Israel’s first astronaut, ventured away to check something out and there was no radio communication focused on recon. After a few minutes he found himself in the sky all by himself. Mitch then spotted a plane in the distance approaching him rather fast. There was a chance that it was not Danny. If it was not for seeing the red painted on their spinners they would have shot at each other. It was a very close call. That was Mitch’s last mission.
When the war ended Mitch flew for the first Independence Day celebration, which was his finale mission for Israel. He wanted to make sure the war was really over.
“What was the highlight of the war?” I asked.
“The First Independence Day celebration. We got the most airplanes up in the air at one time -12 of them - over Tel Aviv. It was led by my friend Ezer Wiezman, future head of the IAF and later president of Israel and I brought up the rear! It was perhaps our proudest moment. We knew then the IAF was here to stay and felt the war was really over. Every time I see an IAF plane in the Air I have a sense of pride, like none other.”
“What was your lowest point of the war?” I asked.
“When we shot five British planes by mistake. They had no code and they flew over Israeli territory. We had no idea who they were and we shot them down.”
When Mitch was about to leave, Israel asked him to stay on. Many of the volunteer pilots earned, or were unofficially given the rank of Captain. Mitch was offered the rank of Major and to stay on in now, the Israel Air-Force-IAF. Since he was the only son and his mother did not know where he really was, and in his calculation sooner or later you may get killed, he turned down the offer and the rank.
Back to America, Mitch went on to do a tour of duty in the Korean War, graduated law school and at the age of 36 he got married. He never flew in combat again.
Mitch remained a lifelong and best friend with several of the pilots. Once a year he met with many of his North American volunteers pilots. Several became a family. Twenty years after the war many of the Vets committed to visit Israel, an international reunion on Yom Ha’atzma’ut-Israel’s Independence Day. They kept this tradition ongoing for five years. Mitch has gone each time, with the last one having less than a handful participating.
Mitch legacy acknowledgement
The first official recognition these brave men received was in 1998 when Ezer Weizman pushed the issue. How come? Well, Mike, Mitch’s son, had a chance to mention the story to Ezer Weizman’s wife Reuma. The chief of the air force at that time happened to stand next to her. Reuma told him, “Next to my husband he was the best pilot,” pointing at Mitch.
In June 27, 2013 Mitch went back to visit Israel for his 90th birthday, which was the air force anniversary as well, the time when new pilots receive their wings. In a pleasant surprise the traditional fly over included planes that Mitch flew in 1948. The prime minister, the president, the defense minister and the chief of the air force attended. They announced President Peres and Mitch Flint’s birthday and gave Mitch a standing ovation. But that was not all. Announcing Mitch birthday was instantaneous but the memory for the ages, was arranged behind the scene. Mitch and the rest of the volunteers group’s story was not readily known to the IAF. That besides risking their lives for Israel it was illegal to fly and fight for Israel. To prove such Mitch was asked to show his 1948 passport that had a red lettering stamp in it, meaning he was not permitted to serve in any foreign armed service. Since flying for the State of Israel was an illegal act, in 1949 Mitch could not accept his rank. Yet, the thought was an honor he went on cherishing all his life. Unfortunately, the IAF does not have an official mechanism in place to legally reoffer the rank. Then, out of the nowhere, two guys approached Mitch and asked him to accompany them to meet Amit Eshel, the Chief of the air-force. Eshel approached Mitch and said: “We owe you a lot, a lot.” [Digress] You were a vital part of our nation’s heritage and [you] bridged the gap to create our Air Force, the backbone of Israel’s strength. “What you did was illegal in turn what I am about to do is illegal as I need to take the chance to give you this long overdue recognition you had refused years ago. This time I trust you will not turn it down. I present you with the rank and of Rav Seren (Translated, Major) and another set of wings from the IAF and hope you do not refuse is as you did in 1949!”
Mitch is the last member alive of Squadron 35, and is one of a half a dozen surviving of Squadron 101 pilots.
In the meantime, Mitch founded the organization Machal, volunteers from overseas in Israel defense forces (http://www.machal.org.il/).
Looking back, Mitch told me he is proud that Israel can defend herself.
The red-headed humble man, who overcame the obstacles across board with integrity and tenacity sums it up, “we had an adventure of a lifetime.”
From these few, somewhat crazy guys, the Israeli air-force was born and the rest is history.
A feature film and documentary are already in the making.
Mitch’s USA Navy flight log is full with logged missions.
Mitch’s flight log in Israel’s Independence War registers more than 50 missions. This earned Mitch a special flight wings with a unique red background, earned only by a pilot who flies over 50 missions. He had flown 27 different variety of planes and unbeknown to him he became one of the foundation pillars of the Israeli air-force, today among the best air forces in the entire world.
It takes only a few to make the difference and Mitchell Flint did it with the least of expectations. All he wanted to do was to help his people to win and they did.
Our unlimited gratitude to a Jewish Hero.