When Lou Lenart was growing up in a Pennsylvania mining town, he endured beating after beating because he was Jewish.
After he took a Charles Atlas bodybuilding course, he joined the Marines and fought in the Pacific. A few years later, he smuggled warplanes into Israel, helped found the new state’s tiny air force and led an attack on more than 10,000 Egyptian troops who had advanced to a bridge within 16 miles of Israel’s biggest city.
“It was the most important moment of my life, and I was born to be there at that precise moment in history,” he told the Jerusalem Post in 2012. “I was the luckiest man in the world that my destiny brought me to that precise moment to be able to contribute to Israel’s survival.”
Lenart, hailed in Israeli headlines as “the man who saved Tel Aviv,” died Monday at his home in Ra’anana, Israel. He was 94.
He had congestive heart failure, his Los Angeles publicist, Edward Lozzi, said.
In a long, swashbuckling career, Lenart airlifted thousands of Jewish refugees from Iraq to Israel, served as a pilot for El Al airlines, worked as general manager for basketball’s Clippers when they were based in San Diego and helped produce a number of Hollywood films shot in Israel.
Lenart is featured in “Above and Beyond,” Nancy Spielberg’s 2014 documentary about Jewish pilots from the U.S. who established Israel’s air defenses.
Intrigued by stories of their groundbreaking work in Israel, playwright David Mamet likened Lenart and his colleagues to the giants of American history.
“Meeting with guys like Lou Lenart and Al Schwimmer, it’s like sitting down with Abraham Lincoln or George Washington,” he said in a 2012 interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “When the pioneers did what they did, it was basically impossible.”
Lenart kept a home in Los Angeles as well as one in Israel. One of the planes he flew as a Marine fighter pilot is on permanent display at the Proud Bird restaurant complex near Los Angeles International airport.
But he is most closely associated with a 40-minute strafing and bombing raid on Egyptian columns that had marched up the Israeli coast from Gaza on May 29, 1948. With tanks and trucks, the troops were stalled at a bridge that had been blown up by Israeli commandos. In another day, they would have rolled into Tel Aviv.
With only a few hours’ notice, Lenart and three other pilots hopped into Czech Avia S-199s — small, rickety planes that had been pieced together with parts from German Messerschmitts, dismantled before being covertly shipped to Israel and reassembled on a makeshift airstrip.
“We had never flown the planes before,” he said. “We didn’t know if they would fly or if the guns would work.”
In fact, Lenart’s guns jammed. One of the planes, piloted by a South African named Eddie Cohen, went down in flames.
“We lost one-fourth of our air force that day,” Lenart later said. “It was like a piece of your heart being broken off.”
But, surprised by the attack, the advancing forces ultimately withdrew. The bridge where they had bogged down is still known as Ad Halom — or “Up to Here.”
Born Layos Lenovitz on April 24, 1921, in a Hungarian village near the Czech border, Lenart grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where his family immigrated when he was 9. His parents ran a small store, sometimes selling his mother’s noodles door to door.
Lenart joined the Marines at 17 and nearly lost his life in a mid-air training collision. He went on to serve at the Battle of Okinawa and in bombing raids over Japan.
In 1948, he attended a lecture on Zionism. Fueled by the deaths of 14 family members at Auschwitz, he volunteered for service with the emerging state.
Over the years, Lenart worked for several Israeli organizations. In 1988, he received the Silver Menorah award from the Israeli film industry. His film projects included “The Prodigal Father,” “Iron Eagle” and “Iron Eagle II.”
Lenart’s survivors include his wife, Rachel Nir, daughter Mikael Lenart and grandson Halal.