U.S. flyboys who aided Israel in ‘48 war heroes of ‘Above and Beyond’
Harold Livingston has written novels, episodes of landmark TV series such as “Mannix” and “Mission: Impossible” and penned the screenplay of the 1979 blockbuster “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
Long before he became a writer, though, Livingston, now 90, was part of the U.S. Army Air Forces transport squadron during World War II. And three years after the war ended, he risked his citizenship by joining Israel’s Air Transport Command and flew supplies, weapons and airplanes between Czechoslovakia and Israel during the latter country’s War of Independence.
Livingston, who worked for Trans World Airlines briefly after World War II, got a letter one day from someone he knew at the carrier. “He just said, ‘If you are interested in flying munitions to Palestine, call this New York number,’” recalled Livingston.
“Listen, I wanted to fly again,” he said in a recent phone interview. “That afternoon I was in New York and didn’t go home for a year. We were breaking the Neutrality Act, and theoretically our citizenship was in jeopardy, but that made the adventure even more glamorous.”
Livingston is one of several former Jewish American pilots featured in the new documentary “Above and Beyond,” which opens Friday.
The film’s executive producer, Nancy Spielberg, had just completed the 2011 documentary “Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals,” when somebody sent her an obituary of Al Schwimmer. He was a Jewish American WWII vet who had been a flight engineer for TWA and who defied the unlicensed arms trade provision in the 1939 Neutrality Act by smuggling B-17 Flying Fortresses bombers from Florida to Israel.
“I was so struck by the way it described this man,” said Spielberg, the sister of Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Spielberg. “This American was being called the father of the Israeli air force, smuggling airplanes into Israel and recruiting his buddies and getting indicted and losing his citizenship. I said, ‘This is crazy!’ Israel is one of the top air forces in the world. What do you mean it started from an American calling his buddies?”
The story, Spielberg said, felt like some of her brother’s movies — a combination of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Band of Brothers” and “Catch Me if You Can.”
“Above and Beyond” director Roberta Grossman (“Hava Nagila: The Movie”) said the heart of the documentary is “this group of guys who take this personal journey that is the journey of self-discovery.”
After the war, Grossman noted, Jewish American identity was in “flux, because American Jews were just learning about the Holocaust and, simultaneously, Israel was about to be born. Both those two huge events transformed not only Jewish history but Jewish American identity.”
The planes the pilots flew were “junk,” noted Livingston. “We kept them together with wire and spit and prayer. Every time we flew, we had some kind of a problem.”
But Livingston and his fellow flyboys were fearless. “When you are that age, you don’t believe anything will happen,” he said. “We were the band of brothers. All of these years, we have been close. These are my best friends.”
After the war ended, several of them stayed in Israel, including Coleman Goldstein and Lou Lenart, both of whom became pilots for El Al Airlines. (Since completing “Above and Beyond,” two of the pilots — Goldstein and George Lichter — have died.)
“It was the most important thing they did in their lives,” said Grossman. “They were excited to get their stories out about the risks they took.”
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