Robert's Angels

11/30/2017 02:02 pm ET

Q: What made you decide to write Angels In The Sky?

Robert Gandt: I was between writing projects when I was introduced to a 92-year-old former fighter pilot named Mitchell Flint. He was a modest, articulate, decorated WWII veteran who had also fought in Israel’s war of independence. As I listened to Mitchell describing the volunteer airmen in 1948, flying decrepit Messerschmitt fighters against British-equipped and trained Arab airmen, smuggling contraband warplanes out of the U.S., going into combat against overwhelming odds, it came to me in a flash. This was a classic David-versus-Goliath tale with all the elements of high drama: a see-saw battle with the outcome in doubt until the very end; a young nation teetering on the brink of annihilation; a cast of outrageously colorful heroes. I made an instant decision: This was a book I had to write.

Q: Who are the Angels and what did they do?

A: They were a colorful band of volunteers from the U.S., Canada, Britain, South Africa, Poland, France, and elsewhere. They were young, idealistic, swaggering, courageous beyond measure. Many, but not all, were Jewish. Almost all were WWII veterans. The volunteers arrived as the new state of Israel’s fate hung in the balance. The armies of five Arab nations were swarming into the country. Israel had no army, no air force, no allies. Bombs from Egyptian warplanes were raining down on Tel Aviv. In smuggled fighters and stolen bombers and contraband transports, the volunteer airmen flew into combat against the invaders. In small, deadly increments, they took command of the sky—and changed the outcome of the war. By the end of the war, Israel’s angels in the sky were, man for man, probably the most potent air combat unit in the world.

Q: What if they had failed in their mission? Would Israel not exist today?

A: Early in the war the young pilots learned an expression in Hebrew: Ein brera. It meant “no alternative.” For them—and for Israel—there was no alternative to victory except the annihilation of the new country. And, probably, another Holocaust. On the evening of May 29, 1948, two weeks into the war, an Egyptian brigade had driven up the coast to within twenty miles of Tel Aviv. The first four Messerschmitt fighters had just been assembled in secret. The fighters hadn’t been test flown, nor had the pilots been fully trained. No matter. If the enemy column wasn’t stopped, Israel’s war of independence might be over the next day. It was a chaotic and desperate first mission. Two fighters crashed, one pilot was shot down in flames. Not until after nightfall did the airmen learn what they accomplished: a miracle. Stunned by the appearance of fighters, the enemy force had come to a halt. Tel Aviv was saved. And so, for the moment, was Israel. There would be more desperate missions, more miracles. A sobering truth became clear to each of the airmen: The fate of the new nation depended on them. It was a belief that became etched in the spirit of the Israeli Air Force and remains with them to this day.

Q: What role if any did their faith play in what they did?

A: Few of the volunteers, Jews or non-Jews, were particularly religious. Each had his own motivation for going back into combat only three years after WWII. Many of the Jewish airmen had lost family members in the death camps of Europe. For them, saving Israel from another Holocaust was the highest of callings. Many of the non-Jews were simply idealists who saw the war in Israel a righteous cause. But some were motivated by more than idealism. WWII had been the greatest adventure of their lives, and they missed the adrenaline rush of aerial combat. The war in Israel was a chance to relive that experience, to share the comradeship of fellow warriors, to fight in what they saw as a “good war.” In that sense, the volunteers were cut from the same mold as the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille in WWI or the Flying Tigers in WWII.

Q: What did they risk to do what they did?

A: More than just their lives. In 1948 the U. S. was enforcing not only an embargo on the shipment of war supplies to Israel but also banned its citizens from serving in another country’s armed forces. If a volunteer was caught by federal agents, he could be fined, jailed, lose his veteran’s benefits, his reserve military commission. His future career would be derailed. To go, or not to go? The volunteers all knew they had been lucky to survive WWII. Many were now attending college on the GI Bill. Others had begun successful careers. A few had young families at home. Each man weighed the risks, then made his decision. In the end, several were indicted for violation of the U. S. Neutrality Act. They were found guilty, fined, and, as expected, stripped of their benefits. Ironically, only one, a non-Jew named Charlie Winters, was sentenced to jail for a eighteen months.

Q: Were their families also in danger if they failed?

A: Most were still in their twenties and single when they went to Israel. To placate their parents, many concocted bogus stories about why they were leaving the country. Mitchell Flint convinced his mother that he was going off to attend the 1948 Olympics in London. Some claimed that they were working for a newly formed overseas airline. Others declared they were just going off to see the world. Not surprisingly, a number of the young airmen fell in love with Israeli girls. Several remained in Israel after the war, started families, and established successful careers.

Q: What made you interested in the topic?

A: After sixteen books on military and aviation topics, I’ve learned to sense a good story. This one piqued my interest when I met a film producer named Mike Flint, son of the 92-year-old fighter pilot whose stories would later persuade me to write the book. For several years Mike has been developing a feature film based on the exploits of his father and the volunteers in Israel. The more I learned about the film—and the story of the volunteers—the more I wanted to write the book.

Q: What is your next book?

A: To be announced. For now I can say that it will be a historical tale from the mid-twentieth century. It will have an aviation and military theme with lots of action. And, of course, a cast of outrageous characters.

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