Former Minot man helped form Israeli air force

Leon Frankel was running a car and truck sales lot in Minot when he got a call from New York. That call was a game-changer for his life.

The caller, who gave his name as Steve Schwartz, told Frankel, a distinguished World War II Navy pilot originally from St. Paul, Minn., that he was desperately needed by his people in Israel. The fledgling state of Israel needed an air force and they needed pilots immediately. Once they declared independence they knew they would be attacked by several Arab armies, the caller said.

Frankel did not hesitate. He decided to leave Minot and go to Israel where he became a member of the first Israeli Fighter Squadron, the 101 volunteer pilots from the U.S. and other countries who formed the Israeli air force.

This year is the 65th anniversary of Israel’s independence. Israel will celebrate the event on April 16.

Currently, three filmmakers are working on telling the story of the fledgling Israeli air force and its volunteer foreign pilots Nancy Spielberg of Riverdale, N.Y., Mike Flint of Los Angeles and Boaz Dvir, of the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla., according to The Global News Service of the Jewish People

Frankel, who lives in Minnetonka, Minn., said he has been interviewed for two of the three films Spielberg’s and Dvir’s films. He said Nancy Spielberg is filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s sister.

When he got that call in Minot from New York about 65 years ago, Frankel said, in a recent interview with The Minot Daily News, “It would be 1948 prior to the state’s declaration of statehood which took place on May 14, 1948.”

Frankel was operating Capitol Motors in Minot, a business he and his partner, Louis Borick, also of the St. Paul area, opened.

But after getting the call from New York Frankel soon left Minot. “It was pretty quick within a week or so,” he said.

In an interview with Al Zdon, editor of The Minnesota Legionnaire, published in October 2012, Frankel related his experiences in Israel:

He took a leave of absence from the Naval Reserve but the worst part about leaving for Israel was telling his mother. He said she fell on the floor crying and he also was crying when he left.

Frankel learned he was working with Land and Labor for Palestine, an organization that was a front for a group trying to smuggle arms into Palestine to help the Jews fight the Arabs.

To get his passport to go overseas, Frankel made up a story that he was going to Italy to rescue his brother from a bad marriage. When he finally got his passport it was stamped with a statement that it was not for travel to any foreign state to enter or serve in the armed forces of that state. He also had passport problems when he returned to the U.S., but finally was allowed to re-enter Nov. 9,1948.

Frankel flew to Rome where the Jewish resistance headquarters was located, then was sent by train to Czechoslovakia for his new plane. In Czechoslovakia he went to Ceske Budejovice, a large air base where he met his Czech instructors and his new plane – a German Messerschmitt 109.

But these 109s had been rebuilt. The Czechs took over the manufacturing of the planes when the Germans left but couldn’t get the Daimler-Benz engines. Instead they got old German bomber engines and Mickey-moused them into the 109s’ fuselage, Frankel said. He said they couldn’t get the original guns so attached two machine guns to the cowling. He said when the pilots would fire them, they’d hold their breath and hope they wouldn’t blow the propellers off. The rebuilt 109s also didn’t have a gas gauge but sometimes a red light came on to warn pilots they had 10 or 15 minutes more of gas left.

The 109s were put into cargo planes and flown to Israel in May 1948. Frankel was in one of the planes.

During World War II Frankel was a torpedo bomber pilot and had made 67 carrier landings while assigned aboard the USS Lexington and later the USS Yorktown. While assigned to the Lexington, he took part in the first Navy raid on Tokyo Feb. 16, 1945. His heroic efforts during World War II culminated in the sinking of the Japanese cruiser, the Yahagi. Frankel was awarded the Navy Cross, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Air Medals, two Presidential Citations and other decorations.

But he had never flown fighters.

According to the American Legion publication:

A truce was going on when the planes and pilots got to Tel Aviv so they thought they were going home.

The men hung around the air base for the early days and then moved to another airfield base.

The truce continued and the pilots still had not flown a mission. The fighter squadron had about a dozen pilots and about 25 of the 109s. Frankel said it was a good day when four of the planes would fly and the rest were constantly being worked on.

Then the truce fell apart and the pilots began flying missions. Sometimes they escorted bombers.

The Israeli air force had one fighter squadron and one bomber squadron. The bomber squadron had some converted transports and three B-17s liberated from the U.S.

Frankel left Israel not long after escaping from a crash without injuries when his plane’s engine ran out of oil and when he got back to the base he saw a 109 burning on the airstrip with the pilot trapped inside. Pilot replacements were coming in and Frankel decided it was time to go home.

According to Frankel’s biography, he flew 25 missions in the Czechoslovakian-built ME-109s during the battle for Israel’s independence in 1948. He returned to the United States in late 1948 where he rejoined his Navy Reserve squadron, remaining with the unit until he was honorably discharged in 1959.

After his time in Israel, Frankel returned to the car business and later was a vehicle parts and accessories representative.

Frankel told The Minot Daily News that over the past years, he’s been back to Israel “probably 20 or more times.”

In 2012, Frankel was one of several Eagles honored by the Gathering of Eagles Foundation during the U.S. Air Force’s Gathering of Eagles symposium held at Maxwell AFB, Ala.

The year before, Frankel and his wife, Ruth, made a trip to Fargo where Frankel and Stewart Bass, another World War II Navy pilot, met. Bass now lives in Moorhead, Minn. It was the first time the two had seen each other in 66 years. Both served in Torpedo Squadron 9 of Air Group 9.

Frankel, who will be 90 on Sept. 5, said he’s never regretted going to Israel to help when they needed him. “I couldn’t live with myself if I had not done it,” he said.