Monday, December 3, 2018

Philip Marlowe, Al Schwimmer, and the creation of Israel: Guest Post by Gavin Scott

Gavin Scott:
Philip Marlowe, Al Schwimmer, and the creation of Israel

When Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe was investigating missing spouses, blackmailers, and wayward daughters in the Los Angeles of the late 1940s he might well have stumbled, in Burbank, across a real-life mystery of historic proportions. It involved the US Treasury, the FBI, the niece of the President of Panama, Nazi planes flown by Jewish pilots, and the creation of the air force that would change the shape of the Middle East.

To say nothing a limping former TWA flight engineer called Al Schwimmer.

As Chandler said “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero – he is everything.” Al Schwimmer, I contend, was just such a man, and Philip Marlowe would have been proud to buy him a drink.

After the end of World War Two, Schwimmer, who had served in the Air Transport Command, was asked by his mother to go to the refugee camps in Europe to see if any of her family had survived the Final Solution. They hadn’t - and he was appalled to realise that the 300,000 survivors now in the camps had nowhere to go – except British-controlled Palestine, which the United Nations had decided should become a homeland for the Jews when British troops left in May 1948.

The problem was that the five well-armed Arab nations surrounding Israel had sworn to destroy it – and there was an international arms embargo which meant no-one could sell the Jews the weapons needed to defend themselves. Schwimmer foresaw a second Holocaust and was determined to do something about it.

This decision led him, of all places, to the Copacabana Nightclub in New York, a glamorous 1940’s hang-out full of busty show-girls, where Frank Sinatra often sang. But Al had not come to ogle the girls or hear Ole Blue Eyes: he slipped discretely through the crowd and was ushered backstage, away from the noise of the band. Here he was directed to a room in the hotel above, which was used by the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organisation, as their New York headquarters. If Israel is to survive an Arab attack it will need warplanes, Al told the Haganah men. America has thousands of surplus warplanes which they won’t sell to Israel – but what if I set up a dummy company and buy them on Israel’s behalf?

The Haganah men listened, and told Al to wait while they checked him out and checked him out again. Then, deciding he was on the up and up, they gave him the money to start buying planes.

He went to work straight away and purchased 10 semi-derelict C46s for $5,000 each and 3 C69 Constellations for $15,000 each. Then he hired crews to put them in working order. This is where Burbank airport comes into the story, as several of the planes came from US Air Force bases on Hawaii and the West Coast, and Burbank was a convenient place to refurbish them, with funds sent by Haganah via the Hollywood branch of the Bank of America.

This is the clue Marlowe might have picked up on, had he been drawn into the case. Certainly the State Department, which favoured the cause of the oil-rich Arab states, was trying to find out what was going on and stop it, aided by the US Treasury and the FBI. “The FBI was on our tail,” Schwimmer said in Boaz Dvir’s moving documentary On a Wing and a Prayer, not long before he died. “But when they were here, we were there, and vice versa. We were never available.”

While the planes were being readied, Al got in touch with pilots and technicians he had flown with during the war and persuaded them to join him – making it clear that saying yes would put them on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. In fact, if they were caught and found in breach of the Neutrality Act, they risked not only jail but losing their American citizenship. One man gave up a place at medical school he’d been working towards for three years to come aboard. Another had to escape a British prison to join the team. One said he’d decided to join when he talked to a cousin who’d been in the death camps and whose little daughter, deprived of water, had been so desperate the mother had used her own urine to wet the child’s lips. “How could I not do what Al was asking when I’d heard that?” he said later.

Meanwhile Haganah was desperately trying to find someone sell them weapons, and struck lucky in Czechoslovakia. Despite the international embargo, the Czechs, after years of Nazi occupation, agreed to sell them $12 million worth of weapons left behind by the fleeing Germans. These included 30,000 Mauser rifles stamped with the Nazi eagle, 15,000 machine guns, thousands of rounds of ammunition – and 25 rebuilt Nazi Messerschmitts.
It would be a game changer if they could reach Israel before the Arabs attacked – but that was a big if. Czechoslovakia was landlocked and surrounded by countries that wouldn’t break the embargo to let the arms through. And the Messerschmitts simply didn't have the range to be flown to the Middle East by themselves.

Could Al, asked Haganah, get his C46’s from California to Czechoslovakia, take the Messerschmitts to pieces, load them aboard with all the rifles, ammunition and machine guns they’d bought, and get to Israel after the British left but before the Arabs attacked?

Al was not the kind of man who ducked a challenge, but he knew the FBI was closing in, and he desperately needed a cover story to stop the planes being seized before they were ready to fly. He found one through a pilot pal with the wonderful name of Marty Belafonte, who, it turned out, was married to the niece of the President of Panama.

Panama had a large white elephant of an airport, but didn't have an actual airline.

The niece got Al through to the President of Panama, the President said yes to his offer of an airline, and Al assembled his pilots, painted a Panamanian logo on his planes, filled them with spare parts and prepared to fly out of Burbank.

At which point Customs agents got wind of what was going on, raced to the airport and blocked the runway with cars.

That should have been the end of it, for anybody else except Al. He told the Customs agents they would have to shoot the planes down if they wanted to stop them – and then told his pilots to fly their lumbering, over-laden transports right at the cars.

Minutes later, with just feet to spare, Al’s air force was headed south to Panama.

But despite the welcoming band (At last! We have an airline!) the planes didn't stop in there – they went right on to Brazil, bamboozled British South American Airways into helping them with radio support, and set off across the Atlantic to Dakar in Africa.

From Dakar they flew to Casablanca (of course, they had to come to Casablanca) refueled in Sicily and finally, after an epic journey, touched down in Czechoslovakia.

Here, after the pilots had been taught how to fly the Nazi fighter planes, the Messerschmitts (re-named Avias) were dismantled and stashed inside the C46s. But when Al’s Air Force took off again, they were really racing against time.

The British rule over Palestine would end at midnight on May 15th 1948.

The State of Israel would then come into being – and the five surrounding Arab nations were poised to attack immediately.

The planes just made it. Exactly ten minutes after Israel was born, the C46’s began landing at an airport near Tel Aviv, and before the engines had shut down their weapons were being unloaded and distributed to the beleaguered settlers.

But the Messerschmitts couldn't be reassembled in an instant – and by the time they were ready it was almost too late: the Egyptian army, backed by British built Spitfires, had almost reached Tel Aviv.
But not quite – and when Al’s planes appeared out of nowhere and rained a totally unexpected barrage of fire from the air, the Egyptian advance halted in its tracks – and never resumed. All over Israel, the newly-armed settlers fought the invaders to a standstill, and then turned the tide. Gradually, as Israeli soldiers took control of the ground, Israeli planes took control of the skies, and the fledgling state survived.

Al Schwimmer returned to the States, was tried along with others for violating the Neutrality Act, and though he escaped jail, was stripped of his rights as a US citizen. When David Ben Gurion asked him to come back to Israel and head up Israel Aerospace Industries, he did so, prospered, and died there in 2011, aged 94.

Many of the men he recruited lost their lives in the conflict, but others returned to civilian life as pilots, radio operators, doctors. Fascinatingly one of them, Harold Livingston, ended up in the same profession as Raymond Chandler and wrote, with perfect poetic symmetry, many episodes of a popular television series.

It was called Mission Impossible, and in my view, if anyone had the qualifications to write material like that, it was a member of Al Schwimmer’s Air Force.

I just wish Raymond Chandler had sent Philip Marlowe out to Burbank, to check out the mystery while it was still unfolding. Maybe it would have been his greatest adventure.


Gavin Scott came across Al Schwimmer’s story while researching his detective thriller The Age of Exodus, which is published by Titan Books/Random House in September. He is a former BBC reporter and his screenplays have been produced by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.


vallerose said...

Great story. The movie, On a Wing and a Prayer is available from Netflix. I highly recommend it. Make sure to get the one about the Israeli air force, as there are other films with the same title.

kk said...

What a tale. A worthy one at that. So incredible yet real.

Paul D. Marks said...

What an amazing story!

noemi said...

Shades of Iran Contra...

michaelk said...

Curiously My old girl friend's father, Harold Adamson, wrote the title song to the other Wing and a Prayer movie.