As Leon Frankel sat, strapped into a German fighter plane, he thought to himself, what is a nice Jewish boy from Minot, North Dakota, doing here?
Leon had been in the service during World War II and came back a decorated Navy pilot. After spending some time in Minneapolis after the war, Leon jumped at the opportunity to open a car and truck dealership in Minot called Capital Motors.
After the war everyone wanted to buy a car and with the booming post war farm economy, the farmers needed trucks. Frankel would order trucks and put grain boxes on em. Red trucks were the most popular, Leon remembered. Business was good, Leon was making lots of money, had his own place and several girlfriends. Life couldn’t be better.
It was then that Leon got “the phone call”. The man on the phone said he was Steve Schwartz. Would Leon consider coming to the aid of Israel in their time of need? The new country of Israel was in desperate need of trained combat pilots and was reaching out to the recent veterans of the just ended war. Leon told him he’d have to think about it. After several days, thinking about the holocaust and the death camps that had come to light in Germany, Leon thought if he didn’t help, he would never be able to live with himself. Leon asked Schwartz what kind of plane he would be flying. Schwartz said he couldn’t tell him but they would be just as good as what the enemy had. This, as it turned out, was a big lie!
The US government frowned on its citizens going to Israel to fight, in fact it was highly illegal!
A story was concocted that Leon had to get to Italy to stop the marriage of his brother and bring him back home. Once out of the country, Frankel diverted to Czechoslovakia to learn to fly fighters being sold to Israel.
There was an arms embargo against the newly formed state of Israel in an effort to avoid another full-blown war. Israel’s Arab neighbors were well equipped with aircraft. The only country Israel could find to sell them fighter aircraft was cash starved Czechoslovakia. They bought them at highly inflated prices.
During World War II, the Germans built a factory in Czechoslovakia to produce the Me-109 fighter but the war ended before production could be started. The Czechs were left with the factory as a spoil of war and decided to produce the plane as their own and renamed it the Avia S-199. There was a problem however. The warehouse that contained the 109 Daimler-Benz engines was destroyed by fire. Another warehouse contained Junkers Jumo engines plus props destined for the Heinkel HE-111 bomber. The ill suited Jumo engines and large paddle propellers were fitted into the 109s which was like putting a truck engine into a sports car and resulted in extremely poor handling difficulties.
Leon had flown the Avenger Torpedo Bomber in the Navy. Flying the 109 was a whole new ball game! The Czechs nicknamed the 109, Mezik or Mule because it was such a stubborn machine to fly. These planes didn’t even have a fuel gage, just a red light that would go on if you were running low on fuel. If the light came on you may have 5 to 15 minutes left. They didn’t have the right machine guns to go with this plane so they mickey moused another type under the cowling. Every time you fired them, you prayed you didn’t shoot off your own propeller. They also had 2, 20mm cannon in pods under the wings.
The fighters were dismantled, loaded into C-54 transports, flown to Israel and reassembled just in time.
When Israel declared independence, they were immediately attacked by their Arab neighbors. Egyptian leaders had told its army that Israel had no military aircraft. The Egyptian Army was within miles of overrunning the Israeli capital when the newly arrived 109 fighters strafed the column and so demoralized the Egyptians that they were forced to turn back.
The Egyptians were flying Spitfires bought from the British and the rumor was that some were flown by ex-German pilots. The Irony was not lost on the Israeli pilots. Jews flying German planes against Germans flying Spitfires.
Frankel flew against Arab forces, air and ground targets. He also flew very dangerous photo recon missions over enemy fortifications in Egypt and Jordon, all alone, with no escort.
On his last mission, October 16th,1948, over Negev, Frankel saw a 109 after an Egyptian Spitfire. It was Rudy Augarten, former World War II P-47 pilot. They were flying toward Leon and Rudy was shooting big junks off the Spit. Leon saw another Spit below him, heading his way. Frankel flipped over and chased the Spit but it had gotten too far ahead of him.
At this point the red light came on. Leon was lucky to catch sight of a friendly airfield at Ekron. Leon landed and as they were refueling the plane, Leon noticed some oil dripping from the engine. He pointed it out to one of the mechanics who tightened some screws and declared “Fixed” and gave the thumbs up sign. Frankel took off and heading back to base.
After several minutes the engine started to run rough and Leon noticed the oil gage was zero. He tapped the gage in case the needle was stuck but the needle didn’t budge. Soon the cockpit started filling with smoke and Leon looked for a place to put down. Bailing out of these planes was not an option. Frankel hit the ground hard but other than some scrapes and bruises, escaped uninjured.
Leon started walking. He didn’t know if he was in Israel or Jordon. In the distance he saw a truck loaded with soldiers headed his way. Surrender was not an option. Other pilots shot down behind enemy lines had been tortured to death. Frankel had a 38 pistol with 6 shots. He would fire 5 shots and save the last for himself. As the truck got closer, he was much relieved to hear them hollering in Hebrew. Frankel was rescued! When Leon got back to his base, there was a 109 burning on the runway. The pilot, one of Leon’s close friends, was killed in a landing accident.
The next day, at the funeral, Frankel lost feeling in his legs and arms and collapsed. He was hospitalized for several days and recovered but decided to pack it in. New pilots were coming in and the crisis was over. It was time to go home. Frankel had flown 25 missions for Israel, ironically the same number of missions he had flown in the US Navy.
Getting home was not easy. Fighting for Israel could mean losing his citizenship. Leon was stopped at passport control in New York and interrogated all night. Leon claimed he had been going to school in Italy but his suitcase of full of pictures of him standing beside airplanes in Israel. Finally, by morning, the authorities told him to tell the truth or he was going to jail. Leon replied, “Go ahead, at least I can get some sleep”. With that the authorities told him to get the hell out of there and released him.
Leon Frankel ended up living in Minnesota, married and had 2 children. He passed away in 2015
I had the opportunity to talk to Leon several times on the phone and once in person at the Air Museum in Fargo. He had flown with Stew Bass in the Navy and had come to Fargo to see Stew (first time since the war) and to see the painting I did. Leon flew the Avenger torpedo bomber and like Stew, received the Navy Cross for helping sink the cruiser Yahagi. Leon along with Stew signed the painting now hanging in the gallery.
Leon also signed a water color picture I painted showing a Czech 109 in Israeli markings.