Early in Israel’s War of Independence, as the Egyptian army was rolling up the Mediterranean coast toward Tel Aviv and threatening to deliver a death blow to the new nation, Lenart led three other men who took off May 29, 1948, in four Czech fighter planes built from World War II Messerschmitt parts.
As Lenart told the story in the documentary “Above and Beyond,” the opening-night film at this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the four pilots didn’t know whether the aircraft would even fly, and the desperate attack failed to do much damage to the invading Egyptians.
Lenart’s guns jammed, and one of the other pilots, South African Eddie Cohen, crashed and died.
But the bombing and strafing mission shocked the Egyptians, who had no idea an Israeli air force existed, and the Arab advance ended a day away from Tel Aviv.
Lenart, who was born in Hungary and grew up in Pennsylvania, enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 17 and talked his way into flight school after 18 months of infantry training, Los Angeles’ Jewish Journal reported. He served as a fighter pilot at Okinawa and elsewhere in the Pacific and learned after World War II that 14 relatives had been killed at Auschwitz.
He risked his American citizenship to help smuggle aircraft into Israel in 1948 and wound up staying after the war. He was a pilot for El Al and helped airlift Jews from Iraq in the early 1950s. He later split his time between Israel and Los Angeles and produced several movies, including “Iron Eagle” and “Iron Eagle II.”
He died and was buried in Ra’anana.