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Leon Frankel, Pilot for Israel


As Leon Frankel sat, strapped into a German fighter plane, he thought “What’s a nice Jewish boy from Minot, North Dakota doing here?”

Leon had it made. He had survived World War 2 and came back a decorated Navy pilot. Leon now owned a car dealership in Minot called “Capital Motors.” Business was very good; Leon had money, his own place and girlfriends. Life couldn’t be better. Then late in 1947, Leon got the phone call.

The caller’s name was Steve Schwartz. He told Leon the new state of Israel desperately needed combat pilots. Would Leon volunteer? After some deep soul searching, Leon agreed and left his cushy life in Minot for Israel.

On May 14, 1948, Israel declared independence and was immediately attacked by its Arab neighbors. The only fighter planes Israel could get in the beginning were Czech built German ME 109s, left over from World War 2. Frankel joined the Israeli 101st Fighter Squadron and ended up flying those planes. He had flown torpedo bombers in the US Navy. Flying a 109 was a whole new ball game.

Leon flew 25 missions for the Israeli forces against Egyptian ground targets and aircraft. The Egyptians were flying Spitfires, some rumored to be piloted by German veterans. It was very ironic, Jewish pilots flying German fighters against German pilots flying British Spitfires.

On several missions Leon flew alone, very dangerous photo recons over the Egyptians. On his last mission his engine failed and he crashed in the desert. Leon didn’t know if he was in Israel or Jordan. He started walking, and before long he saw a truck headed his way. Leon had a pistol with 6 shots. He figured he would try to take five of them out and save the last bullet for himself. As the truck got closer he heard them hollering in Hebrew. Leon was rescued!

When he got back to base, there was a 109 burning on the runway. The pilot was dead. The next day, after the funeral, Leon collapsed from shock. He spent several days in the hospital. He recovered, but decided to pack it in. Replacement pilots were coming in so Leon was able to come home to the US. He Frankel settled in Minnesota, married and had 2 children.

He passed away on this date in 2015.

Dakota Datebook by Scott Nelson

Sources: Personal and phone interviews with Leon Frankel.