Scott Nelson’s art of an Israeli 109, signed by Leon Frankel.
By Scott Nelson
As Leon Frankel sat strapped into the German fighter airplane, he thought to himself, “What’s a nice Jewish boy from Minot, ND, doing here?”
Leon had been in the service during World War II and came back a decorated U.S. Navy pilot. After spending some time in Minneapolis, MN, after the war, Leon jumped at the opportunity to open a car and truck dealership in Minot, ND, 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 them. 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 have been better.
It was then that Leon got “the phone call”. The man on the phone identified himself as 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 veterans of the just-ended war. Leon told Schwartz he would have to think about it. After several days of 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 U.S. 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, who bought them at highly inflated prices.
During World War II, the Germans built a factory in Czechoslovakia to produce the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane; however, the war ended before production could begin. The Czechs were left with the factory as a spoil of war and decided to produce the plane as their own, renaming the Avia S-199. There was a problem, however: the warehouse that contained the Daimler-Benz DB 605 engines was destroyed by a fire. Another warehouse contained Junkers Jumo 205 engines, plus props destined for the Heinkel HE 111 bomber. The ill-suited Jumo engines and large paddle propellers were fitted onto the 109s, which was like putting a truck engine into a sports car and resulted in extremely poor handling.
Leon had flown the Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber in the U.S. Navy. Flying the 109 was a whole new ball game! The Czechs nicknamed the 109 the Mezik, meaning 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 turn on if you were running low on fuel. If the light came on, you may have only had five 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 they were fired, the pilots prayed they didn’t shoot off their own propeller. They also had 20 mm cannons in pods under the wings.
The fighters were dismantled, loaded into Douglas C-54 Skymaster 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 their 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 Supermarine 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 109s against Germans flying British Spitfires.
Frankel flew against Arab air and ground forces as his targets. He also flew very dangerous aerial reconnaissance missions over enemy fortifications in Egypt and Jordan, all alone with no escort.
On his last mission, over the Negev desert, Frankel saw another 109 pursuing an Egyptian Spitfire. The pilot was Rudy Augarten, a former World War II Republic P-47 Thunderbolt pilot. They were flying toward Leon as Rudy was shooting big junks off the Spitfire. Leon then saw another Spitfire below him, heading his way. Frankel flipped over and chased it, 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 and landed. 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, declared it fixed, and gave the thumbs up sign. Frankel took off and headed back to base.
After several minutes, the engine started to run rough and Leon noticed the oil gage was reading zero. He tapped the gage, in case the needle was stuck, but the needle did not budge. Soon, the cockpit started filling with smoke and Leon looked for a place to put down. Bailing out of these planes was not a good idea, so he decided to crash-land. Frankel hit the ground hard, but other than some scrapes and bruises he escaped uninjured.
Leon started walking, not knowing if he was in Israel or Jordan. 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 six shots. He planned to fire five 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, had been 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 U.S. Navy.
Getting home to the U.S. was not easy for Leon, as fighting for Israel could mean losing his citizenship. He 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 was 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, put me in jail, 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, was married, and had two 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 Fargo Air Museum. He had flown with Stew Bass in the U.S. Navy and had come to Fargo, ND, to see Stew for the first time since World War II. Leon flew the Avenger torpedo bomber and like Stew, received the Navy Cross for helping sink the Japanese cruiser Yahagi. Stewart Bass volunteered many years at the Fargo Air Museum, and also passed away in 2015.