After 61 Years, Pilot Who Defied Law to Help Israel's Birth Receives Pardon

24 years pass from death of the Miami businessman until his pardon by President George Bush.

Officials in Jewish organizations in the United States this week were calling Charles Winters a righteous gentile, a hero of Israel's War of Independence who was insufficiently honored in his lifetime.

No less than 24 years passed from the death of the Miami businessman until his pardon by President George Bush for crimes committed in 1948. Winters violated an arms embargo, helping to send three B-17 bombers to Israel in its infancy.

Before leaving for his Christmas vacation at Camp David, Bush issued pardons for 19 people (and withdrew one of them the next day). Winters' supporters say his pardon should have come decades ago.

Winters, a Boston-born Irish Protestant, did not serve in the military for health reasons but cooperated with the government during World War II and later founded his own air transport company. He did not tell his family much about that period in his life. His son Jimmy, 44, who owns a neon sign company in Miami, learned about his father's past only after his death, from an obituary in The Miami Herald in 1984 with the headline, "Charles Winters, 71, Aided Birth of Israel."

The blue-and-white flowers sent to the funeral by the Israeli government were another clue.

The only hint he ever received about his father's time in jail was his father's refusal to let him go hunting with his friends. As an ex-convict, Winters was banned from buying or possessing firearms for life.

"It happened 16 years before I was born. He went to jail and he didn't want his kids to know. He was old-school and proud," Jim Winters said by way of explaining his father's reluctance to talk about the past. "My father was a very instrumental, important person in the history of the world, and I didn't realize that. It would make a great movie."

The Neutrality Act of 1939 prohibited U.S. citizens from supplying combat aircraft to belligerent nations without presidential approval, but in the summer of 1948 Winters was recruited by Al Schwimmer to help him smuggle weapons in an effort to give Israel a strategic advantage over the invading Arab armies. Winters personally flew one of the bombers to Czechoslavakia, where additional arms were loaded onto it before being transported to Israel.

In February 1949, Winters was sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined $5,000 by a Florida court. Schwimmer and a third partner, Hank Greenspun, were convicted but Winters was the only one to serve time and the only one not to receive a presidential pardon until now.

In 1961, Prime Minister Golda Meir issued a letter of commendation recognizing Winters' contributions to Israel's survival.

Earlier this year Jim Winters launched a fight to clear his father's name, spurred on by what he said were his father's last words to him: "Keep the faith."

"We are all very grateful to the President for granting this request from Mr. Winters' family. We are deeply indebted to the Jewish community for its tireless efforts to obtain this relief for Charlie, even after his death," Reginald Brown, an attorney who worked to obtain the pardon, said in an interview with Haaretz.

"He was a quiet but courageous man who did what was right even though the personal consequences were severe," Brown said. "Charlie's decision to chart the moral course left him with a clear conscience even though his legal record was blemished. The pardon cleanses Charlie's legal record, as well as the conscience of a nation. If Charlie were alive today he'd probably smile upon hearing the news of a pardon, and then return to the day's regular tasks. That's the kind of man he was - humble, not looking for the spotlight, but brave enough to do the right thing regardless of the cost."