Leon Frankel, U.S. Aviator Who Fought for Israel in ’48, Dies

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Four soldiers who participated in the battle of the Jordan Valley in the War of Independence.Credit: Itzik Ben Malki

Leon Frankel, 92, a decorated American navy pilot whose exploits fighting for the nascent state of Israel were featured in a documentary, died Wednesday in Minnesota.

Frankel's exploits- including founding Unit 101, Israel's premier fighting squadron, were featured in a 2014 documentary film entitled. “Above and Beyond,” which describes the beginning of the Israel Air Force.

A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Frankel was trained as a torpedo bomber pilot during World War II and in February 1945 took off from the aircraft carrier USS Lexington for the first Navy raid on Tokyo.

In a subsequent raid, he was instrumental in sinking a Japanese cruiser and protecting his squadron commander, whose plane was badly damaged. For his actions, Frankel was decorated with the Navy Cross, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Air Medals and two Presidential Citations.

With the Jewish state about to declare its independence in May 1948, Frankel traveled clandestinely to Israel. He joined the country’s first fighter squadron and flew 25 missions, ironically in the Czech version of Nazi Germany’s famed Messerschmidt-109.

He explained his motivation to fight for Israel in a letter last year to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, responding to an Op-Ed column which labeled Frankel and his fellow volunteers as “American jihadists.”

In his response, Frankel wrote, “I could not stand idly by, with my experience, while a second Holocaust loomed, with the Arab nations telling the world they were going to destroy the Jewish state.”

Having survived two wars, Frankel established a car dealership, married and eventually settled in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

He is survived by Ruth, his wife of 63 years, his two children, Mark and Robbi, and two grandchildren, Jake and Becca.

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