Machal pilot teaches first IAF fighters, 1948

In 1948, the new nation of Israel was on the brink of annihilation. They were facing certain death when the United Nations had just given them life. The Egyptian Air Force was dropping bombs indiscriminately on Jewish settlements and cities (including Tel Aviv) and the Arab world was promising to finish the job that Hitler had started. Further, the Jews, many of whom were Holocaust survivors) were outnumbered by the millions and were attacked by the combined armies of five Arab states: Egypt, Jordan (Transjordan), Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Additional contingents came from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

An impossible war without an air force
Israel had no air force to speak of — only a few tiny planes unable to shoot or drop bombs except for those that could be tossed out over the sides. It was a desperate hour, but something exceptional occurred that would turn the tide of the war. Thousands of men and women from all over the world volunteered to give Israel a hand. These people were called machalniks, or foreign volunteers and they came from South Africa, North and South America, England and elsewhere. Many were WWII combatants. Among them was George Lichter, a decorated American combat fighter pilot who had flown an astounding 88 missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.

About George Lichter
George was a Brooklyn boy who had battled antisemitism since childhood. When he heard about Israel’s predicament he said, “I thought it would be over in a few months and there was no way the Jews could win. But I knew we had to try.” George put his business on hold, said goodbye to his family, contacted the Israelis and was recruited for what was perhaps the most important job in Israel’s infancy. He was chosen to become the chief instructor of the first Israeli fighter pilots.

Hidden away in Czechoslovakia
Based out of secreted air bases in Czechoslovakia, George instructed young pilots on how to fly combat, using his own combat experience and gift in handling difficult aircraft. In less than a year, George Lichter had helped the Israelis become the masters of their skies and the masters of their own destiny. He laid the blueprints for the greatest air force the world has ever known.

Remarkable students, superior fighter pilots
Now age 91, George is the subject of a new biography marking the years between his birth in Brooklyn in 1921 through his service as a machal flight instructor and test pilot for the Israeli Air Force. Some of Israel’s most prominent and notable pilots were his students in Czechoslovakia, including Dani Shapira whom George rescued mid-air when the young flyer became lost on a dangerous mission to bring Spitfires (British WWII war planes) over Yugoslavian air space to Israel in 1948. Shapira went on to become Israel’s greatest test pilot and flew in every war the nation has known. Another of George’s students was Mordechai “Modi” Alon who one day became commander of the IAF.

More about the book
Ups and Downs, written by Vic Shayne, follows George’s life through his growing up years in Brooklyn where he was first smitten with dreams of flying while standing transfixed on the beach at Gravesend Bay watching a tourist plane take off from the surf. By age six, George knew he wanted to become a pilot, and when he saw the silent WWI movie Wings in 1927, he realized that flying combat would be the ultimate thrill. George’s dream came true in December, 1941 when the United States entered World War II. Pearl Harbor was attacked on Sunday, December 7, and George lined up to join the Army Air Force the next day. After the war, George contacted the Israelis and was sent to a Medieval village in Czechoslovakia called Ceske Budjovice (cheshkee bud-joh-veech) where the Israelis had set up a covert training base for its novice pilots.

Ups and Downs is all about George, an athletic kid whose idea of fun always meant pushing his luck, taking crazy risks, and looking to try something new. These traits made him an ideal candidate for pilot training and air combat. In fact, his daring nature nearly got him killed on more than one occasion, including the time in 1943 when he and a fellow pilot decided to buzz New York Harbor and flew under the nose of the Statue of Liberty.

Capt. George Lichter, second from left, sits with his students at barracks of Ceske Budjovice air base.

Though he had crashed, had plenty of near misses and had his plane shot full of bullets, daring George emerged from the war unscathed but highly decorated with the European Theatre Ribbon and four battle stars, battle stars for air war service and battle stars for flying combat during the invasion of Normandy (D-Day).

Nancy Spielberg features George in her documentary
Nancy Spielberg (Steven’s sister) is currently in production filming a feature documentary on the exploits and service of the machal fighters, featuring George Lichter among the living pilots involved in Israel’s War of Independence, 1948.

Ups and Downs With No Regrets features the favorable reviews of two celebrities — actor Jerry Stiller and television personality/author Dr. Ruth Westheimer, both of whom are personal friends of George Lichter. Dr. Ruth served as a sniper during Israel’s War of Independence. The book is not only about George’s war service, but also about his personal life, sexual exploits, stints as a trumpet player in college and in the Catskill Mountain resorts, battle with antisemitism, and world travels.

Ups and Downs With No Regrets is the personal story of George Lichter written by Vic Shayne and available on amazon.com. Published 2013. Shayne is also the author of Remember Us: From my shtetl through the Holocaust, a first-person memoir of survivor Martin Small, 2009, Sky Horse Publishing.

Nancy Spielberg’s documentary offers a boost

Nancy Spielberg (Steven’s sister) is working on a documentary about the machalniks (foreign volunteers) who fought for Israel’s independence in 1948. The film’s release is perfect timing to coincide with my book on Capt. George Lichter, WWII fighter pilot who was called upon to train Israel’s first combat flyers. The book is called Ups and Downs With No Regrets and is available on amazon.com.

Here is a wonderful video clip of Spielberg’s documentary. George Lichter is one of the main subjects, and the first photo in this clip is of George as a kid in Brooklyn.

Sample Reel for ‘Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force’ – Playmount Productions from Katahdin Productions on Vimeo.