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Jews Discover an Unsung Hero

In 1949, a U.S. pilot flew Yemenite refugees to Israel. "Humanity at its best," one survivor says.

June 19, 2004|Christiana Sciaudone | Times Staff Writer

The Jewish Yemenite refugees aboard flights to Israel in 1949 felt they were living the words of Isaiah's biblical prophecy, traveling by eagle to their homeland.

Unknown to many, though, their pilot was an American of Irish and British descent, raised an Episcopalian in Oregon.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, reportedly called Robert F. Maguire Jr., the chief pilot of Operation Magic Carpet, their "Irish Moses." He helped transport between 40,000 and 50,000 refugees from Yemen, where they had long been oppressed, to Israel in nearly 400 trips.

Maguire, now 93 and living in Northridge, is a modest man and has always resisted any accolades for what he recalled as "just doing my job."

But Tuesday, he was awarded a medal of valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles for his "heroic efforts that helped rescue tens of thousands of Jews," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center's founder.

Hier knew about the operation, but had assumed the pilots were all Israelis. Then, a few months ago, he learned of Maguire's role from a friend of the former airman's son.

Hier then did some research. Among other material he saw a letter from the Israeli parliament to Maguire 30 years ago thanking him for his airlift participation. Hier also looked up Leon Uris' book "Exodus," which contains a thinly fictionalized version of Maguire. Given Maguire's age, Hier decided Maguire should be recognized at the center's annual dinner, which also honored Brian Roberts, president of Comcast Corp., who is on the Wiesenthal center board.

Hier noted that Maguire's airlift operations took place during the Israeli fight for independence. "It wasn't his conflict," Hier said. But "he risked his life every single day."

For which Ely Dromy is deeply grateful. Dromy, now 55, was 6 months old when he was flown with his mother and two sisters from Aden, Yemen, to Tel Aviv.

"My family had never seen an airplane," Dromy said. "They called it 'the eagle.' " He had not heard of Bob Maguire until Tuesday.

"Unbelievable," Dromy, now a successful businessman in Beverly Hills, said in a phone interview. "This is humanity at its best."

Dromy was among about 20 people of Jewish-Yemenite descent who attended the dinner in Beverly Hills. Representatives from the Israeli government also attended.

The center showed a short film documenting Maguire's story. Before a crowd of about 700, Hier presented Maguire with a medal. Maguire, in an electric wheelchair, spoke very briefly, saying only: "I'm deeply grateful for your consideration. Sorry I can't do a little better on the speech."

Until six years ago, Maguire was still flying private planes in loops. He retains his deadpan sense of humor and "doesn't suffer fools," noted his son, Rob Maguire, 68, a real estate developer.

In 1948, when the nation of Israel was born, Maguire was working for Alaska Airlines. Late that year, the company was contracted by the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee to fly refugees from Yemen.

The operation was kept secret for fear that the planes would be shot down or sabotaged by Arabs, who had declared war on the new Jewish nation. But there was never a single accident and no planes were lost.

The flights started out at Asmara in Eritrea and flew to Aden, where they picked up their passengers and then delivered them to Tel Aviv, about 1,500 miles north. The pilots then went to Cyprus for the night. The round trip lasted 15 to 20 hours. Up to 28 pilots worked at any one time.

Maguire, then 38, had a wife and three children in Tel Aviv.

A few months into the operation, Alaska Airlines withdrew. Maguire said the company was logging too many flight hours and could have been penalized by the Federal Aviation Administration. That should have marked the end of the operation.

But Maguire set up Near East Air Transport and bought or leased planes and pilots, and the operation continued. The adventure, not the money, was a pull, he said. And mostly, he stuck with it to help bring a people home.

There was another influence. Maguire's father was a judge in the Nuremberg war crimes trials against the Nazis. That family connection to Jewish experiences firmed the pilot's commitment to the airlift.

Maguire remembers a lot: the Yemenites' singing and blessing as they flew into Israel; their grateful faces as they started over in a new land.

"It was so touching you almost don't want to remember," Maguire said. When "you've been privileged to see something that people don't see very often.... I was lucky, I was blessed that God had given me the opportunity to be there."

During the Magic Carpet affair, pilot Warren Metzger, 84, flew with Maguire.

"You felt at the time that you were certainly a part of history," said Metzger, who now lives in Washington state.

Metzger's wife, Marian, was a flight attendant on his trips.

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