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Robert F. Maguire Jr., 94: Helped Airlift Thousands of Jews to Israel

Obituaries

June 17, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Robert F. Maguire Jr., the commercial pilot from Oregon who was dubbed the "Irish Moses" for helping fly tens of thousands of Jewish refugees through hostile territory from Yemen to Israel in 1949, has died. He was 94.

Maguire died of natural causes June 10 at his home in Northridge, his family said.

The World War II veteran was working for Alaska Airlines in late 1948 when the company was contracted by the American Joint Distribution Committee to fly Jewish refugees from Yemen, where they had been oppressed for centuries, to the newly established state of Israel.

As the chief pilot of Operation Magic Carpet, Maguire helped transport more than 40,000 refugees on nearly 400 flights -- a successful airlift that prompted Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion to call Maguire the "Irish Moses."

The operation was a secret one -- it was feared that the planes would be shot down by Arab forces, who were at war with Israel -- but while they were often shot at, none of the planes crashed and no lives were lost.

As described in a 2004 story in The Times, the flights began at Asmara in Eritrea and flew to Aden, where the pilots picked up their passengers and then delivered them to Tel Aviv, some 1,500 miles north.

The pilots, who flew close to the ground and moved in and out of passes and valleys to avoid detection, then flew to Cyprus for the night. The round trip lasted 15 to 20 hours, with as many as 28 pilots flying at any one time.

After several months, however, Alaska Airlines withdrew from the operation. Maguire, who had a wife and three children in Tel Aviv at the time, told The Times last year that the company had been logging too many flight hours and could have been penalized by the Federal Aviation Administration.

But that wasn't the end of the airlift operation: Maguire kept it going by buying or leasing planes and setting up Near East Air Transport.

He told The Times he was motivated more by the adventure than the money. But there was more to his commitment to the airlift than that for Maguire, whose father was a judge in the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II.

Maguire never forgot the Yemenites' singing and blessing as they flew into Israel, nor the grateful expressions on their faces.

"It was so touching you almost don't want to remember," he recalled. 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."

Not many of Maguire's Jewish passengers were aware that their pilot was an American of Irish and British descent who had been raised an Episcopalian.

Over the years, Maguire never sought acknowledgment for his role in the operation, modestly saying that he was "just doing my job."

In 2004, however, Maguire was awarded a medal of valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles for what Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center's founder and dean, called his "heroic efforts that helped rescue tens of thousands of Jews."

Hier had been aware of Operation Magic Carpet but always assumed all the pilots were Israelis.

After hearing about Maguire's role from a friend of the former pilot's son last year, Hier began doing research and discovered, among other things, a letter from the Israeli parliament to Maguire three decades ago thanking him for his participation in the airlift.

Hier also found a vaguely fictionalized version of Maguire in "Exodus," Leon Uris' 1958 novel about the birth of the modern nation of Israel.

Noting that Maguire's airlift operations occurred during the Israeli fight for independence, Hier told The Times last year, "It wasn't his conflict." And yet, Hier said, "he risked his life every single day."

Ely Dromy, who was 6 months old when he, his mother and two sisters were flow from Aden, Yemen, to Tel Aviv, also had never heard of Maguire until last year.

Dromy, a successful Beverly Hills businessman, was among about 20 people of Jewish-Yemenite descent who attended the annual Simon Wiesenthal Center dinner at which Maguire was honored.

Of Maguire's role in Operation Magic Carpet, Dromy told The Times last June: "This is humanity at its best."

Hier told The Times this month that his center had received a plaque from Daniel C. Kurtzer, ambassador of the United States to Israel, that acknowledges Maguire for his "inspiring role" in the refugee airlifts.

Hier said he had planned to make a formal presentation of the plaque to Maguire at his home, but Maguire's ill health prevented it. Now, Hier said, the plaque will be presented to the former pilot's family.

The Portland-born Maguire, who began taking flying lessons at age 17, enlisted in the Army Air Forces on Dec. 8, 1941.

He flew people and cargo over the Pacific during the war and afterward helped launch a Philippine airline that used former military planes.

Maguire flew Jewish refugees from China to Israel under contract with the United Nations and relief organizations before his involvement with Operation Magic Carpet. Afterward, he transported thousands of Iraqi and Iranian Jews to Israel through Operation Ali Baba.

Maguire lost his commercial pilot's license in the early 1950s after contracting heartworm and moved to California, where he managed pension funds and dabbled in real estate.

His son Robert F. Maguire III is chairman and co-chief executive of Maguire Properties, the largest landowner in downtown Los Angeles, with holdings that include the U.S. Bank Tower, Gas Co. Tower and Wells Fargo Center.

In addition to his son Robert, Maguire is survived by two other children, Gil and Alix; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is pending.

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