To fellow aviators, perhaps, Elgen M. Long is best known as the man who in 1971 first flew around the world over both the North and South Poles. Additionally, he is admired for his research into the disappearance of aviators Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan in 1937 somewhere near Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean.
But to Yemenite Jews, he forever will be known as one of the men who helped to transport 1,800 of them to Israel in 1949 “On Eagle’s Wings” — a precursor operation to Operation Magic Carpet which rescued another 48,000 Jews in 1950.
Long recounted on Thursday night, May 31, to a StandWithUs gathering the dramatic events involved in bringing Yemenite Jews to the Jewish State even as Israel still was fighting its War of Independence against the local Arab population and the armies of Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.
At the time, Long was serving as a navigator for Alaska Airlines, assigned to flights in the Far East. One day, he was ordered to fly from Tokyo to Hong Kong, and to await further orders. Next, the airplane crew in which he was serving was told to go to Shanghai, and to pick up stateless Jewish refugees, who had been living in the ghetto there. The plane made its way from Shanghai to Bombay to Aden and then to Lydda (Lod), which years later became the Ben-Gurion International Airport.
“The war was still going on when we arrived and they were expecting an attack,” Long told attendees of a StandWithUs dinner for members of its Herzl and Guardians Clubs, consisting of supporters who contribute $5,000 or $2,500 annually to the pro-Israel group that supports Israel causes on college, high school, and middle school campuses.
“The lights were turned off. We were running low on fuel, and our captain spotted the airport and managed to land on the runway,” Long recounted. A vehicle approached, which at first the crew thought was a jeep to guide the plane to a terminal. However, “it was an armored car with machine guns. They didn’t know who we were.” The soldier’s commanding officer boarded the plane, and when he learned that the passengers were Jewish refugees, he told the crew, emotionally, “It is a good thing that you have done.”
Following the flight, the crew went to a hotel, where their captain received a message that they should return to Aden immediately where “someone will meet you.”
“So,” said Long, “we fired the airplane up, and headed back to Aden. There was an officer there, waiting at a gate for us.” The official told them that there were Yemenite Jewish refugees in a life or death situation who needed to be flown to Israel. At the time Aden was a British Crown Colony, separate from Yemen. Not until 1967 was Aden merged into Yemen.
The converted cargo plane had seats for only 48 people, but it was urgent to take as many as possible, so the airplane’s mechanic suggested taking the seats out and allowing people to sit on the floor. Figuring that the Yemenites, including children, averaged about 80 pounds each, the crew calculated 150 people could be fitted into the plane safely, assuming that they took off in the cooler morning temperatures of 6 a.m.
“So, they had 150 there the next morning, and they didn’t want to get on the airplane,” Long related. “They didn’t know what an airplane was, never had seen an airplane, and they were afraid. I didn’t blame them. But their rabbi quoted from Exodus 19:4 in which God says to Moses, “You have seen what I did to Egypt, and that I have borne you on the wings of eagles and brought you to Me.” The rabbi then told his people, “This is your eagle!” Even though it was a Saturday morning, March 12, 1949, the rabbi said they could fly on the Sabbath, because it was a matter of life and death.
Long related that getting all 150 in required some pushing. “The flight took 9 ½ hours, and they were all scared to death — especially when you climb up, and then you bank the airplane, they were afraid they were going to die, or fall off.”
En route, some passengers decided that they wanted some tea, so lit their small kerosene stove and started to brew the tea, not realizing they were sitting right over the fuel tank. However, even though the Yemenites didn’t speak English, they understood when crew members told them with alarm, “NOOOO!”
From Aden, the plane flew over the Red Sea, and then over Aqaba, Beer-Sheva, and on to Lydda.
When at last that first flight landed in Israel, and when the passengers knew that they were in Israel, they kissed the ground. “This was their returning; this is what their religion had told them for thousands of years was going to happen –— they were going to return on the wings of an eagle.”
The crew felt very good when they off loaded the passengers. Then, after gassing up, they turned around and flew right back to Aden where more refugees were waiting.
“We made a trip a day, about 20 hours of flying,” said Long. “We flew for seven days straight without ever getting off the airplane.”
After seven days, they were groggy with fatigue, “so we took a day off, and then we flew five more flights after that.”
At that point, the crew in which Long was serving was returned to home base, while other pilots and crew continued Operation Magic Carpet, ultimately transporting nearly 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel.
Among those passengers were the maternal and paternal grandparents of Shahar Azani, a former Israeli consular official who now serves as the Northeast executive director of StandWithUs.
He told the StandWithUs dinner guests at the Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla that he first heard about Long when he received a phone call from an Israeli consular official of San Francisco, who was attending a museum exhibition in Alaska recalling Alaska Airlines’ role in the exodus of the Yemenites.
After learning that Captain Long, today a nonagenarian, was the last surviving crew member from those flights, Azani invited him to tell his story to a StandWithUs gathering in New York, and then to return to Israel to see what had become of the country in the interim.
Azani said that Long was offered the opportunity to meet Israel’s top political figures, but that he expressed a desire to simply meet some of the people, or their descendants, whom he had helped to transport so long ago.
It was an emotional moment for the Yemenites whom he had met, Azani said. They crowded around him and hugged him, thanking him for helping to fly the eagle whose wings had borne them, their parents, and grandparents to their Promised Land.
At the StandWithUs dinner too, another descendant of those original refugees thanked Long, saying were it not for Long and the other brave aviators, he might not have had the privilege of being where he was today.
Don Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World (sdjewishworld.com). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org