The Relentless Heroes of Baghdad

The incredible story of a mother, an infant, and her 10-year-old boy, who escaped destruction in Iraq and flew to the promised land for just $20.

Iraqi Jews fleeing Baghdad via C46 military transport

2005The chances that Lou Lenart and I would cross paths were slim to none. I was a magazine publisher. Lou was a Los Angeles movie producer and an Israeli war hero. Netflix made a film of his adventures produced by Steven Spielberg's sister Nancy, Above and Beyond. Everything about his story was out there. Nearly everything.

As I waited in the Casa del Mar hotel lobby in Santa Monica, I realized I didn't know what Lou looked like. Before a mutual acquaintance introduced us, my father, Al Cunningham, never mentioned him or that they were El Al pilots who flew the Baghdad Airlift that saved the lives of roughly 140,000 Iraqi Jews.

Lenart tracked me down through the U.S. Israeli Air Force attache. He was turning 85 and wanted to tell a story. It had been a secret inside him for a long time. I was the guy he wanted to tell it to. The reason became clear after I heard it.

1951The mission was Operation Ezra, a rescue of the 140,000 Iraqi Jewish community from persecution in Iraq in 1951. It was going to be a second Holocaust. The name Ezra is taken from the period in which the Jews of Babylon returned to Israel in the 5th century BC.

Nearly 2500 years later, Lou and Al (as I will refer to my father) would follow the same script and fly the most dangerous mission in a lifetime of hazardous missions. It was a day that could have ended tragically for the Iraqi Jews and the pilots. You see why it caught my attention.

Lou never revealed his secret to anyone, not even Spielberg, although it would make a good movie.

This is Lou's story. My father's too. In that respect, I guess it’s mine as well.

1916Allen Cunningham (my father, in his El Al uniform below) was born in Corpus Christi and grew up doing the two things he loved most, swimming and flying airplanes. Apparently, the one thing he didn’t enjoy was going to the Baptist Church, which may explain why my religious upbringing was short-lived. He became a dive instructor at Baylor University, a Baptist college located in his hometown. He took flying lessons (it was the personal computer of its time) and barnstormed around the countryside with aviation celebrities like Chuck Yeager, the character played by Sam Shepard in The Right Stuff.

Al Cunningham, my father, in El Al uniform, 1954

Like most young men of his age, Al volunteered during WWII, and the Air Force sent him to flight school. His assignment was to fly 'the hump' from India to China, fortifying Chinese troops fighting against Japan. In our home, we ate Indian and Chinese food once a week and I never bothered to ask why. Children, right?

Shortly after WWII, President Truman recognized Israel's statehood. This act allowed pilots to volunteer to help the new Israeli Air Force teach Israelis how to fly. He was part of what would be called the "Machal," or American and British pilots who flew for Israel in the War of Independence. As the county was about to go to war against five Arab nations, their role turned out to be quite consequential.

While serving in the Israeli Air Force, he met my mother from a Russian immigrant family who moved to Israel to escape persecution in 1919. She had been a telephone operator in the British Army during the Mandate, and when the war ended, they were married. A Jewish wife and Baptist husband may not have been everyone’s idea of a great match, especially Mr. Gertzovsky, my mother’s father and my grandfather. But in time they all warmed up to the idea. It helped that Al joined El Al as one of its first pilots, where he frequently flew Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion.

1921Lou Lenart was born in Hungary, and his family emigrated to the United States when he was 10. As a teenager, he took a Charles Atlas course to knock the hell out of antisemitic gangs. If you knew Lou you kind of felt sorry for their rotten asses.

Lou joined the Marines, enrolled in flight school, and served with distinction in the Battle of Okinawa. After the war, he learned that 14 relatives had died in Auschwitz and volunteered for the Israeli Air Force.

Not long after Lou arrived in Israel, the Egyptian Army was headed to Tel Aviv to strike a blow at the heart of the new country. Lou and three wingmen went to the skies in their Czech airplanes, constructed with parts they salvaged.

Lou Lenart with General Ariel Sharon (later Prime Minister)

The shock that Israel had an Air Force so intimidated the Egyptians they fled the battlefield, and Tel Aviv was spared an air bombardment. He was forever known as "the man who saved Tel Aviv."

Lou joined El Al once the war ended, and that is where he met his future partner in the Baghdad Airlift.

1951Lou and Al got to know each other at El Al in the early days of the airline when it was like a small family. They remarked how different their personalities were. Lou was the Scottish Terrier, all energy and determination. Al was more of a Sheepdog, carefully watching everything around him and ensuring the flock was in place. Lou flew fighter jets; Al flew big transports.

Within a year, they had signed up to help the country solve a tremendous humanitarian disaster breaking out in Iraq. One of Judaism's oldest communities faced mass extermination. To Israel, it all sounded too familiar. It was called Operation Ezra, but they knew it as the Baghdad Airlift because that was the mission.

The catalyst for Operation Ezra occurred in 1951 when the Iraqi government finally permitted Jewish emigrants to leave. But there was a bureaucratic catch. The Iraqi Jews could not fly to Israel (no Arab government could be seen adding to the country's Jewish population at that time). The second was that anyone leaving had to divest all personal property and businesses.

There would be one more rule, as they soon found out.

If the Iraqis learned the airlift was bringing Jews to Israel, they would shut it down. The other reality is that the pilots would be hung as spies.

Operation Ezra

El Al began flying refugees from Baghdad bound for Tel Aviv in mid-May 1951.

Al Cunningham (left) with pilot volunteers in Israel in 1950

147 They flew C46 transports, which was convenient because it was the same plane Al and Lou flew in WWII. Although people were piled on top of each other like cattle in a boxcar, the war surplus aircraft could not accommodate more than 147 passengers. The Iraqis suspected the passengers would riot to get on the planes, and it might lead to a delay in takeoff or an accident. They didn't want any publicity, either. The Iraqis wanted the Jews gone and quietly. That was why the flight plan was for Cyprus, and the aircraft was an ordinary sounding charter outfit called Near East Transport Company, not El Al.

This was pure cloak and dagger. If Iraqi Arabs learned the airlift was bringing Jews to Tel Aviv, they would see it as supporting the new state of Israel, which could lead to an overthrow of the Iraqi government. The other thing that weighed on Lou and Al's minds, they would be treated as spies and hung.

It made for an anxiety-filled journey and was about to get worse.

As Lou told me that day in Santa Monica, "we flew two flights per day roundtrip, nonstop. Our plane took off from Lod Airport in Tel Aviv for Baghdad for the outbound portion. When we arrived in Baghdad, we parked on the tarmac while the passengers boarded. Then, one of us would watch for saboteurs because there was always the threat someone would place a bomb on board while we took turns using the bathroom."

On this flight, it was Lou's turn.

Lou Lenart in the War for Independence

10 years old, and his life depended on #147. I'll explain.

Lou Lenart told me, "I was heading back to the plane when I saw something I could not believe. A mother and infant were on the line with her 10-year-old boy. But the mother had just passed the guard. She was number 147. The guard said to get on the plane and leave the boy behind. She knew what that meant. She would be separated from him — forever."

Lou watched the scene as he walked back to the plane. "The guard was having none of it. The mother begged. The guard warned her and pushed her ahead. She got down on her knees. The guard raised his leg. The mother grabbed his boots. The guard kicked her so hard, and her baby flew into mid-air."

Mass hysteria started to break out. All the guards raised their rifles now.

"For a second, I was taken back to the days when gangs of anti-Semitic thugs beat me. I had a short fuse when I saw someone being abused and broke into a run. I said to myself, "'when I get to that sonofabitch guard, I am going to teach him a lesson he won't forget.'"

It would have been a lesson the world would never forget either.

As Lou revealed in Santa Monica, "my temper, not to mention my attacking a guard, would have aroused their suspicions just a little. They thought we were hired hands and charter pilots aren't supposed to care about their payloads. Certainly not enough to attack an armed guard."

Lou said his fury was such that "the Iraqis would have interrogated us, and for good measure, tortured us. Of course, we would have told them everything — the El Al planes, that we were Jews flying Jews to settle in Israel, the whole shebang. Operation Ezra would shut down, and the passengers probably killed. The other 120,000 would be blacked out of history, God only knows."

But on that day, for Lou and Al, luck was on their side.

20 bucks.

"I was watching Al now. He acted like it was nothing. As if he was tipping a friendly bellman, Al reaches into his pocket and pulls out a $20 bill. He quietly slips it to the guard."

"Then Al bends down and picks up the screaming child. He puts on his biggest Texas smile, and in broken Arabic (they taught us a few phrases back in Israel), he says, 'shukraan lak , hadhih hadiatan lisabrik,' which means "we thank you for your patience."

Lou was bewildered. What happens now?

"Was the guard going to accuse Al of bribery? Would all hell break loose? I felt sick to my stomach. Then the guard smiled and put his arm around Al's shoulder like pals. Now the prick waves the sobbing mother onto the plane with her ten-year-old boy."

Once everybody was on board, Lou and Al jumped into the cockpit and took off for Cyprus. Or Tel Aviv, but that's being technical. The main thing the mission with 148 passengers was on its way, with 120,000 more to go.

Operation Ezra was one of the most successful rescue operations ever attempted in history. Except for Lou's secret, the entire mission was as smooth as flying a commercial airliner today.

Lou wanted me to know the personal story behind Operation Ezra before he died. He felt that the operation would have been exposed if it had not been for my father's grace under pressure, as Hemingway would call it. Thousands of Iraqi Jews may never have made it to Israel, their ultimate fate unknown and unthinkable.

Lou Lenart receiving an award with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (the original photo was a gift to the author by Lenart)

2015After becoming a Hollywood filmmaker, producer of six feature films, and general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers in the early 1980s, Lou Lenart returned to Israel and died on July 20, 2015, in Ra'anana.

1994After retiring from El AL, Allen Cunningham moved back to Texas where he excelled at cooking, painting, and ranching (he owned one cow). He died on May 22, 1994, in Waco.

Today in Israel, there is a 70-year-old Israeli of Iraqi birth, who was 10 when he arrived in Tel Aviv's Lod Airport in the very back seat of Lou's and Al's plane. I hope he is enjoying his country, his grandchildren and hopefully, a healthy life. He was able to leave Baghdad, along with 120,000 Iraqi Jews and families, because Lou and Al answered the call. And because Al kept a spare $20 bill in his pocket.

(Author's note: I don't have a picture of Lou and Al together, unfortunately. They didn't do selfies in those days. The photos of Lou you see in this article, he gave to me as a gift in memory of my dad, Al Cunningham.)



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Jeff Cunningham

Jeff Cunningham

Just trying to make sense of things. ex-publisher Forbes