Machal pilot’s legacy maintained in Gainesville

MAM bannerkatz-article-compositionImage: The photos of Wiliiam Katz and an Israeli B-17 are courtesy of the Aliyah Bet & Machal Virtual Museum.

In 1948, William “Bill” Katz, who hailed from Jacksonville, Fla., became a volunteer pilot and headed overseas into a fight that was not his country’s. The Aliyah Bet & Machal Archives serves as a record of and testimony to the legacies of Bill Katz and other Machal (volunteers from outside the land of Israel). These men and women traveled to embattled Israel to help defend the nascent country. Mr. Katz’s story represents a lesser known piece of Florida’s rich aviation history, and his actions helped to set an example that continues to engender service.

North Americans have a tradition of volunteerism relating to the defense of free societies. Fred Gaffen states as much in his book Cross-Border Warriors: Canadians in American Forces, Americans in Canadian Forces. He writes that one primary motivation for this trend was to “defend democracy . . . .” Following this precedent, Bill Katz did not hesitate to come to the aid of the fledgling and embattled nation of Israel. In doing so he and others defied law, and risked their lives and U.S. citizenships.

The majority of North Americans served with Israel’s English-speaking air force. They, including Bill, were for the most part former World War II military fliers, navigators, radar specialists or mechanics. Katz flew numerous bombing missions over Europe as a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot. He ended the conflict at the rank of captain.

On June 12, 1948, Bill found 3 surplus Boeing B-17G Flying Fortresses awaiting crews at Miami, Fla. After helping to preflight his assigned airplane, Katz climbed into one of the Boeing’s pilot seats. Finally, one by one the four Wright Cyclone R1820 engines began to come to life. As each propeller rotated, the sounds of the whining starters were audible. In turn, each powerplant started, initially emitting a cloud of blue smoke before it cleared and began to idle smoothly.

Two B-17s began to taxi toward the active runway, briefly pausing for pre-takeoff and engine checks, and afterward swung onto the active runway. Throttles moved forward under firm hands and the Boeings roared down the concrete strip. The pilots’ kept the hurtling machines centered with gentle application of pressures on the rudder pedals. With ground speed increasing the tails came up and the pilots eased the control yoke back slightly. With that, the Fortresses eased into the air and landing gear retracted into nacelles. The third B-17 had a flat tire and that caused its crew to delay their departure by several hours.

Three books provide information about Katz’s activities during the ensuing journey. They are I Am My Brother’s Keeper: American Volunteers in Israel’s War of Independence 1947-1949, American Volunteers in Israel’s War of Independence 1947-1949 and The Israeli Air Force 1947-1960. The following amalgamation of the accounts presents a narrative of what took place so many years ago.

The Fortresses winged their way to Puerto Rico, where the pilots filed a flight plan to Brazil. However, in a feint they flew east to the Azores. On the long flight over the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, navigation was primitive because the bombers’ usual navigational equipment was missing.

In the meantime, on June 7, orders arrived at Zatec, Czechoslovakia. They instructed the station to ready the B-17s for combat. Also, the Chel Ha’avir (Israeli air force) command decided to have the Fortresses separately bomb three targets rather than only one on the flight to Israel. The service also sought out experienced air gunners. Once located, cargo and transports duly delivered them to Zatec.

Departing from the Azores, the B-17s flew toward Zatec. They arrived on June 14. While their machines were under repair and undergoing modifications, the Fortress pilots operated Curtiss-Wright Commandos, Douglas Skymasters and Lockheed Constellations between Zatec and Israel.

Aircraft mechanics became busy with the task of preparing the bombers for their initial missions. The aeroplanes needed much work. For instance, the oxygen systems no longer existed, bomb racks were missing and bombsights were nonexistent. Since original equipment and components were not available, improvisations became a necessity. Bomb racks of Czech-German origin went inside, and in all the bombers three Czech .30-caliber machine guns substituted for the normal complement of 13 .50-caliber guns. One gun protruded from the tail positions and one each rested in the side waist positions aft of the wings.

One B-17 would carry out a high altitude attack. Therefore, extra modifications were necessary for this machine. Accordingly, mechanics fashioned a crude oxygen system, and a non-American bombsight substituted for the normal and very accurate Norden.

Ray Kurtz assigned crews and targets to the B-17s. Sources disagree as to which man, Kurtz or Katz, was the lead pilot of the B-17 tasked to raid Cairo. Regardless, Kurtz retained overall command of the ship. The other Fortresses, still lacking oxygen systems and bomb sights, would bomb other targets from lower levels.

Departing Zatec on July 15, at around 1000 hours local time, the bomber being piloted by Kurtz and Katz lifted slowly from the aerodrome in company with two others. The Fortress pilots trimmed their aircraft for cruising and flew south over the Alps and the coastline of Yugoslavia. Later, puffs of black smoke appeared in the vicinity of the small formation. Katz realized that Albanian anti-aircraft guns were firing at the B-17s. To move out of range, the Fortresses banked slightly away from the coast to be out over water.

The large planes droned on and eventually 2 banked away and took up courses toward their assigned targets. At the proper time Kurtz and Katz headed their Fortress east for an approach to Egypt. By that point, there was no turning back.

As dusk was nearing, it was time to set up a bombing run by approaching Cairo airport from the west. The controllers below noted the Boeing’s approach and asked the pilots to identify the flight. The crew maintained radio silence, and soon the Egyptians, likely assuming the B-17 on radar to be a commercial airliner with a malfunctioning radio, transmitted an approval for landing.

Katz banked the Fortress away from the airport, which was on the outskirts of the sprawling metropolis, and steered toward the central area. City lights were coming on as the sky darkened, making for a beautiful scene. The pilots easily spotted the aiming point, and the B-17’s bomb bay doors opened on command. King Farouk’s palace, near the city center, came into view. When the bombsight indicated the correct instant for release, the bombardier sent the bombs earthward toward quarters occupied by Egyptian army officers and the royal palace. As the Fortress lost weight, it lifted and the pilots quickly banked onto a heading that would take the intrepid aircrew to Israel. A while later the B-17 landed at Tel Nof.

Although the palace escaped damage, the bombs having fallen inaccurately, the daring mission nonetheless caused alarm. The surrounding countries were on notice that the Chel Ha’avir, possessing Flying Fortresses, could strike widely around the region. This single fact aided the Israeli war effort. After all, as the late military theorist Sir Basil H. Liddell-Hart once said, “Air power is, above all, a psychological weapon . . . .”

Bill Katz eventually became, after Kurtz, the commander of heavy bombardment No. 69 Squadron. This Flying Fortress unit, known as the “Hammers,” based at Ramat David. Subsequently, Katz became the chief pilot for El Al Israel Airlines. He married an Israeli woman and the couple had several children.

Notably, gaining Israel’s independence and freedom proved costly. In his essay Risking Life and Citizenship in Fight for Israel, Mr. Eddy Kaplansky provided sobering statistics. He indicated that of the 33 Machal fliers killed or missing in action 8 were from the United States and 6 from Canada.

On August 10, 2010, the Jerusalem Post reported Israeli President Shimon Peres’ poignant comments that highlighted the sacrifices of individuals who, like Katz, undertook took bold and risky actions. Peres uttered the following statement: “Without volunteers, Israel would never have been established and without volunteers, Israel cannot exist.”

Israel is essentially still at war. Not unexpectedly, Floridians and others from around the world continue to serve for a number of reasons. One popular avenue of legitimate and legal service is through Sar-El — The National Project for Volunteers for Israel.

The Museum of American and Canadian Volunteers In Israel’s War of Independence is on the Gainesville campus of the University of Florida. It is inside the Hillel Building and in Norman H. Lipoff Hall. The building’s physical address is 2020 West University Avenue. Normal visiting hours are Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Dr. Ralph Lowenstein is the current director. Additional information is available by phoning (532) 372-2900. The Aliyah Bet & Machal Archives is now one of the American Jewish Historical Society‘s holdings.

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The author (John Stemple) thanks Dr. Ralph Lowenstein for his cooperation and contributions.

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