Navy pilot Leon Frankel returned from World War II with an array of military commendations and resettled as a used-car salesman in Minot, N.D. But it wasn’t long before the St. Paul native received a call requesting his services in another conflict, prompting him to volunteer for action a second time.
Frankel didn’t hesitate to assist the fledgling state of Israel, at the time in desperate need of pilots, said family and friends. He, along with a group of mostly Jewish-American WWII veterans, helped establish the 101, Israel’s premier fighter squadron during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Within weeks, Frankel was flying missions in old German Messerschmitt planes while wearing German suits. The irony didn’t escape him.
“They felt a sense of duty that this was something they needed to do,” said his daughter, Robbi Frankel. “This was their homeland.”
Leon Frankel, who earned a Navy Cross, along with several other medals and presidential citations, for heroism as a torpedo bomber after sinking a Japanese cruiser in WWII and for protecting his commander, died last month. He was 92.
His courage was highlighted in “Above and Beyond,” the 2014 documentary by Nancy Spielberg outlining the Israeli Air Force’s infancy. Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, called Frankel a “hero of two nations” for protecting the newborn state against “almost impossible odds.”
“He was the personification of the unbreakable friendship and alliance of the United States and Israel, having fought for the freedom and democracy of both countries,” said Hunegs, who was also a close friend. “This ragtag band of brothers not only turned the tide of the war, but also prevented the possible annihilation of Israel at the very moment of its birth.”
Frankel was a 1940 graduate of St. Paul Mechanic Arts High School and studied law for a short time at the University of Minnesota. During childhood, he faced a relentless stream of anti-Semitism in his neighborhood, which largely shaped his motivation to fight for Israel later in life, relatives said.
“You didn’t have to be religious or identify as a Jew, because other people identified you as a Jew — and they were targeted by non-Jewish kids,” said his son, Mark Frankel.
Frankel’s service record left an indelible mark on his grandkids, who through his stories developed a deep love for Israel and became involved in Jewish organizations. As part of his grandson’s bar mitzvah experience in 2005, the war veteran took all three generations of men to tour the Israeli Air Force base and see the place where it all began, Mark Frankel said.
He attended annual reunions in Israel with his fellow pilots and maintained those relationships until their deaths, Robbi said. Over the years, Frankel spoke of his triumphs at a multitude of organizations — almost monthly — humbly educating listeners about the wartime era.
Frankel was quick to defend Israel and his role in the country’s history, including in opinion pieces published in the Star Tribune.
“I took the risk because I could not stand idly by with my experience while a second Holocaust loomed, with the Arab nations telling the world they were going to destroy the Jewish state,” he wrote in August 2014. “The reality is, unfortunately, that Israel must continuously defend itself against terrorist attacks, whether by rockets or tunnels or the threats of nations like Iran.”
In his free time, Frankel enjoyed attending airshows — where he was often the guest of honor — reading WWII nonfiction and completing the New York Times crossword puzzle in pen.
Frankel received mail from all over the country thanking him for his service in both wars, to which he would always respond with a small handwritten note and photo.
“Anybody, he felt, that took the time to learn his history and seek him out deserved a response,” Mark Frankel said.
He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Ruth Kozberg; children Mark and Robbi; and grandchildren Jake and Becca. Services have been held.