Peekskill, New York
Shot down by groundfire May 30
Before WWII began, Milton Rubenfeld earned a living teaching airplane acrobatics. When war came to Europe in 1939, Rubenfeld signed up with the RAF before the end of the year.
Rubenfeld spent more than two years in the RAF. When I spoke with him, he said he flew in a small unit called 420 Squadron, which was composed of four pilots and four Spitfires at "a little place in the middle of nowehere" in the UK and that he participated in the Battle of Britain.
A later 420 Squadron RAF was a Canadian bomber unit. I have not been able to independently confirm the existence of an earlier group with the 420 name. However, 421 Flight was a group detached from 66 Sqn consisting of Spitfires and Hurricanes which flew low-level coastal patrols to spot Luftwaffe raiders coming in on the deck. 421 Flight operated from October 1940 to January 1941, when it became 91 Sqn and continued its low-level patrols.
Once the US entered the war and the government proclaimed that American citizens might lose citizenship if they fought for foreign armies, Rubenfeld left the RAF and joined the American Air Transport Command (formed June 20, 1942) as a ferry pilot. He flew pretty much any American aircraft you can think of.
In early 1948, Rubenfeld was contacted by Hyman Marcus (later Schechtman, later Shamir, later deputy commander of the Israeli air command), who knew of Rubenfeld's piloting history. Schechtman asked Rubenfeld if he'd fly for the Jews and Rubenfeld agreed.He spent the first few months of 1948 flying transport aircraft in the build-up to independence.
Among his pre-101 Squadron flights, Rubenfeld flew from Italy to Sde Dov May 3 as Lou Lenart's co-pilot in a Norseman. Three days later, both he and Lenart left for Czechoslovakia as part of the initial S-199 training class.
On May 6, Rubenfeld and Lenart joined eight Israeli Sherut Avir pilots (Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman, Jacob Ben-Chaim, Pinchas Ben-Porat, Itzchak Hennenson, Misha Kenner, Nachman Me'iri, and the immigrant Eddie Cohen) on a leased Pan African Air Charter DC-3 leaving Sde Dov. It hopped to Cyprus, Rome, then Geneva. From Geneva, the group took a train to Zurich and from there took a Czechoslovakian Airline DC-3 to Prague. After two days at a dingy Prague hotel, they flew to Ceske Budejovice aboard a military Ju 52. Assigned a barracks and Luftwaffe flight jackets, they began training.
The instructors at the Ceske Budejovice airfield were Czechoslovakian veterans of the RAF. A few flights in the Avia C-21B (Avia's version of the Arado Ar 96B) re-awakened old skills in the pilots who had flown fighter aircraft before. They also quickly and firmly rejected any hope that the Israelis who had only flown light civil aircraft in the past could be quickly converted into fighter pilots. Only those pilots with previous fighter experience - Alon, Weizman, Rubenfeld, Lenart, and Eddie Cohen - were allowed to move on to the next step in the course, which introduced the CS-199, a dual-seat trainer version of the S-199. Lenart took the first S-199 solo, on May 15.
Rubenfeld's opinion of the S-199? "It wasn't a very nice airplane."
On May 18, the pilots in training at Ceske Budejovice learned that two Egyptian C-47s that day had bombed Tel Aviv's central bus terminal, killing 42 people and demanded to return to Israel. Their Czechoslovakian instructors unsuccessfully tried to convince the pilots to stay for at least a few days more training - the Israeli pilots had not yet undergone air-to-air or air-to-ground gunnery lessons. The Israelis insisted, saying they'd practice gunnery on real targets, and the five former combat pilots who passed the training course the next day moved from Ceske Budejovice to Zatec airfield, the headquarters of Israel's airlift operations.
The morning of May 20, the pilots and a handful of Czechoslovakian mechanics squeezed into a C-54 beside a disassembled S-199, ammunition, and bombs. More than 11 hours later, they landed at Ekron. The next day, another S-199 arrived in a C-46 (serial number RX-138). On May 22, a third flew into the country inside the C-54.
The five pilots were to fly their first mission May 29, but when the day came only four S-199s were flyable and Rubenfeld sat out. He got his chance the next morning, however.
Ezer Weizman and Rubenfeld rolled at 05:30, May 30 from Ekron, less than 12 hours after the first mission. An Iraqi light armored column was advancing on Kfar Yonah, about four miles east of Netanya and the coast, and the two remaining Avias were asked to help stop it. Weizman led Rubenfeld to Tul Karm in the two S-199s, loaded with full ammunition and two 70-kg bombs each. They bombed either the railway station (Huertas 1998) or the column (Yonay 1993) at Tul Karm (six miles east of Kfar Yonah) and strafed the column on the road:
...The two swept east toward Tul Karm, then came in from behind the Iraqis and dropped their bombs on the front end of the column. They then pulled up and began to come around to strafe the tanks and trucks.... As he was pulling up, Rubenfeld's plane was hit by antiaircraft fire or by fragments from his own bomb and began to fall to the west, thick black smoke trailing behind. A moment later, Weizman had begun to fire his guns when a heavy object smashed through his windshield, splattering him with glass and forcing him to turn back to base. (Yonay 1993)
Rubenfeld nursed his plane to Kfar Vitkin, a moshav on the coast just north of Netanya, and bailed out over the Mediterranean at only a thousand feet altitude. His parachute opened just before he hit the water, four or five miles from shore. Rubenfeld had suffered three broken ribs, a hurt groin, and several cuts, and faced a long swim to the beach.
He started swimming. It was long, painful - and needless - process.
I swam for a couple of hours. When I finally gave up, I stood up and the water was only up to my knees. I'd been swimming for hours in water I could have stood up in at anytime. I didn't realize it because I was so far out. The farmers at Kfar Vitkin were shooting at me as I was coming in out of the water. They thought I was an Arab pilot. (Rubenfeld, pers. comm.)
Other sources I have read have put forward a story about this incident. The tale maintains that Rubenfeld worried that the locals, unaware that that Israel had fighters, would look at his swarthy complexion, assume he was an Arab, and possibly inflict great harm. Not knowing any Hebrew, Rubenfeld turned to the next best thing - he began shouting in Yiddish. Unfortunately, his Yiddish was almost as limited as his non-existent Hebrew, consisting of the words "Shabbos" and "gefilte fish", which he repeatedly shouted. The locals must have understood, for they pulled him out of the water and held him safely.
Rubenfeld says this is literary licence. He doesn't remember what he was yelling, and he did have identification: "They found my ID in my coveralls with the Hebrew writing and my picture, so that's how they knew I was a Jewish pilot."
The windshield-less Weizman had also suffered a few bullet strikes to his wings but landed safely at Ekron. His windshield had been taken out by a bird strike.
Rubenfeld told me he was shot down on his second sortie. I need to clarify this, as an 0530 take-off pretty much has to be the first flight of the day. Did he fly two missions to Tul Karm?
The squadron threw a party - a good party, according to Rubenfeld - upon Rubenfeld's safe return, at their quarters, the Yarden Hotel on Tel Aviv's Ben Yehuda Street. All the pilots but Modi Alon drank heartily (Nomis and Cull 1998). The next morning, Weizman missed the jeep to Ekron, so he borrowed Alon's motorcycle. At the Beit Degan junction, he hit a mortar shell crater and flew over the handlebars, breaking a bone in his left hand or wrist. The 101 was left with one plane and two pilots, Lenart and Alon.
The injured Rubenfeld wasn't satisfied with the medical care provided to him and by the end of the month had returned to the US for more proper treatment. Although he never flew for Israel again, his action continued to contribute to the defence of the country. The moshavniks of Kfar Vitkin salvaged the cowl machine guns from his Avia the day after he bailed and used them on mounts to defend themselves.
Believe it or not, Rubenfeld was Paul Reuben's father. Yes, Pee Wee Herman, HaHA! He also had a role in "Big Top Peewee" and so has his own entry in the Internet Movie Database.