The Lost Dakota Fighters of Israel’s War of Independence
Published in Tablet Magazine. Can be found here.
Late on the night of Oct. 24, 1948, on the last night of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and amid Israel’s War of Independence, a Douglas C-47 Dakota transport plane took off from Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov military airport. It was a routine supply mission to the besieged Negev community of Sdom, near the southern tip of the Dead Sea. Sdom, like many such settlements, was encircled by enemy forces and only accessible by air. Moments after takeoff, the right engine began to overheat and spit out flames. The pilot redirected for an emergency landing at the Tel Nof air base, but the engine exploded within sight of the airfield, breaking off a wing and sending the plane spiraling to the ground just before midnight. It exploded on impact, and all five of the passengers were killed, in one of the first fatal aerial transport accidents in Israel’s history. Still, it barely registered on the radar of a young Jewish state suffering daily casualties as it engaged in a bloody war. There was not even a reference to it in several newspapers over the following days.
There was nothing glorious about an overloaded, rickety plane long overdue for servicing that crashed while delivering flour, coffee, and soap to besieged Israelis when heroic military sacrifices were happening all around. But while the accident itself was hardly extraordinary, its circumstances offer a snapshot of Israel’s makeshift early days, and its victims shine a light on those long forgotten. Together they made up some of the ragtag outfit of unsung foreign volunteers who flocked to the Holy Land in 1948—thousands of idealistic WWII veterans without whom Israel likely would not have won its independence. But when the fighting subsided, and Israel finally came around to telling its story, there was simply no one around to tell of these impressive young men. Four of the five officers—the pilot Wilf Canter, his co-pilot Fred Stevenson, navigator Willy Fisher, and radio operator Leon Lightman—were overseas volunteers, without local family to lobby for their commemoration. The fifth, Michael Wimers, was a single Jewish German immigrant. For decades, the military itself had little biographical information on the disparate men whose varied backgrounds and life stories made up the palette of early Israel’s fight for survival.
But now, 70 years later, we can finally get a fuller picture of these previously anonymous fighters amid the historic times in which they lived, thanks to the dogged determination of a devoted air force official, an obsessive campaign of a bereaved woman, and, surprising as it is to me, my last-ditch efforts to convince my paternal grandfather, Mickey Heller, to tell me something—anything!—about his WWII experiences.
One of the greater frustrations of my life has been the inability to get my grandfather to speak about his wartime past. Born and raised in Toronto, he posed in uniform for his wedding photo, and it was common family knowledge that he was a navigator for the Royal Canadian Air Force in WWII, flying missions over Europe in Lancaster and Vickers-Armstrong Wellington bombers from his base in England between 1942 and 1944. But that’s all I knew. I tried relentlessly, using every opportunity to nudge him into telling stories, but each time I saw a glimmer of reflection in his eye it was quickly replaced by a distinctly disapproving look—a pursing of the lips, a moment of silence. “You don’t like talking about the war that much, do you?” I asked during one of my visits to Toronto. “What’s there to talk about?” he replied. “A lot of guys went over, not a lot came back.”
Finally, in early 2011, the year he was to turn 90, I decided to give my Zaidy—that’s how he’d sign his letters to me—one last shot to talk. My efforts over the past eight years have largely resulted in an extension of my lifelong frustration, with him sticking to his longtime reticence. On the one hand, I have learned more about WWII than I could have imagined, and I’ve gotten Zaidy to share his observations and insights. He’s an avid reader, particularly about military history, and is more than willing to describe battles, strategy, and armaments. He also notes with pride the outsize contribution of Canada’s Jews, how the 17,000 who fought during the war made up about 40% of all eligible Jewish men, with most of the volunteers dispatched overseas. Most importantly, we grew closer in his advanced age and I managed to bond with my lone surviving grandparent in a way I never had before. On the other hand, while he’d drop the occasional anecdote, there was always a clear line that could not be crossed: Anytime I would ask about him or about his experiences, he would shut down and move on.
But there was an exception: his sharing of the story of a friend with whom he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean together in 1942 aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth, en route to battle in Europe, a fellow Torontonian Jew by the name of Wilf Canter. Over the past several years, I have gotten to learn more about Wilf Canter than I have about my own grandfather. The drama of Canter’s ordeal could compete with any WWII book I have ever read or movie I’ve ever seen.
Zaidy knew the basics: that Canter was a pilot who survived three near-death experiences. But he wanted more details. Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, Zaidy had been involved with the Jewish War Veterans of Canada and was one of the organizers of a war memorial in Toronto. It featured the names of 570 Jews who either died in battle or came back and registered over the years. Since his old friend Canter fell into neither category, Zaidy wanted to include his full biography.
They had exchanged letters during the war, and Canter had invited Zaidy to Buckingham Palace, where he was to be awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal. But my grandfather couldn’t go. His last letter to Canter, sent in 1944, was returned with a military stamp on the envelope reading “present location not known” and red capital letters simply spelling: “MISSING.” They lost touch, and only years later did Zaidy get the bare bones chronology. Now he was asking me to use my journalistic chops to fill in the rest.
What I discovered—about Canter and the others—was breathtaking.
Wilfred Canter was born on Feb. 7, 1921, near Kiev, to Eva and Leon Canter. His father died while he was still an infant, and when he was 5 Wilf immigrated to Toronto with his mother and older sister, Sophie. Wilf grew up downtown and went to Central Tech High School before enlisting in 1941. The following year he got his wings and went to war.
In April 1943, the Halifax bomber he co-piloted was shot down on the way back from a mission over Stuttgart. Canter parachuted into occupied France, breaking a leg when he landed. The only member of the six-man crew to survive and evade capture, he lay in hiding for nine days, kept alive by a local family who gave him food and clothing and then passed him to members of the Resistance who smuggled him to Paris, then Bordeaux, then over the Pyrenees by foot into Spain. From there he made his way to Gibraltar and then England, where King George VI awarded him a Distinguished Flying Medal at Buckingham Palace. Canter was cited for displaying “courage and tenacity of a high order.”
After less than a month of home leave in Toronto, he deemed himself fit for duty and returned to England to resume his bombing missions, including one in which his plane took fire but returned safely to base. In April 1944, he was not as lucky. Canter was shot down again, on a bombing run over Dusseldorf, and was captured by the Germans. After a lengthy Gestapo interrogation, he was detained for nine months in Stalag Luft III, a notorious German prisoner-of-war camp that later inspired the 1963 film The Great Escape, in which 50 British and Allied aviators were caught and executed. According to his Israeli military biography, Canter participated in that famed prison break and was in line to break out. But the chronology of his official Canadian wartime record indicates he arrived at that camp at least a month after the escape. Either way, his adventures were far from over.
As the Allies were closing in on Germany, the camp’s remaining war prisoners were marched west, away from the advancing Soviet army. Canter escaped and managed to connect with a British unit. He was briefly recaptured by a German officer, but Resistance forces shot the German dead, freeing Canter again and handing him the officer’s Luger pistol, which he kept as a memento. “To this day, I don’t know how I got out of there alive,” he later told his mother. Finally, Canter returned home to Canada, having logged 2,500 wartime flight hours.
After several fitful years in which he failed to find his calling, he was drawn back to the battle in Israel, arriving on Aug. 5, 1948, with other volunteers. He was one of just five Jewish Canadian pilots with WWII experience who served in the young Israeli Air Force. Canter, who in Israel went by his Hebrew name, Zeev, joined the 103 Squadron in Ramat David and primarily flew Dakota planes on bombing and supply missions, including the last one in which he found his death at age 27.
“He had quite a life,” Zaidy recalled, before offering a most unexpected insight about his old friend. “The funniest thing about this guy was that he was a crier. He had balls, but he cried at the drop of a hat.”
The paths the two friends took after the war diverged dramatically. Zaidy, the youngest of seven children, came back to his awaiting fiancée, intent on starting a family and a business—and, mostly, forgetting about the war and moving on. He eventually established his own company for women’s blouses, but now, at 97, my widowed grandfather’s greatest source of pride is his four children, nine grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren. By contrast, that domestic life wasn’t in the making for Wilf Canter. He was unsettled after the war and only regained his footing once flying and Israel came beckoning.
What led Canter to Israel in 1948 had a lot to do with the kind of life and service he’d had up to that point, and a psychology that could likely be traced back to his early childhood. Canter’s ailing father died shortly before they left Kiev for Canada, and his mother became gravely ill and incapacitated on the journey itself, leaving 5-year-old Wilf and his 8-year-old sister Sophie to mostly fend for themselves aboard the ship. While Sophie felt the trauma of separation, for Wilf it was an adventure, instilling in him an early sense of independence and self-assuredness that carried though to his wartime experience.
Despite his dramatic time in Europe, Canter told little of what truly transpired. His mother only learned about the torture and Gestapo interrogations years later. She visited Israel shortly after the accident in 1948, and a handwritten note in her name provided the military with most of the biographical information that became known about him for the following 70 years. She passed away in 1989. Sophie, the sister, died in 2016 at the age of 97, handing off any reminders to her youngest son, Canter’s 68-year-old nephew, Wayne Gershon.
Gershon told me he rarely inquired of his grandmother, as the pain of losing her only son lingered for the rest of her life. His mother mostly related the warmth of an older sister rather than any insight on his wartime experience or brief time in Israel. But Gershon did inherit the only physical remnants from an uncle who had died two years before his birth.
According to the official military record Gershon sent me, Canter embarked from Canada on Aug. 21, 1942, and arrived in Britain 11 days later, on Sept. 1. It was during this journey that he and Zaidy bonded, but, typically, Zaidy would not expand much about their interactions.
“There were thousands of guys on that boat, and we did most of the talking while waiting in line for hours to get a meal,” he said.
The package Gershon shared also included Flight Lt. Lloyd Wilfred Canter’s official discharge, his war record, his war service badge, prisoner-of-war information, and more. He was listed at 5-foot-10, with a medium build, blue eyes and brown hair. Military ID J17845 was finally a real person on paper, with a new photo to go along with the only known one to date of his handsome face stoically looking aside.
I also got the diary he kept as a prisoner of war in the Stalag Luft III German POW camp, near the town of Sagan, 100 miles southeast of Berlin. He was provided a “wartime log for British prisoners,” in which the POWs were encouraged to keep notes, draw sketches, and preserve mementos of their time in captivity. In it is the only known firsthand account of Wilf Canter.
Canter’s WWII service record indicates he arrived at the Stalag Luft III camp at least a month after the “Great Escape” of March 1944. His diary contains no reference to the escape—and naturally it doesn’t mention his Jewish faith, which could have proven fatal if discovered by his Nazi captors.
But the diary does provide some unique glimpses. He drew sketches of the camp, its layout and illustrations of sentry boxes. With impeccable handwriting, he composed poems and described the daily routines, the food they ate (barley and jam), the activities in which they partook, such as sports and theater, and the conversations among the prisoners, or kriegies, as they called themselves. He lists the 102 books he read in captivity and the major events he witnessed, particularly close to liberation.
“On Wed. Apr. 4/1945 I saw my first V2 projectile or rocket and I must say it was imposing,” he wrote. “Apr. 4/45, V2 rocket flew over the camp. Plenty of excitement the last few days as our armies close in on this area.”
He said that “100 goons” were remaining in the camp to hand them over to the Soviet liberators. After liberation, he describes witnessing “many dead goons lying about in the woods. It is a horrible sight.” Meanwhile, the kriegies were living off the surrounding land where they had “countless chicken, geese, turkeys, lambs and pigs” about.
He noted the dates in which he got his parcels from the Red Cross and listed the diseases contracted in the camp. He includes extracts from POW letters with some of the funniest notes they received from loved ones, including what can only be assumed to be wives or girlfriends. “I hope you will not return passion-dead,” one reads. “I don’t doubt that you will really feel queer when you meet someone of the opposite sex,” reads another. “I’m so glad you got shot down before flying got dangerous,” another note said.
After the war, Canter was shipped home. Gershon confirmed what I had long suspected: Canter was depressed and struggled to find purpose. He did odd jobs as a draftsman but was frustrated by his lack of employment options, comparing his plight to that of his grandfather who couldn’t be a pharmacist in Ukraine because he was Jewish. Mostly, though, he longed to fly again, and he only fully emerged from his funk when the opportunity presented itself again in Israel. “I think it was personal for Wilf to double down and go to Israel,” Gershon said. “He recognized the cause. I didn’t get the impression that he relished battle just for its own sake.” When he departed for Israel, Canter left behind a girlfriend named Leah whom both his sister and mother liked very much.
Several years ago, I decided to track down Wilf Canter’s gravesite in Rehovot, in central Israel. It was a typical Israeli military cemetery, rows upon rows of simple, uniform rectangular plots covered by tiny manicured garden beds and headstones with each soldier’s basic information engraved. I found the grave nestled between two others with identical dates of death—Michael Wimers and William Fisher—men I could only imagine at the time were his comrades in the plane crash. The cemetery was empty, and against an eerie silence I placed a small pebble on his headstone and said aloud: “Zaidy says hi.”
But the story of Wilf Canter slipped into the background of my irregular correspondences with Zaidy over the following years and it had nearly completely drifted from memory when, out of the blue, I got a cold call in May 2018 from a woman identifying herself as Efrat Gal, who said she was seeking information about him. As it turned out, she and her husband were the main sleuthing force behind collecting the stories and discovering the next of kin for fallen Israeli airmen for the memorial hall at the Nevatim Air Force Base in the Negev desert. Canter was apparently the only one left from Squadron 103 with no known descendants or close friends to speak of. Gal’s husband, Gideon, a former private investigator, had found Zaidy somehow, and that’s how they got to me. To my astonishment, they had tracked down relations for all the flight’s crew and were closing in on a potential nephew of Canter’s in rural Maine. They wanted to pick my brain and have me contribute my findings, which I gladly did. But they did more than that. They sparked in me a renewed passion to explore the history of this remarkable man, and his crewmates, particularly in lieu of my failure to do so with my own grandfather.
Efrat was motivated by her own lost relative, an uncle who crashed to his death in the 1956 Sinai campaign and whose fate she only learned about much later. “For so many years, we knew nothing about my uncle, and there was no one to visit his grave,” she explained to me. “The thought that there were others out there who didn’t know, or that the military was looking for but couldn’t find their bereaved families, made me uneasy. I decided then and there that I wouldn’t have it. I’d turn the world over to find them.”
Efrat and Gideon quickly hooked up with Tal Landman, a burly one-man encyclopedia of air force history whose three-year mandatory service as the commemoration and heritage coordinator of Nevatim has morphed into more than 20 years of reserve duty. For him, commemorating the base’s 110 fallen airmen and finding any personal connections to them was a moral imperative. “I believe that no one deserves to die twice. No one deserves to fall into the abyss of obliviousness,” Landman explained. “These people gave their lives for the country and we can’t have a situation where no one knows that they ever existed.”
Together, Efrat and Tal tracked down a dozen families of long forgotten soldiers, bringing them into the air force’s tightknit circle of bereaved families. Then the Gals took the mission overseas, where they found families, arranged for them to be flown to Israel to visit gravesites and even hosted them in their own home. Along the way, they embraced many who didn’t even know they belonged to a larger community. People like the descendants of Fred Stevenson.
Fred Stevenson was born in Flint, Michigan, on March 6, 1919, to Anne and Ellaf, a Protestant with Icelandic roots. When Fred was 10, the family moved to Saskatchewan, Canada, where his father worked in agriculture. Fred split his youth between Regina and Eston. He played baseball, sang, and dabbled in wood carving. He enlisted in 1941 and served in the air force for five years, including as a transport pilot during WWII. He flew over Europe, logging about 1,600 flight hours on various aircraft. A relative said part of his mission was providing air cover for Canadian ships carrying troops and supplies across the Atlantic Ocean on their voyage to Europe. A photograph from this period shows a smooth, baby-faced portrait with Nordic features and a beret tilted on one side of his head.
Stevenson returned home to work as a farmer in Saskatchewan before moving to Vancouver to be closer to his daughter. Unlike his Jewish comrades, his reasons for volunteering to fly in Israel were less straightforward. But he was no mercenary, and it seems his Christian faith and personal situation were driving forces. By 1948, he was adrift, separated from his wife and looking for a cause. According to an account in the Israelite Press, a Yiddish-English language Jewish weekly in western Canada, Stevenson one day picked up a phone book, dialed the number of a Jewish-sounding name and told the unsuspecting man on the other end of the call that he wanted to volunteer for the war in Israel. The man he randomly reached, a local Jewish lawyer, made the arrangements and off Stevenson went. He landed in Israel on an October day at 4 p.m. and four hours later was airborne on his first mission. His comrades described him as an adventurous, happy-go-lucky kind of guy, the perfect companion to his new friend, Wilf Canter.
Stevenson’s only child, a girl named Sharone, was told little about him by her mother, who had remarried. But Sharone’s grandmother told her in generalities about a gentle man who loved to dance and sing and had a good sense of humor. She doubts the account of him calling a Jewish lawyer to volunteer; she had heard that a friend had tipped him off about the war in Israel, sparking his interest.
“He simply found a way to help out a country, which included being able to fly for that country and doing what he thought and felt was a good cause,” she said. “Believe me when I say that he knew the score about going over there as he asked my grandparents to raise me because he would not be coming back.”
Her few memories of him include him swinging her around, singing songs and buying her a gray elephant with a red bow on one of his visits with her. “He bought me a red coat for winter. I was so excited and thought it was the most beautiful coat I had ever seen,” she recalled, from her current home in Strathmore, Alberta, near Calgary.
Stevenson’s last visit with his daughter was in the spring of 1948, when she was visiting her grandparents in Wartime, Saskatchewan. He bought her a blue bicycle. “It might as well have been a new car, all of us were beside ourselves,” she said.
It was then that he informed the adults he was thinking of going over to Israel to fight for their cause. “I didn’t know at the time that that would be the last time I ever saw him,” said Sharone Deschenes, today 78.
She remembers coming home from school for lunch one day that October. As she walked in, the radio was playing “English Country Garden,” which always played at noon. Her mother and stepfather sat her down and said her father had been killed flying a plane in Israel and would not be coming home. “I didn’t even know he had gone to a place called Israel,” she said.
Fred Stevenson was buried in the Christian cemetery in Jaffa three days after his death at the age of 29. But at the family’s request he was transferred in 1951 to the military cemetery in Haifa, to a Protestant plot. His daughter, Sharone, visited the grave in 1994, with her husband, Ray, and again in 2018, with her daughter Corinne, marking Israel’s 70th anniversary.
“I guess he felt like I do that everyone is entitled to their independence,” Sharone said. “He did what was in his heart and I’m proud of him.”
The third member of the Dakota crew was, like my grandfather, a navigator who flew bombers over Europe in WWII. But unlike my grandfather, he had friends and relatives who shared copious details about his life and service.
William Fisher was born on Aug. 28, 1923, in Proskorov, Russia, two months after the death of his father. The remaining family, mother Freda and three older siblings, Max, Sonia, and Maurice, moved to Canada the following year and settled in Winnipeg where the little boy became known as either Bill or, mostly, Willy. They arrived penniless and lived in a two-bedroom apartment on Burrows Avenue and the kids went to school and got a Jewish education before heading to work to help the family get through the depression. Young Willy was known as his “mama’s boy,” staying close to home to help his widowed mother.
His best friend from childhood, Leon Tessler, described him as a fearless free spirit who excelled at sports, especially in the high jump in which he won several medals in high school competitions. He said Willy was also a gifted artist who taught his friends shadow drawing, but also partook in pranks like shooting his water gun at passing cars on the street. With a few other Jewish boys, they formed a club that met regularly at Willy’s home.
“He was truly a great friend who never had a bad word to say about other people. He always looked on the bright side of things,” the now-95-year-old Tessler told me over the phone from Toronto. “In our formative years he was always interested in the stars and the constellations. I guess that’s how he became a navigator and when he joined the air force that was his dream. He always dreamed of flying and following the stars.”
Fisher enlisted in 1942 straight out of high school and served three years as a navigator in a Lancaster bomber, flying missions over Germany and France until war’s end in 1945. His military portrait depicts a man with solid posture and Semitic good looks. He survived 28 bombing missions and returned to Winnipeg, where he first worked in his uncle’s shirt factory before opening his own small nut shop.
Tessler, who served in the Signals Corps in Canada during WWII and wasn’t deployed to Europe, said Fisher also spoke little about his wartime service, wanting to leave it in the past.
“He was never a braggart and he never told about his exploits,” Tessler said, noting a similar dynamic with his other friends. “If they had been in battle, they never talked about it. They never talked about it and we never pushed them because we took it for granted that they had had a hard enough time as it is.”
Fisher visited with Tessler and his wife in Toronto in 1948 as he was making his way to Ottawa, en route to Israel, informing his longtime friend of his big decision. “Willy never worried about himself, he had no fear,” Tessler said. “But he wasn’t looking for adventure. He was an ideologue. He was looking to help out any way he could.”
Fisher traveled to Israel by way of England and Switzerland; he used the assumed name “Mordechai Mandel,” for fear of running into trouble with Canadian authorities and losing his citizenship. In Israel, he immersed himself deeply in aviation, learning new systems. His logbook shows bombing missions over Beersheba and deeper south into Egypt. Unlike most of the fellow volunteers who planned to return home after the war, Fisher was of the mind to stay and had begun studying Hebrew before he died.
In a letter to Tessler, he shared some of his observations about the new country, wowed by how Jewish men took on manual labor jobs in the Holy Land that he had seldom seen Jews do before. “The weather is absolutely wonderful, if not a bit on the hot side,” he wrote. “How they manage to get anything out of sandy soil is beyond me. It was Moses who led us out to this Promised Land. I say he led us to the wrong place. It should have been California.”
He described his trips to Haifa, Jerusalem, and various kibbutzim, noting that the agricultural life of the communal farms was not for him. “The free love is about the only agreeable thing that most Americans find there. Not many western people could bring themselves to set up living in that style,” he wrote. “We have here western cities with a very Oriental flavor. And as for the traffic, you’ve never seen anything like it. Just standing and watching I feel like closing my eyes and screaming. A driver could go absolutely mad. The sidewalks are considered fair territory for all manner of vehicles and they use them often.”
“The army here is rotten with politics and it really is shocking. You get the feeling that we have a situation like the South American republics where they have a revolution a day and so on,” he said. “They have many hot heads here.”
Still, he found himself drawn.
That same September, he sent a letter to his mother in Yiddish from Tel Aviv. “To my beloved Ma. I can write to you that I am fine. I hope you are all well, too. I am waiting for a letter that I hope will arrive soon. What is happening with you?”
He apparently got a response, since on the eve of his fateful Oct. 24, 1948, flight he sent a telegram via Canadian Pacific that stated simply: “Received your mail. All well.” It was the last anyone heard from him. He was 25 when he died.
“Israel was in trouble,” said Wilf Mandel, Fisher’s nephew. “They had no flyers, and there was a need, and he felt that he could help with that need.”
Mandel, who was 2 when Fisher died in Israel, grew up on the tales of his fallen uncle. He’s since researched him thoroughly, spoken to schools, and addressed a Jewish community memorial event in Canada about him. Each year, he has written a letter to the editor published in the Canadian Jewish News to keep the memory of the Dakota crew alive. Last year, he got an interesting inquiry in response to his mention of Wilf Canter. Turns out my Zaidy, who’s often more comfortable sharing in the company of strangers, reached out to tell him about his connection. Mandel, who also lives in Toronto, told me over the phone that my widowed Zaidy sounded lonely and he had resolved to go visit him, which he did. Mandel said his father used to say Fisher had “survived” WWII and it was that same sense he said he got from Zaidy. “It’s unbelievable that most of the survivors didn’t suffer some form of PTSD yet they kept flying,” he wrote me after they met. “I understood completely when your grandfather would only say he was lucky to come back alive.”
Figures from the Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alberta, helped bring the full scope of Zaidy’s perilous service into clearer focus. Of the 120,000 men who served in bomber command, 55,573 were killed—more than 45%—including some 10,250 Canadians. The museum calls it a loss rate comparable only to the worst slaughter of the trenches in WWI. Only the Nazi U-boat force suffered a higher casualty rate. According to the museum’s website, Bomber Command suffered more losses on a single night than did Fighter Command during the entire Battle of Britain.
Like my grandfather, Fisher flew mostly at night, in planes with no belly gunners that were completely at the mercy of German attacks from the darkness below. “You know, the air crew lost 50%—50% of the guys didn’t come back, and they were all 20, 21,” Zaidy once said, his voice trailing off.
I was always told that Zaidy came back a warrant officer after completing his mandatory missions. The thinking went, I was told, that if you had beaten the odds and survived a certain number of flights you earned the right to go home. But I could never ascertain if that was true or get any sense of what he actually did. I’ll likely never know. As a non-direct descendant of a living veteran, I need Zaidy’s permission to access his military record. He has repeatedly refused, once even brushing aside a consent form I prepared and slipped across a table for him to sign. But from my lengthy efforts, I have little doubt he endured what they all likely did—some undiagnosed form of PTSD, what back then they called “shell shock.” And the best way to get over it, men of his generation felt, was just not to talk about it.
Although two of his children, five of his grandchildren and even a great-grandchild have all served in the military, the only insight Zaidy has ever dispensed to us all was: “Never volunteer” and “keep your feet clean and dry.”
With every new discovery, I’d try to prod Zaidy into speaking up about my findings. Each time, I’d come to a similar dead end. “I didn’t do much,” he told me in 2015, in his typical fashion. “I fought in the battle of Piccadilly Circus, though. Have you heard of that one?” he chuckled. “That’s where you met all the girls.”
I couldn’t tell if he was being modest or just telling the truth: that his service was so uneventful, that there really was nothing to report. But the good news was he wasn’t dodging as much anymore. As he grew older, Zaidy told me stories about some of his other friends and he became more comfortable talking about the war, just not about his role in it.
Since Zaidy has refused to grant me written approval for the release of the records, to try and unravel the mystery I’ve had to subsist mostly on the clues spotted around my grandparents’ old apartment, such as his Royal Canadian Air Force ID card and a Globe and Mail newspaper clipping from 1942 detailing how a Sgt. “Mickey” Heller was a sergeant observer in the RCAF who recently departed for an eastern Canadian base. The various pictures he kept also offered clues. One had Zaidy in Europe standing in uniform with his air force buddies in front of a bomber plane. Others featured Zaidy posing with his beret and navigator wings, Zaidy in overalls and a jump suit, and Zaidy with pals (and the mustache he would sport the rest of his life) in front of a sandbag-fortified house.
He was interested in all my related work and had plenty to comment, but adamantly refused to engage in any storytelling of his own. At my grandmother’s shiva in early 2017, I met a former volunteer to Israel at their retirement home who indulged me with stories about his landing on D-Day and then his service in Israel’s War of Independence. “You be careful with that guy. You start talking to him and he’ll never let you go,” Zaidy warned me. “He had quite a life, but he won’t stop talking about it.” That wasn’t going to be Zaidy’s style. “What was, was,” he said.
Still, he sent me an unprompted package with his medals and a copy of a letter he’d sent the Globe and Mail the previous year in response to a travel column a certain Catherine Dunphy had written about Scotland. In it, he disclosed to a stranger just the kind of story I had always hoped he would share with me. “I thought I was the only one in the world who knew where Wigtown was,” he began his letter, before detailing how he ended up there.
Zaidy, it appears, first landed in Glasgow before spending the next six weeks in Bournemouth in southern England. In December 1942, he was shipped out to Wigtown for a six-week course in night flying. He recalled how they would return to base at 3 a.m. and were treated to a breakfast of porridge and kippers, with no milk and no brown sugar. “That was hard for my Canadian stomach to digest,” he said.
It was cold and wet in Wigtown over New Year’s, but Zaidy said Royal Air Force rules stipulated they were not allowed to wear their military-issued rubber boots unless it snowed. They were also only allowed one small scuttle of coal to heat their room. “This lasted only about one hour before we were freezing,” he wrote. The solution my 21-year-old grandfather and his buddies found was to climb the barbed wire surrounding the coal yard. “All well and good except at night I tripped and sprained my ankle very badly,” he wrote.
Thanks to this prank Zaidy ended up in the hospital, which he described as a blessing. “I spent five lovely warm days and nights there,” he recounted. “The hospital was warm day and night. A bath was available every day, although only five inches of hot water.”
The letter was so detailed and so colorful, even about a relatively benign part of his service, that it sparked my imagination about what he could have written or said about the actual battles in which he took part. As usual, all I could do was keep imagining. I can also only imagine the kinship that existed between Wilf Canter, Fred Stevenson, and Willy Fisher, or the details of their wartime experiences. But it’s pretty clear that WWII played a key role in driving them to leave the comfort of home in pursuit of the struggle in the Holy Land.
Across the Atlantic, in Great Britain, this same dynamic was playing out for the fourth member of their doomed crew.
Leon Lightman was born in London to Avraham and Miriam on June 9, 1923. From a young age, he showed a keen interest in both Zionism and aviation. As a teenager he joined the Habonim movement and dreamed of building a pioneering society in the Holy Land. After graduating from high school, he studied agriculture and became involved in the Jewish groups who planned to settle the land of Israel. He was one of the founders of the Shmaryahu “Garin,” a kibbutz-in-exile group made up of young Brits who planned to settle in the Upper Galilee. It was during those three years that he was said to have exhibited excellence in instructing and organizing, becoming known as both demanding of himself and others as well as a jokester who claimed creative rights over various expressions.
This is also where he formed some of his closest friendships and tried to overcome the heartache of his first love. His friend Arye wrote about Leon falling madly in love with a girl named Louise from a fellow Jewish group. She did not return his love, and Leon joined Shmaryahu in part to get over her. It only partially worked: The two friends would stay up late at night, lamenting lost love and imagining their future in the Jewish state.
But before he could settle in pre-state Israel, there was a war to be won. In 1943, Lightman mobilized into the RAF and trained as a radio and radar operator. As with Canter, Stevenson, and Fisher, the casualty rate was high, and many survivors emerged from the war as broken men. Lightman seemingly appeared to come out unscathed. He spoke little of the experience, cryptically telling his friends that “you had to be lucky to survive.”
During the war, Lightman had a non-Jewish girlfriend who loved him dearly. Upon his discharge, he returned to Shmaryahu and prepared to move to Palestine. The girlfriend once visited with him, and there were those there who questioned whether Lightman could return to the agricultural life, given the glamor associated with RAF men. But he did, and eventually made his way to Palestine alone, where his passions for Zionism and aviation finally melded together.
He helped with early weapons smuggling, settled in the Galilee, and, together with his mates, founded Kfar Nanassi. With his good friend Meir Reines, Lightman joined the Israeli Air Force on May 14, 1948, the same day Ben-Gurion declared independence, and served for five months before he crashed to death at age 25.
Lightman, who sported a thin, boyish mustache, was first buried in Rehovot along with his crewmates. His remains were transferred in 1950, upon the request of his close friends, to the military cemetery in Rosh Pina, near his newfound home in Israel. For decades, a group of close friends made the pilgrimage twice a year to participate in a ceremony honoring him at the serene cemetery overlooking the Sea of Galilee. At a reunion a few years ago, a group of these six nonagenarians recalled a friendly person, who liked music and was a skilled first-aid medic. But they also said he tended to keep to himself, describing him as a “lone wolf” or “mystery man.” One said that Lightman had “disappeared” before his death and was barely seen in the community.
Reines, who served in the British navy and knew Lightman from Shmaryahu, said Lightman’s wartime service affected him. “These guys would go out on missions, and every flight could have been their last,” he said.
The outsize influence of the 4,800 Machal volunteers from 59 countries has been largely overlooked in the collective consciousness of modern-day Israel.
These four on the flight were among the 123 foreign volunteers, including 11 Canadians, who died fighting for Israel’s establishment in 1948 as part of Machal, a Hebrew acronym for Volunteers From Abroad. The outsize influence of the 4,800 Machal volunteers from 59 countries has been largely overlooked in the collective consciousness of modern-day Israel, where wartime heroism has mostly been the domain of the prickly sabras who went on to lead its military and government. But Israeli statesmen and historians have keenly noted that without them Israel would have been unlikely to overcome its long odds in the war. David Ben-Gurion called them the Jewish Diaspora’s greatest contribution to Israel.
“You came to us when we needed you most during those difficult, uncertain days of our War of Independence,” Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said at the dedication ceremony of the Machal Memorial just off the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, on Yom HaZikaron, April 25, 1993. The volunteers served in every branch of the new Israeli military, offering unparalleled combat experience from their WWII service. But by far their most significant impact was in Israel’s nascent air force, where more than 90% of the country’s first flyers were foreigners. Of those with WWII combat experience, more than one-third were non-Jewish. So prominent was their role that long after Israel became a state, the working language of its air force remained English.
An American WWII vet, Lou Lenart, led Israel’s first ever aerial attack, widely credited for saving Tel Aviv from being captured by Egyptian forces. On May 29, some 10,000 Egyptians were marching north at a bridge 40 kilometers south of Tel Aviv, seemingly on their way to victory, when Lenart and his crew—fellow volunteer Eddie Cohen from South Africa, Modi Alon, and Ezer Weizmann, the future Israeli Air Force commander, defense minister, and president—appeared from the sky and pummeled them with bombs. Cohen crashed to his death, but the others returned safely. That Israel even had planes was top secret, and the stunned Egyptians, fearing it was just the first of a larger assault, stopped cold in their tracks, never to advance further. To this day, a nearby major highway intersection is known as “Ad Halom,” as in “up till here” is where the Egyptians reached.
“This was the air force of Israel. These four people and these four junk airplanes,” Lenart, who died in 2015, recalled in Above and Beyond, the 2014 documentary. “‘If you don’t go now, they will be in Tel Aviv in the morning and there is no Israel,’” he said he was told.
That Israel had any planes at all is itself a miracle. As late as May 2, just two weeks before the war, they had none. Israel’s unlikely air force took shape thanks to the efforts of Al Schwimmer, who smuggled various bombers and transport aircraft out of the U.S. just in time via a bogus Panamanian aviation company called Lineas Aereas de Panama. To get around a U.S. arms embargo, and to avert the British who still ruled Palestine, Schwimmer’s pilots had to hop from New York, to Panama, to Brazil, to Morocco, to Italy, and finally to Czechoslovakia, which was the only country willing to break the embargo.
But even there they needed ingenuity for their junkyard planes to make the final leg to Israel. The Avia S-199 fighter planes were versions of the Messerschmitt ME-109s the Nazis flew in WWII; the flight suits were leftovers from the Luftwaffe, and still had Nazi wings on them. The volunteers removed the swastika insignia, stripped the planes and dismembered them in Czechoslovakia to be clandestinely shipped in pieces to Israel aboard larger transport planes, only to be reassembled in hangars in Israel. To keep the element of surprise, they were then put into immediate use, without Squadron 101—Israel’s first fighter squadron—ever having a chance for a single test flight.
The Egyptians had no idea what hit them, and it literally saved Israel.
But the legacy of Squadron 103 is far less glamorous. Known as the “Elephants Squadron,” for the heavy transport loads it carried, it was formed in late June 1948 at Ramat David with three Douglas C-47 Dakotas, which were also used for bombing missions. Over the summer, it airlifted supplies nightly to Negev settlements cut off by Egyptian forces, landing on makeshift airstrips.
One of its Bristol Beaufighters was shot down by anti-aircraft fire while attacking an Egyptian-held police fortress on Oct. 20, just four days before the Dakota went down. Its two crewmembers were killed, including a non-Jewish Canadian, Leonard Fitchett of Vancouver. He was one of 19 foreign volunteer airmen who died or went missing in the war, out of 33 overall.
But it was the Dakota accident that was truly devastating.
“After the crash there was outrage in the squadron,” Eddy Kaplansky, a volunteer pilot from Montreal, wrote years later. “Because it was clear that the horrible technical condition of the planes led to the deadly crash. On the one hand there were no replacement engines but on the other hand there was lots of pressure to keep going on more missions.”
The Dakota was 100 hours overdue for servicing and criminally overworked. The squadron’s chief mechanic begged to have its engines replaced and a nagging oil leak fixed. He also repeatedly warned against flying without proper fire extinguishers onboard. But on the eve of the fateful flight, he was granted a rare 48-hour leave and the flight took off without his consent.
Paul Orringer, an American pilot with the 103 who witnessed the crash, said he had encountered “backfiring” in his previous flights in the Dakota and briefly refused to fly it. Only after Squadron 103 Commander Danny Rozin assuaged his concerns did Orringer complete a mission on Oct. 23—the night before it crashed. “The plane was defective, old and unsafe to fly,” Orringer said, according to an account in an internal air force publication about the 103. “The only reason Canter flew it is because I did the night before and told him it was OK.”
Orringer said because of the Dakota’s faulty state, crew members were instructed to wear parachutes on board but in effect very few did. None on the Oct. 24 flight had any on. “It was far less romantic than one would like to imagine,” explained Tal Landman, the commemoration coordinator for Squadron 103. “These planes had no seatbelts, no essential equipment, and they didn’t get proper mechanical servicing. They were like flying taxi cabs, hunks of metal in the sky.”
The four foreigners began their supply mission route in Haifa with a joyrider and his dog. The joyrider and dog disembarked in Tel Aviv, where the supplies were loaded for Sdom and Michael Wimers hopped aboard. After a delay because of the foggy conditions, the plane took off at 23:40. Almost immediately, the right engine began to backfire. Canter turned on his landing lights and the fire spread quickly. An explosion followed, and the right wing broke off, followed by the right engine and wheel, sending the Dakota into a spiraling freefall. The plane went down at 23:55.
At 1:15, Rozin was awoken with the news. He immediately called headquarters, and after consulting with air force chief of air operations, Harold “Smoky” Simon, he flew to the scene, where together with Norman Isaacs he identified the bodies amid the smoldering remains of the Dakota at 3:40.
“I’d never seen such devastation. There was nothing left of the plane,” Isaacs later wrote in his journal. The bodies were badly burned: Willy Fisher was identified by the ID tag in his clothing and Leon Lightman by a passport picture he has carrying.
Sitting in the living room of his ritzy apartment near the Herzliya beachfront 70 years later, a 99-year-old Simon told me he had no recollection of the night in question. “It was just another night,” he said, shaking his head. “History is just one damn thing after another. But so many things happened at that time.”
Naturally, there aren’t many left still alive and well enough to convey experiences from those days. And those who can, like Smoky Simon, had a hard time remembering the Dakota crew or the details of their crash. But he was full of insight on their time in Israel.
“It was a feeling of brotherhood,” said Simon, who has headed World Machal, the volunteers’ alumni organization, since 1968. “You felt that your fellow Jews were in a desperate position that a war was inevitable, the war clouds were gathering. There was no choice. We are going to do our best and we will fight till the bitter end.”
The British were very reluctant to let Jews living under their mandate become WWII pilots, for fear of how they would use those skills after the war. But the policy changed in 1943, when guys like Modi Alon, Ezer Weizmann, and Dan Tolkovsky got their wings. Weizmann, for example, trained in Rhodesia, and Tolkovsky, another future Israeli Air Force commander, in South Africa. They didn’t experience any wartime combat, but they got valuable flying hours.
Even so, when Israel declared independence, and found itself on the eve of war, outmatched and outgunned, very few were ready to fly. Veteran WWII pilots like Wilf Canter and Fred Stevenson were invaluable as mentors to the neophyte Israeli airmen.
And there was something else driving them, perhaps still lingering from WWII, which gave Israel’s War of Independence a magnetic pull for Jews and non-Jews alike. After helping beat the Nazis, the war in Israel offered them a sense of purpose they just couldn’t recreate in routine civilian life. “There were some guys who really came because of the adventure. They couldn’t settle down after WWII,” Simon said. “The transition was an enormous transition from serving for years in a war and then coming back to civilian life and you have to adjust to it. You have to rehabilitate yourself.”
Either way, he said he could imagine what the crew of the Dakota went through together.
“This terrific union, different remote guys, objectives, backgrounds and here they come together and here you have an accident of this nature,” he said, his voice trailing off.
But he said it was the fifth member of the crew who was truly legendary.
Michael Wimers was born in Harlingen, Germany, on April 3, 1920, as Ernest Weimersheimer. His father, Moritz, was a doctor who died four months before his birth and Michael grew up in a youth village run by his widowed mother, Claire. When the Nazis came to power, the institution was moved to England, where Michael became a boy scout and began studying agriculture. It was there that he changed his name to Michael Wimers.
At 16, he moved to Palestine, working the fields briefly before his amateur interest in meteorology caught the attention of a local expert. From 1937-1944, Wimers was a meteorological scout at the airports in Lod, Ramle, and Haifa. He then briefly joined Kibbutz Alonim before moving to Revivim in the Negev in 1944, where he set up the meteorological center, which was later named for him, and began researching the phenomenon of artificial rain. His team conducted research and began measuring temperatures in the desert. Thanks to his connections to top meteorologists, Wimers was able to procure advanced equipment that the British had left behind when they abandoned their airfields.
Wimers was renowned for his technical skills and was said to have put together the radio transmitter that allowed kibbutz members to hear David Ben-Gurion declare Israel’s independence. As war broke out, he joined the air force and oversaw southern air bases, where he was responsible for supplying the isolated villages there. The green-blue eyes on his pale face were said to twinkle when he spoke of Israel’s vast southern desert and it was during this time, when he set up vital airfields in the South, that he earned the nickname “King of the Negev.” A lifelong vegetarian, he loved its landscape and wildlife. Many fighter pilots credited “Michael’s airports” for keeping them safe during the war. His fluency in English, from his years in Britain, also made him an ideal liaison to the Machal volunteers.
In early October 1948, he was tasked with overseeing the paving of a new runway for the airport in Sdom, to aid the hazardous landing area for the frequent supply missions to the more than 350 soldiers stationed there. He’d visited several times before and was heading to inspect the progress when he crashed to the ground. He was 28 when he died, leaving no descendants. Revivim mentions him each year in its Yom HaZikaron services, but the kibbutz secretary said there is no one remaining who remembers him.
“He was an extraordinary person,” said Tolkovsky, today 99. “Just a very nice man, energetic, humble and constantly running about dealing with things regarding the Negev.”
Smoky Simon couldn’t recall ever meeting the four victims on the flight who, like himself, were foreign volunteers. But the mention of Wimers made him wistful. “Now it’s the first time I am reminded of his name,” Simon said, catching himself. “There were these young Israelis, I just loved them. Their devotion and the efforts that they made and now that you mention his name, I haven’t heard his name I think since those days: ‘Michael, King of the Negev.’ He was just one of the guys who was so great.”
Barring any unforeseen developments, the decadelong journey is now over for Efrat and Gideon Gal. They’ve tracked down everyone Tal Landman has asked them to. “It’s been an unbelievable human experience that Gideon and I will take with us till our final day,” Efrat said. “It’s been such a privilege to have touched so many people and see the appreciation from them. That’s what I will take with me.”
Landman said that except for one fallen airman, for whom there is unlikely any thread to follow, his quest is also over. His years in the reserves are nearing their end, leaving Nevatim as one of the few bases with such a museum-like quality to its own history—a hall to which active soldiers and bereaved families alike make frequent pilgrimages.
“I once met an officer who told me that if there was a base in which he had to serve and die, it would be Nevatim, because if it happened there, no one would forget him,” Landman said. “That meant a lot to me.”
As for Zaidy?
He’s still chugging along, having celebrated his 97th birthday last November. He remains as reluctant as ever to expand on his personal history. But the journey I’ve been through in learning about Wilf Canter and his friends’ past has offered a fulfilling alternative to the exploration of Zaidy’s. It’s also given me a greater appreciation of his silence over the years and a modicum of peace for myself.
When, in 2015, I discovered the Israeli efforts to establish an official museum for the Jewish soldiers in WWII, I was immediately drawn to the project and befriended its director. I saw it as a sacred mission, a complementary establishment to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial that would honor those who served and fought and not just those who suffered and perished.
I could already imagine Zaidy’s picture and a short bio there. This is where his story belonged, and it gave me a small sense of ease that regardless of the result of my quest, there would be a place to educate others about the men and women of my grandfather’s generation—and perhaps even have a brief mention of him there, too.
But the museum has yet to take off, mired in endless bureaucracy, while the few remaining veterans continue to die off. And, as my grandfather has proven, not all the veterans want that part of their lives memorialized. When I told him that I had filled out his profile on the prospective museum’s website, and that I hoped his story would one day be featured in its halls alongside Wilf Canter’s, he demurred, as usual. “I’m just happy if they leave me alone,” he said.
Some 1.5 million Jewish soldiers fought for the allies in WWII, of whom more than 250,000 died in battle, including some 450 Canadians. Most of their stories are lost to history, and it looks as if Zaidy’s is probably going to be lost, too. It’s a chapter of his life that will stay buried, like the stories of so many others who were literally buried with theirs. And that’s the way he wants it.