From the end of 1948 to the fall of 1950, Alaska Airlines took part in the airlift of 50,000 Jews from Yemen to the newly created nation of Israel. Known as Operation Magic Carpet, Alaska Airlines employees flew in perilous conditions while helping to fulfill a Biblical prophecy that said the Yemenite Jews would return to their homeland “on the wings of eagles.”
More than 60 years later a new museum in the state of Alaska pays tribute to this piece of Alaska Airlines history. The Alaska Jewish Museum’s first featured exhibit, “On the Wings of Eagles: Alaska’s Contribution to Operation Magic Carpet,” tells the story of a young Alaska Airlines and its employees’ heroic efforts to avert a humanitarian crisis during a trying time in world history.
“We decided to have the ‘On the Wings of Eagles’ exhibit at the museum because of the unique melding of energies between disparate groups (Alaska Airlines, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the State of Israel and the American government) to ensure the rescue of virtually an entire population from devastating circumstances,” says Leslie Fried, the museum’s curator.
The Yemenite Jews in Aden were living under extremely harsh conditions in the years prior to and immediately following the birth of the State of Israel.
At the time, Alaska Airlines was the largest non-scheduled carrier in the world. When the American Joint Distribution Committee contacted Alaska President James A. Wooten, he was moved after seeing the terrible conditions under which the Yemenite Jews lived in the Aden ghetto created by the British.
Throughout the next two years Captains Sam Silver, Warren Metzger, navigator Elgen Long and Chief Pilot Robert McGuire Jr. along with many others airlifted 50,000 Jews to Tel Aviv. The approximately 430 flights Alaska Airlines made were treacherous. Fuel was difficult to obtain, flight and maintenance crews had to be positioned throughout the Middle East and sandstorms wreaked havoc on the plane engines. There were no deaths during the flights though one plane was forced to make a crash-landing after the loss of an engine.
The exhibit provides a detailed look of the history of Operation Magic Carpet through historic artifacts, such as the jacket worn by Capt. Metzger and video footage of pilots sharing their airlift experiences. An interactive map also illustrates for visitors where the planes traveled while transporting the refugees.
More from the Alaska Airlines site:
When Alaska Airlines sent them on “Operation Magic Carpet” 50 years ago, Warren and Marian Metzger didn’t realize they were embarking on an adventure of a lifetime.
Warren Metzger, a DC-4 captain, and Marian, a flight attendant, were part of what turned out to be one of the greatest feats in Alaska Airlines’ 67-year history: airlifting thousands of Yemenite Jews to the newly created nation of Israel.
The logistics of it all made the task daunting. Fuel was hard to come by. Flight and maintenance crews had to be positioned through the Middle East. And the desert sand wreaked havoc on engines.
It took a whole lot of resourcefulness the better part of 1949 to do it. But in the end, despite being shot at and even bombed upon, the mission was accomplished–and without a single loss of life.
“One of the things that really got to me was when we were unloading a plane at Tel Aviv,” said Marian, who assisted Israeli nurses on a number of flights. “A little old lady came up to me and took the hem of my jacket and kissed it. She was giving me a blessing for getting them home. We were the wings of eagles.”
For both Marian and Warren, the assignment came on the heels of flying the airline’s other great adventure of the late 1940s: the Berlin Airlift.
“I had no idea what I was getting into, absolutely none,” remembered Warren, who retired in 1979 as Alaska’s chief pilot and vice president of flight operations. “It was pretty much seat-of-the-pants flying in those days. Navigation was by dead reckoning and eyesight. Planes were getting shot at. The airport in Tel Aviv was getting bombed all the time. We had to put extra fuel tanks in the planes so we had the range to avoid landing in Arab territory.”
British officials advised them that Arabs, angry over the establishment of the Jewish state, would certainly kill all the passengers and likely the whole crew if they were forced to land on Arab soil. Many planes were shot at.
Days often lasted between 16 and 20 hours and the one-way flights, in twin-engine C-46 or DC-4 aircraft, covered nearly 3,000 miles.
“We’d take off from our base in Asmara (in Eritrea) in the morning and fly to Aden (in Yemen) to pick up our passengers and refuel,” Warren said. “Then we’d fly up the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba to the airport at Tel Aviv to unload. Then we’d fly to Cyprus for the night. We couldn’t keep the planes on the ground in Israel because of the bombings.”
“One of our pilots got a little bit too close to Arab territory when flying into Israel from the Gulf of Aqaba and tracers started arching up toward the plane,” Warren said. “Another one of our planes got a tire blown out during a bombing raid in Tel Aviv. One of our crews practically lived on their plane from the end of April through June.”
Bob Maguire, another Alaska pilot, once had to drop down to several hundred feet above the ground, squirming through hills and passes, to evade Arab gunfire.
What Warren and Marian thought was a temporary assignment turned into a seven-month mission of mercy. It also launched a marriage that has also celebrated its golden anniversary. Warren and Marian were married in Asmara in January 1949.
“I had met Warren when I started working for Alaska in July of 1948,” Marian said. “We had both worked the Berlin airlift. I was sent to Shanghai and I didn’t know where Warren was. I landed in Asmara after one flight and when the door of the plane opened, one of the guys who knew I’d been seeing Warren from time to time said he was in Tel Aviv and he’d be flying in the next day.”
Before her Operation Magic Carpet flights in the Middle East, Marian, who retired from Alaska in 1952, assisted on flights from Shanghai transporting Jews who fled to China to escape persecution in Germany. When communists came to power in China, the German Jews took flight again to Israel.
Source: Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News