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The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

Saving Tel Aviv

By Steven Pressfield
Published: April 18, 2014

[This is the second post in a new series about the writing of The Lion's Gate. The series will continue Fridays and Mondays. "Writing Wednesdays" returns in its normal slot next week.]

Okay, here I am with the idea to do a book about the Six Day War of 1967. But that’s all I’ve got.

Marine captain Lou Lenart on Okinawa, 1945.

What comes next? How does a writer start a project?

The first thing I did was phone David Mamet.

NOTE TO READERS: Don’t try this at home. I am friendly with Dave. Otherwise I would never have dared impose on him.

“Dave, do you know anyone in Israel who is connected in military circles?”

“Come to my house this Friday for Shabbat dinner. I’ll introduce you to a guy you’re gonna fall in love with.”

So when Friday came, my friend Kate and I took a bottle of wine and went to Dave’s. Standing in the kitchen as we entered, chatting with Dave’s wife Rebecca, was the gentleman in the photo on the right, taken on Okinawa in 1945:

“Steve, I want you to meet Lou Lenart. Steve, you were a Marine. Lou was a Marine. What else needs to be said?”

SECOND NOTE TO READERS: This is when you know the gods are smiling on you.

Lou and I wound up talking for hours, that night and in the succeeding days at his apartment in Santa Monica. Lou had been a USMC captain in World War II. He flew F4U Corsairs in the battle for Okinawa and against the home islands of Japan.

After the war, in 1948, Lou evaded the FBI (which was trying to prevent any American citizen from bringing aid to the infant state of Israel) and fought as a combat pilot in the Jewish state’s War of Independence.

“Lou led the first fighter mission in Israel Air Force history,” Dave said. “He saved Tel Aviv when the Egyptian army was advancing up the coast road, seventeen miles away.”

“Don’t worry about a thing,” Lou said to me. “I will plug you in with anybody you need to talk to.”

Lou got on the phone to Israel. He introduced me to the two key people—Ran Ronen and Danny Grossman, both IAF aviators—without whose contributions The Lion’s Gate could never have been written.

Lou began telling me stories. We sat in his living room and he took me back to May 14, 1948, the date when the state of Israel was born. “That same day, the armies of five Arab nations—Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon—crossed the border intending to drive the Jews into the sea.”

A Czech-built Messerschmitt-109 of the Israel Air Force, 1948.

For two weeks the Israelis fought a desperate holding action against the invaders. But the Arab armies kept advancing. Israel at that time, Lou told me, had no pilots except himself and a few WWII veteran/volunteers from the U.S., Australia, South Africa—with a handful of homegrown Israelis, none of whom had flown in combat.  The Egyptians had fifty brand-new Spitfires, a gift from the British. The Israelis had no fighter planes at all except four Messerschmitt 109s, cobbled together from mismatched surplus parts—and as of May 28 these planes had only arrived in Israel hours earlier, in pieces, from Czechoslovakia.
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