As soon as the plane landed in Aden, Yemen on that long ago Friday afternoon, Capt. Elgen Long knew something special was happening. Long, then a flight-navigator for Alaska Airlines DC-4 charter flights, was about to embark on one of the greatest rescue missions in Jewish history: the secret transport of about 1,800 Jewish Yemenite refugees to Israel.
“We were probably accomplishing more than we knew,” Long later wrote in his memoir, “On Eagles’ Wings.”
It was March 11, 1949 and Long, along with four other crewmen, flew the refugees from Aden to the newly formed State of Israel, earning the nickname “Ironmen Crew” after flying consecutively for the first seven days of the mission. Overall, Long helped complete 12 flights from Yemen to Israel, each carrying 150 passengers. Although neither he nor any of the other members of the crew were Jewish, they never questioned the necessity of the operation.
“It was our responsibility to help those that needed help, and they needed help,” Long told The Jewish Week before a ceremony honoring him held by StandWithUs, the pro-Israel advocacy group, on Sept. 12 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. As the only surviving member of the crew, Long, 90, a resident of Reno, Nev., was presented with The American Sephardi Federation’s Maimonides Friendship Award.
Shahar Azani, the northeast director of StandWithUs, had learned of Alaska Airline’s role in the rescue when a museum in Anchorage held an exhibit on the mission, which he later attended. The president of the airline was James Wooten, a humanitarian businessman who had helped in the West Berlin Airlift of 1947 and 1948, transporting food to the city during the Soviet blockade, and later directed efforts to bring thousands of Jews from Iran and Iraq to Israel.
As the grandchild of Yemenite Jews who came to Israel as part of the operation, Azani noted that without the brave efforts of Wooten and Long and his colleagues, “I wouldn’t be here today. What would have become of the Yemenite Jewish community if these heroes hadn’t paved the way for our rescue?”
Yemenite Jews from across the country traveled by foot to British-controlled Aden to escape brutal anti-Semitism at home. In his book, Long wrote that although the Yemenites were “mostly of small stature, many appearing emaciated … their absolute faith that they were under the full protection of their religious beliefs somehow lent a special aura of calm dignity about them that you couldn’t help but admire and respect.”
At the Sept. 12 program, Azani spoke of the heroism of the “Ironmen” team and observed the importance of “leaving your comfort zone when it comes to assisting others.”
After accepting his award, Long cited his late crewmates and recounted those 12 fateful flights. He explained that when the crew arrived in Aden, the refugees had no shelter, food or even clothing. To accommodate the largest number of people per trip, the crew decided to remove all the seats on the plane, which allowed 150 people to pack into the aircraft. “Everyone you could take, was a life you saved,” Long explained. He recalled that the initial passengers were reluctant to board, having never seen a plane before, but they climbed up the metal ladder after their rabbi recited a phrase from Exodus: “I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself.”
The last flight came on Saturday, April 9, 1949 — just in time for the refugees to celebrate Passover in their ancestral homeland. The “Wings of Eagles” flights were the precursor to “Operation Magic Carpet,” which began about two months later and eventually led to the evacuation of approximately 45,000 Yemenite Jews.