As the War of Independence ended in early 1949, Israel was devastated and virtually bankrupt. Notwithstanding, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, defying logic and the advise of his economic advisors, ordered the immediate and rapid “Ingathering of the Exiles”. Where would Israel get the money? “Go to the Jews in the Diaspora and ask them for the money”, Ben-Gurion answered the skeptics. For the Jews of Yemen, Egypt had closed the Suez Canal to them and therefore they would have to be transported by air to Israel. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the international Jewish humanitarian aid organization, agreed to fund the Yemenite exodus and organize the airlift, but they needed aircraft. Alaska Airlines was founded in 1932, when Mac McGee purchased a used three passenger Stinson and started an air charter business in Alaska. With the arrival of James Wooten as president in 1947, the airline began to purchase surplus planes from the U.S. Government and within a year became the world’s largest charter airline.
The JDC approached Wooten and asked if Alaska Airlines would agree to accept the Yemen airlift. Wooten wanted Alaska Air to take on the mission of mercy but Ray Marshall, Chairman of the Board, was cool. Marshall felt the deal was a waste of the Airline’s time and money. It would take at least $50,000 to set up the charter, cash that the Airline did not have. Marshall insisted that Wooten front the funds himself. Wooten raised the $50,000 by borrowing it from a travel agency associated with the JDC.
The contract was signed and Operation On Wings of Eagles, more popularly known by its nickname, Operation Magic Carpet commenced. As Yemen would not permit the Jewish refugees to be flown out of their country, Britain had agreed to the establishment of a transit camp in the adjoining Crown Colony of Aden from which the airlift could commence. Alaska Airlines set up its base in Asmara, Eritrea with their ground crew, pilots and aircraft, – DC-4s and C-46s. The arrangement was to fly from their base in Asmara to Aden each morning, pick up their passengers in Aden and refuel.
Thence fly up the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba to the airport in Tel Aviv, unload the refugees, fly to the safety of Cyprus for the night and return to their base in Asmara at dawn, before starting all over again. The round trip would take about 20 hours. The aircraft as configured could not carry enough passengers or sufficient fuel. So, the planes were modified by replacing the regular airline seats with rows of benches and fitting extra fuel tanks down the length of the fuselages between the benches. Aircraft intended to carry 50 passengers could now carry 120 and fuel would last a skinny extra one hour. Meanwhile the transit camp in Aden, called “Camp Geula” (Redemption) was organized by the JDC and staffed by Israeli doctors and social workers under the directorship of Max Lapides, an American Jew. Also headquartered at the camp were emissaries responsible for paying various Yemeni tribal chiefs a “head tax” which would permit the Jewish refugees to pass through their territory.
As news of the evacuation reached the Jews of Yemen, they left their few possessions behind (except their prayer books and Torahs) and like the biblical exodus began to walk out of slavery into freedom. They traveled in family groups, some hundreds of miles, through wind and sandstorm, vulnerable to robbers and a hostile local population, until half-starved and destitute they reached the border with Aden where Israeli aid workers met them and transported them to the transit camp. There they encountered electricity, medicines, running water, toilets and personal hygiene for the first time. During the entire operation, the Jews of Yemen arrived at Camp Geula in a steady stream, newer ones arriving as an earlier group was airlifted out.Getting the Yemenite Jews to Aden was one problem, getting them on the aircraft was another. Nomads who had never seen an airplane before and never lived anywhere but in a tent, many of the immigrants were frightened and refused to board. Once reminded that their deliverance to Israel by air was prophesized in the Book of Isaiah, “They shall mount up with wings like eagles”, reinforced by the painting of an eagle with outstretched wings over the door of each aircraft, induced them to board the planes. Once inside many preferred sitting on the floor to unaccustomed soft seats. Keeping them from lighting fires to cook their food was a task. During the flight, about half would get sick vomiting over the extra inside fuel tanks. Notwithstanding, the Yemenites upon landing in Israel chanted blessings and burst into song.
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