(June 6, 2018 / JNS) With city lights dotting the night behind her, Dr. Dee Gaines, a neuropsychologist, sat for good reason—she’s very pregnant. But when Capt. Elgen Long, the last surviving member of a commercial flight crew that saved nearly 2,000 Jewish refugees stranded in Yemen almost 70 years ago, finished his speech, she felt compelled to stand.
Her voice shook with emotion behind a microphone handed to her.
“My great-grandmother and my grandmother were on those planes. In Yemen, they couldn’t read. They couldn’t receive an education. Now, here I am, a doctor who has pursued higher education. And, because of you,” she said, rubbing her belly, “a fifth generation lives on.”
Snow-haired and perpetually misty-eyed, Long, who turns 91 in August, bowed his head graciously in reply from a podium. Nearly 100 guests seated at tables applauded roundly in the backyard of a private home in Beverly Hills, Calif.
The event organized by the nonprofit, pro-Israel education group StandWithUs for its prominent donors took place on May 30 and honored Long, who, thought not Jewish, was introduced as a “hero of Israel and the Jewish people.”
Long, a native of Oregon, told guests that returning to the City of Angels—a place he knows well from his past—was a privilege. After serving as a U.S. naval officer during the Second World War, Long attended the University of California, Los Angeles, on the G.I. bill. While in school, his part-time job was delivering telegrams door-to-door, often to movie stars, in the Beverly Hills area.
“Now, to be back here more than 70 years later is incredible. It feels like my life has come full circle,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m here as an honored guest.”
‘We just kept going’
Long’s brush with fate happened while working as a commercial-flight navigator for Alaska Airlines in the late 1940s. During a stop in Shanghai in January of 1949, his crew received a telegram from company heads issuing instructions to make for a British Royal Air Force base in Aden, a port city in Yemen. There, his crew took part in a daring rescue mission that would come to be known as “On Eagle’s Wings”—a reference to Exodus 19:4—to help airlift tens of thousands of Yemenite Jews facing persecution and death out of Yemen and into Israel, a nation less than a year old at the time.
“For us, it was a job,” Long told JNS. “But, in the end, it turned out to be much more important than we thought it would be.”
During his remarks, Long outlined the details of how his crew saved 1,800 refugees—a prospect that seemed dim when their DC-4 aircraft touched down in Aden. With only 48 seats on board and thousands of starving Yemenite Jews camped out on and around the base, Long’s crew got creative in the face of a “life and death situation.”
“One of our mechanics suggested taking out the seats on the aircraft,” he said. “If we did that, he told us, we could fit about 150 people on the plane sitting on the floor. We originated that idea, I’m fairly certain.”
After receiving permission from the head rabbi of Yemen to take off on the Sabbath, Long and his crew began making runs to Israel delivering batches of refugees. Their route, which called for a 20-hour flight day, was complicated by the inability to access air space over Arab lands. Upon landing in Tel Aviv, they turned right around, completing seven days of nonstop back-and-forth transport.
“We slept very little, taking shifts and stealing naps when we could,” he told JNS. “Eventually, we didn’t look or smell too good from the experience. But we just kept going.”
Finally, they rested for one day. After a decent night of sleep, they made five more runs, clocking 12 trips in total. While unloading passengers in Tel Aviv, Long still remembers the reception his crew received from Israeli military personnel.
“I’ll always recall one young Israeli officer who came on board, looked at us and told us, ‘You’ve done a great thing,’ ” recalled Long. “I can still see him, still hear him saying those words to us when I close my eyes and think real hard.”
“On Eagle’s Wings,” which also goes by the name “Operation Magic Carpet,” saved nearly 50,000 Yemenite Jews who have more than 750,000 descendants, including Gaines and her family.
‘The mystery of the man’
Another one of those descendants, Shahar Azani, a 41-year-old StandWithUs employee whose grandparents escaped Yemen, came across Long’s story while visiting an exhibit at a Jewish museum in Anchorage, Alaska, showcasing the role of Long’s flight crew in the rescue. Azani came across a copy of On Eagles Wings: The Untold Story of the Magic Carpet, a book Long wrote on his experience.
“I knew then and there that I had to meet this man,” he said.
When Azani first tried to get in contact with Long several years ago to arrange a meeting and begin the process of honoring him, Long’s family members informed Azani that the 90-year-old was “out at sea.” He was on a crew searching for the remains of Amelia Earhart, which Azani told guests “added to the mystery of the man.”
Last fall, Azani and StandWithUs organized a trip for Long to return to Israel and tour the country he hadn’t seen since 1949. Over the course of a 10-day trip, Long told JNS that he marveled at the innovative nation that “he could barely recognize” from nearly seven decades ago.
“I remember when there was just an airfield,” he said. “Now it’s Ben-Gurion International Airport, where millions of people come through. And everywhere we went, there was so much being built. Israel is an amazing place.”
Azani said that in Israel, trip organizers offered Long meetings with high-ranking politicians, awards and appreciation ceremonies. But he had only one thing on his mind.
“He just wanted to see how the Yemenites he helped save were doing,” he said. “He kept asking, ‘How are they doing? How are their lives here? How are their children?’ I’m so happy I got to be with him when we made that happen. They don’t make them like him anymore.”
Reuniting with members of the Yemenite-Israeli community that he helped rescue was a joyous occasion for Long, but one in which he couldn’t help but think of his fellow crew members who didn’t live to see it.
“That was one of the best moments of my life,” Long told JNS. “But everything that happened to me, I can’t take credit for. It was my entire crew and me, and I wish they could’ve been there. There’s a certain serendipity to it all—that a guy from a small town on the Oregon coast experienced all of this.”